Fines alone don’t promote responsible dog ownership

By Rebeka Breder
The Vancouver Sun
October 12, 2011

 

Plans by the City of Vancouver to summarily fine dog owners up to $2,000 if their dog bites a person or other animal is not enough to encourage responsible ownership. Perhaps more importantly, the continued use of “destruction orders” for seized dogs is still fraught with the risk of unjust killing.

Picture this: Your beloved and everso-friendly dog, Cody, somehow escapes your backyard when you are out, and gets into a kerfuffle with another dog. Apparently it’s the other dog’s fault, but there are no other witnesses other than the other dog’s guardians. Animal Control comes to the scene, seizes Cody and then phones you to say that Cody has been impounded and put on a destruction order.

Cody is thrown into solitary confinement for months, with very little human and dog interaction other than your occasional visits, which are at the mercy of Animal Control. You do everything you can think of to convince Animal Control that Cody has never done anything like this before. All of the letters of reference you send Animal Control from friends, neighbours and dog owners from off-leash parks who all attest to Cody’s friendly character have no effect.

Instead, Animal Control pursues the destruction order through the City’s legal department. You eventually get your day in court, but at this point, Cody has deteriorated so much – both mentally and physically – that the pound keepers testify there is no hope of rehabilitating him and they have reasonable grounds to believe that Cody will do this again. A destruction order is made, and your beloved Cody is put to death.

Unfortunately, this situation can and does happen in Vancouver. Here is why. Under the Vancouver Charter and the Community Charter, a “dangerous” dog is one that (a) has killed or seriously injured a person, (b) has killed or seriously injured a domestic animal, while in a public space or while on private property, other than property owned or occupied by the person responsible for the dog, or (c) an animal-control officer has reasonable grounds to believe is likely to kill or seriously injure a person.

The courts have interpreted “seriously” broadly, to include any puncture in the skin, regardless of the long-term effects of the alleged injury. “Reasonable grounds” has also been used liberally by courts so that as long as an animal-control officer testifies that he or she believes the dog will do it again, the courts can rely on their statements; while courts consider other evidence, such as a dog’s past behaviour, they are not required to do so. Courts have wide discretion to decide whether your dog fits the definition of “dangerous.” And if your dog falls under (a), (b) or (c), your dog is well on its way to death row.

One of the many problems with the “dangerous dog” laws in British Columbia is that the process – from impoundment to trial – is unreasonably long and does not provide the “defendant” dog guardians with a fair chance to save their “Cody.”

And don’t think that your dog can be impounded as a “dangerous” dog only if he or she physically injures someone or another animal. Under our laws, Animal Control only needs to have “reasonable grounds” to believe that your dog is dangerous, which means that if you have a disgruntled neighbour who does not like you or your dog, that neighbour can cause enough trouble to attract Animal Control to your home, even if all your dog did was bark a little too loudly.

(It’s an important but little-known fact that it is unlawful for Animal Control to seize a dog without a warrant on private property, even if they attempt to do so with the support of several police officers in attendance.) Vancouver’s plan to impose higher fines for dog bites does not address the heart of the issue: responsible dog ownership.

If the city genuinely wants to improve its ways of dealing with potentially “aggressive” or “dangerous” dogs, it should closely examine the remarkable “Calgary model” of animal control. The City of Calgary has implemented a cohesive animalcontrol program that includes a public-education program for responsible dog ownership (starting as early as elementary school), strict enforcement of licensing of dogs (with high fines for those who don’t), advanced technology to track dogs and their owners, animal-control officers well educated in dog behaviour and no breed-specific legislation. Calgary has been so successful that its aggressive-animal incidents are almost non-existent.

Rebeka Breder is an animal-law lawyer at Boughton Law Corporation in Vancouver and a director of the Vancouver Humane Society.

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