Ontario’s top lawmaker is looking for ideas from the public as Premier Doug Ford’s government considers reforms to legislation that includes the 2005 pit bull ban, with an eye to making “public safety the top priority.”
Attorney General Doug Downey said his ministry is reviewing the Dog Owner’s Liability Act, which has prohibited the breeding and importation of pit bulls along with imposing restrictions on the dogs,which must be muzzled, leashed at all times, and sterilized.
“We’re looking at all options at the moment and everything we do will obviously put public safety first,” he told reporters on his way into a cabinet meeting Wednesday.
“We’re looking at all ideas and we’re open to input from people.”
The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, the Toronto Humane Society, animal welfare activists, vocal pit bull owners, the NDP and Green party have been pushing the province to rescind the ban, arguing it singles out one class of canine and doesn’t address bites and dangerous acts of other dogs in general.
“This legislation is giving people a false sense of security,” said assistant professor Lee Niel of the University of Guelph veterinary college, who studies dog behaviour.
“Any dog has the potential to bite given the wrong circumstances.”
There is the perception, however, among some members of the public that pit bulls can be more vicious than other dogs, highlighted by periodic news reports of bites. The 2005 ban, for example, was sparked by the severe mauling of a Toronto man by two pit bulls subdued with a total of 16 shots by police officers responding to the call. A 2014 investigation by the Star found pit bulls were more likely than any other breed to bite humans and pets in the city in the three years preceding the ban.
“It’s about certain types of people having certain types of dogs,” said Niel. “That type of dog rotates. Right now we have pit bulls. In the past we had Dobermans and Rottweilers and German Shepherds.”
But a recent study of dog bites in Calgary, for example, found “no significant difference” in the number of bites by various breeds, said Sylvia Checkley, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s veterinary school, which conducted the research in conjunction with community health and city officials.
The study of bites from 2012 to 2017 found severe dog bites were more common in children and adults over 60, with most of the incidents with family dogs in their home surroundings rather than other settings.
“I think we need to educate parents, they really need to know children always need to have supervision with dogs, even family dogs,” said Checkley.
Animal behaviour experts point to the city of Calgary’s 2006 strict “responsible pet ownership” bylaw as a model for other jurisdictions to follow.
Provisions include a requirement that no dogs be left unattended while tethered and bans dogs on school grounds, in playgrounds, sports fields, golf courses, cemeteries, wading or swimming areas. It is illegal to cycle, skateboard or in-line skate with a dog on a leash on a public pathway, where leashes can be no longer than two metres and with owners and their dogs sticking to the right-hand side.
“It’s all about putting a bylaw in place that mitigates risk and improves and increases safety decisions,” said Ryan Pleckaitis, Calgary’s chief bylaw officer, who noted city staff are conducting a review of the regulations with hopes of further reducing dog bites.
“Maybe there’s an opportunity to require more training for dog owners of certain breeds. That’s an option we need to look at,” he added.
The Calgary statistics, nevertheless, compare favourably with a number of Ontario areas.
While the Stampede city had 383 dog bites in 2016 for a population of almost 1.4 million, the Brant County Health Unit serving a population of 36,000 registered 278 that same year, the latest for which Ontario’s health ministry has figures. That’s one bite for every 132 citizens. Durham had 732 that same year in a population half the size of Calgary’s, for a rate of one bite for every 882 citizens.
In 2017, Calgary’s bites fell to 301, rose slightly to 337 in 2018 and hit 211 for this year to the end of September.
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As the Progressive Conservative government considers reforms, dog owners and citizens need to better recognize signs of when dogs are becoming agitated, get beyond their comfort zone and may bite, said Hannah Sotropa of the Toronto Humane Society.
“Whether it’s a chihuahua or a pit bull, almost always the bite was provoked by something. So if we begin to have information available on dog body language and socialization we can be better at recognizing these warning signs before the incident actually escalates,” she told the Star.
“One of the biggest things is a lot of people may misinterpret a dog’s body language. Someone might look at a yawning dog as tired and might assume a dog licking its lips is hungry. Someone may think a dog that is panting is hot. But these are three common signs a dog that a dog is stressed, anxious or fearful.”
Those are signs for the owner to take the dog away to a quiet area and for people nearby to give the dog some space, Sotropa added.