Tyrone probing leash law

TYRONE – A landlord in Tyrone is asking the borough to look into creating a leash law to keep residents and other animals safe.

Jennifer Leister of Port Matilda, Centre County, told council members last week that she’s seen loose dogs run toward traffic, intimidate children and even maim or kill dogs that are leashed on private property, unable to get away.

Leister, who said she rents out seven units on three properties in Tyrone, said she knows there are laws about barking and defecation, but is concerned about the lack of a leash law and what it means for tenants with small children or dogs.

“What we do not see is any means of protecting the public from dogs at large,” she said. “People aren’t using common sense.”

State dog law requires that a dog must be either kept on its owner’s property, secured with a collar and chain or other device, or “reasonably” under a person’s control. The only statewide leash requirement mandates that “dangerous dogs” be leashed at all times and muzzled in public.

A dangerous dog is defined as one that has been involved in committing a crime or has attacked, severely injured or killed a human being or other domestic animal while off its owner’s property.

Such dogs have to be registered for the rest of their lives and owners must pay a yearly $500 fee to keep them, according to the Department of Agriculture, which covers dog law.

But for dogs that aren’t deemed dangerous, it’s up to individual municipalities to determine how to outline and enforce leash laws.

Many Blair County municipalities have ordinances that require that dogs be kept on an owner’s property, with a fee schedule set up if owners do not comply.

Officials in Hollidaysburg, Frankstown Township and Roaring Spring said there aren’t a lot of issues with dogs running at large. Most said complaints involve a dog slipping its collar or an owner prematurely unleashing a dog after a walk.

Many of these areas lack an explicit leash requirement, but grant authority to police officers, dog wardens or Central Pennsylvania Humane Society workers to seize and impound a dog until its owner pays a fee.

In Hollidaysburg, the fee is $15 for the first two offenses to cover the kennel fees. The third time, the fee jumps to a maximum of $600 and up to 30 days’ imprisonment, but Borough Manager Mark Schroyer said they haven’t had to go that far while he’s been there.

Frankstown Township Zoning and Ordinance Officer Kevin Cramer said owners are fined $25 if a dog is found wandering at large, with the fine increasing from the first offense.

Roaring Spring Police Chief Milton Fields said a borough ordinance calls for fines between $50 and $300 and/or up to 90 days’ imprisonment for capturing dogs at large.

But police try to work with residents, he said, noting they will issue a warning or two. Usually a loose dog means it has slipped its collar, he said, and owners get the benefit of the doubt.

If the problem persists, officers can move to nontraffic citations, he said, to give the punishment “a little more teeth.”

They also have a partnership with the county dog law officer who works with them if they need to seize a dog or deal with other issues.

County dog law officer Robert Beck covers both Blair and Huntingdon counties, and his duties include enforcing licensing and kennel laws, inspections, dog-bite investigations and enforcing state rabies law, along with seizing and detaining dogs at large.

Beck directed all questions to the state Department of Agriculture press officials, who did not return calls for comment.

Officials in Blair’s northern townships, Snyder and Antis, have ordinances that Tyrone officials could use as guidelines to create a leash law.

Snyder Township code is similar to state law: A dog’s owner shall keep the dog on its property and not permit it to run at large. The fine for violating the ordinance is up to a $100 fine or a maximum of five days’ imprisonment.

Antis Township code goes one step further. It states that it is illegal for dogs to run at large, and that a dog “shall not be considered to be running at large if it is on a leash or under control of a person physically able to control it.”

Leister said a strong borough ordinance could solve the dogs-at-large problem and also prevent people from being intimidated when they want to file a complaint. Intimidation has prevented some of her tenants from reporting incidents in the past, she said.

Altoona injury lawyer Doug Stoehr said dog-attack cases he’s prosecuted haven’t involved leash laws, because he was able to prove that the dogs had previously bitten or harmed someone and sued under negligence laws.

However, he said a leash ordinance could apply in other situations and strengthen someone’s case if a dog left its owner’s yard and attacked someone.

Police Chief John Romeo said officers have cited three people within the last year for dog-related issues. One family has been cited three times, he said.

He also said the “dangerous dog” label is court-imposed.

Borough solicitor Larry Clapper added that getting the complaint through the court system can be difficult.

“Pennsylvania’s called a free-bite state,” he said, meaning an animal can bite once before an owner can get in trouble.

In the meantime, Leister said she plans to install video surveillance on her property to catch at-large dogs to present evidence to police so they can take action.

But she said she still hopes the borough can pass an ordinance that would require dogs to be leashed at all times, whether on public or private property.

Clapper said that it doesn’t appear that there’s anything in state law preventing borough officials from enacting a tough leash law.

Romeo and Councilman William Latchford both said they have difficulty walking around the neighborhood or jogging because of loose dogs.

“I can’t walk my dogs,” Latchford said, for fear that a loose dog will attack or jump over an inadequate fence.

Borough officials said they would look into enacting a leash law to prevent dogs from wandering off their owners’ property, but Mayor Bill Fink told Leister the process would take time.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.