The 10th year of Ontario's controversial dog ban sees fewer protesters (and political pit bulls) but neither side has plans to call off the dogs.
Last weekend, a small group of people and their canine companions gathered in Queens Park to protest Ontario’s Pit Bull Ban. Ten years after the law was enacted, the number of protestors has diminished, but the number of pit bulls and dog bites in the province raise questions over the law’s effectiveness. What’s clear is that supporters and opponents of the ban remain firmly pitted against each other in the debate.
According to data from Toronto Animal Services (TAS), the total number of dog bites in Toronto has fluctuated throughout the decade, ranging from around 400 to 650 bites annually. While fatalities in Canada due to dogs are relatively rare, they do occur, and reports of serious injuries and mauling by vicious dogs are tragic.
Whether certain dogs are inherently dangerous and should be banned is a discussion spanning three decades in the country, since Winnipeg enacted its breed-specific legislation in 1990. Emotionally charged and highly politicized, it’s fraught with hyperbolic rhetoric, anecdotal evidence, and comparisons to gun control and racism, and is not without real heartbreak.
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll now admit that in 2010 I adopted from the Toronto Humane Society what one vet later called “a pit bull mix.” At the time of her adoption, the THS paperwork stated that she was a stray, three-year-old terrier mix, a vague breed description that no one, myself included, has ever bothered to narrow down with a DNA test.
More to the point, I had never been afraid of a dog until her. In the weeks following her adoption, the adorable little mutt began to show signs of aggression that I first attributed to her plucky personality—like growling when I told her to get off the couch—and to her time spent pent-up in a shelter. After all, her excessive energy required long sessions of intense cardio and Frisbee-fetching at least twice per day. We speculated on the possibly brutal formative years of “the stray” that had ended up at a shelter and then at our apartment. Whenever my roommate grabbed her hockey stick for practice, the dog became perceptibly afraid—often hiding under the table.
My sympathy dissolved into desperation and fear when the dog bit me. Though not serious enough to merit more than a Band-Aid, the bite drew blood, and shook me into action: I realized that both the dog and I needed training, and stat.
After obedience classes, a structured routine with increased exercise time, and my perusal of virtual piles of pet-owner manuals, she has become a sweet, albeit spunky, dog and the best athlete in the family (which, admittedly, isn’t a tough bar to vault).
This anecdote is not meant to provide any evidence on either side of the debate, nor offer advice on how to train your pit bull. Rather, it is meant to contextualize it. I know what it’s like to have an aggressive dog that looks like a pit bull. I also know what it’s like to have a great dog—officially registered as a “Cattle dog/terrier mix.”
The state of pit bull politics
Ontario’s breed specific legislation was passed in 2005 as part of Bill 132, which amended the Dog Owner’s Liability Act (DOLA). Then-Attorney General Michael Bryant spearheaded the effort to amend DOLA following several dog attacks, like the one laid by the high-profiled pit bull-chocolate lab mix, Bandit, who mauled a toddler in 2003.
The law prohibits anyone in Ontario to breed, buy, or sell pit bulls, defined as pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers, and any dog with “an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar” to those breeds. It also prohibits ownership of “pit bull type” dogs born after the law came into effect.
Pit bulls grandfathered into the law are considered “restricted,” rather than “prohibited,” and must be muzzled and leashed in public as well as spayed or neutered. The onus is on the owner to show proof that the dog is either a grandfathered pit bull or is in fact another breed, despite any pit-bully appearance. Anyone who fails to comply with the law could face up to six months imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Enforcement falls to individual municipalities, which can create additional bylaw against the breed. If a dog is deemed a prohibited pit bull, its fate hinges on the munificence of shelters to move it out of province or possible “destruction,” as per the law.
At Saturday’s protest, MPP Cheri DiNovo of the NDP delivered a passionate, though politically divisive, speech in front of a small audience. Calling the ban “cruel and wrongheaded,” DiNovo criticized Michael Bryant and the OLP as the party responsible for the ban. She also criticized National Post columnist Barbara Kay for her outspoken hatred of pit bulls: “Kay has made killing dogs her business.”
Other protestors echoed this sentiment, expressing little optimism that the ban would be repealed as long as the OLP remained in power. Jen Valiquet attended the protest accompanied by Bianca, her 11-year-old pit bull-type dog, muzzled and leashed according to bylaw. Valiquet, slightly resigned, rarely brings Bianca to protests anymore, confident that “[the ban] will never be repealed in her lifetime.” She added, “It’s not her fight anymore.”
Valiquet lamented that the greatest chance in repealing the bill would have been under Mayor Ford, as she viewed the former media-blitzed mayor as pro-civil liberties and anti-spending. In fact, some civil liberties advocates opposing the ban cite a reversal of the presumption of innocence as well as the bill’s clause that allow peace officers, which include animal services agents, to enter private property without a warrant if they have reasonable grounds to believe that it is “necessary to prevent imminent bodily harm or death to any person or domestic animal.” But given that pro-ban Barbara Kay is a frequent donor to the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust, civil liberties are sort of a different animal, so to speak, when it comes to potentially dangerous dogs.
As the number of grandfathered pit bulls diminish, so have the protestors. Valiquet has attended many of the annual events and recalls the earlier protests with 300 to 400 people there. She attributes this fall in numbers to the movement’s decentralization, in which advocacy groups have popped up or splintered off and focused their resources primarily on the rescue cause around the province, rather than on trying to repeal the ban from Queen’s Park.
MPP Randy Hillier of the PC Party made efforts to repeal the ban in 2012, which technically had tri-party support but died on the table when Premier McGuinty prorogued parliament.
Barking up the wrong tree: responsible pet ownership
Aside from voting out the current government, protestors called for more responsibility being placed on people who own dogs. “We must remember that at the end of every leash is an owner,” said Natalie Kemeny, the event’s MC and founding member of the Windsor-based pit bull organization Advocates for the Underdog (AFTU).
Back at the AFTU tent, seated behind stacks of t-shirts and hats emblazoned with the slogan, “It’s the deed, not the breed,” Kemeny said she wished that the law was tougher on dog owners of all breeds. She suggested heavier fines and criminal charges laid on any individual whose dog attacks another animal or person, and pointed to Calgary’s Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw as a potential model to adopt. The law imposes strict measures and penalties for any dog that is unlicensed or poses a danger to society, instead of singling out certain breeds, and advocates proper pet training. Yet, in light of several attacks this year, some people have called for a breed ban, arguing that the law does not do enough to deter dangerous dogs from biting or to encourage more responsible pet ownership.
Although Kemeny acknowledged how emotionally taxing it is to euthanize a dog, she said “some dogs need to be euthanized … public safety is number one.” As Board President of the Windsor/Essex Humane Society, Kemeny has only seen a handful of dogs that fit this category, but would not identify their types for fear of subjecting other dogs to breed bashing. She stressed that she would never risk sending a potentially aggressive dog out into the public, regardless of its breed.
According to Kemeny, AFTU has successfully adopted out a total of 468 pit bulls since they were founded in 2003.
Is the cost of a pit-free province a real bitch? (Or, What’s the cost of a pit-free province?)
As a shelter best practice, dogs go through a SAFER test to assess behaviour and potential risk before they are deemed suitable for adoption.
“When we end up with a dog in our shelter that appears to fit the description [of a pit bull], … if it’s a really nice dog, we look for placement out of province. The dog has to be a great ambassador for the breed,” said TAS representative Mary Lou Leiher.
TAS data from 2013 shows that of the more than 2,750 dogs that were admitted, over 200 were transferred to partner agencies and over 500 were euthanized, some for humane reasons like illness or injury. While it is unclear how many of these dogs were pit bulls, of the dogs euthanized, 117 were listed as euthanized for behaviour or temperament reasons, 19 for being prohibited, and 2 for being restricted.
Although she did not provide specific funds spent, Leiher said transferring a dog out of province requires staff resources and incurs transportation costs. She stated, “[TAS] definitely had to reconfigure some of our resources so that we could accommodate the new additions to the law.”
As much as a cost-benefit analysis seems callous when it comes to killing dogs and irrelevant when it comes to protecting people, it’s necessary in that the legislation requires municipal funds to enforce a law that either a) enables the transfer of a temperament-tested, “safe dog” out of province, or b) if pit bulls are in fact unpredictable by nature, risks the lives of people outside of Ontario.
There is also a practical difficulty in determining a dog’s breed given that many of the animals that the TAS encounter are mixed. “We’re also quite careful as to what we think of as a pit bull.” She said shelter workers base their assessments on physical attributes, which can be difficult to pin down, but often give the dog the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deeming them prohibited pits. “Sometimes you see bulging eyes, which kind of look like boxers’, so we say ‘boxer mix.’”
It may strike some Torontonians as odd that municipal animal services are more reluctant now to identify dogs as pit bulls, and are actively sending so-called “inherently dangerous dogs” into other provinces—technically following the legislation, but not necessarily the spirit of the law—if indeed these dogs are a menace to society.
Pit bulls dogged by bad press?
While emotional appeal may not be as convincing as hard data, that data is often used to support claims on both sides of the fence. Most studies on dog attacks and breed specific legislation caution that inferring causation from correlation is misleading in terms of judging a law’s efficacy. Conceivably, a trend toward responsible pet ownership could be the causeof breed-specific legislation, and this large-scale attitude change could therefore account for any reduction in bite rates. But it would be imprudent to assume this relationship.
A 2012 study from the University of Manitoba found that the rate of severe dog bites had decreased in Winnipeg following breed-specific legislation, which banned pit bulls in 1990. However, the authors cautioned that they did not identify the breeds of the biting dogs.
Another study with data from 1990 to 2007 found that “sled type dogs” accounted for the majority of dog-related fatalities in Canada, at an average of 1 to 2 people per year, particularly when dogs formed packs, but that pit bulls were responsible for the majority of fatal attacks in 2001. More research is required to examine the rural/urban divide and dogs that maim versus kill.
According to 2014 data from TAS, the total number of bites from pit bull type dogs was 13—the same as the previous year, though distributed somewhat differently. Leiher asserted that the prevalence of dog bites in the city hasn’t changed much, even if it is distributed differently by breed. Drawing meaningful conclusions from this data is difficult, as it does not depict the severity of the bites, public health data, or the breed’s entire population in the city.
A CDC study examining dog bites in the US cautions against breed specific legislation. The OVMA and Toronto Humane Society have both come out against laws targeting specific breeds. Brad Dewar of the OSPCA has said, “The Ontario SPCA looks at it as it shouldn’t be a breed specific law, that it should be a matter of ownership,” but stated in my interview with him that the OSPCA is responsible for ensuring the proper implementation of the law.
Ultimately, regardless of actuarial risk, repealing the law is a political risk. If a serious incident were to occur following a repeal of the ban, not only would it be devastating to the public, but the political party responsible for removing the ban would surely be subject to scorn.
So, is the ban a success or just another dog and pony show?
“I think it’s been successful at reducing the number of pit bulls in the province,” said Leiher. When asked if she was referring to the number of registered pit bulls in the province, she qualified her response: “That’s a good question. Anecdotally, we’re seeing less, but we don’t know.”
Since the ban took place, the number of registered pit bulls in Toronto has decreased by 80 per cent. But enter a Google search query for purchasing pit bulls in Toronto and you’ll be greeted with business sites and classifieds updated daily that showcase people’s disregard for the law on several accounts, offering breeding services from champion studs and adorable pit bull puppies for hefty price tags, ranging from $500 to $2500.
Illegal breeding, unregistered animals, and the number of mis- or unidentified mixed breeds make determining total population and therefore bite rates more difficult. They also make for a pricey prohibited pet and lucrative black market.
So, are Ontarians safer? “If you’re going by the number of dog bites, no,” said Leiher. She declined to comment on whether she thought pit bulls were inherently dangerous.
Perhaps it was the tutus and tiaras adorning the animals, but if Saturday’s protest is any indication of the city’s attitude, then police officers posing with unmuzzled “pit bulls types” seems to undercut the image of these dogs as inherent threats to public safety.