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Unfortunate Incidents
Posted on 05/15/2013 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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by Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel

There have been a recent string of unfortunate incidents that have befallen coon hunters, but could happen to any dogs in just about any hunting genre. There seems to have been a rise in shootings of dogs by landowners. It’s a serious issue that comes up more and more as less and less hunting lands are available.

In November (of 2012), some hunters were pleasure hunting their hounds on public land in Arkansas when their dogs went about 200 yards off the public land onto posted “No Trespassing” land. Because the men were from out of town and had no idea who owned the land for them to contact, they decided to go in and leash their treed dogs to take them off the private property. The landowner showed up, conflict ensued, and in the end the landowner shot a dog that was on a leash being held by the owner.

The case recently came to a head in court, and the landowner was minimally charged and sentenced for assault and animal cruelty. The dog owners were given the maximum for trespassing. Under Arkansas law, one needs written permission to enter land that has “No Trespassing” signs posted. The men are currently raising funds to go ahead with an appeal on the sentence for the landowner and also to pursue a civil lawsuit.

Two incidents have occurred on competition hunts. In Oklahoma this past February, three dogs were shot, two of them killed. The dogs followed a coon onto private property; the landowner heard the dogs and later made claims to authorities that the dogs were allegedly acting “aggressive”. After some investigation, the landowner was charged with animal cruelty.

Most recently, at the end of March, two dogs were killed in Iowa at a licensed hunt. After two cast members’ dogs got away, gunshots were heard. GPS units showed the dogs to be on a farm about a mile and a half from where they were turned loose. When the cast members attempted to speak to the landowner, he ordered them to leave his property. They then got the sheriff’s department involved to find out what happened to the dogs. After questioning, the landowner finally admitted to shooting the dogs and attempting to burn the GPS units in his stove. He claimed that the dogs were harassing his cattle, but the hunters disagree, according to the track that the GPS units show. He has since been charged with two counts of animal abuse.

What’s a hunter to do in this situation? We all know that it’s not possible to completely prevent dogs from crossing property boundaries when they are turned loose to hunt. We do what we can to keep it from happening, but when a dog is searching for or pursuing game, there’s no guarantee.

The first consideration is retrieving the dog. This is where you or your guide must know and understand the laws of your state. Some states have so-called “right to retrieve” laws that specifically address retrieving your hunting dog off of private property. Others have general property retrieval laws. Iowa is one such state: it has an exception to trespass that allows one to enter another’s property in order to retrieve personal property. Dogs are property under the law, and so the exception applies to the retrieval of hunting dogs. If your state does not have any sort of right to retrieve law, it would be best to involve law enforcement to properly retrieve dogs.

Law enforcement should always be called if any dogs are shot, injured, or being held by the landowner. This is very important, not only to protect the dog owner and to ensure that the proper channels are followed, but also to properly collect and preserve any evidence in the case. In addition to any evidence that law enforcement collects, you should also create your own record. Document the incident by writing a detailed recollection of what happened, including specific times, locations, and names. Do this as soon as possible while the recollection is still fresh. Also, while it might be hard, photograph the dog. If the dog had a Garmin or other GPS device, be sure you do not clear the track – save it so that you can download it and print copies of your dog’s track.

If the reason for the dog’s death was questionable, a necropsy should be considered as well. Be sure to organize and keep all of this documentation for yourself in the case that you decided to pursue a civil lawsuit.

These situations really emphasize the importance of having strong laws in place to protect both dogs and dog owners. Obviously, right-to-retrieve laws and similar property retrieval laws are both important for dog owners. Illinois is one state that currently has introduced one such bill, HB 1216, that is currently sitting in the Rules Committee. While the right to retrieve will not prevent the stupid actions of others against our dogs, it does give dog owners more teeth in retrieving a dog off another’s property without having to first contact the landowner or wait for law enforcement. Strong animal cruelty laws are also important when dogs are harmed, as this is what these individuals are usually charged under.

Firm laws, however, are only part of the picture; the laws have no effect if the individual is not charged. All too often, crimes involving animals are not taken seriously, and either ignored or minimally prosecuted. Public outcry sometimes helps in these instances. Contact the local media and get coverage of your situation. Ask your fellow dog owners to contact law enforcement and/or the prosecutor and stress the importance of criminal charges. Take advantage of the power of social media - Facebook, message boards, etc. - in getting your story out there and recruiting support and involvement.

While a criminal conviction is going to be the most effective punishment, a civil lawsuit is another additional option, as well. A criminal conviction can create a stronger case for a civil action later. If there are no criminal charges or conviction, an action in civil court can still be filed.