Clarence Fanto: Are the dogs who bite the real problem?

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RICHMOND — "There's no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner."

That's a vast over-simplification by John Grogan, author of "Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World's Worst Dog." But it resonates with the great majority of responsible dog owners — about 60 million U.S. households have at least one canine companion as a family member.

During six hours of civil, well-informed public discussion this past week by the Select Board in rural, agricultural Richmond, home to many of the county's remaining farms, there was much wisdom imparted by dog owners, residents and town leaders in response to a dreadful series of dog attacks on three passers-by in nine months.

Farm owner Tom Gardner, with perhaps 20 sheep and lambs, as well as chickens, ducks and geese on his 29-acre property, has a pack of 19 dogs, by his count, to protect his flocks. But as a victim and a half dozen neighbors testified under oath at Wednesday's formal public hearing, several of his dozen white Maremma canines, bred originally in central Italy as guard dogs to protect sheep, have been involved in biting incidents that required hospital treatment for the victims or have put nearby neighbors on edge.

It can be argued that these working dogs are professionally trained, and were only doing their jobs.

Last August, an Amherst College student, 21, soliciting for a public interest group, made the mistake of venturing onto the property uninvited, causing several dogs to attack him.

On March 16, high winds blew a gate open, according to Gardner, allowing five of the dogs to run loose on the state highway in front of the property. A neighbor passing by tried to round them up and get them home, only to be set upon and injured when he ventured out of his vehicle.

And just last Monday, a landscape designer arrived to work on the farm, unwittingly invading the protective dogs' territory. He, too, was bitten severely, requiring hospital treatment, just like the two previous victims.

All this required reasonable steps to be taken by town officials. As Selectman Neal Pilson put it at Thursday night's followup meeting to prepare a set of orders to protect the neighborhood, "We're into safety issues here, and we are charged with the responsibility of imposing or requiring reasonable limitations on a property owner who maintains dangerous dogs."

"On balance, I think what we have suggested to include in the order is a series of reasonable and justifiable limitations and restrictions on the property owner, and we do it because our primary concern is the safety of our neighbors, and the safety of all people of Richmond who live in the area, or happen to be passing by, or maybe nonresidents looking for directions or a glass of water."

But the eight drafted restrictions voted by the selectmen, subject to town counsel review and approval, can be viewed another way.

In brief, the orders require the farmer to construct a solid, opaque, electrified fence around a perimeter inside up to 50 feet of his property within 60 days and to secure the farm entrance with a self-closing, locking gate. Also: Visible identification of each dog, spaying or neutering of all dogs within 30 days, proof of insurance not less than $100,000, two-inch block letter signs, "Warning: Dangerous Dogs," a prohibition on adding more dogs and an eventual limit of four through attrition, and a requirement that the Select Board be notified directly by the owner within 24 hours after any bites to humans occur or if any dog escapes from the property.

As a member of the audience asked: "Can you impose all this on somebody's private property? It's an awful lot to impose on somebody's private property, 50 feet inside the property line. It's a lot of government interference on private property; the court may see it that way."

Indeed, farmer Gardner's attorney, Andrew Hochberg, had noted on Wednesday that the orders may well be appealed within 10 days after their final version is filed with the town clerk. That could lead to prolonged court hearings.

Selectman Pilson and his colleague, Roger Manzolini, argued strongly for the conditions as reasonable, considering the need to protect the community following an unacceptable series of canine attacks. The solid fence, leaving the dogs isolated from view, is a crucial condition approved by the town leaders. Ironically, the impenetrable fence would prevent incursions by coyotes or other predators, leaving the sheepdogs effectively unemployed.

"We wanted the fence solid because the neighbors have testified that the dogs see them when they come out on their property, and they act in a threatening and aggressive manner at the border of Tom's property," Pilson said. "That is anxiety-creating and robs those people of the enjoyment of their premises, so we're looking to protect that."

But Select Board Chairman Alan Hanson, urging a somewhat less stringent approach, pointed out that by confining the dogs to a limited space, "you're defeating the purpose of the dogs. You might as well as euthanize all of them if you're going to do that." He also cautioned that the conditions adopted by the Select Board may well be thrown out if the case gets to court, where a judge could require an entirely new hearing, disregarding all previous testimony at Town Hall.

Sadly, because the farm has inadequate fencing and gating, and perhaps because the owner is away on business much of the time, it appears that the dogs have lacked sufficient and consistent supervision, creating a community hazard through no fault of the animals performing their assigned duties all too well.

Gardner, the farmer who did not attend the Town Hall hearing because he was traveling, has volunteered to put down three dogs, named Conrad, Barack and Leftover, deemed responsible for last Monday's incident. This can be seen by some of us as a sad outcome, though inevitable, under the circumstances.

Why does he need 19 dogs to protect his flock of sheep, an unheard-of, 1:1 ratio? Why did he not act to secure his property after the first incident last summer, which would have avoided the subsequent attacks and eliminated the need for the strong arm of the law to resolve a dangerous situation?

Now, it's up to Gardner to comply with the town's orders to safeguard the community. If he considers the Select Board's conditions unlawful, excessive and unreasonable, he has legal recourse. But the delay following an appeal will only prolong a perilous set of circumstances that could have been avoided by careful management.

For the sake of the dogs and the neighbors, one hopes it is possible to teach this old farmer new tricks.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @ BE_Cfanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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