WHEELING - Thirty canines are registered under Wheeling's dangerous and vicious dog ordinance, according to the city's Finance Department.
That's up from the 19 that were registered in August 2010, when the city ordered a pit bull that attacked two people on Wheeling Island to be euthanized. The ordinance has been on the books since January 2006, and City Manager Robert Herron said complaints have been on the decline of late, though he did not have specific figures immediately available.
Under the ordinance, pit bulls, canary dogs and American bulldogs automatically are classified as "vicious" and their owners must pay $5 for a tag and renew it each year.
Owners of dangerous or vicious dogs who fail to register or place the tag on the animals face a potential $500 fine for each day they do not comply with the law.
However, the city may designate any dog as dangerous or vicious and require its owner to comply with the ordinance following investigation of a formal complaint.
Owners of dangerous or vicious dogs must maintain at least $100,000 in liability insurance, keep the dog on a leash and muzzled when not properly confined and prominently display signs warning passersby of the animal's presence.
Further provisions of the law state owners whose dogs cause damage to someone else's property, hurt a person or pet on someone else's property or harm a mail carrier, city employee, emergency responder or delivery person on the dog owner's property face a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
Those allowing a dog to run at large in the city face a $100 fine for a first offense and $500 for each subsequent offense. A dog that snaps at or attempts to bite a person or pet on someone else's property costs its owner $200 for a first offense and $500 for further offenses.
Deputy Police Chief Mike VanKirk believes most dog owners in the city obey the law, but he acknowledged the system is not foolproof.
"I'm sure there are people out there that are not following it," said VanKirk, noting he attributes that more to ignorance of the law rather than an outright refusal to comply.
As such, VanKirk said an owner cited for failing to register their dog most often will have the opportunity to avoid a heavy fine if they prove to the court they have rectified the situation. He acknowledged the department's enforcement of the ordinance is largely complaint-driven, but he said officers will issue citations when they see unregistered dogs while on patrol.
According to VanKirk, the department will receive three to five vicious dog complaints in a typical month. Most recently, he said, officers cited a South Wheeling resident when a couple's unrestrained pit bulls chased someone.
VanKirk said the best way to avoid being attacked is to be aware of what's going on around you and refrain from approaching unfamiliar animals.
"A lot of people want to go up and pet the dogs, and that's probably the worst thing you can do, because you don't know what that dog's going to do," he said.