Ottawa Citizen: Ontario’s pit bull law is an ass, unenforced and ineffective

Published in the Ottawa Citizen on 29 April 2014.

By Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — Ontario’s pit bull ban is a cynical effort, even for politicians who excel at such sorcery.


Before it was passed in 2005, the experts said it was a bad idea. Lo and behold, it didn’t really work, except to produce unintended consequences, like the death of puppies.

And, now we discover, it was never enforced anyway, at least not in Ottawa.

Yet legislators, in the face of a vicious bite on a child, can sit back and assure: We did what we could; we banned them bad dogs.

Anyone with basic knowledge of dog behaviour says banning a specific breed is not the answer to reducing bites and increasing safety. Add to this the fact that “pit bull” is not really a breed, but a look, and we have the makings for a seriously leaky ship.

“It’s a completely impractical piece of legislation that we have,” says Lanark-area MPP Randy Hillier, referring to the section of the law that bans “a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics substantially similar” to purebreds, like Staffordshire bull terriers.

“Basically anything that has short brown hair can be a pit bull.” This, mostly, is why municipal bylaw officers find the law so difficult to apply: short of being walking DNA machines, how are they to know if the animal is worthy of seizure?

Hillier also said the amended law did not have penalties for owners if their pit bulls were seized.

“It would be like someone going in to rob a bank and we turn around and put the gun in jail.”

Indeed, in the weekend case in Ottawa, it is not a matter of what kind of dog was involved, but the fact the child was put in an unsafe situation with an unpredictable animal, whatever it was.

(We might, too, want to halt the public crucifixion of the parents. Whatever their role, people make mistakes and under-estimate risk. And we’ve yet to hear their side.)

Hillier proposed a private member’s bill that removes the breed-specific designation, which has led to an exodus of pit bulls from Ontario. Being an opposition member, his bill passed a couple of readings, went to committee and stalled. As recently as February, Hillier wrote to Attorney General John Gerretsen to revive it.

In committee, the MPPs heard from a number of well-informed witnesses, including the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association.

“First, breed-specific dog bans are not an effective way to deal with dangerous dogs in Ontario, specifically because research shows that numerous breeds are reported each year in attack and fatality reports,” said president Dale Scott.

“Second, the current legislation has resulted in the unnecessary euthanasia of over 1,000 dogs and puppies in Ontario. Many of these had no history of violence against people or other animals.”

Added Hillier: “We’re killing family pets that were going for a walk in the park with the family.”

There was also testimony from a senior official in the City of Calgary, which is often held up as the gold standard for municipal dog bylaws.

It saw a remarkable drop in the number of dog bites reported, credited to steps big and small. It banned the tethering of dogs, for instance, while owners went into shops or restaurants, reducing so-called “fear bites.”

It went into schools with early education programs, and the city tried to intervene when it heard about a problem dog — with mandatory assessments and possible retraining.

If just to end with a little story that cements the idea that, while the law is sometimes an ass, enforcement is the real boot in the bum.

Reader Helen Joseph sent along a ticket her son received one night last week in Little Italy, which is busily becoming a restaurant hub dependent on accommodating loads of people and traffic.

The ticket was issued at 11:07 p.m. for parking “more than 15 cms” from a curb on a side street. She is, understandably, upset.

How to interpret the ticket other than a vindictive violation of the spirit of parking enforcement?

Think of it. We have badly-written laws, hardly enforced, that are not stopping aggressive dogs from biting children and, on the other hand, a bylaw guy with a ruler checking legally-parked cars in a restaurant district just shy of midnight?

Where’s the law forbidding this nonsense?