A new leash on life: Texas dogs laws call for more humane treatment

Calls concerning tethered dogs in Smith County increased since mid-January as Texans began learning about a new law banning chains and requiring adequate shelter for dogs kept outside.

Amber Greene, director of Smith County Animal Control, said her office has received at least a dozen more daily calls than normal from people reporting violations or asking for more information about restrictions.

Animal rights activists say The Safe Outdoor Dogs Act signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in October is a step forward in protecting dogs from abuse and neglect. The law took effect Jan. 18.

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Under the new law, a dog cannot be restrained outside unattended and cannot be near standing water or exposed to excessive animal waste. The area also must provide shade from direct sunlight, potable water and adequate shelter.

“The law itself has made tethering a bit more humane, even though that’s not how a lot of us would keep our animals,” said Deborah Dobbs, director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of East Texas. 

She said dog tethering is a common practice in East Texas. Last year, her SPSC chapter took in 2,100 strays and unwanted dogs, many involving dog tethering, she said. 

Dobbs also said animals left out in the elements typically are not spayed or neutered, which leads to more strays being born and overcrowded shelters.

Adequate shelter — especially in extreme weather — is a common concern among calls the Tyler Police Department receive about animal welfare, said public information officer Andy Erbaugh.

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“We’re trying to make sure there’s a home for the animal that they can safely and comfortably turn around in that’s big enough for them,” he said.  

Erbaugh said TPD received nearly double the amount of calls about dog tethering during the winter months. Last February’s record-breaking low temperatures and last week’s winter storm raised concerns for animals kept outside all over the city, he said.

Greene said her department is stretched a little thin with these additional calls. The department’s four animal control officers cover 954 square miles with each officer answering 20-25 calls a day, spanning across the county, she said.

Part of their jobs, she said, is to educate the public since individuals sometimes do not know what constitutes a violation.

“We make them understand we’re not out to get them, we’re just trying to help them and educate them on what they need to do to properly take care of their animals,” Greene said.

These cases typically are not hostile and people quickly fix violations since they don’t want to get into trouble, she said.  

She said a citation is issued only if the person does not comply after a few days. A violation constitutes a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. Subsequent violations constitute a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail or a $2,000 fine upon conviction.

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For now, enforcing the law in the county’s jurisdiction requires the assistance of Smith County deputies, since animal control officers are not certified peace officers. That situation may cause a delay for enforcement since calls for human issues take precedence.

“The sheriff’s office is also stretched thin, as well, and they’re not employed to do the animal side,” she said. “So, of course people to them are more important, which it should be. That’s first and foremost what they have to answer.” 

Waiting for a deputy to show up sometimes means an ACO has to put four or five calls on hold, Greene said. 

To combat that problem, Greene approached county commissioners asking them to allow her employees to become certified peace officers. 

Certification would allow them to handle the criminal aspects of these cases themselves and avoid delays, she said.

Gwen Coil of Angelpaws told commissioners she supported Greene’s proposal. She said has seen a lot of animal abuse and neglect within the county and being able to respond quickly is important.

Dobbs also addressed the court, saying she could not express enough how important it was to get these ACOs trained as peace officers. 

Some commissioners expressed concern about the cost of training and for additional equipment, recommending Greene and one other officer get certification first.

Greene said she and an employee currently are going through the 18-week training course. Once certified, she said she plans on collecting data on the benefits of a fully-trained department and presenting it to the commissioners.

If all department employees are certified, Smith County would be the 13th county in the state to have an animal control department trained as peace officers. Training each employee one at a time would take about three years, Greene said. 

Kelly Camera is a freelance writer graduated with her B.S. in Journalism from Tennessee Tech University. After graduation, she moved to Florida to pursue a career of making magic at Walt Disney World. She recently graduated with her M.S. in Organizational Leadership and continues to reside in Florida with her fur baby Cleo.

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