While Montreal has decided to tackle the issue of savage dog attacks by banning pit bull type dogs, Calgary is standing by its long-held decision to put the responsibility on the other end of the leash.
“I don’t support breed bans because they don’t work,” said Bill Bruce, the former director of animal services for the city of Calgary, whose animal-control program is considered among the most effective in North America. “We have to get to the root of the problem, and that is that people must maintain control of their animals.”
Forcing responsibility onto owners, educating the public on the importance of quickly dealing with problem dogs and ensuring pets are licensed led to a precipitous drop in the number of aggressive incidents. It’s not a quick process, officials say, but it works in the long run and avoids wrenching and expensive acrimony. The system is supported by Montreal animal shelters.
“When you misidentify the issue as breed specific, when you say all of a particular breed are bad dogs, you have now polarized your community,” said Bruce, who retired as director in 2012, after 12 years in the post. “So everybody who has a dog like that and knows it is a good dog, is your mortal enemy, as well as everyone who knows that dog and knows it’s a good dog, and you’re going to spend a fortune in court as a municipality.
“The thing that disturbs me the most,” Bruce said over the phone from Calgary, “is that in every city I’ve looked at (that has introduced a breed ban), they have not reduced the overall number of bites in the community.”
The city of Montreal announced last week it would be banning the future acquisition of pit-bull type dogs, mixed breeds with pit-bulls in their lineage and dogs that resemble them, in the hopes of warding off the type of attacks that led to the death of 55-year-old Pointe-aux-Trembles resident Christiane Vadnais in June. Under Montreal’s proposed new animal control bylaws, current owners can keep their pit-bull type dogs under strict regulations. Montreal is joining numerous municipalities as well as the province of Ontario, which instituted a pit-bull ban in 2005, who argue that pit-bull type dogs must be gradually removed from society because they are responsible for an inordinate number of serious attacks.
Calgary has been testing the theory since 2000, at a time when Labrador retrievers were the breed most likely to inflict bites. The city of 1.2 million people decided to shift from the standard “animal control” model to a “responsible pet owner” model.
Bruce, the son of a police officer who grew up with German shepherds in his house, was the new director of animal services at the time. On visits to the city’s shelters, he found most often animals were abandoned because of a failure in the relationship with their human owners, often linked to a behavioural issue, be it too much barking or allergies or nipping at strangers. Bruce would see the owners sitting in their car in the shelter parking lot, “crying for half an hour.”
The solution to reducing aggressive canine behaviour, city officials decided, was to approach owners while issues were still relatively minor and give them the tools to fix the problem.
Problem dogs are aggressive for one of two reasons, Bruce said. Some owners choose intimidating breeds because the dog gives them a sense of increasing their own power. Those are not good dog owners, he said, and often must be separated from their pets, and fined strictly if the dogs are aggressive. Ban a breed and that type of owner will gravitate to the newest trend in intimidating or demonized dogs — in the 1960s, it was German shepherds, in the ’70s it was Dobermans, followed by Rottweilers and then pit bulls. The latest move is toward larger breeds like bullmastiffs and Cane Corsos.