When Should It Be OK For A Dog To Bite?

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Sam Basso
PHOENIX , AZ AREA: (602) 708-4531
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[PLEASE READ: Reasonable Safety Precautions For Owning A Potentially Dangerous or Vicious Dog ]

How do you know if you have a serious aggression / biting problem with your dog? What kind of bites are justifiable and what kinds of bites indicate you are doing something wrong? What kinds of bites indicate your dog is in trouble? In other words, when is it OK for a dog to bite, and when is it not OK for a dog to bite?

No Do-It-Yourself Answers: If you are dealing with an aggressive dog, then you need to hire a professional dog behaviorist. You are already in over your head. This is no game. I have specialized programs for most problems, and after you read this article, your next step should be to set up an evaluation.

PLEASE NOTE: Many dog bites are a result of a dog that has undiagnosed medical problems. Every dog that bites, in situations where you think it wasn’t justified, should be fully examined by a veterinarian! My experience is that about half of all biting cases involve undiagnosed medical problems. The vet needs to look for sore areas (arthritis, soreness from previous injuries, spinal issues, etc), viral and fungal diseases, imbalanced hormones (Addison’s disease, thyroid, testosterone, tumors, etc), allergies, cancer, etc. Sick dogs will bite. IF the dog is well, then the dog needs help from a professional dog behaviorist. You need to PAY FOR THE ADVICE, and not just surf the internet and try to diagnose this on your own. You aren’t qualified to know what is going on. I should also mention that many “certified animal behaviorists” that veterinarians recommend are not qualified to address aggression problems. So, you need to be wise as to where you get your advice on behavior.

Dog Politics – Dogs In The Courtroom

Dogs are being targeted by the law. If you want animal control to focus on removing truly vicious dogs from the streets, and to prosecute negligent dog owners, then your local dog bite law should specifically spell out when a dog SHOULD BE allowed to bite. If the biting incidents don’t fall within these exceptions, then those cases are the ones that you want animal control investigating and setting up for prosecution. These kinds of clear lines, between what is permissible and what isn’t , helps law enforcement, the public, dog owners, and dog trainers focus on improving public safety. Too many times, dogs and dog owners have been dragged into the legal process that didn’t deserve to be there. Many times, innocent dogs have been unjustly put to death, or owners have pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, because the owners couldn’t afford the legal costs to save their dogs or themselves.

I’ve Written Many Articles About Dogs That Bite:

1.) Why Do Isolated Dogs Attack?
2.) Why Does My Dog Bite Me?
3.) K9/ Protection Dogs
4.) My Husband’s Dog Growls At Me When He’s On The Furniture!
5.) Watchdogs, Guard Dogs and Personal Protection Dogs
6.) Veterinarians Shouldn’t Give Out Behavior Advice
7.) Using A Guard Dog To Protect You From Prostitutes
8.) Are You Buying A Dog To Protect You From Criminals?
9.) BEWARE: Dogs Can Attack Kids At Halloween
10.) Dealing With Aggressive Dogs
11.) Dog Aggression In The Red Zone
12.) Dog Attacks: The Spoiled Dog
13.) Dog Bite Statistics
14.) Don’t Deceive Yourself About Your Dog’s Problems
15.) Euthanasia Criteria
16.) Fearful And Defensive Behaviors
17.) Fairer Dog Laws Are Needed
18.) HELP! I Am Afraid Of Being Bitten By My Dog!
19.) Help! My Dog Bit My 10 Year Old Son
20.) Help! My Dog Doesn’t Like Other Dogs!
21.) Kids and Dogs
22.) My Dog Is Too Friendly With Strangers
23.) Pit Bulls
24.) Stress Negatively Affects Your Dog
25.) The Case of the Fearful Dog
26.) The Case of the Fearful Pup
27.) This Pit Bull Attack Never Had To Happen
28.) What Dog Breed Is Right For You?
29.) Antisocial Dogs
30.) Can Dogs Be Trained To Not Attack Other Dogs?
31.) Why Are There So Many Pit Bull Attacks?
32.) Why Do Coyotes, Foxes And Wolves Attack Dogs?
33.) If A Dog Bites Another Dog, Will He Bite A Child?
34.) Is Your Dog Obsessive Or Possessive?
35.) How To Deal With Door Aggression In Dogs
36.) Dogs That Bite When Getting Their Paws Touched
37.) My Dog Growls At My Child
38.) I Want My Dog To Bite Strangers
39.) Can My Puppy Protect Me?
40.) How Do You Force A Dog To Let Go Of Something In Its Mouth?
41.) Is It Ever OK To Hit Or Kick A Dog To Correct It?
42.) I Growl At My Dog, Is That OK?
43.) Why Do Other Dogs, Even Nice Ones, Attack My Dog?
44.) Does A Dog Become Vicious If It Bites And Tastes Blood?
45.) Why Did My Dog Bite The Maintenance Man?
46.) Dog Guards Bone And Bites Child
47.) How Do I Make My Dog Mean?
48.) How Can You Tell If A Dog Is Protective Or Vicious?
49.) When I Yell At My Dog She Growls
50.) My Dog Gets Aggressive With My Other Dog When He Sees A Strange Dog
51.) My Dog Has Food Aggression
52.) My Dogs Are Fighting
53.) Should I Protection Train My Dog?
54.) More Dogs = More Fighting?
55.) Police Shoot Dog
56.) How Do You Break Up A Dog Fight?

My List Of Biting Categories – What SHOULD Be OK (But isn’t always what is legal)

Laws are different from location to location. Some are fair, and some aren’t. What should be OK isn’t always what is legal. Thus, laws need changing to reflect the real world, not just what some politician wants. Dogs can’t obey laws, they are animals. Only people can obey laws. Here are examples, in my opinion, of situations where dogs SHOULD be allowed to bite:

1.) Legitimate self defense: includes biting as a result of teasing, threatening, entering territory, abuse, taking toys or food from dogs you don’t own or know, defending people from criminals, and other examples of self defense. Dogs will also defend themselves from other dogs.

There are also stupid things parents let kids do with dogs that will provoke a bite, such as hitting the dog, sitting on the dog, falling on a dog, pulling on a dog’s face, kissing the dog on the lips, teasing the dog, etc. There are other things that will provoke a dog to bite, such as startling a dog while it is sleeping (remember the old saying: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie), staring a dog down, pinning a dog to the ground, scaring and chasing a dog, and cornering a dog when it is afraid of you. All these can trigger a self defense action. Just because you don’t want a dog to bite regardless of what you do to it, doesn’t mean that is possible.

2.) Defense of territory (including home, car and my things): people should expect to be bitten when they intrude into the territory of a dog without the owner’s express consent. If a stray dog, cat, horse, deer or person enters a dog’s territory, the a dog is programmed to challenge, and even attack, the intruder. That is normal behavior.

3.) Defense of pack (including family and family pets): if you threaten a dog’s family, or other pets in the family, a dog will protect them. This is reasonable and natural behavior for dogs. It is normal for almost all mammal species to defend their young. I dare you to approach a female bear and her cubs… you had better be prepared to shoot and kill her, because she will be coming to kill you. It is normal for a female dog to be very aggressive, and even attack, if a stranger approaches her puppies. If you get bitten by handling the puppies, then it is YOUR fault, not the fault of the dog protecting them. We do this with our kids: we protect them from harm, even with our own lives, and no one considers this to be abnormal. We need to wake up and realize that dogs protect their pack members, and this should be considered normal and permissible under the law. People have to start taking personal responsibility for their interactions with animals, and quit blaming the animals for the ignorance of the people that were bitten. There are also a number of normal pack behaviors, such as a mamma dog protecting her puppies, that are not indications of viciousness.

4.) Establishment of a reasonable pack order within the home and with other dogs: dogs will scrap with one another to set up a pack in the home or in social gatherings; if you go to an off leash park, then dogs will sometimes get in fights to establish rank order… and that is the risk you take by going there… don’t blame the dogs! If your dog isn’t good at off leash parks, then DON’T TAKE THEM. Two intact male dogs will fight if there is a nearby female dog in heat: that is normal, and not an indication of viciousness. If you have too many dogs in the home, then eventually, fights will ensue. Nature uses aggression to spread out the number of competitors over a large area to prevent starvation. So, when you put too many dogs in the same space, they feel that population pressure, and at some point, they will try to drive away the excess dogs. Because they are bound into the area with nowhere to go, then the fights get more and more intense, because if they can’t drive away competitors, they will have to kill them. It is the same reason why, during times of famine, that many predator species will kill their young. This may also explain why sometimes dogs kill babies… another competitor has entered the environment.

5.) Puppy mouthing (which is not the same as being aggressive). Puppies put their mouths on everything. That is normal exploration and playfulness. Yes, we put dogs in Puppy Manners classes to teach them what they can and can’t do with their teeth. But, I have heard of puppies seized by Animal Control for mouthing, and then risking death if labeled as “potentially dangerous”. Seriously! That’s like bringing in law enforcement when a 6 year old hits his sister.

6.) While being trained, and in the midst of long term maintenance training, to teach a dog to contain it’s drives and aggression. Police dogs are taught to bite. Guard dogs bite. They also need to learn to let go on command. Some dogs NEED to be trained to bite in order for them to be conditioned to contain their aggression. This might seem strange to those that aren’t familiar with aggression, but for example, police quality dogs are SAFER if they have been properly trained when TO bite and when NOT TO bite. They need both. Obedience training alone can’t teach these dogs to be non-aggressive. They are born aggressive, it is genetic. Proper training can only teach these dogs to be controllable. The aggressive drives must be Capped, meaning the dog is conditioned to contain the drive to bite and learns also when it can bite and when it must not bite. Some pet dogs NEED to be bite trained in order for them to learn how to contain the aggression inside them. THIS TYPE OF TRAINING IS NORMAL dog training for professional dog trainers when dealing with aggressive breeds. Many dogs need ongoing bite training throughout their lives in order to be reliable and controllable. For example, police dogs are continually trained. If not, then they might one day bite a criminal, and keep on attacking and not come off the suspect, which then would make the police liable for using excessive force. Aggressive dogs, like police dogs, need to learn how to contain their aggression, and then need ongoing training to keep them malleable and controllable. Most of our dog breeds have some form of aggression in them, since they needed different forms of aggression to do their work: terriers are often aggressive towards other dogs and animals – they were and are fighters, the man working dogs imprint humans as being of their same species so they show the same kind of aggression that they show towards other dogs, the sight hounds were bred to be killers of game and sometimes other canines, the mastiffs were bred to take down large game and guard property, the flock guards were bred to be aggressive towards canines, the hounds were bred to be aggressive towards furred animals, some of the pointers were bred to be able to guard the hunter’s game, etc., etc. If you read the work of Konrad Lorenz, or even Charles Darwin, you will clearly see that aggression is a NECESSARY PART of being a pack oriented animal, and it CANNOT be bred out of the domestic dog or they would no longer be dogs. So, we have to train and channel aggression instead.

7.) For legitimate police, sport protection (like Schutzhund, French Ring Sport, IPO, KNPV, etc.), and personal security work. Criminals get bitten by dogs. Don’t commit a crime, don’t get bitten by a dog… it’s as simple as that. This kind of work preserves and promotes the general welfare of the working dogs and helps protect the public at large. I also believe that protection dogs, including pets, should be held to the same legal standards as are police dogs. There is plenty of case law defining how a police dog should be deployed. If we would make laws for every day citizens that mirrored the training and deployment standards of police dogs, then it would be much clearer for everyone when it is legal to use a dog for protection and when it is inappropriate, plus definitions of competent training and handling standards. It should be legal for people to own a dog for personal protection. We have a right to self defense, and a dog can be a great deterrent to crime.

8.) Legitimate hunting purposes. Dogs are used to hunt wild boar, for example. The dogs can mix it up with the boar when the boar decides to fight back. That shouldn’t be illegal. Wild boar are a HUGE ecological problem, and dogs are absolutely necessary to hunt them down. Dogs killing prey are not aggressive. There is no such thing as prey aggression. It isn’t aggression. It is predatory behavior, and not an indication of viciousness.

9.) Accidents. Sometimes a dog is chasing a tennis ball. You pick it up to toss it, and the dog tries to grab for it before you release it and the dog bites your hand. This isn’t a dangerous dog. The owner, or the person playing with the dog is being stupid, and they mishandle the dog and are bitten. I have received calls about such biting incidents, and I had to explain that the dog didn’t do anything wrong.

10.) Illness or injury. Some normal dogs will bite when they have been severely injured or when they are suffering from an illness. I have seen otherwise normal dogs bite people because of cancer, while fighting off a bad infection, allergies, etc. Once the dog is cured, the biting goes away. These dogs shouldn’t be categorized as being “dangerous” once they are well. On the other hand, we should expect our dogs to be safe when stressed and moderately in pain, but that is a breeding issue – we can breed dogs that are not so prone to bite when in pain if we want to. I believe that at least 50% of the bite cases are the result of dogs that are the result of a medical problem. All dogs that bite should be examined for medical issues.

What If Your Dog Bites?

First, get medical attention for any animal or person who is injured.

Second, don’t be a jerk to people. Be responsible, say you are sorry, offer to pay for any of their medical costs or damages, and try to keep it out of court. If you make people angry, they will want revenge. An attorney may advise you differently than this, however. So, if it is a legal issue, then you are in a bind, because if you don’t apologize then the injured party may take it to the police. But, if you do something stupid, even if you are nice, you could still be dealing with the law. My observation is that if there is an injury, the people who have the least problems are those who are not jerks about it. And at the same time, they are calling an attorney if it looks like the law is going to be involved. The more serious the bite, the more likely you need to call an attorney immediately. What you say and do CAN AND WILL be used against you and your dog by the law.

Third, you need to hire a trainer to see if the problem can be fixed. Sometimes hiring a trainer will head off a bigger problem. And many dog bite situations can be prevented by proper training and managing of a dog. Usually, long before a serious attack happens, there has been a build up of problems with that dog. Get a trainer long before you need one.

Fourth, you should be taking the dog to the veterinarian for a complete medical check up, as I have mentioned above. Make sure the dog is treated for any medical problems.

What About Vicious Dogs and Irresponsible Owners?

Other than in these circumstances, when a dog bites, then the owner and dog should be judged by the severity of the situation and punished accordingly. All vicious dogs should be put down. Vicious dogs are typically 1.) fear biters – which isn’t the same as an aggressive biter, 2.) dogs that will attack children (I am a firm believer that all dogs should be good with children that they know and live with) without provocation, and/ or 3.) unpredictably aggressive dogs. All negligent owners, meaning people that know that their dogs have problems, yet continue to endanger others (animals or people) should receive a punishment in proportion to the harm that their negligence caused. Good dogs, in the hands of irresponsible owners, should sometimes be taken away from the owners and given to a good home.

I also don’t believe that we should expect every dog to like everybody. That is unnatural, and I don’t think that the public should expect that every dog should be petted, interacted with, liked, and/or handled by any person that comes up to interact with your dog without your express permission. I also don’t think that dogs or owners should be judged by “what if” scenarios when a dog hasn’t actually caused anyone any physical harm. Some folks are phobic, and afraid of dogs. Some folks are dog haters or are just plain nuts or trouble makers, and just because they don’t like a dog or don’t know how to read a dog or interact with a dog, etc, they shouldn’t be given the unfettered right to deem your dog as being dangerous to society or themselves. Not everyone in this world is rational, and I don’t want anyone to risk having their dog taken away or cited as being dangerous, just because some nut thinks they are a dog expert and knows what is best for society.

What About Drafting A New Dog Bite Law For Your Community?

The big dog stories about dog attacks cause local politicians and activists to propose toughening the law. Often they target specific breeds, or propose laws that are totally unfair. If you are in this situation, you need to be proactive and put forth your own counter-proposal for them to consider. There are pro dog organizations you can contact who will help you. Here are provisions which should be incorporated:

The last time I was working to help with the drafting of a dog bite law, we came up with the following concepts. The following are ideas which should be considered when drafting dog bite laws:

Make definitions (e.g., dangerous, potentially dangerous, etc.) precise. It should be 100% clear which category a dog fits after any kind of biting incident.

There is a difference between a dog that attacks a human, another dog, and some other species. Should we categorize a dog as “dangerous” which killed a squirrel? Or a cat? What if the dog gets in a fight with another dog, which one was at fault and how do you apportion the fault? Isn’t there a difference between a dog that bites a human and one that bites another animal? Shouldn’t the law differentiate between dogs who threaten other animals, other dogs, or people? When it is animal vs. animal, shouldn’t the law differentiate between domestic and wild animals?

Whenever a dog has been designated as a potential threat by animal control, the owners should have the right to challenge the designation. In some jurisdictions, a dog can be labeled as “dangerous” or “potentially dangerous” with an unsubstantiated claim from a nasty neighbor. This designation then can count against the life of the dog if further complaints are lodged against the dog. Unless the designation can be substantiated, then such a designation should be open to challenge through due process.

The designation of potential threat (“potentially dangerous”, “dangerous”, etc.) should NOT be made by Animal Control. They are analogous to the police, and should only be able to charge someone with a violation. They shouldn’t also be able to exact a penalty on the dog or its owners. An impartial evaluation board, comprised of dog experts, should make these designations.

There should be uniformity across jurisdictions, instead of having each city enact its own set of dog laws, which might conflict with one another. It is too hard for the average citizen to wade through the hodgepodge of laws in most states.

Dogs and owners should be allowed to complete training and behavioral modification programs to remove the “potentially dangerous” and “dangerous” designations. That is what dog trainers and behaviorists are for. Many dogs and people can be turned around with proper training and supervision.

“Unprovoked” biting should be specifically clarified. When a dog gets in a fight with another dog, the innocent dog isn’t always the one that got hurt the worst. It takes a trained eye to tell which dog started the fight. It can be a look, or a set of body language cues which sets off a fight. In many cases, novice dog owner, and most animal control officers, won’t be able to tell who started the fight, nor which dog was at fault.

An animal dangerous to humans means any of the following: Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of his owner or keeper, inflicts severe injury on or kills a human being. Any animal previously determined to be potentially dangerous to humans, which, within a 24 month period after its owner or keeper has received notice of this determination, inflicts less than severe injury on a human being, when unprovoked and off the property of his owner or keeper.

An animal potentially dangerous to other animals means any of the following: Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, on three separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, engages in behavior that threatens the safety of another domestic animal so that the other animal has to take defensive action to protect itself. Instinctual behavior by a dog such as barking at or chasing a cat will not be deemed a sign of being potentially dangerous if the cat gets away, as usually happens. Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, inflicts less than severe injury on another domestic animal.

An animal potentially dangerous to humans means any of the following: Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, engages in behavior that threatens the safety of a human being so that the human has to take defensive action to protect himself/herself. Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, bites a person and breaks the skin, but causes less than severe injury.

Provocation: The act of inciting an animal to be aggressive. Examples include but are not limited to: striking or otherwise hurting the animal, teasing or tormenting the animal, trespassing on the owner’s property, committing a crime against an innocent person, committing a crime against the owner or his property, threatening the owner, or hurting or threatening the animal’s young. These examples also apply to incidents in the past which have been observed or reported.

Exotic animal: Any normally wild animal which, when in its wild state, is capable of inflicting serious physical harm on a human being.

Severe injury: Any physical injury that results in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations requiring multiple sutures or cosmetic surgery.

Less than severe injury: Any physical injury that breaks the skin but does not result in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations requiring multiple sutures or cosmetic surgery.

Declaration that an animal is potentially dangerous to other animals; potentially dangerous to humans; dangerous to other animals; or dangerous to humans.

(1) If the Director has investigated and determined that there exists probable cause to believe that an animal is potentially dangerous to other animals; potentially dangerous to humans; dangerous to other animals; or dangerous to humans as defined in this ordinance, a hearing shall be conducted unless knowingly waived in writing by the animal owner. The Director shall prepare a petition specifying the basis for the applicable designation.

(2) Whenever possible, any complaint received from a member of the public which serves as the evidentiary basis for the Director to find probable cause shall be sworn to and verified by the complainant and shall be attached to the petition.

(3) Whenever possible, if injury is alleged, relevant medical reports and photographs shall be attached to the petition.

(4) Prior to commencement of the hearing and if the allegations in the petition indicate that the animal is potentially dangerous to other animals; potentially dangerous to humans; or dangerous to other animals, the Mayor or his designee may offer in writing mediation services as an alternative to a hearing provided both the complainant and owner agree in writing to mediation. Mediation must be concluded within thirty days of the offer to mediate. If mediation is refused or is unsuccessful, then the matter shall be referred to a hearing as defined below.

The Mayor or his designee shall designate a hearing officer from a panel of up to five persons whose membership shall be designated by the City Council. Hearing officer applicants shall have had a minimum of five years experience as a practicing attorney and at least minimal experience in the care and control of animals. The hearing officer shall conduct a hearing on whether an animal shall be declared potentially dangerous to other animals, potentially dangerous to humans, dangerous to other animals, or dangerous to humans. The hearing officer shall be compensated for the actual hours devoted to the hearing and its determination at the existing rate allowed magistrates of the Municipal Court.

The Mayor or his designee shall provide written notice to the owner of the specific behavior of the animal alleged in the petition and the date upon which a hearing will be held to consider the petition. The hearing shall be held not more than 15 days after service of the notice upon the owner. The notice shall advise the owner of the consequences of a finding of potentially dangerous to other animals, potentially dangerous to humans, dangerous to other animals, or dangerous to humans. The notice shall advise the owner of his right to present evidence as to why the animal should receive the alleged designation and of his right to appeal to the Superior Court within 15 days of the final determination.

A hearing may be continued if the hearing officer deems it necessary and proper or upon a showing of good cause.

The time for hearing shall be stayed if mediation services are accepted. The time for hearing and the hearing provisions of this subsection shall recommence at the date the Mayor or his designee has determined that mediation has not been accepted or has been unsuccessful.

In cases where complaints from the public serve as the evidentiary basis for the director to prepare a petition, at least one of the complainants or his or her designee in the matter must appear and testify at the hearing or the complaint shall be dismissed.

If the owner fails to appear at the hearing, the hearing shall nevertheless proceed and an appropriate order shall be issued.

All witnesses shall testify under oath or affirmation. The oath shall be administered by the hearing officer. The hearing officer may, when appropriate, request the production of oral or documentary evidence which is reasonably necessary and relevant to conduct a hearing. All proceedings shall be tape recorded.

The hearing officer shall issue a written determination based upon a preponderance of the evidence, which shall be mailed to the owner within seven days after the hearing is completed.

If an animal is found to be potentially dangerous to other animals, dangerous to other animals, or potentially dangerous to humans, the animal shall be so designated on the records of Animal Control and the owner’s yard inspected and certified to be sufficiently secure to contain the animal. Fencing with footers, if necessary, that is sufficiently high to contain the animal concerned may be ordered as well as a locked gate. If the animal is outside of the yard or the owner’s home, he will be on a secure leash under the control of a responsible person.

If an animal is found to be dangerous to humans, he shall be registered and regulated.

An owner of an animal found potentially dangerous to other animals, potentially dangerous to humans, or dangerous to other animals, who has no additional violations within a thirty-six month period from the date of the designation, shall be removed form the list of animals so designated by the Director. The animal may be, but is not required to be, removed from the relevant list prior to the expiration of the 36 month period if the owner or keeper of the dog demonstrates to the Director that changes in circumstances or measures taken by the owner or keeper, such as training of the dog, have mitigated the risk to public safety.

An owner of a dog found dangerous to humans, who has no additional violations after a 36 month period from the date of designation as dangerous to humans, may apply to the Director to remove the animal from the list of dangerous to humans upon proof of the successful completion of at least 8 weeks of formal obedience training, other similar evidence of training, or other rehabilitative efforts designed to mitigate the risk to public safety.

The owner may file a replevin action in Superior Court without court costs within 30 days of seizure to contest the holding of the animal. Failure to file will constitute a waiver of the owner’s right to a hearing. [Reason: due process.]

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Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.