Ontario Breed-Specific Legislation has “Had its Day”
Updated: Feb 3
By Athina Pantazopoulos
Breed-specific legislation has been a controversial issue in Ontario since the passing of the Dog Owner’s Liability Act in 2005. While proponents of the Act see this type of legislation as a necessary measure for the protection of citizens from dangerous animals, detractors are skeptical of its merits and backed by substantial proof that these laws are ineffective and arbitrary.
What is Breed-Specific Legislation?
Breed-specific legislation (or BSL) is regulation or law which targets the possession or ownership of a specific breed of dog. The most common form of breed-specific legislation in North America today is the “pit bull ban."
As with all legislation, the details of these bans vary in each jurisdiction. The common goal in all instances is the reduction of dog bite injuries.
In the case of Ontario’s BSL, however, dogs are not only targeted when they exhibit aggressive behaviour, or even when their owners are shown to be negligent, they are targeted on appearance alone.
Dog Owner’s Liability Act
The pit bull ban in Ontario was passed in 2005 as an integrated part of the Dog Owner’s Liability Act. The act itself addresses owner liability in dog bite cases at the outset, and even then, with a distinctly anti-pit bull lean. As we move further into the Act, the pit bull ban is set out plainly along with the conditions and consequences of breaking this ban.
While the Act itself is not long, there are several aspects of the law that are troubling in their broadness and severity.
What’s in a Name
The definition of “pit bull” is given at the very beginning of the Act. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one breed of dog called the “pit bull”. Pit bull is an umbrella term that covers multiple dog breeds with similar genetics and appearances, much like the term “collie” or “spaniel”. Therefore, in order to enforce a breed specific ban, the term “pit bull” must be clearly set out so that those who wish to comply with the law can do so without confusion.
The definition given in the Dog Owner’s Liability Act lists four pit bull breeds (pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, and American pit bull terrier) as well as a fifth option: any dog that has “an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar” to any of these four breeds.
Any dog with “pit bull-like” features can be defined as a pit bull for the purposes of this Act. Because of the broad nature of this definition, that could include any number of bulldog breeds, mastiff breeds, and mixed breed dogs with unknown parentage. Pit bull status is presumed, and it is the responsibility of the owner to prove otherwise. This process can take weeks, during which time a dog is taken from their familiar surroundings and placed in the care of an animal shelter.
While the Dog Owner’s Liability Act is written to allow any dog to be seized if they have attacked a person or animal, or if there is reason to believe they would do so, pit bull breeds are seized simply for existing in the province. Because the act sets out a full ban on the ownership of pit bulls and a broad definition of what constitutes a pit bull, dogs can be seized by peace officers at any time if the officer believes it looks enough like a pit bull.
Taken together, these factors lead to a slippery slope of breed-identification panic. A 2015 study in The Veterinary Journal showed that shelter staff, professionals who work with a variety of dog breeds on a daily basis, have difficulty correctly identifying pit bull breeds. The results indicated an over-identification of “pit bull” breeds, showing that visual identification is not a reliable method of enforcing breed-specific bans. Instead, dogs are seized arbitrarily, kept away from their families and put in unfamiliar environments that are likely to increase stress and possibly even increase aggression in otherwise docile dogs.
No Exceptions, No Excuses
Once a pit bull is seized and determined at trial to be a pit bull, the court is required to order that the seized dog be destroyed. Unlike other breeds, where a court must prove that a dog is a danger to the community and a judge must consider a number of factors to support their decision, pit bulls are assumed to be dangerous by virtue of being pit bulls.
The Ontario SPCA put out a policy statement in 2018 that euthanizing otherwise healthy dogs went against the agency’s overall mission, and that their workers would decline to perform any such procedures. Despite this, the law remains unchanged, seized dogs that are found to be pit bulls are ordered to be destroyed.
Are Pit Bulls More Aggressive?
The policy objectives underlying this law are founded on the principle that pit bulls are, by their very nature, more aggressive than other dogs. This assertion has been proven untrue in multiple studies spanning many years.
Pet experts have long known that aggressive behaviour in dogs is far more influenced by environmental factors than breed characteristics. The ASPCA explains in their position statement on pit bulls that while certain breeds are more likely to exhibit behavioural traits such as pointing and herding, environmental factors play a much more important role in shaping the behaviour of individual dogs. Pit bulls, in this respect, are no different than any other type of dog.
One study of over 9000 pet dogs found that while there was very little variation between breeds, American Stafford Terriers (a pit bull breed explicitly named in the Ontario legislation) was ranked very low in terms of aggressive behaviour, lower than Miniature Poodles, Border Collies, and Corgis.
In fact, the main difference identified between legislated breeds and non-legislated breeds in a 2017 study was how likely victims of dog bite attacks were to report the incidents. Neither severity nor frequency of bite incidents was found to be higher in legislated breeds, and breed specific legislation was identified as contributing to unsubstantiated beliefs that legislated breeds were more aggressive and dangerous.
Is the Ontario Legislation Effective?
The shortcomings of the Dog Owner’s Liability Act may be plentiful but the intention behind it is good. Preventing harm to humans and animals is a noble objective, and given the severity of some dog bite injuries it is understandable that the province of Ontario would seek to mitigate these events.
Unfortunately, there is no actual evidence that the introduction of the pit bull ban has impacted dog bites in any way. Ontario does not have a functional system in place for the province-wide tracking of dog bites. The data is not collected on a provincial level and municipalities collect and store (or choose not to store) this information in a variety of conflicting and overlapping systems. As a result the province has no data on incidences of dog bites provincially and cannot determine if implementing a pit bull ban has decreased the number of dog bites in Ontario.
The Future of Pit Bull Bans
Most pit bulls, like other dogs, are not aggressive by nature, and for those that are put in situations where aggression is encouraged, rehabilitation efforts by rescue organizations in the US have been shown to be possible and effective. With the body of evidence against breed-specific legislation growing, pit bull bans are becoming less popular. Since 2018 over 60 cities in the US have repealed their own breed-specific legislation, with more likely to follow suit.
Ontario and Winnipeg are the only jurisdictions in Canada with active pit bull bans, with Winnipeg currently collecting feedback from residents as a part of a review process, which will be brought before city council in spring 2022. While it seemed for a moment in November 2021 that the Ontario government was reassessing pit bull legislation with the possibility of repealing the law entirely, the momentum seems to have run out. At this point it is unclear whether there will be a push by Ontario dog owners to revisit this issue. In any event, it seems that pit bull bans have had their day.