Dangerous dogs need to be addressed. Actually, it’s dangerous dog-owner pairs that are the issue, since there’s almost always a major human component to this kind of behaviour.  Unfortunately, we can’t mandate common sense.

Cities have taken a variety of approaches to the issue of dog bites and dangerous dogs, ranging from nothing to breed bans. Dangerous dog designations are another approach. Toronto enacted a bylaw earlier this year that defines a dangerous dog as one that has severely bitten or attacked a person or pet, or that has delivered non-serious bites twice (or more). In the first 6 months, this has resulted in designation of 91 dangerous dogs (with German Shepherds leading the way).

Do bylaws like this have an impact on dog-related injuries? I’m not sure we know.

A concern I have with a designation based on the number of times a dog has inflicted a bite is that it risks driving things underground in terms of reporting. While rabies in dogs is very rare in Canada, we have to think about it with any dog bite. That means that every bite should be reported, so that the proper measures can be taken.  The first option is almost always to observe the dog for 10 days – if it’s normal at the end of that period, then it couldn’t have transmitted rabies virus with the bite at the beginning.

Bringing in penalties for dogs that bite complicates matters, as it makes people less likely to report such incidents. I had a conversation with an owner the other day about a bite. It was a minor bite that occurred during a veterinary procedure (not at our hospital) and we were talking about the need to report it. One of the things I said was “It’s not a big deal. Public Health needs to know but it’s not like the police are gong to be called or anyone’s going to call your dog a dangerous animal.” I can’t necessarily use that line with people from Toronto now, and I suspect it will lead to people who are aware of the new bylaw to be reluctant to report bites. As a veterinarian in Ontario, I’m bound by provincial legislation (as are others) to report bites, but we know that these injuries are massively under-reported, including by vets. In Toronto, this could make it worse.

I’m not against dangerous dog designations, and a clear, objective approach is nice, but if it takes and thought process and wiggle room away, that’s a problem.

A dog that lunges at someone and bites them while on leash as they’re walking dog the street.

  • That’s a problem

A dog that bolts from its yard or owner to attack a kid.

  • Yep, big deal.

With both of these, if the dog only inflicts a “minor” bite, it wouldn’t be captured under the Toronto policy (until the next bite). That’s not ideal.

A dog that has a sore leg that someone grabs and it nips in pain.

  • Not good, but perhaps understandable and not an indication of a lifelong threat. Yet, it’s one strike out of two for the dog, and if it’s deemed a severe bite (no definition provided), it’s an automatic designation as dangerous.

Each bite and each dog are different, and I guess the take home is there’s no perfect approach. A case-by-case approach directed by someone knowledgeable would be the best way to handle this, but it’s unlikely to happen.