Animal lawyer balks at dog bite bylaw amendment

Courts, not animal control officers, will sentence dogs to death, says court

A bylaw amendment that gives Vancouver bylaw officers the power to issue tickets of up to $2,000 for dog bites gives too much power to the city's animal control department, says a lawyer who specializes in animal law.

Rebeka Breder, an animal law lawyer at Broughton Law Corporation on Burrard Street, said the city's animal control shelter is not dog friendly and these new powers could result in improper handling of "dangerous dog" designations.

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"Ask any dog owner," said Breder, who is also a director of the Vancouver Humane Society. "What these officers need is education and flexibility. I wouldn't call them dog friendly when what they want is increased control."

City council voted Oct. 4 to amend a section of the Animal Control Bylaw to expand its fine provisions to include dog bites. Animal Control officers have long had the power to hand out fines for infractions such as dogs at large, not cleaning up after a dog and incessant barking. The "housekeeping" amendment increases that power to include issuing fines of up to $2,000 for dog bites. Previously, all dog bite complaints were handled through provincial court and if a dog was deemed "dangerous," a destruction order could be issued. Breder said a dog can be deemed dangerous if it has killed or seriously injured a person, has killed or seriously injured a domestic animal while in a public space or while on private property, or if an animal-control officer has reasonable grounds to believe it's likely to kill or seriously injure a person.

The third criterion concerns Breder, who said the courts have interpreted "seriously" to include any puncture of the skin, regardless of the long or short-term effects of the injury. "Reasonable grounds' has also been used liberally by courts so that as long as an animal control officer testifies that he or she believes the dog will do it again, the courts can rely on their statements," said Breder. "While courts consider other evidence, such as a dog's past behaviour, they are not required to do so."

She noted courts have wide discretion to decide whether a dog fits the definition of dangerous. "And if your dog falls under A, B or C, your dog is well on its way to death row," said Breder.

Tom Hammel, the city's assistant director and deputy chief licence inspector, said animal control officers can deem a dog aggressive enough to need a muzzle or be kept on leash, but have no authority to decide if a dog should be euthanized. "That's a court decision," said Hammel, who noted the city receives an average of 250 dog bite complaints per year.

He said the amended bylaw will streamline cases involving dogs by allowing animal control officers to handle about 30 per cent of dog bites cases by issuing fines. Dog owners who receive and pay their fine won't end up in court unless they appeal. Hammel said of the 250 dog bite incidents last year in Vancouver, six dogs were ordered destroyed. Three had killed other dogs and three had seriously injured a human. "An order for destruction is pretty rare," Hammel said.

He added allowing animal control officers to write tickets for dog bites is yet another step in convincing dog owners at act responsibly. "We're going to do what we have to do to send the message we won't tolerate threats to humans from aggressive dogs," said Hammel. "The whole objective is to protect the public and their pets from aggressive dogs and we're sending that message through fines, education and enforcement."

sthomas@vancourier.com Twitter: @sthomas10

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