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SPRINGFIELD - Jeff Armstrong and state lawmakers had hoped their work to prevent dog attacks was finished. It could just be getting started.

A recent series of high-profile attacks has Armstrong and his fellow activists headed back to the state Capitol this spring to push for stricter laws, less than three years after they helped pass a crackdown on vicious dogs.

"I want to see things done right and make sure everybody is protected," said Armstrong, whose son Ryan was seriously injured by a dog that had been involved in two previous attacks.

But advocates disagree on the best strategy to help prevent more attacks.

Some want tougher penalties for owners who fail to control their dogs. Others want to let local governments ban specific breeds. Another option is to require Rottweiler and pit bull owners to take extra precautions.

"It's going to be a very interesting year," said Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat pushing one idea to corral dangerous dogs.

The issue is getting new attention because of incidents like the one in January, when a 14-year-old girl from Whiteside County was found dead of exposure in a ditch after being attacked by dogs.

And two children were hospitalized and four adults injured in a rampage by three pit bulls in McHenry County last month. Neighbors, some armed with rocks, pans and baseball bats, tried to stop the attacks before authorities fatally shot the dogs.

Rep. Mike Boland, D-East Moline, is using the Whiteside County case to call for stronger punishment for owners who let their non-neutered dogs run loose.

Two Republican lawmakers are pushing proposals in response to the McHenry County case. One bill would let local governments ban and regulate certain dog breeds. Their other measure would deem all pit bulls and Rottweilers dangerous, requiring their owners to take extra precautions and face harsher penalties if those dogs attack.

Chapa LaVia wants longer prison time for people who participate in dogfighting and better training to help police spot signs of dogfighting - ideas aimed at battling gangs who use dogs for criminal purposes.

Boland argues his idea will be most effective because it targets two of the key elements found in many attacks: owners who don't keep their dogs under control and hormonal dogs who haven't been fixed.

"We all think this is the right approach to take to get at the root message," Boland said. "We're going to send a real strong message to these characters that are rather irresponsible. I think we have to focus on who's at fault."

Activists such as Armstrong and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agree that Boland's approach makes the most sense.

Ledy VanKavage, a lawyer for the ASPCA, said making it a felony for owners to let unfixed dogs run loose and attack people would make Illinois' law one of the nation's strongest.

"It's very significant punishment," VanKavage said. "It would be quite a sea change and one to be quite honest that is necessary."

Armstrong said current law only allows punishment after an a dog is deemed vicious, and that obviously isn't working. The 2003 law he helped pass allows county boards to mandate microchipping to keep better track of dogs and their owners, and it requires dogs deemed dangerous to be muzzled and leashed in public. Owners in violation of that mandate face stiff penalties.

Rep. Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, said penalizing owners makes sense but so does restricting some breeds that have proven to be inherently dangerous.

Tryon argues it makes no sense to require a court order to deem those breeds dangerous and force their owners to follow the stricter guidelines. His bill would consider those dogs dangerous automatically and give local authorities more regulatory power.

"I just don't believe all dogs are created equal," Tryon said. "I don't believe dogs are guaranteed rights under our constitution. … If you have a good pit bull, you won't have a problem."

But VanKavage said banning certain breeds only encourages people to train other types of dogs to be dangerous, and such bans are nearly impossible to enforce.

"We need to do something to protect the public from all vicious dogs," VanKavage said.

Advocates also hope a law approved earlier this year to make immunization and sterilization services for dogs and cats more affordable will help reduce the problems.

A lawmaker who has worked on the issue for years predicts success will take time.

"Every time we think we're making progress, there's some other horrific attack," said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. "It's not something we're going to solve overnight."


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