Until a woman was badly mauled by a dog in 2011, city officials were willing to show leniency when they caught an owner with an unlicensed dog.
The owner usually just paid for a license, getting off with a warning.
But then Shirleen Lucas was brutally attacked as she walked up Hulett Street to run errands one summer night. Three pit bulls ripped off parts of both of her ears and mauled her face, arms and legs. She needed nearly 200 stitches and plastic surgery.
Since then, everything has changed. Animal control officers are writing many more tickets, searching for unlicensed dogs. And the law department is prosecuting every ticket, demanding a fine as well as the license.
Last year, 140 residents were convicted of having an unlicensed dog. In 2011, only 12 people were convicted, according to court records.
“It was just the idea that we need to take these cases more seriously,” Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said. “The mayor asked us to prosecute them vigorously.”
So far, the number of dog bites has not changed. Four people were bitten in 2011, seven in 2012 and six in 2013, according to Police Department records. That only counts bites reported to police; state health records show about 40 people every year in the city get a series of rabies shots because of a dog bite.
Licensing has gone up, but the city clerk believes thousands of dogs remain unlicensed. He plans to send workers door to door this summer in an effort to get more dogs licensed.
In the meantime, residents are helping animal control officers find unlicensed dogs.
“Since these incidents in the city, people have been calling [animal control] with tips,” said police spokesman Sgt. Matthew Dearing. “Their phones are always full with messages when they come in.”
Although a license won’t stop a dog from attacking, it might encourage owners to be more responsible, Falotico said.
“This is getting to them before the dog gets out and bites someone,” he said.
And if that dog does attack someone, at least the victim won’t have to worry about rabies. Owners must vaccinate their dog to get a license.
“It’s not going to be a threat to anyone [from rabies],” Falotico said.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said focusing on unlicensed dogs made sense, considering the dogs involved in the 2011 attacks.
“All the violent attacks were dogs that at some point were unlicensed,” he said. “We want to keep track of that and show people we’re serious.”
For those who get caught with one or two unlicensed dogs, the fine is typically $50, plus the cost of the license, $13.50 for neutered dogs and $20.50 for unneutered dogs.
“If we dismissed the charge every time they got the license, there would be no incentive to get a license until they got caught,” Falotico said.
But some people end up with much higher fines. In one case, a couple was convicted of having seven unlicensed dogs.
“We took them at their word that they legitimately didn’t understand the law,” Falotico said.
They got rid of four dogs — owners can have only three dogs in the city — and paid a fine. Several months later, they were caught with seven more unlicensed dogs, he said.
That time, their fine was more than $1,000, he said.
The dogs were chihuahuas. Falotico suspects the couple was breeding them for sale.
But other unlicensed dogs may be used for dog fighting. Animal rescue workers say they have found unlicensed dogs in the city with serious injuries that appear to be from other dogs.
City officials say they suspect there are organized dog fights in Schenectady, which they say could explain why some dogs have violently attacked humans. But the owners of those dogs have repeatedly denied their dogs were trained to fight.