Guide dog attack bill clears Senate

After 15 years, it looks like legislation to protect service dogs from attack by other dogs will soon be heading for a governor's signature.

The bill (HB 165) would hold the owner of a dog that attacks a service dog criminally liable and impose a fine of up to $15,000. It passed the state Senate 39 - 10 earlier this week and now goes back to the House for a vote on concurrence on June 4.

You'd be surprised at how often these attacks happen and how costly - emotionally and financially - they can be. Two dogs belonging to an Erie woman were attacked over a multi-year span by free-roaming neighbor dogs who entered her yard.

"There are a number of these attacks across the Commonwealth," said bill supporter Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair).  "The attacks take away a person's ability to function in society."

The bill cleared the House, 194-4, but suddenly stalled in the Senate earlier this month after an amendment stripping out the criminal penalties was added leaving only the civil penalty that may not be collected.

During floor debate on Tuesday Eichelberger and Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.) argued vigorously for the tougher bill.

Opponent Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango) said she did not think an owner should be criminally penalized for their dog's bad behavior. 

"I think to make someone a criminal for attacks of a dog is wrong," she said. 

Williams strongly disagreed, saying there are people who knowingly turn their dangerous dogs out on the street endangering innocent people and pets. "Civil penalties are not enough," said Williams. "This sends a message that we love animals and want to protect people who reside with animals."

In addition to Sen. Mary Jo White, those voting "no" on the bill were Sens. Don White (R., Armstrong) , Michael Brubaker (R., Lancaster), Pat Vance (R., Cumberland), Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny), Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) Jeff Piccola (R., Dauphin), Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), Jane Earll (R., Erie) Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne). 

The bill's lead sponsor, Rep. John Evans (R. Erie), said the final compromise was acceptable. He said he can live with the charge being downgraded - at the judge's discretion - from a second to a third-degree misdemeanor. (By contrast, in Florida a dog attack on a service dog is a felony offense.)

Evans said he was pleased the fine was tripled from $5,000 to $15,000. "That will help pay for the cost of vet care or a replacement dog," said Evans, noting that training for a service dog can reach $50,000.

Evans says he is optimistic that Gov. Corbett will support the bill and he hopes to bring two of the canine victims of attacks, and their human handlers, to the bill signing.