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: www.animalbehaviourconsultants.com.