Sunday, June 18, 2006

What Does a Dog Owner Need to Know About the Law?

We’re speaking with Mary Randolph, the author of “Every Dog’s Legal Guide: A Must-Have Book for Your Owner.”

NOLO: Mary, considering that dogs have been around for thousands of years, why is it necessary to license them, and what’s going to happen to a dog owner who doesn’t license a dog?

MARY RANDOLPH: Well, the theory behind licensing is that cities want to keep track of dogs; they want to know how many dogs they have, they want to get a little money from the dog owners to go towards the cost that a city incurs when it’s taking care of the dog population… they have to have animal control officers, they have noise ordinances… so, that’s the idea behind it; it’s just that having a dog is a bit of a privilege, it’s not just a right, and you have to pay a little fee for it. But no one comes around, obviously, knocking on doors, checking to see if your dog has a tag… you can get into trouble if your dog gets picked up, if your dog is running loose and the animal control people pick it up, you’re much more likely to get the dog back quickly and safely if you’ve got a license for the dog, because they can trace you right away, and they can contact you. If the dog doesn’t have an identifying tag, you might not get the dog back. In some places, they have rules that they keep licensed dogs longer on the theory that they are not strays; they have an owner out there looking for them. They also use licenses to keep track of rabies vaccinations, because you’re required to have a rabies vaccination, and in some places, some other vaccinations as well, so that usually goes along with the licensing requirement.

NOLO: In your book, you provided the interesting story of Toby, a dog who ran wild and whose owner was fined $500 for that, and later appealed the case to the California Court of Appeal. Two questions: in most places, dogs can’t run free, but how zealous can animal control enforcement people be when chasing dogs and what can they do once they’ve gotten hold of a dog? And, I guess, another question might be, what could motivate a dog owner to pay thousands of dollars in lawyer fees to appeal a $500 fine?

MARY RANDOLPH: Well, in dog cases, there’s always something going on more than money; people are very emotional attached to their dogs. This must have been a big issue; I don’t know the particulars of this case, but Toby had a rap sheet – Toby had been caught fifteen times I think, by the animal control people, so this was a dog who was obviously let free all the time, and the owners were flouting the law, but how this case came about is because the animal control folks were chasing this dog, the dog ran home, ran in through an empty door, jumped on the bed presumably, went right in the bedroom, and the police came because the door was open, and they thought perhaps there had been a burglary. The animal control people followed the dog into the house and impounded it, so the owners were understandably upset that the people had gone into their house and taken the dog who was not running loose at that moment, and carted it off and locked it up. So, that is beyond the pale – animal control folks are not supposed to come into your house and take the dog. Otherwise, they can, if the dog is running at large, they’re pretty free to track it down and lock it up. It’s a public safety issue.

NOLO: Mary, if there’s a no-pet clause in a lease, what if the landlord permits a dog in the beginning, and then later wants to enforce the no-pets provision?

MARY RANDOLPH: Landlords are free to discriminate against people with pets. They can’t discriminate against people with families or people with disabilities, but pets are okay for landlords to decide that they just don’t want to deal with pets, that’s alright. But a landlord who tells you that you can have a pet, and then later changes his mind, might be in trouble. For example, if you move in, and you have a pet that doesn’t cause any problems for several years, and it’s okay with the landlord and they know about it, but in the lease there’s that little fine print, no-pets clause, the landlord can’t suddenly say, “Oh, I’m going to enforce that clause now, and you have to leave or get rid of the pet,” because it’s often a pretext for getting rid of someone for another reason; perhaps the landlord wants to raise the rent or get a different tenant. Courts understand that landlords use a no-pets clause sometimes to get rid of someone for another reason, so you’re not allowed to essentially waive that clause for several years and then enforce it.

NOLO: You told the story of a man who shipped nine racing greyhounds by air from Portland to Boston. The airlines left the cages on a baggage cart in ninety-seven degree heat, and seven of the dogs died. But the court awarded the owner a total of $750. How can that be?

MARY RANDOLPH: That’s right, it’s obviously far below the market value even, of those dogs, much less anyone’s emotional value of a dog. The reason they could do that is because federal law limits airlines’ liability, and dogs are treated just like baggage for purposes of that limit, so the limit now is $2,800, which still, of course, is not very much, and in no way replaces the value of a pet. Airlines have also, since that time, become more restrictive and selective about transporting animals. They’re really not set up to do a very good job of it, and it’s best to avoid it if you can. Some airlines no longer take animals, some won’t take them during the summer months, some don’t take certain breeds that tend to have breathing problems… so, you have to be smart about it, and pay real close attention to the conditions of the flight, and non-stop flights of course are best, avoiding hot weather or very cold weather is best, but you’re certainly not going to get very much financial compensation if something goes wrong.

NOLO: The barking dog issue… in an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine, unhappy about a barking dog, enlists Kramer and her friends to kidnap the dog. Now, most of us have faced similar noise problems, so what can a person do in this type of situation?

MARY RANDOLPH: This is probably the most common problem that people have with dogs, because owners, unfortunately, are often blissfully unaware that their dog is causing problems, because dogs typically bark when they’re left alone; dogs hate to be left alone – that’s kind of the worst thing you can do to a dog, so they bark and howl because they’re sad and lonely. So, the owners, when they come home, think they have a perfectly quiet dog. What you need to do is be solicitous of your neighbors, if you have the dog. If you get a new dog, tell people that you want to know about the problem; people don’t like to bring up those problems, so let them know that you’d like to know about things so you can take care of it. There are lots of things that behaviorists also recommend that owners can do to keep their dogs happy while they’re gone. If you’re on the other side of the fence, and you’re being disturbed by a dog, the best thing to do is approach the owner first. Again, you have to assume good will, assume that the person doesn’t know that they’re causing a problem, and if you’re being bothered, probably other neighbors are as well, so you can enlist their help. Approach the owner in a cordial way, at least to start. You may have to ramp up your efforts later; it doesn’t always work to be cordial, but it’s the best way to start – these are your neighbors, you don’t want to poison relationships if you can possibly avoid it. But you can call the animal control folks. Different towns have different systems for responding; some can be very helpful, but with others you’ll have to be more persistent to try to get someone to come out and try to speak to the owner. The police are the last resort, but you can call them if it’s a continuing problem that you can’t seem to solve, and sometimes that has the desired effect.

NOLO: What should a person do if they witness unnecessary cruelty to a dog?

MARY RANDOLPH: The best thing you can do is to call the animal control authorities for your town; sometimes that duty is contracted out to a local humane organization or an SPCA, but every town has someone who’s in charge of that, and animal cruelty or neglect is a crime – it’s punishable by fines, and, if it’s really horrendous, by jail, so you can do something; you don’t have to stand by and watch. People have certain basic duties to care for their animals, so if an animal is neglected continuously, or if it’s chained out without proper food or shelter, for example, or if it’s actually abused, you should definitely try to take action. You don’t have to rescue it yourself, but you can enlist help.

NOLO: Providing for your dog after you’re gone – it’s surprising how often that question seems to come up. What’s the answer for a dog owner?

MARY RANDOLPH: Well, you’re right that it is a big question; a lot of people, especially older people, are concerned about what would happen if their pets outlive them, and it’s a reasonable question, because you have to have some kind of plan in place for just the care of an animal, and the animal can’t wait; it needs a home right away. So, the most important thing you can do is to find a home for the animal ahead of time. Talk to somebody, make sure that they’re willing to take the animal – don’t let it be a surprise, make arrangements. And the financial part is the next part. If you’re leaving your dog to someone, which is really what you’re doing by making these arrangements, it’s good to leave some money with the dog. Dogs take care, they take veterinary care, especially as they get older, and simple upkeep, and it’s going to take some money, so it’s a thoughtful thing to leave some money along with the dog. Now, you can make fancier arrangements, and most states now have a legal arrangement under which you can make a trust for a dog; you appoint a trustee, you leave money… it’s like leaving money in trusts for a child. I don’t think most people need to go that route, to have to set up a trust. If you have someone that you’re entrusting the dog with, hopefully you would entrust them with some money for the dog’s care, and that’s really the most important thing; you’re not going to be around. A trust is a legal mechanism to make sure that your wishes are carried out, but how many people really need that? How many people really need the thought of a lawsuit to enforce their wishes? So, really, it’s just best to find someone trustworthy and leave them your pet and some money.

NOLO: Mary, speaking of dogs, Nolo recently unveiled its branding initiative that features a dog on the cover of many Nolo books. Can you tell us a little bit about this initiative, and the dog that was chosen for the cover?

MARY RANDOLPH: That’s right, we have a whole new look for Nolo books, and it goes along with our new theme, which is called “your legal companion.” We’re trying to make the book covers reflect how people think about Nolo; we are peoples’ companion through legal manners – we’re not like a professor, and we’re not like a lawyer, we’re a friend, and someone who helps you through these issues and explains them in plain English, and we were really looking for something that cuts across all the different kinds of books that Nolo does that would convey that, and we came up with the idea of a dog and your legal companion; it seems to resonate with people. Our cover dog has her own story; her name is Astrid, and she’s a yellow lab who was in the guide dog training class at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Raphael, California. She was at the top of her class, and she was pulled out to become a breeder dog, so she’s a working mom, and she’s going to Japan to start the breeding program there for a guide dog program there, so she’s quite a star in her own rite, and we just thought that she conveyed that image of Nolo as your companion in a very good way.

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