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.
In most cases, however, well-meaning owners didn’t see the warning signs of growing aggression
— dashing to the fence to bark at strangers, running away repeatedly, nipping — and didn’t know how to correct them before they escalated. All dogs bite, Bruce noted. The key is to train them away from that behavior.
Bruce is also listed as an advisor to the National Canine Research Council (NCRC), a private U.S. research group that is funded by the Animal Farm Foundation, a New-York based organization advocating for “equal treatment and opportunity for pit bull dogs.” The NCRC asks for his opinion on animal control as a professional in the field, and has never asked him to alter his opinion to suit a particular agenda, Bruce said.
After lengthy public consultations with all the stakeholders
— dog owners, bite victims, animal shelters and veterinarian associations — along with detailed data collection on types of aggression and breeds responsible, the city embarked on a widespread public education campaign. Dogs must be licensed, they explained, because it’s the easiest way to return them if they’re lost. (Most dog owners lose their dog at one time or another, Bruce said.) Reward programs — offering discounts to those who register their pets with local retailers ranging from pet food stores to IKEA that offset the price of the $37 annual license — also helped.
“We told owners that if you do four things: license your dogs, provide permanent identification through tags or microchips, sterilize them and provide training so they do not become a nuisance or threat, you can have as many pets as you want, any type of pet you want, and the government won’t be on your doorstep,” Bruce said.
If not, Calgary has some of the strictest animal regulations in North America.
Fines for not having a license for an animal are $250, several times the cost of a license. Owners of dogs involved in an attack can be fined up to $10,000 and the dogs may be euthanized.
The main complaints against dog owners are lack of proper care, excessive noise and smells. Calgary has 24 animal control officers who patrol the city, investigate complaints and pick up stray or lost animals. For dogs involved in an aggressive incident, be it as simple as a dog who chased someone in a threatening manner, the officers investigate the complaint, perform mediation and figure out a solution, which sometimes requires the animal receive training from an expert. In 98 per cent of cases, the nuisance order on a dog is lifted after owners fix the problem, Bruce said.
In 1985, Calgary recorded just over 2,000 aggressive dog incidents.
In 2014, the city had 641 confirmed reports of aggression incidents, with 252 dog bites, despite a large upsurge over that period in the city’s human and pet population. The numbers of bites saw a marked rise starting in 2012, but officials say it’s due to a recent campaign asking residents to report all forms of bites. In 2014, pit bulls were responsible for 16 per cent of bites, retrievers for 9 per cent and shepherds for 10 per cent.
In Calgary, 90 per cent of dogs are licensed.
In 2011, 87 per cent of lost dogs were returned to their owners, eight per cent were adopted, and 5 per cent had to be euthanized. The city shelter, which holds 84 dogs, is usually half empty, Bruce said.
Calgary’s animal services budget of roughly $5 million, which includes visits to hundreds of schools as part of its education campaign, is entirely financed by its licensing fees.
In Montreal, which has made a concerted effort to improve awareness in the last few years, it’s estimated only 14 per cent of the city’s 150,000 dogs are licensed, said Anie Samson, city executive committee member responsible for public security.
Fines have increased to $250 for non-compliance.
“It takes some time. It’s kind of like community building,” Bruce said. “It takes time to write new local laws, to provide education.”
The system is constantly evolving. In 2010, Calgary introduced a subsidized spay and neuter program so low-income families can afford to sterilize their dogs.
“It’s all about consequences,” Bruce said. “Human behavior does not change without consequences. But if you change the human behaviors, then the animal behaviors will be resolved.”