Animal Rights

New Law: Landlord Pays if Tenant's Dog Attacks Someone

| by Denise A Justin

On Tuesday, April 10, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors approved a new “aggressive and menacing” dog-behavior law which includes the requirement for preventive measures to control animals considered potentially a danger, before they attack other animals or humans. 

Landlords are also held responsible for tenants' failure to curb menacing or aggressive behavior of pets or to properly confine them, under the new law.

The ordinance takes effect in 30 days, and will require owners or those who have custody of an animal which is considered  menacing or aggressive to  “immediately confine it to a secure enclosure or location” as soon as they are told the animal has violated the ordinance.

The provision does not describe a specific species of animal, but dogs will be most affected. 

The law was enacted primarily to address such situations as children who are required to walk past a yard near a school where a menacing or threatening dog is maintained and their safety is potentially endangered, or anyone who maintains an intimidating dog that could possibly break through an inadequate or damaged fence, including a neighbor.  

Until now, there has been little or no recourse for potential victims until the animal actually attacks and/or causes harm.  Now the County can take action against the owner of the dog before a tragedy occurs, according to the Tribune News.  

San Luis Obispo County animal control officers also gain the ability to issue citations to the owners of “menacing” dogs and other animals that aren’t adequately contained.  They do not have to wait until the dog jumps the fence or digs out of the yard and attacks.  The new ordinance is designed to require a proactive approach by enabling the County to issue citations if a dog is not kept in an enclosure “of construction adequate to keep it securely confined.”

Dog owners are also required to insure that their pets do not attack other animals, says Eric Anderson, county Animals Services manager of the County’s animal control unit.  He told the Tribune News that  an ‘education-based approach; would be used, in which dog owners would receive an initial warning and advisement to better contain their dogs.

In a progressive approach to public safety, the new ordinance includes that, if the owner of an aggressive or menacing animal is a renter, the landlord is also held responsible for their failure of tenants to comply with curbing aggressive actions of pets.

The new system of citations and fines by the County will be $100 for a first occurrence, $200 for a second, and $500 for each subsequent incident during the first year. The vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Frank Mecham opposed.

The Board of Supervisors announced that, although the new law lays out broad general definitions for when an animal could be considered menacing or aggressive, it leaves animal control officers with discretion to make decisions on whether an animal’s demeanor is a potential threat before it has attacked anyone.

“I trust the professionalism of the folks who do that work for the county,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. He likened it to the discretion allowed to police officers.

Some speakers disagreed and claimed that  animal control officers could use such broad latitude “in a malicious way.”  Some in opposition testified that making a landlord responsible for tenants’ animals might lead them to stop renting to pet owners, but the Supervisors disagreed and emphasized the ultimate goal of stopping attacks on innocent pets and humans. "Without teeth, some landlords will ignore it,” Supervisor Adam Hill responded.

Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm and Animal Services Manager Eric Anderson wrote that the Animal Services Division reported to Supervisors that San Luis Obispo receives hundreds of reports per year of aggressive animals threatening pedestrians and their pets and being inadequately confined.

Under the new ordinance, it “won’t be illegal to own an aggressive animal,” Anderson said. “But if you do, you have to take appropriate measures to keep it confined.”

Robin O’Hara of Nipomo, described a “horrendous attack” by two Pit Bulls that occurred on  March 22, and could have resulted in the death of her beloved Boxer, Cassius, if a neighbor had not been able to beat the dogs off with a shovel.

O’Hara stated she later learned the pit bulls belonged to a renter in the neighborhood and the dogs had escaped the home through a window. She said she and her neighbors are now all terrified and carry pepper spray. She asked for higher fees. 

After that attack and the activism by O’Hara and local residents, County animal control officials brought the proposal to supervisors “to fill a hole in current law which limited the county to only being able to act against an aggressive animal only after it had attacked."

Under the new definitions, an aggressive animal is one “whose behavior indicates it is prone to unprovoked attacks against a person or animal.”

A menacing animal is one that “through its behavior, demonstrates an intention to inflict harm or otherwise place a person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of animals kept by him or her.”

The new definition of severe bodily injury in the ordinance reads “any physical injury which results in deep lacerations with separation of subcutaneous tissues, muscle tears or lacerations, fractures or joint dislocations, or permanent impairment of locomotion or special senses.”

The ordinance also  would allow animal owners to contest decisions of animal control officers.

Supervisor Adam Hill said the ordinance is about public safety and reiterated his earlier remarks that people should not have to worry about being “terrorized … while walking a dog,” according to the Tribune News report.