By V. Victoria Shroff
In response to the groundbreaking B.C. Court of Appeal dog case Santics (where I happened to be co-counsel along with our Team Punky), Vancouver city councillors Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe have put forward a motion titled Relief and Rehabilitation of Aggressive Dog Designation.
A bit of background is necessary to explain: prior to the decision by the highest court in B.C., the Court of Appeal, in Santics, provincial court Judges would fairly routinely, but not always, issue conditional orders whereby a dog deemed to be dangerous would be released on safety conditions back to its guardian or be adopted out. This was largely based on the leading 2006 B.C. dog case of Kuo.
In 2019, the court in Santics clarified the law, essentially saying that conditional orders were not possible but that animal-control officers could enter into agreements with dog owners for rehabilitation plans where possible and that dogs who do not pose an unacceptable risk to the public could thereby avoid a death sentence.
I think the death penalty is much too harsh when the vast majority of dogs can be managed or rehabilitated with proper interventions. In my view, beings on both sides of the leash—the human and the dog—need adequate training to keep the public safe.
So I am glad to see that rehabilitation of "aggressive" or "dangerous" dogs is being discussed and has been put into motion. It's very important to keep dogs from being put down unnecessarily when there are so many avenues of rehabilitation and management.
I therefore very much like the idea and spirit behind this motion, but there is a considerable problem with it as worded because it fails to include veterinarians, who can provide assessments for "aggressive dogs" and behaviour-modification plans.
For some reason, the motion only identifies qualified behaviourists as being the group to work with folks who have a dog deemed to be "dangerous" or "aggressive" and thus could be facing death, but it does not mention veterinarians. (There is a distinction of severity between aggressive and dangerous, but that is the topic of another article.)
I think the draft motion needs to be amended to include veterinarians for several reasons, and I have shared my concerns with Councillor Fry. One, the bylaw talks about consulting with a qualified animal behaviourist, which is defined in the bylaw as someone who has earned a "minimum MSc or PhD in animal behaviour". It thereby severely limits who could actually help dog guardian/owners, and not many behaviourists in Vancouver will have this high-level educational designation, whereas there are some 1,600-plus qualified and regulated veterinarians in this province.
Not only is it much easier to access a family vet but, hopefully, as a responsible dog guardian, the family vet—a dog's doctor—is someone who already knows and understands a particular dog's physical and mental needs. It's also important to bear in mind that vets are also the only ones who can prescribe medication to animals, which is sometimes necessary for aggressive dogs.
Christiane Armstrong is a director for the Society of British Columbia Veterinarians Chapter board (SBCV) and a councillor/B.C. representative for the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). She has also been on the national-issues committee of the CVMA for the past three years and is the current chair for the upcoming revision of the CVMA position statement on dangerous dogs. On February 23, Armstrong was interviewed with me on CKNW about the proposed motion and stated that a dog could be experiencing pain or hormonal issues that result in aggression.
Vets can diagnose and treat medical issues and they also work with animals to modify negative behaviour. Armstrong stated that vets are trained and educated in medical and behavioural issues: "We deal with and talk with owners about behavioural problems on a daily basis, so it's not like we're not used to talking about behavioural issues."
I've been litigating "dangerous dog" cases for 20 years, and I regularly call on the dog's vet to assist in the case because they are animal experts. I recently found a document online released by the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General called "Any dog can be aggressive". It notes that "any dog can bite", and under the heading "Steps to take if your dog shows sign of inappropriate aggression", it states: "First, talk to your veterinarian." Makes sense. I see vets as an ally in the process of managing public safety and identifying dog problems, including behavioural issues.
Vets are regulated and are rigorously trained. There are even a few super-specialty vet behaviourists, but to my knowledge we have only a handful of these in Canada. The wait to see them could be a problem, however, thereby potentially causing an inadvertent access-to-justice issue for animals, their guardians, and the public.
My point in saying we should not be excluding vets from this motion is not to say that there aren't some excellent behaviourists who can also help, but failing to include veterinarians in the wording of the bylaw is not a good idea for dogs and the public. I like the idea of a collaborative approach, and I think that works best in many instances.
To be clear, I am not acting for either the vets or behaviourists, and I do think there's room for both groups.
I'm speaking up for Vancouver dogs as a long-term animal lawyer and educator. The way the motion is worded does not, seemingly, give a dog guardian a choice to use a vet to assist with helping their dog with a final determination, and the dog guardian would have to hire a "qualified animal behaviourist".
In my view, vets should be added to the wording of the proposed bylaw. Proactive, pro-social measures to educate dogs and guardians is key. Most dogs should be seeing their vet on a regular enough basis, and a vet could help identify and treat aggression in its early stages.
Me? I'd like the best possible outcome for dogs, their humans, and the public.
The motion is scheduled to be discussed at the Vancouver city council meeting on Tuesday (February 25). I've put myself on the speakers list if it goes to a committee hearing.