By Rebeka Breder , BA, JD
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. Cody’s owner sends to Animal Control numerous reference letters from friends, neighbours and dog owners, who all attest to Cody’s friendly character. These letters 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 euthanized.
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
- has killed or seriously injured a person,
- 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
- 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 to the skin, regardless of the long-term effects of the alleged injury. “Reasonable grounds” has also been interpreted liberally by courts; 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. Courts may consider other evidence, such as a dog’s past behaviour, and expert animal behaviourist testimony, but 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 his or her 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 injure 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.
What are your rights if you are ever faced with Animal Control or the police attempting to seize your dog? You should be aware that Animal Control officers and police often try to convince people that fighting them is useless, and that the dog owners must give up their dog. This is wrong. Not only ethically, but in law. Animal Control and police officers do not have the right to seize someone’s dog from their property, regardless of how convincing and intimidating they appear. Officers must have a warrant. If they do not have a warrant, you can politely tell them that you do not consent to releasing your dog.
If the officers have a warrant, ask them to show it to you, and ensure that the time period on the warrant corresponds with the date of their arrival to your home. If the warrant appears valid, you will need to release your dog to them. Make sure to note how many officers attended your home, and your dog’s demeanor when released to Animal Control or to the police. Very often, the dogs are friendly and simply believe they are going for a car ride. This can bode well for adding to your evidence that the dog is not truly dangerous (would a vicious dog so easily get in the car with a stranger?!).
At the time of seizure, also make sure to ask where your dog is being taken and ask to visit your dog. You should be allowed visitation, and to bring the dog’s toys, preferred food, bedding, and other special belongings. Unfortunately, there is no law that requires shelters to allow you to visit your dog, but most shelters are understanding. As hard as it is, keep your cool and be polite when speaking to Animal Control and shelter attendants. This will help you in the long run.
Once the dog is seized, she can only be kept at the shelter for up to 21 days, unless Animal Control files a destruction application (ie: lawsuit) within that time period. If Animal Control does not file a lawsuit, you have the right (and should) demand, in writing and orally, the return of your dog. If they do not return your dog, Animal Control may be liable for damages to the dog owner for the failure to return the dog owner’s “property”.
If a destruction application is filed in court, this begins the trial process. The first thing a dog owner should do is to seek legal counsel. This is usually a very expensive process. If the dog owner can not afford legal representation for the entire trial, lawyers will sometimes offer a flexible fee arrangement. If money is a complete barrier, it is worth obtaining at least an initial consultation to let you know your rights, and the next steps for which to prepare.
One of the first steps the lawyer should advise the dog owner to take is to retain a qualified animal behaviourist who can conduct her own assessment of the alleged incident and overall dog’s behaviour. Note that there are many dog trainers who call themselves behaviourists, but they are often not qualified. Ask them for their qualifications in animal welfare and behaviour. They should have more than just experience with dog handling and training. They should, ideally, have a university degree that qualifies them as an animal welfare and behaviour scientist. Essentially, they are equivalent to animal psychiatrists.
Once the animal behaviourist is retained, she should visit and assess the dog as soon as possible. She will often recommend a prescription for medication to reduce the dog’s stress while impounded.
The lawyer should also advise the dog owner to obtain a trial date as soon as possible. If the dog owners do not urge the court registry for an early trial date, the entire process can take well over one year. This is far too long for the dog to be impounded. There are situations where one can ask for “bail”, but the law is currently very unsettled.
The other important point is that, thanks to a 2013 Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Central Okanagan (Regional District), 2013 BCSC 228, “conditional orders” can be made. This means that even if a court considers a dog to be “dangerous” within the meaning of the legislation, the court can order the dog released on certain conditions (ie: leashed when on public property, muzzled in certain circumstances, continuation of a rehabilitation and management plan prepared by the animal behaviourist). This can be a useful bargaining tool with the Prosecution. Specifically, dog owners can agree in advance that their dog is “dangerous” on the condition that the Prosecution will not pursue a destruction order, but will instead enter into a “consent order” which allows both sides to agree to conditions of release. This “consent order” is then filed in court, and can drastically reduce the time needed for trial. A win-win for both sides. It ensures public safety while also allowing the dog to live.
There is much more to “dangerous” dog law. The above focussed only on provincial legislation in regard to destruction applications. The law is different when dealing with “aggressive” or “vicious” designations under municipal bylaws – that is a topic for another discussion. In the meantime, just remember that you have the right to fight for, and protect, your beloved dog.