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editorial

Vicious dog case points to hole in law

In Massachusetts, dog owners are strictly liable for dog bites unless the victim was tormenting the animal or trespassing. But there is no standard practice for holding a dangerous dog while town officials or courts decide its fate.

That became painfully obvious last week after Mansfield selectmen voted to euthanize a dog that had bitten a 6-year-old boy who needed more than 400 stitches to repair his injuries. Under state law, a dog owner has 10 days to request a court review of any restraint or euthanasia order. On Saturday, shortly into the waiting period, the dog bit a 16-year-old girl. The second incident was entirely preventable.

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A dog that is deemed dangerous enough to be put down may well be too dangerous to be left at home while the owner contemplates his or her legal options. But communities are under no obligation to impound the animal in the interim. The law states only that a town “may’’ request an order for impoundment. That’s too much leeway. While the appeals process plays out, towns should be required to impound dogs that have been judged to be dangerous enough to require euthanization.

On Monday, the Mansfield dog owner wisely abandoned the appeals process. It’s noteworthy that the dog in this case was a pointer-hound mix, not a breed often associated with viciousness. Last year, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals convinced the Legislature to overturn breed-specific ordinances — such as the muzzling of pit bulls. Humane officials insisted that dogs should be judged solely by their behavior. Fair enough. But now the MSPCA should take up the challenge of mandatory impoundment of vicious dogs.

Animal control officers generally know which dogs need to be euthanized and which can be managed with restraints. A dog that bites once and retreats, for example, may be salvageable. A dog that bites a victim multiple times — unprovoked — isn’t.

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