Banning the breed: The debate over pit bulls
CBC News Online | May 15, 2006
They seem to come in bunches: attacks by dangerous dogs.
A pit bull (AP photo)
Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004. Toronto police fire more than a dozen bullets into two pit bulls that had turned on the man who was walking them as a favour for a friend.
A week earlier, Fredericton, N.B. A family is out walking their Shitzu. A Rottweiler, recently acquired by a neighbour, attacks and kills the dog.
A week before that, in London, Ont., a woman and her seven-year-old son watch in horror as a pit bull latches onto her husband's arm as he tries to keep the family puppy out of the dog's reach.
On Oct. 15, 2004, Ontario's attorney general, Michael Bryant, announced that his province would be the first to ban pit bulls, calling them "ticking time bombs." The ban took effect in the summer of 2005.
The new law faced its first legal challenge in May 2006. Catherine Cochrane, who owns a pit bull-type dog named Chess, said the law is vague and doesn't promote responsible dog ownership. Lawyer Clayton Ruby will argue in Ontario Superior Court that the vast majority of pit bulls are just like Chess – friendly, loving animals.
It's not a new debate. It tends to be renewed after particularly vicious attacks, like one that killed an eight-year-old Stouffville, Ont., girl in 1998.
Marketplace: Dangerous dogs
Winnipeg became the first Canadian city to ban pit bulls in 1990, a year after an attack left a young girl badly disfigured. Since then, incidents involving pit bulls have fallen from about 25 a year to one or two.
Dr. Norma Guy teaches animal behaviour at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown. She says banning certain breeds of dogs is a stopgap measure that doesn't address the real issue: people behaving irresponsibly with their dogs.
"I'm in favour of really promoting responsible ownership and passing legislation to enforce that," she says.
Guy says one big problem with banning breeds like pit bulls is that once you get into a courtroom, identifying a dog as a specific breed can be very difficult.
"We have to get at the people [who keep vicious dogs]. If you take away the pit bulls, they will move onto another breed. You have to look at stopping individual people who have proven themselves to be irresponsible owners from keeping dogs."
But pit bulls do have their backers. Many have organized to fight against breed-specific legislation.
Sandra Always, the president of the Golden Horseshoe American Pit Bull Terrier Club, has owned and bred pit bulls for 16 years. She's also the vice-president of the Dog Legislation Council of Canada, an organization that lobbies against laws that ban specific breeds of dogs.
"A dog needs responsible ownership regardless of breed," she told CBC Radio. "You train it, you contain and you socialize it. If you ban these guys, what's next? Italy started with a banned list of 13 breeds. They're up to over 40 now. They just banned Welsh Corgis!"
Jennifer Segal is a dog trainer who chooses not to work with pit bulls. She says years of improper breeding have made them not only aggressive but deadly.
"There are a number of young people, particularly male, particularly under the age of 28, who find it to be some type of cultural element to have this type of arm jewelry, pulling them around. It's the macho appearance."
Pit bulls were originally bred in 19th-century England to fight other dogs in pits. That's now rare, but Merle Blaine of the Etobicoke Humane Society in Toronto says it still happens.
"People arrange fights in parks. But by the time you get there it's pretty well over. The dog that loses the fight is left behind, usually a mess. [This kind of thing] makes the breed a bad breed."
But she's not convinced breed-specific legislation is the answer.
"Probably what should happen is there should be a special licensing fee for pit bulls and their owners should be required to take special training. It should be more difficult to own one."
Dr. Guy agrees. "It is too easy owning a dog. [People don't realize] it's like having a toddler for 12 years. A toddler with teeth. We never say we've cured a dog with an aggression problem. All we say is we've lowered the risk of an aggressive action happening again."
She favours stronger legislation aimed at dog owners and the teeth to back up those laws.
"It takes some investment," Guy said. "Dogs are always going to be here. If we want to continue having dogs with us, we are going to have to have some legislation in place and a way to enforce it so we can control what happens when people don't act responsibly."
In the end, the issue may come down to economics. In March 2004, a Calgary man found himself without home insurance when his insurance company decided it would no longer cover people who kept Rottweilers, German shepherds, pit bulls or Doberman pinschers. Allstate said even a mongrel with any of those bloodlines is considered unacceptable.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada says it's a growing trend in the industry.
What is a "pit bull"?|
While there is no officially recognized breed called the "pit bull," the term is applied to a number of breeds, and different breeds are recognized by different kennel clubs. The proposed Ontario ban says "pit bull" includes:
Some city bans also include the bull terrier.
- A pit bull terrier.
- A Staffordshire bull terrier.
- An American Staffordshire terrier.
- An American pit bull terrier.
- A member of a class of dogs that have an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to dogs referred to above.
What isn't a "pit bull"?
Some more exotic breeds are sometimes mistaken for pit bulls. These breeds look like pit bulls, but are somewhat larger:
These breeds may be banned in Ontario under the ban's "appearance and physical characteristics" clause.
- Cane Corso
- Dogo Argentino
- Tosa Inu
Some Canadian bans on "vicious" dogs include these breeds:
There is no test to determine what breed a dog is. Genetically, all dogs are indistinguishable. A breeder or a dog show judge may be able to determine the breed of a purebred dog, but it would be difficult to tell if a mixed-breed dog descends from a "pit bull" or a mastiff, a Great Dane or a Jack Russell terrier.
- Rhodesian Ridgeback