Dangerous Dogs

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Dangerous Dogs

In a previous column I outlined my opposition to the Ontario government's plan to ban pit-bull terriers. I do not disagree that measures need to be taken to protect the public from dangerous dogs. It is just that I do not believe breed bans are an effective way to accomplish this goal. To think that banning a breed will be the solution is based on faulty logic. People who want a "macho dog" or who are ill-equipped to properly socialize such dogs will just turn to another non-banned breed. Similar legislation in other jurisdictions has not reduced dangerous dog attacks.

I believe efforts need to be directed at the real causes of the threat of injury from dangerous dogs - irresponsible ownership and bad dog breeding practices. This thinking is very much in line with the policy espoused by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association on the matter. Many of the points that follow are part of the OVMA's policy statement on dangerous dogs.

It is certainly appropriate for municipalities to endeavour to prevent serious injury to people from dog attacks. No one should, though, under estimate the difficulty in doing this. Any dog can bite. This potential danger must be borne in mind by any dog owner. This reality should not seriously diminish the pleasure and benefits from sharing your life with a dog. It just means everything possible to keep the threat to a minimum must be done. Both individual dog owners and municipalities can be involved. 

Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a dog may be dangerous until it has bitten or attacked someone. However, dogs are more likely to pose a danger to humans if they live with irresponsible owners. Mistreatment by humans will make a dog less trustworthy. Dogs become a much greater danger if they are not properly trained and socialized. If dogs are deliberately bred and raised to be aggresive or encouraged to attack people or animals, they are more likely to pose a danger for those around them. By-laws can be enacted and individuals can take steps address these concerns.

It will be necessary to well define what criteria will be used to class a dog a danger. The behaviour of individual dogs, not breeds in general, should be evaluated. The OVMA suggests criteria for identifying dangerous dogs might include the following: any dog that has seriously bitten, injured or killed a person or domestic animal; a dog that has shown the disposition or tendency to be threatening or aggressive; an attack trained dog (other than those used in law enforcement).

Municipalities, in order to assure public safety, could require that if a dog is classified as dangerous, appropriate action results. Again, various steps might be deemed necessary. Certainly any dangerous dog should be spayed or neutered. This may help reduce certain types of aggression and would prevent such individuals from passing on to its offspring any genetic predisposition to this behaviour. Licensing regulations could be used to enforce rigid requirements for housing, care, and the circumstances of public contact for such dogs. Subsidies or reduction in licensing fees should be used to encourage all dog owners to participate in recognized training programs for their pets. Regulations for individuals breeding dogs and offering them for sale could be considered. Methods of confinement required for threatening dogs should be determined. Clear and visible warning signs should be displayed anywhere that this kind of dog lives or is housed. Euthanasia of a dangerous dog, in the interests of public safety, may be necessary. It could also be a penalty, if an owner violated any requirement for keeping such a dog.       

Dogs are wonderful companions. The relationships we have created with them provide individuals and society in general, with countless benefits. Nevertheless, the danger of dog bite injuries must be recognized as a serious threat to people in our communities. In addition to the wonderful qualities they possess, dogs come with some impressive weapons. We have used them and this equipment to our advantage, over the years we have lived with them. Now we must learn to reduce the risk, danger and harm that can come when dogs bite. Our governments, at all levels, should be leaders in this effort. They should not be leading us away on unfair, ineffective, unenforceable tangents that could result in the euthanasia of thousands of dogs that will never cause any harm. All this could happen while the root problem remains unresolved.