Minneapolis lead animal control worker Annie Piper usually cruises the alley first, and that's where the trouble started for the North Side dog owner she checked up on.
He's had two dogs designated or "declared" by the city as potentially dangerous, and Piper was back to see if he was following restrictions that come with that designation.
She parked her city van next to his kennel. It lacked a concrete floor and a wire cover, and she thought the fence wasn't strong enough for Kema and Ice, the two American bulldogs living there. She cited owner Jimothy Slaughter for not complying with the ordinance.
Such spot-checks are new in Minneapolis this year. It's the latest phase in the city's multiyear effort to ramp up enforcement on owners of such dogs, following several horrific attacks in 2007. That year, a dog killed a boy, 7-year-old Zack King Jr., and another nearly killed a woman, Paula Ybarra.
"Dangerous" dogs are those that have inflicted substantial bodily harm on a person without provocation, killed a pet without provocation or attacked again after being labeled "potentially dangerous." "Potentially dangerous" dogs have bitten a person or pet without provocation, chased a person, or otherwise menaced or attacked a person or pet.
Stepped-up regulation already had dented the number of domestic animal bites in the city before the checks began. Bites fell by 12 percent in 2008, from 411 in 2007 to 360. The city has strengthened its ordinance three times in as many years, transforming a complaint-driven system into one that sets tougher standards and more actively enforces them.
First came tougher requirements for owners. Then, city workers brought outdated records of such dogs up to date. Most recently, they began the spot checks. St. Paul also saw a drop in reported bites since 2001, even before passing restrictions aimed at making it harder for people to keep vicious dogs, city officials said.
Bulldog owner Slaughter got twin $200 tickets, and during Piper's visit, he wasn't happy. "My dogs ain't dangerous. That little kid there plays with my dogs," he said, pointing to a 9-month-old baby.
Piper explained the city requirements, including a secure kennel, and, when the dog is outside, a 3-foot leash and a muzzle.
"They ain't outside the house. They don't like it outside," Slaughter told her. But then, as they discussed leashes, he contradicted himself. "Every time I put 'em outside and tie them up, they chew them up," he said. He's appealing his citations.
Spelling out the law to owners like Slaughter is all in a day's work for Piper, a 15-year animal enforcement veteran who shows French bulldogs on weekends.
Dogs have bitten her many times, though never badly enough for stitches. The worst was when a shepherd-husky cross jumped a fence and bit her on the back while she was corralling two smaller dogs.
"It's all about them protecting themselves and their surroundings," she said, adding that surprise bites usually happen when a dog is scared and doesn't know how to keep a human away. She tends to blame owners, saying: "Some people, if they really don't get it, they don't even know to be on the alert for the things we're going to ask them for."
Every house where she found an owner on that day's compliance checks had a leash, but some were too long, or had been shortened by knotting, something the city doesn't allow. Besides keeping dogs on a short leash and muzzled when outside, owners of dogs designated as potentially dangerous are supposed to shut them inside a designated indoor space before answering the door.
There's detective work involved. Piper cruised another alley in northeast Minneapolis to check for dog droppings in a yard. They would indicate whether a Chesapeake Bay retriever without a kennel has been allowed to run free in the back yard. The yard has droppings, but they must have come from a smaller dog, she decides.
When she knocked on the front door, it was answered by a baby sitter who didn't coop up the dog before opening the door. Much of the job in those cases is education.
"Some people, because they're just learning, think we're picking on them," she said. "Other people are like, 'Come on in. I've got nothing to hide.'"
The latter happened when she rapped on the door of a downtown brownstone. She heard a soft whine from the dog before she raised owner Kevin Raheja, who works nights. He'd properly kenneled Raju, his pit bull, before answering. He produced Raju's muzzle. She reminded Raheja that his leash needs to be no longer than 3 feet.
"We're just making sure people are making sure they're complying," she tells him.
More dogs put down
The push for compliance grew out of incidents like the one that changed Ybarra's life and has claimed several others. She was attacked by a pit bull and bulldog at a northeast Minneapolis home, and she nearly died from throat injuries. The dogs were destroyed. The incident claimed a final life this year, when owner Thomas Mohrbacker, who was sued by Ybarra, killed himself.
The episode cost the city $367,000 -- the amount it paid to settle Ybarra's claim that the city should have confiscated the dangerous dogs before they had a chance to attack her. The city was already moving to toughen its restrictions when the attack happened. Afterward, it installed Dan Niziolek as animal control manager.
In 2006, the city bumped up its annual registration fee for designated animals to $200 and their license fee to $75. That and insurance requirements make the cost of owning a declared dog more expensive. It then began reviewing dogs declared in previously years, to bring their owners into compliance with restrictions on how the dogs could be kept.
In 2008, the city added restrictions on ownership of declared dogs by violent felons and people who have violated the ordinance, and the city added more reasons for declaring animals. Earlier this year, penalties for evading the law were boosted. The number of animals put to death jumped as some owners faced with the new restrictions decided not to keep their dogs.
While Minneapolis attracted most of the attention for serious dog bites, St. Paul also toughened its ordinance in 2007, banning people from getting licenses if they'd had a dog removed at least twice in five years. That's aimed at people raising vicious dogs, according to Bill Stephenson, St. Paul's animal control supervisor. Reported dog bites have fallen since 2001, ranging between 100 and 200 annually, he said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438