A common-sense alternative to banning pit bulls

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Pit-Bull

It’s a little ironic that the minister who has been asked to come up with new laws governing the control of dangerous dogs is nicknamed the “Pitbull de Nelligan (riding),” according to a mushy profile on him written by La Presse reporter Vincent Marissal last April.

After initially dismissing the idea that the province should act following the death of 55-year-old Christiane Vadnais — who died in hospital last week after being found in her Pointe-aux-Trembles backyard being mauled by the neighbour’s pit bull terrier — municipal affairs and public security minister Martin Coiteux was called to heel by Premier Philippe Couillard. The province has now “sensed the urgency” to act and has committed itself to standardizing the ways Quebec municipalities deal with dangerous dogs.

The pit bull nickname was assumedly given to Coiteux by his colleagues because, when he was president of the treasury board and responsible for the public purse, he never relaxed his grip. That’s a well-documented trait of the breed, which, as you can see in this video, can sometimes defy extraordinary odds to maintain a bite-hold on their victims. (The video I link to is PG. Believe me, you don’t want to view most of the clips you’ll find after Googling “pit bull” and “attack.”)

La Presse itself has had a similar grip on the issue of pit bulls in the last few months, running numerous stories documenting some pretty horrifying tales of pit bull attacks and their aftermath long before the Vadnais tragedy. Among those stories was one about Emmanuelle Cossette, a then seven-year-old girl disfigured for life by her uncle’s pit bull, which tore away part of her cheek. Among the many newspaper clippings she kept from the incident, perhaps the most illuminating is the Journal de Montréal story with the headline: “Legislation on attack dogs: Emanuelle, last victim of a pit bull?”

Apparently not. Emanuelle is now 38, and statistics suggest that 20 more Montreal children will be disfigured by dog attacks this summer. More than half of those will likely come from pit bulls or related breeds.

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That said, banning ownership of pit bulls — or any other breed of dog — is the wrong approach to dealing with the problem. (Not the least of which is trying to identify what breed the dog actually is.) I’m not sympathizing with pit bull lovers here. This is a breed that is significantly more likely to attack other animals and humans than any other and one whose bite attacks are more likely, by far, to seriously maim or even kill. But they can just as easily be friendly, gentle companion animals who bring love and joy into the households that care for them. A blanket ban unfairly targets an entire population for the sins of a small minority of dogs and owners.

Instead, the province needs laws and regulations that focus on both the prevention of dog attacks and the punishment of offenders, i.e. the owners.

First, muzzles should be obligatory in public for larger dogs and animals identified as potentially dangerous to other animals and humans. Although this means a lot of gentle pooches may be walking around looking like Hannibal Lecter on a leash, it will do a lot to reassure people you encounter on your walk that the animal poses no threat. Nowadays, a muzzle often signals the opposite, with people assuming it means the dog already has a track record for biting. Making it obligatory for a larger number of animals will lessen the stigma and make it harder to feign ignorance of the rules.

“But my dog would never… ” said just about everyone whose dog bit someone for the first time. Some dog lovers are quick to look for some excuse that puts the blame on the bite victim, but the responsibility to avoid attacks lies with the person who cares for the dog. No one deserves to be attacked — or have their dog attacked — by someone’s else’s animal because they didn’t follow some rules, no matter how “common sense” those rules might seem to you.

Unless the victim rubbed themselves in meat paste and broke into your house while you were out, the responsibility to prevent attacks is yours. That goes for inside your house as well, especially around young children whose play behaviour can easily be mistaken by even gentle dogs as aggression or an attack.

Secondly, bite attack reports should automatically trigger an evaluation, at the owner’s expense, of the animal’s comportment. Some people hesitate to report such attacks because they don’t want to be responsible for the animal’s death, so a more nuanced system could allow for alternatives in milder cases. The expert’s recommendations could range from special harnesses to dog training to forced adoption to euthanasia, but there should be an appeal process available for more serious cases.

Third, punishment for violating regulations should be severe. People who break the leash laws and the muzzle rule should see rapidly escalating fines for each offence. In some circumstances, they should lose the right to keep the animal. In others, an outright ban on owning any dog might be the appropriate punishment, for the good of both the public and the animals.

Fourth, any new law should be preceded by an extensive publicity campaign and the widespread issuing of warning tickets before enforcement begins. Once the rules are in effect, however,  violators should be pursued as aggressively as the drunk drivers we target every holiday season.

Coiteux has promised to have new animal control regulations and/or laws in place quickly to deal with dangerous dogs, by fall at the latest. Let’s hope that, this time, the government is more bite than bark. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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