Dog laws offer town officials wide latitude
Over the past several weeks, news about problem dogs and how Island town officials dealt with them raised many questions about available options.
Although Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) address specific penalties for various dog infractions, ultimately the decisions are left to selectmen, animal commission officers, or county commissioners.
Bylaws and ordinances regarding the regulation of dogs are found under MGL Chapter 140, sections 137-174D.
Towns and cities that do not vote to accept Chapter 140, section 147A, pay money received from dog licenses or recovered as fines into a county dog fund, as is the case on Martha's Vineyard.
Oak Bluffs is the only Island town that is not a member of the Dukes County dog fund.
The Dukes County government's role is strictly administrative, however, with functions such as ordering rabies and license tags for a town. Dukes County commissioners set the license fee, and fees collected by the towns for dog licenses are paid into the county dog fund.
As Dukes County treasurer Noreen Flanders explained, animal control officers may file claims for reimbursement from the fund to cover the cost of veterinarian care for stray animals. The amount is limited to $20 per animal by law. Money from the county dog fund is also used to reimburse owners whose livestock or poultry is killed by unidentified dogs.
In January each year, the remaining dog fund balance is paid back to the towns for use in schools or public libraries, in accordance with MGL Chapter 140, Section 172.
With six towns operating under separate municipal governments on Martha's Vineyard, currently there is no mechanism available to deal with problem dogs on a county-wide basis. Banning a problem dog from the Island to keep it from causing trouble in other towns, for example, would require six dog hearings. And in order to hold a dog hearing, a complaint must be filed and due process given.
The bite behind dog laws
Other sections under Chapter 140 specify the actions that may be taken and the penalties imposed by the selectmen, the officer in charge of an animal commission or person responsible for handling dog complaints, or county commissioners.
Dogs that are a nuisance - by reason of vicious disposition, excessive barking, or other disturbance; by barking or causing other disturbance that is an annoyance to a sick person; or by attacking or biting other dogs - are covered under section 157.
As the officials that handle dog complaints on Martha's Vineyard, the town selectmen have the legal authority to order the restraint or disposal of such dogs.
The dog owner may appeal their decision by petitioning the district court within 10 days of the selectmen's order, and has the right to request a hearing before a judge. The court's decision is final.
A dog owner that fails to comply with an order from selectmen or the district court may be fined not more than $25 for the first offense and not more than $100 for a second or subsequent offense.
One penalty Island selectmen have not yet imposed, but could, is imprisonment of an offending dog's owner for not more than 30 days for a first offense and not more than 60 days for a second or subsequent offense. Or, they may impose both a fine and imprisonment.
Selectmen may also order the owner of a dog that has "worried, maimed or killed any live stock or fowls" to either kill or confine the dog within 24 hours.
If an owner does not kill, confine, or restrain a dog after notice, section 164 states he or she may be fined not more than $25, and a police officer, constable or dog officer may kill the dog if it is found outside of its enclosure and not under the owner's immediate care.
If a dog ordered restrained wounds a person or "worries, wounds or kills livestock or fowls," the owner is liable for treble damages, according to section 159. After written notice to the dog's owner, section 160 authorizes the selectmen to enter the owner's premises and kill the dog, unless the owner puts up a bond of $200 on the condition that the dog will be restrained for 12 months.
The scent of new solutions
Given the many outdated aspects of animal control laws, the Animal Control Officers' Association of Massachusetts (ACOAM) and a diverse coalition of concerned organizations are advocating the passage of Senate bill 2172.
The proposed legislation includes a dangerous dog provision and addresses other important animal control issues, according to an email from Animal Control Officer Cheryl Malone of Dennis, who serves as the ACOAM's director of advocacy and legislative affairs.