Monday, June 20, 2011

Animal Behaviour Expert Kerry Vinson Discusses The Dog Owners' Liability Act

THE DOG OWNERS’ LIABILITY ACT 
(D. O. L. A.)

Over the last few years I have had a unique opportunity to become aware of several aspects of the Ontario Dog Owners’ Liability Act that are not widespread knowledge among the dog-owning public. This has been possible because a significant part of my business (Animal Behaviour Consultants) has been devoted to providing behavioural assessments of dogs whose owners have been charged, or threatened with charges, under the D.O.L.A. What the average person in this province does not realize is that the amendments added on to the Act in 2005 by the provincial government, spearheaded by the then Attorney General Michael Bryant, are neither dog friendly nor dog owner friendly.

Before proceeding, let’s briefly reiterate what those amendments involved. In addition to Breed Specific Legislation banning certain breeds in Ontario, and subsequently including any crossbreed dogs that resemble these breeds in the completely subjective opinion of a municipal authority, Animal Control Officers were granted police powers allowing them to enter someone’s home without a warrant and seize their dog for possible destruction under so-called exigent circumstances. While some parties (mainly municipalities) seemed pleased to wield this authority, other people felt this to be not only unfair but un- constitutional, and in 2006 there was a court challenge to this law (the BSL). I actually testified in this court challenge on behalf of those who deemed it to be unjust. Unfortunately, this effort was not successful, due partly to the inability of a private party with limited resources to overcome the considerable resources of the Provincial Government.

Since then, I am aware of countless examples of dogs being seized and destroyed simply on the subjective opinion of someone in a position of authority. If you think I’m exaggerating, I suggest you do a Google search on “Rui Branco – Brampton”. Branco had his dog seized by an animal services officer who was driving by and saw the dog in his backyard and “thought it looked like a pitbull” (quote from Toronto Star article). Despite the fact that there had never been a complaint about this dog and it always stayed in his fenced backyard, and that Mr. Branco presented several veterinary certificates to the effect that his dog was not a pit bull, he still had to end up paying thousands of dollars in lawyers fees and waiting several months to get his dog back with a reprieve from death row in Brampton. Anyone reading the details of this case cannot come to any conclusion other than that this was an egregious abuse of authority perpetrated under the guise of enforcing the D.O.L.A. The overriding mentality of the government is that you are guilty if accused, unless you can prove yourself (and your dog) innocent.

Unfortunately, many dog owners faced with this kind of persecution and intimidation do not have the resources to hire a lawyer and fight the system as Mr. Branco did, and sadly their animals are destroyed whether it is justified or not. In addition, these same injustices are being perpetrated on dogs of all breeds (ones that are not subject to BSL) in some cases that I have been involved in, based solely on an unfounded complaint by a neighbor or for that matter a complete stranger! These complaints are taken as true whether there is any verifiable independent evidence as to their accuracy or not. Just last week I appeared before the City Council in a municipality on the outskirts of Toronto, on the behalf of a dog owner contesting the labelling of his dog as aggressive based solely on hearsay evidence which was not supported by the facts. Fortunately, the Council voted in favor of removing this label and not proceeding with any charges against this dog owner, which was actually against the recommendations of their own animal control personnel in this case.

At this point I want to make it clear that I do not support irresponsible dog ownership, or allowing an aggressive dog (or for that matter any dog) to run at large in public. If a dog truly presents a danger to anyone, then there is appropriate “dangerous dog” legislation in place to deal with such situations. In fact, I have appeared for municipalities, e.g. the City of Toronto and the City of Ottawa, in cases where dog(s) may have presented a danger to the public. As well, I have also testified (as an expert on canine aggression) for the Ontario Coroner’s Office in an official Provincial Inquest. The bottom line is that I will not help to foster irresponsible dog ownership in any way.

So, what can responsible dog owners do to keep themselves from running afoul of the law and protecting their dogs? Firstly, they should familiarize themselves with all aspects of the Dog Owners’ Liability Act as it is currently written, and make certain that they do nothing to contravene it. If they feel this is not a fair piece of legislation, and that it has resulted in many dogs being unnecessarily destroyed, then they should contact their MPP to make their opinions known. When there is an imminent election in the wind, politicians are more likely to pay attention to the voting power of their constituents. Finally, ifthey have been unjustly charged under the D.O.L.A. and have proof of this, they should NOT voluntarily surrender their dog to any municipal authority, regardless of what sort of intimidation tactics they are being subjected to. If they can afford to do so, seeking legal advice is the best thing to do.

Kerry Vinson, BA (PSYCH), provides behavioural assessments for dog owners ,as well as dog-related court services. He has been designated as an expert witness in the area of canine aggression, and can be contacted through Animal Behaviour Consultants at (905)352-3353. Kerry is pictured above with one of his dogs, a Caucascan Ovcharka named Sugar Bear.