KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- On East Road, amidst a handful of homes and behind a fence, live 10 pit bulls which, according to their owner, Dereck Jensen, 36, only bark whenever people they do not know come around, as dogs are wont to do.
The barking has not sat well with Jensen's neighbors, who claim the noise is excessive, has caused them to lose the enjoyment of their property and is affecting their property values. While Bennington Police say they have responded to numerous noise complaints at Jensen's home, Jensen said police are coming of their own accord and harassing him.
Jensen said in an interview Friday he keeps the dogs as a hobby and they are his pets.
"I've been here a little over a year; I've had the dogs the whole time, and me and my wife and my kids, what we do as a hobby, is we compete in weight pull and conformation shows," he said.
Jensen said he takes the animals in from breeders who want them entered in dog shows so they can gain accolades and become more valuable. According to Jensen, the dogs do one of two things at these competitions; they either pull weight, similar to a horse pull event, or they are judged based on how closely they conform to breed standards.
Jensen, whose arm bears a number of pit bull tattoos, said he loves the animals and moved to Bennington from Boston in part so he could raise dogs, but mainly so his children would not have to grow up in a city. He said he is part of the American Pit Bull Terrier Club of New England and the North Carolina Sporting Dog Association, and plans to bring some dogs to compete Fallmouth, Mass., in March.
One wall in his home is decorated with ribbons some of his dogs have won, while a space above the couch bears photographs of him with dogs at competitions. He said he has been training dogs as a hobby for more than 15 years.
He said he does not make a profit from the animals and is not running a kennel. He said he is currently taking care of a litter of pit bull puppies which, because of a fire, cannot be kept by the breeder he works with. Jensen maintains he is not breeding the dogs or selling them.
Jean-Paul Lefluer, owner of J.P. Big Boy Kennels in New York, said Friday he works with Jensen and the dogs. Lefluer said in January a fire damaged the Ticonderoga farmhouse where he keeps pregnant dogs, making the space unsuitable to keep them. He said Jensen is holding a dog and her new puppies for him until such time as he can find a place to keep them.
Jensen said his neighbors have contacted police and animal control officers in regard to the barking, which he claims only happens when people come near his house, which he rents, and stops after the dogs get used to the visitor or the person moves on. He said Bennington Police have been to his house roughly three to four times a week for the better part of a year, often giving him no reason as to why they have come. Jensen said he has been cited for a noise violation twice and won the first case, while the second is pending.
"I made the decision to move out here for my kids," Jensen said, adding that training dogs is a family activity for his wife and two sons, but he has also worked with police dogs, training them to do "bite work" which involves him putting on a suit of padded armor while another trainer teaches the dog how to take a suspect to the ground.
He said his hobby is fairly expensive, costing him $30 per day in dog food. Jensen said he works at NSK Steering Systems in Bennington while his wife works in health care. Jensen said he has not been home during some police visits and was told later about them by his landlord, who lives next door to him.
"The biggest part here is licensing and noise, and that's what has some of the neighbors upset," said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette. "We don't arbitrarily go there. I think it's unfair for him to say that we're picking on him or we're the nuisance or part of the problem when in fact we've been very good about working with him and trying to bring him into compliance."
Doucette said Tuesday that only six of Jensen's dogs are licensed with the town and those licenses will need to be renewed on April 1. "Has he licensed some dogs at our request, after some visits there? Yes, he has been cooperative with that," said Doucette.
Doucette said Jensen's claims of the frequency of police visits are highly exaggerated and said his records show approximately 16 police responses to Jensen's residence since May, each time being because of a complaint from a neighbor. He said the department has been trying to work with Jensen to bring him into compliance as far as licensing and noise requirements go.
Jensen said the town health officer, animal control, and the Bennington County Humane Society have all looked into his situation and found no issues. He said he has even taken measures on his own to make the dog houses he uses warmer, given winter cold snaps. He said the dogs get fresh hay or straw regularly and accused the police department of closely monitoring him in search of violations.
Ken Colombraro, humane investigator for the Bennington County Humane Society, said he visited Jensen last fall and found his animals to be well cared for despite some minor issues. Colombraro said in an interview that at the time Jensen needed to install flaps over the doors of the outdoor dog houses and raise them at least two inches off the ground. He said Jensen did all that, and had been in compliance with state laws regarding chain lengths and dog house sizes. Colombraro said some of the dog houses are made from plastic barrels, which gives them an unconventional appearance, but they are effective.
"His dogs are all kept in very good condition," said Colombraro.
Town Health Officer Kevin Goodhue said Monday he inspected Jensen's situation last year and found nothing wrong that was under his jurisdiction. He said Jensen keeps the area clean of feces so there's no health problem, and what Jensen is doing does not appear to qualify as a kennel as the state and town define one.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the Select Board was made aware of the concerns surrounding Jensen some time ago, and it was then he suggested the board examine how it defines "kennel" in its land use laws and perhaps crafting an ordinance limiting the type of activity Jensen is involved in to more sparsely populated areas. Hurd said Jensen's dogs are in close proximity to neighbors and if they were somewhere else this would not likely be an issue.
"I don't know why the town let him be here in the first place," said Robert Mayer, who lives next door to Jensen. "He's ruined the value of our property. We're paying taxes, he's not -- he's just a renter."
Mayer said in a Friday interview he has not personally called police on Jensen but did erect a fence between their properties. He said Jensen also built a fence and attached it to his despite being asked not to. Mayer said he has considered selling his home but doubts he could because of the dogs. He said he cannot go out on his back porch without the dogs barking.
Mayer said a few dogs would not be a problem but the number Jensen has is excessive.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@bennington banner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr