Camas City Council could add bite to city’s existing dog law

If approved, ordinance change would punish repeat offenders by revoking their dog license

It was mid-2019 and the frustration over two runaway dogs had been building in one Northwest Camas neighborhood for nearly 18 months.

The story seemed to be on repeat: the dogs, two pitbulls, would escape from their yard and run around the area, charging toward neighbors late at night, injuring at least one small dog and killing a pet chicken. Neighbors would call the police or animal control, but the dogs’ owner would get his pets back, only to have the process repeat again a few days or weeks later.

“It was an 18-month ordeal,” says Camas resident Doug Long. “We were being harassed all that time, and the guy kept getting his dogs back.”

Now, the city of Camas may be able to prevent others from experiencing the frustration Long and his neighbors went through in 2018 and 2019. In February, the city council will consider adding language to Camas’ existing “aggressive dog” ordinance that would set more severe consequences for the city’s unrepentant repeat offenders.

‘Fines didn’t seem to be a deterrent’

Long and his wife had lived at their Northwest Second Avenue property since 1990, and had a small flock of free-range chickens — all named after family members — that roamed their once-rural property by day and were kept in a safe enclosure at night.

Long noticed the pitbulls for the first time late in the evening in February 2018.

“It was around 10:30 or 11 at night and the light came on by the garage,” Long said. “My wife looked and went out, and I was behind her. The dogs came running out from behind the garage and scared us, but they didn’t seem to be aggressive.”

Eventually, the Longs coaxed the dogs into their garage and went to neighbors’ homes, looking for the dogs’ owners. They belonged to a man who had recently rented a nearby house. He came and retrieved the dogs and the Longs thought nothing of it — until a few months later, when the dogs returned to their house during the daytime and went after their brood of hens.

The Longs called the police, but there was little law enforcement could do.

“Some violations are civil penalties and some are crimes,” explained Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey.

In Camas, the penalties connected to dogs on the loose are considered infractions. Most dog owners pay their fines, pick their dogs up from impound if animal control has collected the pet and change their behavior so it doesn’t happen again, Lackey said.

The pitbulls’ owner didn’t seem fazed by the city’s fines.

“This person wasn’t a responsible pet owner, and the fines didn’t seem to be a deterrent,” Lackey said.

Police and animal control officers also were frustrated, the chief said, but there was not a lot they could do until the dogs became truly aggressive — purposely attacking another dog or injuring a person.

The city does have remedies for dogs that are truly aggressive, the chief said, but the instances involving the pitbulls, even the death of the Longs’ chicken, did not rise to that level of criminality.

“This never got to the level of the dogs attacking a person or another dog. And when animal control went to pick these dogs up — and they picked them up multiple times — the dogs would run and jump in the van, so there were questions about whether the dogs were truly aggressive or truly violent. But the neighbors were frustrated,” Lackey said. “They were looking for a resolution and wanted to know why we had to wait until this reached the crime level.”

Because Camas offers a lifetime license to dog owners, the pitbulls went back to their irresponsible owner time and time again — only to escape the yard again and again.

Eventually, the dogs would injure a small dog living with a renter on the Longs’ property. In 2019, Long came out late at night and found Gangster coming out from behind his garage again, this time in a low crouch, growling.

Fearing that the dog was going to attack him or the 16-year-old miniature pinscher dog in his arms, Long yelled and pretended to lunge at the pitbull, scaring the dog away.

But Long and his neighbors lived in fear that the dogs would become aggressive someday.

“My neighbors started carrying weapons. We were being harrassed by these dogs,” Long said.

Long finally approached Camas City Councilman Greg Anderson to see if there was something city leaders might be able to do about the situation.

Anderson talked to Lackey, and Lackey researched similar ordinances in other parts of Washington. He found an interesting law from Walla Walla that allows animal control officers to revoke the license of a dog owner who is willfully refusing to comply with city code.

“Part of the issue was that this guy could keep reclaiming the dogs because the dogs were still licensed,” Lackey said.

In Camas, dog licenses are granted for the life of the dog.

“When the dogs would get loose, he would get his citation and get to reclaim the dog and it would start over,” Lackey said. “That was the circle we were in and the challenge was: How do we break that before something bad happens?”

Lackey has proposed an amendment to the city of Camas’ ordinance on aggressive dogs that is based on Walla Walla’s code, and would allow Camas animal control officers to revoke the dog license of a person who has three or more violations during a 12-month period.

Since it is illegal to own an unlicensed dog in Camas, the city could force a negligent owner to rehome their dog to someone outside the city limits, or surrender the dog to a shelter. Dog owners would have the option of appealing the license revocation. In those cases, a municipal court judge would make the final decision, Lackey said.

The Camas City Council will consider the code amendment during the first regular council meeting on Monday, Feb. 1.

“This is something that isn’t very common,” Lackey added. “Walla Walla said they’ve only used it twice in about 20 years.”

Long said he and his neighbors were relieved when the dogs’ owner was finally arrested and sent to prison for unrelated crimes, but that he is glad to know the city may soon have the ability to deal with other irresponsible pet owners before the situation escalates.

“This ordinance hopefully will be strong enough that they can act next time,” Long said. “Hopefully this will work. There was nothing to protect us, but maybe this will help someone else not go through the 18-month ordeal we went through.”

To learn more about the proposed code changes, visit cityofcamas.us/yourgovernment/minuteagendavideo and view the agenda packet for the 7 p.m. Feb. 1 city council meeting.