British Columbia

B.C. judge urged to spare animal's life amid debate over dog whisperer's technique

A Victoria woman fighting to save the life of her friend's dog urged a provincial court judge to look past the contentious debate over dog training that took over his courtroom Wednesday in order to focus instead on the question of public safety.

Judge says he'll hold the parties 'to the minute' of ballooning court time on the case of a dangerous dog

Bronx was designated a dangerous dog by the City of Victoria. (Submitted by Lisa Warden)

A Victoria woman fighting to save the life of her friend's dog urged a provincial court judge Tuesday to look past a contentious debate over methods of dog training to focus instead on questions of public safety.

As she launched into her defence of a condemned canine named Bronx, Lisa Warden told Judge Adrian Brooks he really only has one thing to decide — and it isn't the effectiveness of so-called dog-whispering.

"We have delved deeply into what kind of training methods are acceptable for person X or Y — that's not the issue here," Warden told the judge.

"The issue is: Is this dog going to pose an unacceptable risk to the public?"

'Now I feel like I'm chasing my tail'

Bronx's defenders began calling witnesses Tuesday after nearly two days of testimony from a Vancouver Island-based dog behaviourist hired by the City of Victoria to assess the Dogo Argentino Rottweiler cross.

Animal control officers declared Bronx a dangerous dog in August 2018 when he bit and killed a small poodle a fraction of his size.

Ken Griffiths, known as the Comox Valley Dog Whisperer, agreed to adopt Bronx in the hopes of securing the dog's release. He claimed he could rehabilitate the condemned canine. (Ken Griffiths/Facebook)

After a series of warnings related to an order he be muzzled, Bronx was seized last March when he bit a man in the parking lot of the Mustard Seed Street Church and Food Bank, a haunt of the dog's former owner — Rick Bonora.

In a bid to save Bronx's life, Bonora transferred ownership of the animal to Ken Griffiths, a Vancouver Island dog behaviourist known as the Comox Valley Dog Whisperer.

Warden — who is not a lawyer — is representing Bonora, and Griffiths is representing himself at an unexpectedly complicated proceeding that has already eaten up three days of trial time and a number of pre-trial hearings.

Judge Adrian Brooks reluctantly set aside two more days next week after Griffiths took 45 minutes for a cross-examination he promised would last no longer than a quarter of an hour.

"Now I feel like I'm chasing my tail," the judge said at one point before ordering the parties to give him a firm estimate of the time they'll need to wrap.

"I'm going to stick you to that time — to the minute."

'This dog will never be an unacceptable risk'

Brooks has to decide if Bronx is a dangerous dog, and if he is likely to injure or kill a person in the future if he is not destroyed.

The city's expert witness, Lisbeth Plant, told the judge Bronx is an extremely fearful dog whose future behaviour — like anything in life — can never be guaranteed.

Celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan is known to his millions of fans as the Dog Whisperer. His techniques came under attack during a hearing about a dangerous dog in a B.C. provincial court. (YouTube)

"All I know is that if I was walking down the street with my granddaughter, and I saw Bronx ... walking toward us — I would cross the street," Plant said at one point.

By contrast, Warden's expert, Port Alberni dog behaviourist Gary Gibson, said he has "absolutely" no doubt Griffiths can turn Bronx around.

"I wouldn't guarantee anything 100 per cent," Gibson told Brooks.

"But I believe this dog will never be an unacceptable risk, not in [Griffiths'] hands and not in his compound."

The dispute over Griffiths' abilities is rooted in what Plant described as a "rift" in the dog training world over techniques popularized by celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan, star of the TV show The Dog Whisperer.

Plant claimed both Griffiths and Millan adhere to an outdated theory that the best way to train a dog is to exert dominance over the animal.

Griffiths — meanwhile — calls himself a "dog psychiatrist" who understands the language dogs use to communicate with each other and gains trust by becoming a dog's mother. 

In past proceedings, Griffiths has said he "literally knows what dogs think." 

'That was forceful intimidation?'

The debate between Plant and Griffiths came to a head in court when the two disagreed on almost every behaviour displayed in a video of Griffiths meeting Bronx at the city's pound alongside two dogs who help him with assessments.

Gibson held the camera during Griffiths' assessment and agreed to provide his own opinion because the city argued that Griffiths' position as Bronx's newfound owner made it impossible for him to be independent.

The City of Victoria applied to destroy Bronx after a series of biting incidents but a judge ruled he did not represent an unacceptable risk to public safety. (Lisa Warden)

Where Plant saw stress in pinned ears, yawning and lying down, Griffiths saw relaxation. At one point Brooks told Plant that his own dog's ears are often pinned back — and he's very relaxed.

"I'm not saying Mr. Griffiths is terrorizing the dog but through emotional and physical intimidation, he is forcing the dog to lie down," Plant told the judge.

"That was forceful intimidation?" Griffiths said — pointing out that Bronx looked almost asleep at certain points during their time together.

Gibson told Brooks that he didn't see the stress in Bronx that Plant claimed to have seen during the time spent with Griffiths. He said he had also been skeptical of some of his methods, but had to admit that Griffiths has a gift.

"What he's done here, in 40 years of working with dogs, I have never seen this done before in my life. This quickly, and this kind of a teaching process," Gibson said.

"It's quite amazing."

No Better than Flipping a Coin

Beyond the merits of dog whispering, the defence and prosecution also locked horns over the value of the assessment videos themselves.

Plant works with decoys of dogs and a child, whereas Griffiths uses real dogs to gauge reaction.

On cross-examination, Plant conceded that studies have questioned the reliability of reactions to decoys, but said she does not want to put real dogs at risk.

She also said assessments in controlled settings could never mimic the confounding factors at play in the real world, citing a paper on the predictive value of assessments called "No Better than Flipping a Coin."

Gibson said he has testified at about two dozen dangerous dog cases, appearing for both the prosecution and the defence.

Plant said she has appeared at about a dozen, acting only for the prosecution so far.

"Because they are the ones that contact me," she told Warden.

The trial continues next Monday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.

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