by: Rebeka Breder
“Dangerous” dog laws in B.C.
Picture this: A friendly and playful dog, Cody, somehow escapes his backyard when his owner is out, and gets into a kerfuffle with another dog. Apparently, it’s the other dog’s fault, but there are no other witnesses other than the other dog’s guardians. Animal Control comes to the scene, seizes Cody and then phones Cody’s owner to say that Cody has been impounded and put on a destruction order. Cody is thrown into solitary confinement for months, with very little human and dog interaction other than his owner’s occasional visits, which are at the mercy of Animal Control.
Cody’s owner does everything she can think of to convince Animal Control that Cody has never done anything like this before. All of the letters of reference Cody’s owner sends to Animal Control from friends, neighbours and dog owners from off leash parks, all of whom attest to Cody’s friendly character, have no effect. Instead, Animal Control pursues the destruction order through the City’s legal department. Cody’s owner eventually gets her day in court, but at this point, Cody has deteriorated so much – both mentally and physically – that the pound keepers testify there is no hope of rehabilitating him and they have reasonable grounds to believe that Cody will do this again.
A destruction order is made, and Cody is put to death. Unfortunately, this type of situation can, and does, happen in British Columbia. Here is why. Under the Vancouver Charter and the Community Charter, a “dangerous” dog is one who A. has killed or seriously injured a person, B. has killed or seriously injured a domestic animal, while in a public space or while on private property, other than property owned or occupied by the person responsible for the dog, or C. an animal control officer has reasonable grounds to believe is likely to kill or seriously injure a person. The courts have interpreted “seriously” broadly to include any puncture in the skin, regardless of the long-term effects of the alleged injury. “Reasonable grounds” has also been used liberally by courts so that as long as an Animal Control Officer testifies that he or she believes the dog will do it again, the courts can rely on their statements; while courts consider other evidence, such as a dog’s past behaviour, and expert animal behaviourist testimony, they do not need to do so.
Courts have wide discretion to decide whether a dog fits the definition of “dangerous.” And if the dog falls under (a), (b) or (c), the dog is well on its way to death row. One of the many problems with the “dangerous” dog laws in British Columbia is that the process – from impoundment to trial – is unreasonably long and does not provide the “defendant” dog guardians with a fair chance to save their “Cody.” Even if one is lucky enough to afford the thousands of dollars it takes to get legal counsel and expert witnesses, or find a lawyer willing to defend the dog at a reduced hourly rate, the dog will likely need further expensive veterinary care if he is freed from the pound.
The other problem is that the dog can be impounded as a “dangerous” dog even if the dog does not physically injured someone or another animal.
Under our current laws, Animal Control only needs to have “reasonable grounds” to believe that the dog is dangerous. This gives far too much discretion to Animal Control officers who are often not qualified animal behaviourists to determine whether the dog is truly aggressive or dangerous.
One of the first questions a lawyer should ask her client is whether the dog was seized from private property. If it was, Animal Control must obtain a warrant for doing so, yet often enough, Animal Control wrongfully seizes a dog without one. The issue of “dangerous” dogs is hotly debated. Proper solutions, however, can be achieved that will balance the protection of property rights and animal welfare, and ensure public safety.
Rebeka Breder is an Animal Law lawyer at Boughton Law Corporation in Vancouver, BC.