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Towns may, therefore, rely upon this provision of state law to impound dogs found running at large without first adopting an ordinance. The benefit of having an ordinance in place is highlighted by the interplay between this statute and its enforcement counterpart, 20 V.S.A. § 3807, which directs what towns may do with these dogs. When a dog is impounded pursuant to 20 V.S.A. § 3806, its owner must be notified within 24 hours either in person, or by a phone call or written notification to the owner’s last known address. If the owner isn’t known, the town must provide some posting in the town clerk’s office and wherever else public notice is typically made for a one-week period. The statute is silent as to the content of the notice. We recommend including in the notice any information that may help alert the owner, such as describing the breed, sex, apparent age, temperament, observed tendencies, any significant identifying marks, and when, where, and under what circumstances it was impounded.

Title 20 Section 3807, however, is only concerned with the spread of rabies, not whether it is licensed or even inoculated as evidenced by the fact that when it’s not reasonable to consider the “[a]ny person authorized to enforce state livestock disease control, health, wildlife, or criminal laws and any person authorized to enforce local ordinances...”] VLCT Big Book of Woof, May 2014 Page 17 dog rabid it’s simply returned to its owner. “(I)f the official finds that it is not reasonable to suspect that a domestic pet or wolf-hybrid impounded under Section 3806 of this title is rabid or has been exposed to rabies, the official may deliver the domestic pet or wolf-hybrid to the owner.” The benefit of an ordinance is that a town may include language setting forth the conditions that must be met for the release of any impounded dogs. For example, an ordinance could require owners to license and inoculate their dogs and pay any penalties and impoundment expenses incurred by the town before their dogs will be released.

But even this approach has its limitations as it is reactive-addressing the issues of licensing and inoculation on a piecemeal basis once a dog has been impounded. Conducting the state mandated “dog census” (discussed below) empowers towns to go after each and every four-legged scofflaw; a licensing and inoculation sting operation if you will.

4. Vicious Dog Hearing 20 V.S.A. § 3546. Investigation of vicious domestic pets or wolf-hybrids; order.

Much confusion is associated with this statute, and, because it is one of the most relied upon and controversial in your regulatory arsenal for dealing with dogs, we’ve dedicated all of Chapter 3 to it.


These are the laws that encompass the “mays” – those provisions of state law that enable or empower you to act if you so choose and those broad grants that authorize you to draft your own laws, within certain limits. Given the lack of clarity of the state’s domestic pet or wolf-hybrid control laws compounded by the realization that they were not intended to solve every town’s problems, but were meant to be applicable statewide, most towns will need to supplement the statutes to address their specific needs.

20 V.S.A. § 3621. Issuance of warrant to impound; complaint.

This law permits selectboards to issue a warrant to police officers, constables, pound keepers, or animal control officers directing them to impound all dogs “not licensed according to the provisions of this subchapter [subchapter 2],” with the exception of those dogs visiting from out of state for no more than 90 days. The warrant must be in the form mandated by 20 V.S.A. §

3622. It should be noted that this “warrant” is not like a search warrant issued by a court of law.

Rather it is a legislative commandment compelling the impoundment of all unlicensed dogs which must be returned, along with the names of the owners or keepers of such dogs, to the selectboard within 90 days from the date of issuance. The officer who carries out the commands of the warrant is entitled to compensation for each dog destroyed, provided he or she is not regularly employed by the town. The selectboard must also reimburse this officer for any costs incurred carrying out his or her duties. 20 V.S.A. § 3624. The power of a warrant issued by the selectboard is clarified in 20 V.S.A. § 3551, which states “[a]n officer who has attempted to seize a domestic pet or wolf-hybrid under sections 3546, 3549, 3624, 3745, 3806, or 3807 of this chapter and has not been permitted to search for or take the animal, may apply to a judicial officer authorized to issue search warrants for a warrant to search the properties of the owner of the animal or any other property if the officer has reasonable cause to believe that the animal may be on it.” So unless the owner voluntarily surrenders his or her dog, the impounding officer

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Even if all these steps are taken, an unlicensed dog’s life is still not in jeopardy. First, some dog owners may have found themselves in this position due to economic hardship. In that instance, the initial notice should inform the dog owner that the selectboard may waive the license fee upon a showing of current vaccination history and financial hardship. If waived the state would not receive its portion of the fee. Second, if no waiver is requested and granted, an unlicensed dog is still entitled to a 10-day stay of execution (or some longer period of time established by the town) while the selectboard attempts to find it a more responsible owner by placing it with an animal shelter or rescue organization. The town will be on the hook for the period of time the dog is kept at the shelter, but “shall not be liable for expenses associated with keeping the dog or wolf-hybrid at the animal shelter or rescue organization beyond the established number of days.” 20 V.S.A. § 3621(a). What constitutes the “established number of days”? Presumably, this is a matter of agreement between the selectboard and the animal shelter, because the state doesn’t define this timeframe. If the dog remains unlicensed and can’t be placed in an adoptive home, humane society, or rescue organization, then the selectboard may have it humanely destroyed.

As you can see, this process is much more complicated and involved than simply issuing a warrant to a police officer or constable that directs them to humanely destroy all unlicensed dogs.

One additional complication is that even though the law permits a selectboard to issue a warrant to impound all dogs within the town “at any time,” it also presumes that the town annually conducts a dog census (see below). Failure to adhere to this statutory directive could open the door for the owner of an unlicensed dog to challenge the legal basis of the impoundment.

Regardless of whether a town conducts the dog census, a reminder letter informing the owner of his or her dog’s possible impoundment and destruction absent remedial action should be sent before the warrant is issued.

20 V.S.A. § 3590. List of dogs and wolf-hybrids not licensed, i.e. “The Dog Census.” Though this section is mandated by the State (each town’s selectboard must “annually designate one or more persons to maintain a list of unlicensed, inoculated and licensed dogs and wolfhybrids owned or kept in their municipality and to submit the list to the municipal clerk”) it is included here because of the discretionary authority of the selectboard to issue a warrant when it is completed. Upon receipt of this list, commonly referred to as the annual dog census, the clerk must notify all owners or keepers of dogs on the list of the need to license or inoculate their dogs, and that failure to do so may result in their dogs being humanely destroyed. Posting reminders of the need to license and inoculate dogs wherever public notices are typically located will help reach those who may escape the reach of the census. Once the list is updated, the clerk must forward it to the selectboard by May 30th of each year. 20 V.S.A. § 3590.

Twenty V.S.A. § 3590 is one of those statutes that contains a lot of “shalls”. In other words, the census is mandatory, not discretionary. The purpose of the census is to establish a starting point for licensing and/or inoculating a dog – or their adoption or humane destruction. One of the difficulties of conducting the dog census stems from the fact that the law provides no guidance to how the census is conducted. Another problem is that in order to “maintain a list of unlicensed, inoculated and licensed dogs and wolf-hybrids,” you need to know who has a dog in the first place. Conducting a census brings to mind the image of numerous people canvassing a neighborhood by asking residents how many dogs are in each household. That’s certainly one VLCT Big Book of Woof, May 2014 Page 19 way to come up with your master list. But unless you have an army of volunteers at your disposal, you may find that this may not be the most cost-effective way to comply with the law.

VLCT’s own Municipal Census does not ask how many towns conduct the dog census, so we have no data to support our suspicion that most of you are simply sending out a reminder to all those licensed the previous year to license and/or inoculate their dogs. But that’s fine, since that’s all the law requires of you.

Another way to keep down administrative costs is to communicate with dog owners via email.

All the law says is that you have to “notify” them; it doesn’t say “how” you notify them. As for the scofflaws that you don’t know about, indirect enforcement probably is your most costeffective solution. Indirect enforcement means complementing your dog census efforts with a reactive licensing/inoculation approach, which you can do by having a provision in your dog control ordinance stating that an impounded dog will not be released to its owner until it is first licensed and inoculated. A person who doesn’t license his or her dog probably doesn’t let it run at large and otherwise avoids running afoul of your town’s ordinance to avoid the possibility of impoundment. In that case, then the purpose of the dog census is served despite the dog owner’s small show of civil disobedience. Just because a dog isn’t licensed doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been inoculated. Remember, if a dog bites a person on the owner’s property, it is still subject to a private civil action (though most issues are resolved by an owner’s insurance company). But if it is never free of its owner’s control, the animal will have a more difficult time spreading rabies which is ultimately the objective of the law.

1. Ordinances An ordinance is “an expression of the municipal will, affecting the conduct of the inhabitants generally, or of a number of them under some general designation.” City of Barre v. Perry & Schribner, 82 Vt. 301 (1909). Because an ordinance authorizes the use of the town’s police powers to protect the public, health, safety, and welfare, its focus is exclusively public, not private. This state grant of power must be carefully wielded within the constitutional parameters set forth by federal and state governments lest it be deemed invalid. Moreover, “[n]o municipal ordinance can go beyond, be broader than, add to, subtract from, modify or affect, limit, amend or change statutes, at least where the net result is one of conflict nor may an ordinance prohibit that which state law specifically permits.”9 Please refer to VLCT’s handbook, “Ordinance Enforcement in the Judicial Bureau,” for additional guidance on proper drafting, enactment, and enforcement of municipal ordinances.

Besides a municipal governance charter, which itself constitutes a grant of legislative authority, the source of local legislative authority to compel or prevent action via an ordinance is state law.

With respect to enacting ordinances regulating dogs, this authority resides in four places:

1. 24 V.S.A. § 2291(21), the civil counterpart to the state’s criminal law relating to the humane care and proper treatment of animals;

2. 24 V.S.A. § 2291(10), which confers upon towns the authority to “regulate the keeping of dogs, and to provide for their leashing, muzzling, restraint, impoundment, and destruction”;

3. 20 V.S.A. § 3549, essentially a restatement of 24 V.S.A. § 2291(10);

McQuillin, Municipal Corporations (3rd ed. rev. 2004) § 15:20, pp. 193-194.

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