Monday, August 11, 2014

Kerry Vinson Revisits The Ontario Dog Owner's Liability Act

Toronto Dog owners should know their rights!In 2011 I wrote an article for the Toronto Pet Daily on the Ontario Dog Owner’s Liability Act, in which I pointed out that the 2005 amendments to this Act had resulted in many injustices to both dogs and their owners throughout the Province. Now three years later I have been asked to write a follow-up article to see if the situation has changed or improved for Ontarians and their dogs. Having been involved in the original 2006 court challenge to the DOLA amendments (as an Expert Witness) I am in a unique position of being privy to the provincial government’s motivation and rationale at the time to implement this legislation, and due to my continuing involvement in numerous DOLA-related court cases since then I have been able to monitor the consequences of this law.

With this in mind, I want to report to the people of Ontario who are not dog owners that (1) you are not any safer from the possibility of a dog bite as a result of the legislation, and (2) if you own a dog you are at an increased risk of suffering many legal and financial consequences even though these may be completely unjustified. How can this be, you may wonder, wasn’t the purpose of the 2005 amendments to reduce a growing problem of bites in Ontario from certain breeds of dogs identified as dangerous? According to the same government that passed the legislation and is still in power, their Act has been successful. Let’s cut away all of the political posturing and look at what actually has happened since then:

Firstly, although many dog bites go unreported and province-wide statistics are poorly kept, all indications are that the number of bites in Ontario has remained fairly constant since 2005 before the legislation was passed.

Secondly, the 2005 rationale of the amendments and the introduction of Breed Specific Legislation was to remove the risk of bites from certain breeds (identified by sensationalized media reports and not any scientific basis whatsoever) as being more dangerous than other dogs. This concept was completely discredited by every qualified expert in canine behaviour who testified at the “sham” hearings conducted by the government at the time, but all of these bona fide experts were completely ignored when formulating BSL. More on this in a moment.

Thirdly and finally, there has been a significant increase in lawsuits against dog owner’s relating to the wording of the Act that specifies a dog doesn’t actually have to bite someone for its owner to be charged, it only has to appear to be menacing to someone. This has allowed virtually anyone who is afraid of dogs or doesn’t like dogs, or who doesn’t like their neighbor who owns a dog, to launch a lawsuit which is supported by the language of the Act. Needless to say that what may appear to be a dog engaging in normal, non-aggressive barking can be interpreted by someone else as exhibiting menacing behaviour, whether it is or not. It is a totally subjective concept; nonetheless, personal injury attorneys in Toronto are now publicly advertising for people who have been “menaced” by a dog to contact them. I have been personally involved in some cases where the awards being sought are not only in the thousands of dollars, but over a million dollars; and have seen many dog owners lives turned into a living nightmare. The language of the Act infers that dog owners are guilty as charged unless they can prove themselves to be innocent - a complete reversal of our concept of fairness under the law.

Let’s now go back to my second point, which was that at the original hearings (which I referred to as a sham) all of the legitimate Experts in canine behaviour who testified were completely ignored by the government of the day when they passed the legislation. Despite denials and half-truths by that same government, hard evidence continues to confirm the worst fears of those who were opposed to the Bill. The recent position statement by the most respected authority in North America in the field of dog behaviour (not the politicians) confirms the premise that I put forth during my testimony at the 2006 court challenge to the DOLA amendments:

“The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour is concerned about the propensity of various communities’ reliance on breed-specific legislation as a tool to reduce the risk and incidence of dog bites to humans. The AVSAB’s position is that such legislation - often called breed specific legislation (BSL) -- is ineffective and can lead to a false sense of community safety as well as welfare concerns for dogs identified often incorrectly as belonging to specific breeds.”

The Position Statement goes on to unequivocally say that “visual identification is unreliable” and “DNA tests reveal that even professionals experienced in identifying dog breeds (veterinarians, dog trainers, breeders, animal control officers, shelter workers, etc.) are unable to reliably identify breeds visually”. Furthermore, “follow-up studies confirm that visual breed identification is highly inconsistent and inaccurate”. Finally, the AVSAB goes on to say that “Responsible dog ownership and public education must be a primary focus of any dog bite prevention policy”, not BSL.

At this point you might say that the provincial government didn’t really know what to do about the dog bite problem in Ontario in 2005, so they came up with the amendments to DOLA and BSL in lieu of any better approach. Unfortunately, you would be completely wrong!!! This is so because in 1999 the province of Ontario implemented an official Provincial Inquest (the Trempe Inquest) to examine the issue and come up with solutions to the problem of canine aggression. As I was one of the designated “experts” who was asked by the Ontario Coroner’s Office to testify at this inquest, I am eminently familiar with the proceedings which took place, and the 36 Recommendations to prevent future serious dog bite incidents. Why did the government choose to ignore the great majority of these Recommendations in 2005, and why today in 2014 are the most important and effective of these recommendations still being ignored?

These are questions that dog owners, and anyone concerned with public safety, need to be asking their MPP. It’s time (actually past the time) for Ontario legislators to admit that the 2005 DOLA amendments have not reduced the number of dog bites in the Province nor made Ontarians any safer from this risk. It’s time for our lawmakers to pay attention to the Recommendations from the Trempe Inquest and implement most (if not all) of them, and to rescind or rewrite the completely ineffective and unsupported by scientific proof policies that have been in effect for almost ten years now, and done more harm than good.

Kerry Vinson, BA (PSYCH), has been designated as an Expert Witness in the area of canine aggression and re-training in numerous court cases between 1999 and 2014. He has also authored over 75 articles on dog behaviour for veterinary publications and popular magazines, in addition to providing assessments and dog related court services for municipalities, shelters, and private dog owners. For more information, visit:


  1. Fabulous article by a knowledgeable professional and just one of the many experts the Liberals ignored in it's quest to put reverse onus into law and obtain warrantless entry into ANY Ontario dog owners home. Not the first time this party has tried to get around the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (G20). What better way then using the PRESUMPTION of safety even though based on hype and stereotyping? Sadly it has been used more than a few times throughout history.


  3. Join a anti-BSL group to get involved and stay informed. Be on the case of your MPP and insure new MPP's are aware this legislation is a farce and will vote against BSL when the next bill comes forward. It has turned, as Mr. Vinson points out, dog owners into 3rd class citizens and has done nothing to enhance public safety.

  4. Thank you so very much for this article and for your support during the initial hearings, we will be sharing this blog on all of our Ontario "Pit Bull" Co-op pages and chapters. Sadly, as your article points out, the government of the day is now in a majority position again and the same players are still in place...... by passing political egos will take some doing!

  5. From article I wrote in 2007:

    "In early 2005, ... the Ontario Liberals were asked repeatedly to fund a provincial dog bite prevention and education program.

    They refused.

    They were asked to implement a provincial responsible dog ownership program.

    They refused.

    They were asked to create a provincial dog bite registry.

    They refused.

    They were asked to provide municipalities with appropriate funding to ensure effective animal bylaw enforcement.

    They refused.

    All of these requests were based on recommendations from the coroner’s inquest into the death of eight-year-old Courtney Trempe in 1998. All of these recommendations came from experts in dog breeding, behaviour, and bite prevention.

    Instead, the government decided to ban a vague, non-existent shape of dog that, [even if identifiable], barely registers in most dog bite statistics, simply to score political points. Their changes to the Dog Owners’ Liability Act had nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with politics."

  6. Here are the last few paragraphs of my presentation to the government in 2005. This is a perfect example of the ample accurate information with which the government was provided and which they ignored in favour of their political agenda:

    "Finally, I have included the 36 recommendations from the inquest into the death of Courtney Trempe in 1998, the 26 recommendations from the inquest into the death of James Waddell in 2003, and a paper entitled 'A community approach to dog bite prevention', published by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions.

    The president of this organization and the one of the primary members of that task force, Dr. Bonnie Beaver, has already spoken to this committee, as has Donna Trempe, Courtney’s mother.

    Again, there are consistent themes throughout these documents:

    - education of dog owners, parents, children, and the general public
    - licensing and regulation of breeders, pet shops, shelters, trainers, dog owners and their dogs
    - enforcement of responsible and accountable dog ownership
    - municipal, provincial, and federal support

    A huge amount of work has gone into these laws, studies, and recommendations.

    They have been assembled by bite victims, doctors, lawyers, lawmakers, scientists, veterinarians, animal behaviourists, breeders, insurance companies, and animal control departments. These documents are not minor nor are they frivolous. They are not the product of personal or political agendas from lobby groups or politicians. They have been created with one goal, and only one goal:

    To reduce dog bites from all breeds.

    That is the ultimate question to this committee and to this government:

    Do you really want to reduce the injuries caused by all dog bites in this province, from all breeds? If so, then you would be well advised to review these documents carefully and with an open mind, because they hold the key. The work has already been done; the solutions have already been found and proven.

    If you were to read through these documents with the objective of learning and understanding, and if you were to make a few simple changes to this bill, based on these documents, then every single professional organization, every ethical breeder, every responsible owner would be knocking on your door saying, “How can I help?”

    Instead, we are looking forward to years of acrimony, court cases, unnecessary spending, pointless euthanasia, and a constant never-ending battle that is simply going to waste everyone’s time, energy, and money when they could be better spent on many other issues.

    The only people who are going to benefit from this bill are the media and the lawyers.

    Albert Einstein once said, 'The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.'

    We already know what works and what doesn’t. We have more history, more results, and more information than ever before. It is not necessary for us to repeat the mistakes of the past."

  7. Thanks, Kerry, for a great column. You were involved in one of the cases which led to the government bringing a motion during our (Dog Legislation Council of Canada) constitutional challenge to the legislation back in 2006. We won all three motions they brought as peripheral battles to our main case and made some headway at Superior Court, but unfortunately the Court of Appeal reversed our gains and the SCC declined to hear the case without reasons.

    Since then, we have had several Bills brought forward to repeal the legislation. The last one in 2012 actually made it out of Committee, but was not brought for Third Reading (a final vote). Then parliament was prorogued so that was the end of Bill 16. We hope the government will see the light and realize the mistake they have made but they seem more interested in saving face than in saving citizens pain.

    Cheers, thanks again.