Many comments under the March 22 news story in the Victoria Times Colonist are barbed, full of the finger-pointing, blame and recrimination that so often accompanies inexplicable tragedy in search of an answer.
A little dog named Hugo is dead, the story says, killed during that most unthreatening of social occasions, a summer barbecue. He was reportedly taken out by a single bite from a larger dog, the beloved, trusted pet of the gathering’s hosts.
The reader reactions — most of them in support of the host dog — are coloured by their personal experience and knowledge of pets, and their relationships with those involved in this incident.
But they appear to also be fed by a common element of fear: fear that a precious member of the family could be betrayed and lost to one out-of-character moment of instinctual violence — be it either as the unsuspecting victim of an attack, or as its unexpected agent.
People want the law to protect that which they hold dear and not everyone is convinced B.C law is doing that when it comes to their pets.
Some argue it does not do enough to protect people and other animals from vicious dogs. Others say it is leaving pets open to unreasonable seizures, and, in some cases, execution.
Under Section 49 of the Community Charter, a dog can be declared dangerous for three reasons: it has killed or seriously injured a person; it has killed or seriously injured a domestic animal outside the dog’s home property; or, an animal control officer has reasonable grounds to believe it is likely to kill or seriously injure a person.
Once a “dangerous” designation is applied, an animal control officer can restrict the dog from public interaction, fine owners who fail to comply, and, in extreme cases, apply for a provincial court order to have the animal put down.
Animal control officers in the Comox Valley, Parksville and Greater Victoria all think the law works the way it is written.
Don Brown has been the chief bylaw enforcement officer for the Capital Regional District for 13 years. As such, he oversees animal control for nine municipalities, three electoral areas, and three First Nations.
His department issues more than 12,000 dog licenses a year and responds to about 600 complaints about bites, or potentially dangerous dogs, annually.
“In 2015 we declared 43 dogs as dangerous and issued 73 dangerous dog cautions for minor events i.e. charging, aggressive behaviour, chasing, etc,” he said, adding most of those cases result in consent orders that the owners comply with, and the problem is solved.
His counterparts Aaron Dawson with the City of Parksville and Dareld Lewis of the Comox Valley Regional District are responsible for much smaller animal populations, but each reports similar results and an issue that is largely under control.
“It’s something that’s there. We don’t see it as a growing problem,” Dawson said. “Owners on both sides are very reasonable and responsible.”
“A lot of owners will put their own dog down if they’ve gone too far,” Lewis added.
But there are times where the owner and animal control disagree on the need for euthanasia or restrictive orders. Those are the cases that end up costing both parties a lot of time and money in court.
Lawyer Rebeka Breder would likely not be surprised to hear animal control officers like Section 49. In her view, one of the major flaws with the law is that it gives them too much discretionary power in how they designate dogs as dangerous and what they do in the aftermath.
“More often than not, they’re not qualified to make those decisions,” she said. “They’re not animal behaviourists so they should not be the ones making the decision.”
Breder said suspected dangerous animals should be judged based on defined standards, as determined by professionals in the area of animal behaviour.
“A law should be clear. Unlike most areas of the law where it’s black-and-white, it’s not under Section 49 and that’s the problem.”
Breder is the founder and chair of the Animal Law section of the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch. She said the law should be be rewritten with a goal of animal rehabilitation. As it stands now, suspect dangerous dogs are often seized and kept separate from their owners for months in unfamiliar, bleak surroundings, and assessed in an environment where stress is inevitable.
She thinks things like bail provisions, visitation rights and guarantees of a speedy resolution should be built into the law.
“Section 49 does not adequately provide a fair justice system to dog owners and their dogs.”
B.C. communities don’t often ask for dogs to be put down.
According to lawyer Troy DeSouza — B.C.'s most prominent prosecutor in this relatively obscure area of law — there may be 10 cases across the province each year that get to that point, and at least half get resolved without a judge having to make a decision.
“Most responsible owners will put their dog down,” he said. “Or we try to negotiate a court order. That’s an approach reasonable people can use.”
He agrees the law needs changes, but counters Breder’s arguments by saying that in some cases it unreasonably protects dogs.
In the Hugo incident, the attacking dog could not be deemed dangerous due to a part of Section 49 that offers blanket protection to animals thought to be protecting their territory. DeSouza argues that is too big a loophole.
He has proposed amendments to Section 49 called Hugo's and Charley's Law after a pair of recent dog attacks. Endorsed last month by the town of Esquimalt, the amendments would apply the “dangerous” designation to any dog that has killed another dog regardless of where. Those changes would also provide financial encouragement for negotiated consent orders instead of court action, spell out very specific penalties for the violation of those orders and install a “last chance” clause after which a dog can be put down without any further court action.
Breder disagrees on the “territorial clause” saying it is one of the few areas of the current law that gives voice to recognized animal behaviour patterns. But she sees merit in the other proposed amendments.
“Overall, I agree with the intent of the proposed changes, namely: (1) both sides are given a chance to settle by way of a consent order, instead of resorting to a long protracted trial; and (2) the dog owner at issue may be able to recoup some of his/her legal costs,” she said.
“One of the problems with the current legislation is that the local government has nothing to lose by pursuing these cases. If the local government knew that it can ultimately be liable for both its own legal fees and those of its opponent, it may put some (much needed) further thought into the merits of the claim.”
Parties on both sides of the discussion are looking for a clearer legal definition to situations that fall into that difficult-to-define grey area where “a dog is just being a dog” yet may also be posing a risk. Right now, there is very little black-and-white criteria that spells out when a dog should be considered dangerous, and which of those dangerous dogs are beyond rehabilitation and should ultimately end up on doggie death row.
Defenders of the dog that killed Hugo say it was provoked by external factors that should have been better controlled by humans. DeSouza said there is a point where certain animal behaviour needs to be restricted no matter the reasons and the province needs to better legislate that line.
“There is a philosophical division that can’t be reconciled,” he said. “There are animal rights people who never think it is right for a dog to be put down.”
Breder said she is not one of those people, but added that decision is one that should not ever be made easily.
“The point is the dog should be given a fair chance,” she said.
Dawson said that when pets are concerned, there are never easy answers.
“It’s very emotional for everyone involved,” he said. “Everyone loves their dogs.”
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