SIOUX CITY | Six years after Sioux City cracked down on pit bulls and vicious dogs, fewer people are reporting cases of dog bites.
It's not clear, however, whether the drop is from the ban, changes in city dog ordinances or other factors, officials and experts say.
The Sioux City Council banned pit bulls in 2008 in an effort to make the city safer. Owners could keep pit bulls registered before a deadline. New pit bulls were not allowed. An amendment to a vicious dog ordinance also included mandatory euthanasia for dogs that bite.
Police records show Sioux City police officers responded to 37 percent fewer dog bites in 2013 than they did in 2007, the year before the breed ban was passed. During that time, the number of reported bites declined each year but one.
More than 550 pit bulls were registered before the deadline in April 2009. Currently, 163 are registered with the city.
Though he would like more information to determine for sure whether the ban was responsible for the decrease, Councilman Pete Groetken said the declining numbers show something positive is happening.
Groetken served as the vicious dog hearing officer before his retirement from the Sioux City Police Department.
"All in all, I think a reasonably prudent person would think, well, something must have happened because the number of pit bulls has reduced in the city, the number of bites has reduced and the number of high risk (designations) has been reduced," said Groetken.
High-risk dogs are those found to have threatening or aggressive behavior but do not bite anyone.
Sioux City resident Lisa Vaughan, owner of a registered pit bull, said all the ban did is unfairly target pit bull owners and their dogs, when any dog is capable of attacking people. She found the dog abandoned along Military Road and rescued him in March 2009, just before the registration deadline.
"I used to be a dog groomer," she said. "Trust me. I know all dogs can bite."
Sarah Fisher, owner of another of the city's registered pit bulls, said the pit bull ban isn't fair and negatively impacts the lives of her dogs and her family.
She and Vaughan are among the owners allowed to keep pit bulls they owned before the ban. Pit bulls like theirs must be registered each year. If they aren't, the animals can be impounded by Sioux City Animal Control.
"You feel like it's not just a personal attack against your dog, (but) it's almost an attack against your character as a person," said Fisher. "They put a stigma or a label on the type of person who owns a pit bull."
The ban enacted in 2008 prohibited city residents from having dogs that were predominantly pit bulls -- defined by code as 51 percent -- but allowed them to keep pit bulls they already owned.
The ordinance described a pit bull as an American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or any dog that looks like or has characteristics of being one of those breeds.
The Siouxland Humane Society has been allowed to shelter pit bulls since the city’s ban was passed. Noah's Hope, a local rescue group, was exempted in April to allow dogs to be taken to local veterinary appointments or transported to foster homes outside city limits.
HAS THE BREED BAN DONE ITS JOB?
Fewer people reported dog bites to police in the years after the pit bull ban.
Police statistics show officers responded to 115 bite reports in 2008. The number declined every year since then with the exception of 2010, when 113 bites were reported. Seventy-three bites were reported in 2013.
Not all bites are reported to police, however. Less severe bites or those that do not require hospitalization may be handled by Animal Control.
Year-end bite statistics kept by Sioux City police and animal control officers do not identify the dog's breed.
A national expert dog trainer and educator says the number of reported dog bites isn't a good barometer of whether a breed ban is effective.
"The (numbers) are not particularly reliable," said Janis Bradley, author of "Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions," a policy paper published by the National Canine Research Council.
"This is because lots of people don't report dog bites because the vast majority are so minor that they're just kind of everyday occurrences," she said.
Bradley said the best way to make a community safer is to educate people about safe interactions with dogs and to have policies that encourage responsible pet ownership. Officials also should enforce leash laws and have rigorous ordinances for any dog that bites, regardless of its breed.
“It’s really a disservice to public safety to try and rely on a breed ban, because what it does is it makes people think you’ve done something to solve the issue when in fact it hasn’t,” Bradley said.
Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott said he sees no reason to repeal the pit bull ban.
“I’m just not willing to go through that, because there’s been nothing new that’s come out that’s overwhelming that shows it should change,” he said.
CRACKING DOWN ON VICIOUS DOGS
When city officials debated the pit bull ban, officials also changed the city's vicious animal ordinances. In March 2008, they changed the laws to require mandatory euthanasia for vicious animals. Owners of such dogs were no longer allowed to move the animals out of city limits.
Vicious dogs are those that bite people.
Six dog owners appealed vicious dog designations in the wake of the changes. A district court judge later ruled the city had violated the dog owners' due-process rights, and the dogs were released.
The rule changes made headlines in June 2008, when a Labrador retriever owned by pit bull ban supporter and then-Councilman Aaron Rochester bit a neighbor and was declared vicious.
The dog, Jake, was slated to be killed according to the law but was stolen from his kennel at Animal Control before he was scheduled to be euthanized. He was never found.
Josh Blanford's shih tzu, Wiggles, escaped mandatory euthanization twice after biting children in two separate incidents in Sioux City. Blanford, whose appeals kept the lap dog from being killed, said he and his family use great care to avoid situations that could place their dogs or people around them at risk.
"We don't think he would do it again, but you just never know," he said. "You don't know what a dog is thinking."
In 2010, the City Council revamped the ordinance and rescinded the mandatory euthanasia.
Owners of high-risk dogs were required to post warning signs on their property and implant microchips in their dogs. The city also instituted a three-step process allowing owners of high-risk dogs to reclaim their pets.
Publicity surrounding the pit bull ban and changes in the ordinances put dog owners on notice that they must be more responsible, said Cindy Rarrat, of Sioux City Animal Control.
"I think what it did was, it weeded out a lot of the irresponsible people," she said.
Vicious dog designations made by Animal Control officers dropped from 33 in fiscal year 2008-09, the year of the ban and first rule changes, to just five last fiscal year. Like the city, Animal Control is on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year.
"I think what the ban has done is, it has made people more aware of what their responsibilities are as pet owners," Rarrat said. "And I think the pit bull owners have become more responsible by getting them licensed when they needed to and keeping them in, because they know that they've already kind of got a mark against them."