The city’s proposed pit bull by-law won’t protect us from dangerous dogs

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Zombie dog muzzle

Zombie dog muzzle

Someone close to me was attacked by a dog this spring in an incident that reminds me in many ways of the incident that took the life of Christiane Vadnais in Pointe-aux-Trembles this June.

Hélène was staying with a friend in Argentina whose son’s dog boarded with her. Everything seemed fine with the dog the first day of her visit. On the second day, as Hélène was working in her friend’s walled-in garden, the dog became aggressive, leaping up on her to greet her. As she signalled with her hand that he should stay down, the dog bit her hand. Hélène was more angry than afraid at that point, but as she turned to go inside the house, the dog, inappropriately named Buddha, bit her again, hard, just above the elbow, and she fell. As Hélène lay on the ground and cried for her friend “Lucie” to come help her, Buddha bit into her cheek. Hélène was no longer angry. As she could feel Buddha’s teeth in her skin and breath on her face, she was deeply afraid.

That’s when Lucie arrived, but the dog ignored her instructions to let go. Sensing the danger if Buddha became more aggravated and decided to seek a firmer grip, Lucie distracted him by throwing a stick and yelling fetch. As Buddha fell for the diversion, Lucie helped Hélène back into the house and shut the door.

Who knows what might have happened had Lucie not been there?

It’s easy to imagine that something similar had happened to Christiane Vadnais, who was attacked in her own backyard by the neighbour’s pet, which had broached the common fence. But there was no one home to help Vadnais, no one to respond to her cries.

Hélène doesn’t like to think about that. She hasn’t read the details of the attack. A strongly empathetic woman, it would be too easy to place herself in Vandnais’s shoes, to imagine her pain. And her terror.

***

When Hélène went to the local clinic outside Buenos Aires right after the attack, the doctors said treating serious dog bites was common, a daily occurrence. Packs of strays wander the streets there, barking fills the air long into the night. When Hélène recounted what had happened, the clinic doctor didn’t offer any reaction as she stitched her face and arm. Reporting dog bites wasn’t part of the job. Buddha’s fate would rest with his master alone.

Lucie’s son was devastated that his beloved Buddha, who he had raised from a pup, had attacked his mother’s guest. But having the animal put down wasn’t among the options he considered. He instead had the two-year-old Buddha sterilized, then wrote a Facebook  post looking for a new home in which he described the dog as “friendly.” There was no mention of the bite. The post was pulled after other family members found out. But Lucie insisted that Buddha be removed from the house, where the son only lived part time, so he was boarded with the neighbour who had given the son the dog as a birthday gift.

Hélène doesn’t know what happened to Buddha after that. The son’s girlfriend, his mother and his mother-in-law didn’t want it in their homes. It’s hard enough to find homes for abandoned dogs who truly are gentle and friendly — just ask the SPCA — it’s probably impossible to find one for a dog with a record of biting humans.

Unless that’s the kind of dog the new owner is looking for.

Hélène would find out that, like the dog that killed Christiane Vadnais, the attack on her wasn’t Buddha’s first. He had previously chased an intruder in the backyard, and more recently jumped up on a house painter and had lightly bitten the cleaning woman, who refused to return unless Buddha was caged while she was there. So the signs of aggression were already there, but the family minimized the events. That blindness could have cost Hélène dearly, but even after the attack, the son was still placing the life of his dog over the safety of others.

In that, he is not alone. Ignoring signs that a dog may pose a danger to others is common, and the rules for reporting attacks are confusing and unclear. Minor incidents that could be harbingers of future problems are ignored, out of ignorance or out of fear that the state will require the animal be put down.

***

Christiane Vadnais’s family is among those who would like to see pit bulls banned altogether, even though the breed of the dog that killed the 55-year-old isn’t clear. But it may surprise you to learn that even though Buddha was, indeed, a pit bull, Hélène opposes laws that target the breed.

But that’s exactly what the city of Montreal executive committee proposed today in a new by-law to be debated by city council.

“It puts the emphasis on the breed rather than the individual,” Hélène says about breed bans. Even though Buddha is a pit bull, she doesn’t want to turn “my personal case into a collective cause. You can take any race of dog and make it dangerous.”

Hélène no longer believes that “there are no bad dogs, only bad owners,” but she still believes the key to preventing attacks must rest with the people who care for the animals.

That’s why she supports recommendations that the Quebec Order of Veterinarians made in a recent report to a government advisory panel looking into dangerous dog legislation. She thinks dog bites should be treated as a public health issue, with obligatory reporting of incidents to police, as the vets have called for.

She also likes the fact that the vets haven’t taken the one-size-fits-all approach (they oppose a breed ban), but instead suggest a case-by-case approach that offers different solutions, depending on the gravity of the behaviour. They include obliging owners to take courses in how to recognize the signs of aggression in their dog, for example, or mandatory muzzling, sterilization or obedience training. Ordering that a dog be put down would be reserved for animals declared dangerous, not for lesser incidents.

Adopting a zero-tolerance approach will only make it more likely that people will try to hide lesser incidents of aggression, Hélène argues. Even victims can be persuaded to keep quiet by tearful owners who will equate a police report with a death sentence for their animal. If the law instead offers a range of corrective measures, people are more likely to report the kind of behaviour that can be modified or prevented before something much more serious occurs.

Owner education is an important part of that battle, she believes. “Most people don’t know how to evaluate the signs of aggressiveness.” Her friend Lucie, for example, wasn’t able to control her son’s dog when he wasn’t around, didn’t recognize the warning signs, and didn’t know how dangerous that could be until the day a guest lay bleeding in her backyard with an undisciplined dog biting into her cheek.

***

Are pit bulls more dangerous to humans than other breeds of dogs? That’s a subject of rather heated debate. The evidence on the Yes side is pretty weak, given that there is no central registry of bite attacks and even experts often can’t tell you with certainty if an individual animal is from one of the four species of pit bulls Montreal wants to ban. A dog allegedly used in an attack in N.D.G. recently was identified by police and news media as a pit bull but turned out to be a mix of rottweiler, mastiff and golden retriever. The animal that killed Christiane Vadnais was identified by police as a pit bull, but by his owner as a boxer.

The fact that the city has had to order a DNA test to figure out who’s right is an illustration of how problematic any breed-ban policy will be. Will dog owners be required to provide DNA for a licence? What percentage of pit bull blood will be deemed unacceptable? What if it’s half pit bull and half shih tzu? (Under Montreal’s draft by-law, all mixes are banned.) What other breeds will be banned? Dobermans, rottweilers, huskies? (None of the above, under Montreal’s proposed rules.)

More importantly, how does any of this protect Quebecers from dangerous dogs?

The thing that all dangerous dogs have in common won’t be found in their genes but in their behavior. It’s a much better predictor of violence than a dog’s appearance. Targeting anything but the behaviour of the dogs and the responsibilities of their owners is a waste of time and resources that are already in short supply.

Even if there was clear evidence that dogs with pit bull DNA were statistically more likely to be involved in dog bite incidents, there’s a good chance that the causal link was the attitude of the owner, not the dog. After they banned pit bulls in Toronto a decade ago, the number of bite incidents actually rose, with German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, Jack Russell terriers and rottweilers leading the pack. Banning all pit bulls because a small minority of the animals have bitten humans makes no more sense than banning all dogs for the same reason.

So instead of mobilizing inspectors on a doggie witch hunt, let’s follow up on the recommendations of Quebec vets by making bite reports uniform and mandatory, with a central register that includes the breed, so we can make evidence-based decisions rather than responding to perceptions and anecdotes. Let’s enforce obligatory licensing and leash laws. Let’s force people whose dogs exhibit lesser forms of unprovoked aggression to undergo training and, in more serious cases, require the animal’s behaviour to be evaluated by a veterinary specialist, whose recommendations will be mandatory. In incidents involving the death of another animal or serious injury to a human, euthanasia should be automatic.

There are very real solutions out there, formulated by informed professionals. Let’s try testing those ideas before we begin testing doggie DNA. ■

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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