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Law could mean jail for owner of any menacing dog

Ontario bill would require current owners of pit bulls to neuter or spay, muzzle pets

Globe and Mail Update

TORONTO

rio's planned ban on pit bulls would put owners of other dogs at risk of fines, jail terms and lawsuits if their pets were ruled dangerous or attacked someone, Attorney-General Michael Bryant said yesterday.

"Any dog could be a dangerous dog," Mr. Bryant said as he promised legislation to ban the breeding or sale of pit bulls and to force current owners of the dogs to have them neutered or spayed and to muzzle them in public.

If Ontario were to enact the plan announced yesterday, that would make it the first province or state in North America to put in place such a ban on pit bulls. Britain, France and Germany have such bans.

Owners of other breeds could face fines of up to $10,000 and jail sentences of up to six months if their dogs were to attack a person, another dog or a cat, or were found to be menacing.

"Right now, our laws only go into effect once dog bites man. I don't think we should have to wait until the canine tooth breaks skin before we intervene to protect Ontarians," Mr. Bryant told a news conference.

Peace officers will get new powers to obtain warrants to search homes and other premises for evidence, he said.

Mr. Bryant also said the Dog Owners Liability Act will be changed to make it easier for people to sue for dog bites and to cover "every single breed of dog."

This could cause insurance companies to raise premiums for home policies that include liability coverage, said Mark Yakabuski, Ontario vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada. A few insurance companies do not write policies for homes with a pit bull.

In the United States, where lawsuits are more common, "dog bites are a fairly expensive cost to insurers," he said. An estimated $300-million to $400-million is paid out each year over dog attacks.

"When you have a growing source of losses, you take a look at either increasing premiums or deciding it isn't worth the risk to write a policy," Mr. Yakabuski said.

Louise and Tom Ellis back the ban on pit bulls. Ten years ago their daughter, Lauren, then 5, was severely bitten on the face by a pit bull when she was walking with her mother on Danforth Avenue. She needed years of surgery, and still bears scars.

"The dog lunged at my daughter and sunk its teeth into her face. . . . He did not let go until she passed out. . . . That had to be the most terrifying, horrific experience of my life," Mrs. Ellis recalled.

The owner of the dog had been ordered to muzzle it in public because it had attacked another dog, Mr. Ellis said. The owner pleaded guilty to being a common nuisance and was sentenced to a year in jail.

The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association criticized the ban on pit bulls, which is expected to take effect next year.

"Breed bans just don't work," said Gary Landsberg, a Thornhill veterinarian who is president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. "Dangerous dogs are essentially a product of irresponsible breeding and breeding-training for aggression. If you remove so-called 'pit bulls' from the province, people who want to breed or own vicious dogs will simply turn to other breeds."

But Mr. Bryant cited U.S. studies that point to pit bulls as inherently high-risk. In California, pit bulls account for about 3 per cent of the dog population, but 68 per cent of the serious dog attacks.

"I am convinced that pit bulls are ticking time bombs. I am convinced that they are inherently dangerous animals," Mr. Bryant said. There are no statistics on the number of pit bulls in Ontario, he said.

The ban is a reaction to public cries for controls on the dogs, which are bred to be aggressive and can weigh 70 kilograms. Winnipeg and the Ontario cities of Windsor and Kitchener-Waterloo have instituted bans.

Toronto has been considering a similar ban, and Mayor David Miller and Police Chief Julian Fantino praised Mr. Bryant's action.

But the ban misses the point that aggressive behaviour is natural for most breeds and that they have to be trained to change it, said veteran trainer Nigel Herbert, who has a German shepherd that had to be trained out of a hostility to people.

"There are a lot of people who don't know how to handle pit bulls. Probably the majority of people don't," said Mr. Herbert, who has trained pit bulls along with police dogs and guide dogs for the blind.

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