Back in October 2014, a Toronto Star reporter wrote an article suggesting that Toronto Animal Service’s dog bite statistics proved that Ontario’s “pit bull” ban was working because the number of bites by “pit bulls” had plummeted. He also suggested that those same statistics showed that “pit bulls” were the most dangerous dogs in the city before the ban when looking at the dog bites vs. licensed population by breed.
I wrote a lengthy reply but never did send it to the Star, mostly because the issue faded away from the media’s attention after a few days (as it often does).
Today, while reading some old “to do” e-mails, I came across my response to his article, so I thought I’d share it in case anyone can use some of the thoughts for themselves.
Despite The Star’s editorial that claims there is no ban, when the former Attorney General of Ontario stood up in front of the cameras and proudly pronounced, “Banned! Banned! Pit Bulls are banned in the province of Ontario!”, I tend to believe he really did mean “banned”.
When no dogs of a certain shape younger than nine years old are allowed to remain in this province, when they can’t be brought in to live, visit, or pass through, when the penalty for violation is immediate confiscation and either shipping out of the province, to a “research facility”, or execution, I think we can be honest about this and call it a ban.
The question the Star tried to answer with Friday’s article and Monday’s editorial is, “has the ban worked?”
Unfortunately, the answer is nowhere near as simple as the authors of those articles would like you to think. This is not just a question of identifying a breed and then getting rid of it (or at least reducing its bites to people).
The statistical errors that are immediately apparent when using Toronto Animal Services bite numbers are numerous:
Firstly, Toronto Animal Services does not receive reports of all bites that happen in Toronto. That is the domain of Toronto Public Health. Their reports show a significantly higher number of bites in Toronto than those of Toronto Animal Services.
Secondly, Toronto Animal Services’ determination of breed or breed mix is entirely subjective. It could be the opinion of a puppy mill breeder, a backyard breeder, a shelter or rescue, the owner of the dog, a neighbour of the dog, the bite victim themselves, an Animal Services officer, an SPCA officer, a police officer, or a veterinarian!
Despite the consistent court testimony from breed experts that it is physically impossible to accurately identify a dog’s breed makeup by sight (or by DNA, for that matter), Toronto Animal Services seems to feel that any one of the people mentioned above have the experience and expertise to make that decision. That decision will affect whether the dog lives or dies, whether the owner is charged or not, and ultimately, when these random statistics are accumulated over years, whether a particular type of dog becomes a target of government laws.
Recent studies in the U.S. have shown that animal shelter workers (people who deal with thousands of dogs per year) incorrectly identify breeds or breed mixes up to 80% of the time. That means that, when they look at a dog and guess its breed, they’re wrong up to 4 out of every 5 times!
Thirdly, Toronto Animal Services has no idea (I repeat, no idea) how many dogs there are in the city of Toronto. Experts other than those at Animal Services have consistently suggested that Animal Services’ guesses as to how many dogs are in this city are considerably lower than we should expect, based on numbers across the rest of Canada and across the United States. Therefore, Toronto Animal Services claims that they have licensed 30% of all dogs in Toronto cannot be verified by anyone. We just have to take their word for it.
Fourthly, Toronto Animal Services seems to believe that “pit bull” owners will license their dogs with the city at the same rate as any other type of dog, despite the fact that any new dogs of that type have been illegal in the province for nine years. I can’t comprehend why a dog owner would license a dog that could be illegal and I also can’t comprehend why Toronto Animal Services would allow that dog to be licensed. For many years, long before Ontario’s ban, it has been a common practice amongst dog owners to avoid licensing dogs that could potentially be targeted by bans or to license them as something else.
So, all we know is that the bite numbers that come from Toronto Animal Services, by the laws of mathematics and statistics, are wrong. We don’t know how wrong. We don’t know if a particular breed or type is too high or too low. We don’t know how many of that breed are in the city. We don’t know if they are more or less dangerous.
The point is: nobody knows. Not the police. Not the SPCA. Not Toronto Animal Services. And certainly not a young Toronto Star reporter trying to drum up readership for his article.
It is physically and scientifically impossible to track dog bites by breed. Period. Any attempt to do so is simply a detraction from the real issue which is “how do we reduce dog bites from all breeds, particularly the serious ones?”
The Star’s article and editorial are leading readers in the wrong direction. Every expert on the planet clearly says that breed or breed mix is the least relevant factor in why dogs bite. There are a dozen other factors that can affect canine aggression and many of these we can do something about using education, licensing, and enforcement of proper dog laws. It has been proven to work in other municipalities and it has been proven to reduce dog bites from all dogs, regardless of breed.
In other words, as has been suggested to both Toronto and Ontario governments on multiple occasions, a multi-faceted non-breed-specific approach of education and enforcement will make you safer.
On the other hand, with the breed ban in place, Toronto’s average total bites per year has not dropped. Two people have been killed by dogs in Ontario since the ban, both by dogs that were not targeted under the “pit bull” law. Unoffending family pets are being taken from their owners and killed all over the province, dogs with no signs of aggression and no history of biting. Owners are spending thousands of dollars in court trying to get their pets back because of various animal control officers’ random decisions that they don’t like the look of the dogs.
Has the ban reduced the number of “pit bulls”? Perhaps, but nobody actually knows and nobody will ever know.
Has the ban reduced the number of “pit bull” bites? Perhaps, but again, nobody actually knows and nobody will ever know.
What we do know is that serious dog attacks continue, total dog bites have not plummeted or even gone slightly down, people have died from dog attacks.
Nobody is being educated because the Ontario Liberal government refused to implement an education program.
Normal dog laws are not being enforced because that same government refused to give the municipalities money for proper enforcement and, instead, propped up the OSPCA with millions of dollars and police powers in order to go after “pit bulls”.
Dog bites are not being tracked across the province because the government refused to implement a dog bite tracking database.
The numbers clearly show that residents of Toronto and Ontario are no safer since the ban and nothing has been accomplished except to kill thousands of family pets and put a lot of money into a bunch of lawyers’ pockets.
It’s time to take dog bites seriously and implement realistic, proven solutions instead of playing with people’s fears of the media’s “devil dogs”, fears that have been proven to be unfounded and unnecessary.