Opinion: Why proposed changes to Vancouver's dog bylaw are concerning

Jan 11 2023, 7:24 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Rebeka Breder, who practices exclusively animal law and is based in Vancouver, BC. She has also been an adjunct professor of animal law in law schools across BC. She is the recipient of awards, including Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers in Canada and Best Lawyer. TEDx Speaker (2022)

Since 2020, the City of Vancouver has been working on changes to its dog bylaws. In April 2022, Vancouver City Council finally voted in favour of making significant amendments to the current Vancouver Animal Control Bylaw, which will affect dogs within the city boundaries. These changes come into effect in January 2023.

Councillor Pete Fry spearheaded this initiative and tried to make progressive changes in the law. While I made submissions to the city supporting Fry’s recommendations, I also submitted my serious concerns with some of the City staff’s recommendations.

The idea behind the city’s changes to its dog bylaws is to implement a new dog licensing approach to managing aggressive dogs and to allow for the rehabilitation of these dogs. The City wants to better manage the conditions on a dog licence that match the severity and underlying causes of an aggressive dog incident. The city also intends to provide a new appeal mechanism, where the city can review an “aggressive” designation if it is appropriate to do so.

Laudable intentions, indeed. But they are also fraught with some problems.

The first major change is the broadening definition of an “aggressive dog,” which will now include a dog that has, without provocation, bitten another domestic animal or person or displayed aggressive behaviour. “Aggressive behaviour” will be defined as “any hostile attack by a dog on a person or domestic animal, including pursuing a person or domestic animal in a hostile manner.”

One of the main problems with this definition is that it does not require a qualified professional to be involved before a dog is considered “aggressive.” The reality is that animal control officers are not trained enough or qualified to understand dog behaviour well enough before designating a dog as aggressive. Only qualified animal behaviourists, or qualified veterinarians with expertise in animal behaviour, can make the right call on whether a dog is aggressive. One of the main reasons I am able to save dogs from death row or undeserving “aggressive” bylaw infractions is because courts listen to the opinion evidence of qualified animal behaviourists.

The other serious concern with the definition of “aggressive dog” is now that it includes a dog with “aggressive behaviour,” it is a subjective term. A “hostile attack” on one person may seem like a more playful interaction with another. Or a dog “pursuing a person in a hostile manner” may seem threatening to one person (think, a person who is generally scared of dogs) when that is not reflective of reality (think, a dog following someone in a calm, non-threatening manner). All of this can lead to a misinterpretation of whether a dog was truly displaying “aggressive behaviour.” In those circumstances, does the dog deserve to be labelled as “aggressive” for the rest of his or her life?

Once a dog is deemed “aggressive,” dog owners are often given letters from the animal control office advising them to always have their dog leashed (including in off-leash areas) and muzzled, along with other restrictions. Whether dog owners need to abide by these “orders” is a wholly different question. Suffice it to say that there can be significant restrictions on a dog’s welfare and freedom.

On the flip side, one of the key improvements to the new dog bylaws is that guardians of dogs who have been deemed “aggressive” will now be able to have this designation reviewed after 12 months if there have been no aggressive dog complaints that were investigated and verified by an animal control officer, along with other requirements, like dog training. Up until these changes, there was no formal way to appeal an “aggressive dog” letter to the city.

It is important to note that this new appeal provision will also be retroactive. Dog owners who received an “aggressive dog” letter before January 2023 will be able to appeal to the city.

There are also other significant changes, such as the overall dog licensing regime and the ability of animal control to seize a dog if a person does not have the required aggressive dog licence – which can lead to a dog being put on death row. As the adage goes, the devil will be in the details once the new dog bylaw is published and effective in January 2023.

This opinion piece is based on the writer’s understanding of City Council’s public meeting on April 13, 2022. Some information may change, and further details will be known once the bylaw officially comes into effect.

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