British Columbia

Making bad dogs worse? Lawyer questions policy that locks up dangerous canines

While the courts decide whether a dangerous dog lives or dies, its owner and her lawyer say keeping him at the pound for the past two years is only making him worse.

One dog has been locked up for nearly two years with no exposure to outdoors

Punky, seen here as a puppy, attacked a stranger in a Vancouver park, leading to the provincial court order that would threaten his life. (Susan Santics/Facebook)

Once a week, Susan Santics is allowed to see her dog, Punky.

The four-year-old Australian cattle dog lives in a cell at a city animal shelter in East Vancouver.

He's been there ever since he bit a woman at a dog park in August 2017. A provincial court ordered him euthanized, but Santics fought it up to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

Until his fate is decided, he's considered a risk to the public, so he can't be released — not even to go outside to pee.

Santics, 62, is one of only a couple people allowed to visit him, but she's not allowed inside his enclosure. The retired nurse's aide spends her 30-minute visits reaching through the chain link door of his cell, practising putting a muzzle on him and trying to train him.

She knows Punky's a bad dog. She's trying her best to change that, but the pound is not a rehabilitation facility. She worries the environment at the shelter is making him worse.

Santics adopted Punky as a seven-week-old puppy from some people selling him at a folk festival. He was a smart puppy who loved to fetch and play with other dogs, she said, but he had nipped vet assistants and a trainer before biting the woman at the dog park. 

If Punky is ever released, Santics wants to make sure he's better behaved than when he came in. If not, she wonders if locking him up succeeded in protecting the public.

Both Santics and her lawyer, Victoria Shroff, say the shelter isn't helping Punky get better. If anything, the incarceration and isolation have made his behaviour worse.

If it's just a holding facility for problem dogs, they say it's not benefiting the animal or the public.

"He hasn't had grass underneath his feet or had interaction with Susan outside of a cage," Shroff said. 

"Are we just ... going to hold dogs or [are we] going to say we're going to turn them into better canine citizens while we have them here?"

Santics' friends and family question why she continues to spend time and money on fighting for this dog. 

"I've lost friends through this, I've lost family ... friends have told me to put him down, give up," she said.

"This isn't the right way to do it. There's got to be a better way."

Susan Santics tries to train her dog, Punky, through the chain link door of his kennel when she visits him every week. (CBC/Harman )

Unusual case

The taxpayer-funded shelter on Raymur Avenue has well-behaved dogs up for adoption, but dogs like Punky who were ordered incarcerated stay in a separate wing closed to the public.

Punky's residency is an unusually long one.

Dogs that bite a person or another animal are sent there by the city for a 21-day assessment with a behaviourist.

This information can be used in court to determine whether the dog should be euthanized. It's not the shelter that decides that, said Koji Miyaji, deputy chief licence inspector for the City of Vancouver.

The number of dogs undergoing these life or death assessments varies from month to month. Miyaji would not comment on specific cases, but said as of June 20 only one dog is under assessment.

Determining the fate of these dogs doesn't typically drag out as long as it has for Punky.

The longest a dog has remained in custody has been two years, he added.

Dogs kept at the facility during this time are fed and played with regularly, said John Gray, manager of animal services for the City of Vancouver.

"We actually think that the dogs that are here in our facilities are treated better than our dogs at home, in many respects," he added.

The kennels for adoptable dogs are pictured at the City of Vancouver’s Animal Services. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Warehousing of animals is not good for anybody'

Santics' lawyer says that's not enough — a dangerous dog needs training and rehabilitation to have any chance of reintegrating into society, Shroff said.

If a problem dog isn't rehabilitated, it could pose a risk to public safety once it's allowed out. And if the shelter is simply acting as a holding facility, it's not benefiting anyone, she added.

As long as a dangerous dog is allowed to live, Shroff says it should be given a chance at rehabilitation.

"They're doing the best they can given the system and the financial restraints," she said of the shelter.

"[But] I think this warehousing of animals is not good for anybody."

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