An Alternative to Breed Specific Legislation: Treating Dogs as Members of Society

In Ontario, ownership of pit bulls is restricted and the importation of “new” dogs is banned by the Dog Owner’s Liability Act. The legislation is meant to protect people from dog attacks by ridding the province of all pit bulls. The law is discriminatory because it targets a dog for its breed, not its deed. A pit bull found to be in the province illegally will be seized. A judge must order the dog to be destroyed if it bites a person or animal. A pit bull will not get a second chance, though dogs of other breeds could get several.

Many argue that breed-neutral “dangerous dog” legislation should be implemented to replace Ontario’s breed-specific legislation (BSL). Dangerous dog legislation would be marginally better than our current system because it would apply to all breeds and so it would not place pit bulls at an unfair advantage. But, the legislation would not challenge the legal status of animals. Animals would still be mere “property” in the eyes of the law and dogs would continue to be destroyed.

Any suitable alternative to BSL needs to strike a balance between protecting the rights of animals and protecting members of society. The best way to do this may be to treat domesticated animals similarly to the way children are treated in society.

Children are the legal responsibility of their parents. Likewise, domesticated animals are the responsibility of their owners, or “pet parents”. Both children and pets rely on their parents for care, guidance, and discipline. Both kinds of parents can shape the way their children or pets develop, think, and act. Both kinds of parents train their charges and reinforce certain behaviours, knowingly or not. When a child attacks another person, he is not automatically sentenced to death, or imprisoned, or even taken away from his parents, even though he may have shown signs of aggression in the past and shows signs of committing violent acts in future. Instead, children are sent for evaluations, therapy, and may even be sent to live with a new set of “parents” if the original ones are found to be inadequate.

Dogs could be dealt with in a similar fashion. A dog who attacks another animal or person should not be sentenced to death – especially considering that dogs may attack out of fear or self-defense – but the dog cannot be left to live freely as it did before it attacked. It is not fair to expect members of the public to live with a dangerous animal, just as it is not acceptable to expect members of the public to live with a dangerous person. Again, an analogy can be made to the human situation. When Canadian humans offend by acting violently and causing harm to others, they are not punished before having a trial, and they are certainly never killed.  Instead, they may be arrested (though sometimes they may simply be summonsed to court), they will have an opportunity to seek bail, they will have a trial, they may or may not be convicted and sentenced, and they may appeal a conviction or sentence not once, but twice. If a Canadian human is unsuccessful at trial and loses his appeals, he may have to spend time in prison, where he can receive counselling, upgrade his education, and learn a trade. Prisoners can participate in programs that are supposed to rehabilitate them and make them productive members of society.

Consider also that a person who is in prison for having committed violent offences has often been violent more than once and has had several chances to rehabilitate himself before being sent to prison.

Now consider the situation of a dog. A dog can be declared a “dangerous dog” for biting a person or animal. If the dog is a pit bull in Ontario, the dog must be destroyed. The judge has absolutely no discretion to hand down a lighter sentence.

My proposed alternative demands that the offending dog, no matter the breed, be given a chance to be rehabilitated. If the dog’s owners are found to be suitable and responsible by the court, they could be charged with the task of ensuring their pet attends training and behavioural sessions to minimize the risk that their dog will reoffend. The case may be that the dog acted out because it was provoked. If that is so, steps must be taken to ensure that the dog is not placed in a situation where it feels the need to defend itself again. If the owners of the dog are not suitable and cannot be trusted to follow through with rehabilitating their pet, the court should make an order that the animal be entrusted the care of an organization that will rehabilitate and rehome the pet with a responsible individual or family. This also fits in nicely with the idea of treating domesticated animals as children; when children are not being properly cared for by their parents, the Children’s Aid Society steps in, cares for them, and places the children in other families, if needed.

What to do with a dog who cannot be rehabilitated? Ideally, these animals could live out the rest of their lives in specialized shelters where they would still be cared for but would be prevented from harming others. This situation would be similar to the case of criminals who are serving a life sentence or indeterminate sentence and therefore remain imprisoned, except that the purpose for keeping the animals in specialized shelters is to prevent them from being killed instead of punishing them.

This alternative would require a radical shift in the way the law thinks about animals in society. It may even be a utopian ideal, but it would at least protect dogs’ basic rights.

Post written by a QAD member

One thought on “An Alternative to Breed Specific Legislation: Treating Dogs as Members of Society

  1. You presented an interesting argument. I know this is a minor point, but in Canadian prisons very few inmates now have the opportunity to learn a trade. The Harper government’s “tough on crime” is a major reason. A high percentage of inmates are warehoused to await the day when they are released, can’t cope and return to prison.

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