Matthew James adopted Major, an American Pit Bull Terrier, from a Los Angeles shelter in 2006. When he moved to Denver later that year, he knew very little about the pit bull ban from the city.
âI didn’t know how strict it was,â he says. “Then I got here and found out that they were really serious about this, that they would confiscate your dog and everything.” But James had already signed a lease for a house and was still looking for a job, and “I didn’t have that many financial options,” he recalls.
So, like many other pit bulls in Denver, Major went into hiding. James kept his dog indoors and out of windows during the day and only took him for walks at night, usually down the alley. The only time Major could run was when James chased them from Denver to the Lakewood and Wheat Ridge dog parks. âI’ve always been worried that the cops would show up and take it away from me or neighbors who see it and maybe report it,â James said. “It was a pretty paranoid state. He was like a fugitive.”
After getting a job at an advertising agency, James decided to abandon Mile High City for Boulder, which does not have a pit bull ban. He moved into a pet-friendly apartment and discovered that six other people in the building also owned pit bulls. “And three of them said they also moved from Denver because of the ban,” he says.
Boulder officials say they have no reliable count of the number of dogs in the city, let alone pit bulls. In 2008, Boulder’s Animal Control Division recorded 207 dog bites; 9 were from pit bulls. The numbers were similar over the previous three years. And Boulder hasn’t had a fatal dog attack for at least thirty years. Because what it has is a tough dangerous dog law and a unique bite diversion program that teaches owners how to control their dogs’ aggressive behavior to prevent future bites.
Boulder contracts its animal control services with the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, which integrates the tasks into its shelter operations at 2323 55th Street. The non-profit organization has six employees responsible for enforcing the city’s Aggressive Animals Ordinance. “If an animal bites, claws, claws, attempts to bite or approaches someone in a way that would attack them, or bites or injures another animal, it is considered aggressive,” said Janee Teague, head of animal care and control in Boulder. In Boulder, animal control officers can verbalize the owner of a dog who behaves in an overtly threatening manner; in Denver, a dog must cause injury before an owner can be cited. But more tickets are not the goal of the Boulder program. In fact, in many circumstances an animal control officer will agree to drop the citation if the owner agrees to have the dog evaluated by Humane Society training staff. The trainer and owner then discuss the dog’s history and past behavior.
âHistory is a good predictor of the future. So there is a lot of conversation and observation of dog behavior,â says Lindsay Wood, director of training for the Humane Society. “What’s the recurring problem with this dog?” Is he aggressive towards people or other dogs? Is it a dog that bites when it is in possession of something? Is it related to fear? We watch the dog and how he would interact with me or the sitter or other dog we bring. “
The assessment costs the owner $ 90, roughly the equivalent of a court fine for an aggressive dog ticket. An owner also has the option of enrolling in additional training courses at the shelter that focus on a dog’s particular negative behavior, such as the Grumpy Growlers course.
âI think it’s a wonderful alternative that we have,â says Teague. âAs officers we are given a lot of stealth that we have to use. It is not always the best method to only use punitive damage as a summons. Bite diversion allows us to be a bit more. proactive and community driven. We can say, ‘Listen, this is a bite that we think could be fixed with a little bit of modification and this is not going to happen again.’ “
Yet some incidents are so egregious that they require legal action, notes Teague. But in the two years she’s been a manager, only one pit bull has been called too aggressive by a judge. âIt was the dog’s third bite and the bites were getting more and more severe,â she says. And after taking the training, the owners took no action to control their pit bull’s behavior: “They let the dog out the front door and he bit again, a severe bite.” The dog was ordered to be euthanized.
In those same two years, Denver euthanized 558 pit bulls, whether the dogs bit someone or not.
A prescription for aggressive dogs is far more effective than a breed ban, says Teague. âIt’s more of an owner-type issue and the way the animal is raised, handled and controlled rather than a breed issue,â she explains. “I’ve seen twice as many cool pit bulls as I have seen bad pit bulls. If a situation arises, that owner should be held accountable, instead of just eliminating a certain breed – because in my opinion you are creating a whole other problem. Now you have to enforce this ban, and so that’s where a lot of your resources are going to end up rather than going to education and a more proactive approach. “
James and Major approve of this approach.