'The fact is, my dog is not aggressive': Yellowknifer on trial proves challenging witness
'Are you capable of answering a question directly?' asks Judge Donovan Molloy
The dog that attacked and killed another dog on Finlayson Drive last summer was known to have aggressive tendencies — but it wasn't easy to get its owner to admit that.
Douglas McNiven is facing two charges under the Yellowknife's dog bylaw because his dog, Aloha, got loose and latched onto a dog being walked past his house. The other dog underwent surgery the same day, but was put down two days later. At least two people got injuries to their hands from trying to pry Aloha's jaw open.
The charges include having a dog at large and having a dog that bites someone without provocation.
Thursday morning, Day 2 of the trial in N.W.T. territorial court, began with McNiven taking the stand for cross-examination from city lawyer Keith Sulzer.
He proved to be a challenging witness.
'My dog is not aggressive'
"The fact is, my dog is not aggressive," said McNiven under questioning.
Judge Donovan Molloy interjected: "Your dog savagely attacked and ripped a large hole in the other dog. That's not aggressive?"
McNiven admitted it is, but added: "Typically, she's not."
The exchange was just one of several in which the judge interrupted lawyers to address McNiven directly.
Earlier, the judge asked McNiven to explain how it was that Will Chueng, the owner of the dog that died, was "stirring things up in the community," by talking to neighbours about what had happened. McNiven suggested that's the reason neighbours had become "standoffish" when they saw him walking his dog. "It's just weird," McNiven said.
"How many dogs have been killed on Finlayson Drive since you've lived there?" asked Judge Molloy.
"I don't know. It does happen," McNiven said.
"You seem to be trying to take every opportunity to cast aspersions on Mr. Chueng," said the judge.
Your dog savagely attacked and ripped a large hole in the other dog. That's not aggressive?- Judge Donovan Molloy
McNiven was asked directly about two past incidents. One was in June of 2017, when a woman came to the door to report that Aloha had attacked a child on a bike. Another was in June 2013, when another woman said Aloha bit both her and her dog.
McNiven said he knew nothing about either.
A few minutes later, questioning broke down almost completely as McNiven tried to suggest that an earlier witness was guilty of walking his dog off leash in the neighborhood.
The judge: "Are you capable of answering a question directly?"
Some witnesses described McNiven's dog as pitbull-like, though McNiven's daughter, Indiana McNiven, testified the dog was a rescue mutt with no papers.
McNiven said he'd read about the discrimination certain dog breeds face, "just like people have been discriminated against for centuries. It's horrible to me."
He also said the dog was "better than she was before," and is taking medicine to treat anxiety.
But the dog's aggression may not be the central issue.
The definition of 'bite'
During closing arguments, McNiven's lawyer Jay Bran argued that the dog didn't bite anyone. Instead, two people (Chueng and passer-by Dan Schofield) had made the "active decision" to put their hands into the mouth of a dog who was already biting another dog.
To the visible dismay of the judge, city lawyer Sulzer was unable to provide a definition of "bite" that took in the unique circumstances.
Bran also argued that the dog was at large only through an accident: the breaking of a collar attached to a tether in the front yard.
Sulzer argued that putting the dog on that tether in the first place was the very reason he was charged.
Judge Molloy will have other issues to mull over, including whether the dog was attached to a tether at all (some witnesses said they didn't see one), and why McNiven detached the tether from his lawn immediately after the incident and stored it in a bin, even though he said he expected bylaw officers to arrive at any moment to conduct a thorough investigation.
A 'generally poor' investigation
In fact, very little investigation ever happened, something both McNiven and his daughter said surprised them. Both McNivens expected bylaw officers to phone or visit to hear their side of the story.
"I watch a lot of crime TV shows," said Indiana McNiven.
Instead, a few days after the event, they were served with a notice that bylaw had deemed their pet a vicious dog.
Judge Molloy characterized the city's investigation as "not the gold standard of enforcement work."
"In fact, it's generally poor," he added.
He later told Sulzer that if the city plans to charge people, it has an "obligation" to conduct quality investigations.
Sulzer declined to comment.
Decision this summer
Judge Molloy promised to deliver his decision on July 17.
That could include an order to destroy McNiven's dog, as well as fines and/or a jail term of up to three months.
McNiven made it clear on the stand, these are high stakes.
At one point, he came close to tears, saying the dog is part of his family.
"She sleeps in my bed," he said. "She's huge to me."