It’s been four days since the Montreal city council passed their ban on “pit bull type” dogs. Families in Montreal are scared, confused, and devastated. The rest of us are heartbroken and outraged.
But the people at the Montreal SPCA are passionately fighting their city officials. They’re fighting with facts, which show that breed specific legislation doesn’t reduce dog bites, and they’re offering up alternative approaches that actually work.
We spoke with Alanna Devine, the Montreal SPCA’s Director of Animal Advocacy, about the future of “pit bull type” dogs in the city and how her organization is advocating against the ban, which goes into effect on Monday, October 3rd.
The first thing we spoke with her about was the vagueness of the laws and how they are confusing to families. The definition of a “pit bull type” dog is perhaps the vaguest of all. According to the bylaws, Montreal defines these dogs as:
- Staffordshire bull terriers.
- American pit bull terriers.
- American Staffordshire terriers.
- Any mix with these breeds.
- Any dog that presents morphological characteristics of one of those breeds.
The last point highlights how arbitrary these laws are because it is essentially up to someone’s personal opinion whether or not a dog is a “pit bull type” dog. The Montreal SPCA notes this in a recent press release:
“[These provisions are] vague and imprecise in their definition of “Pit bull type dogs” such that it is impossible to know which dogs fall into this category.”
What’s more, Alanna told us that:
“These are standard shelter dogs. The majority of the dogs we get are mutts. The city can arbitrarily decide to euthanize any dog with a blocky head or other characteristics if the dog is unlucky enough not to have an owner or guardian before October 3rd when the law comes into effect.”
To show how arbitrary the identification of these dogs is, Alanna referred to a case earlier this year where a dog allegedly bit a woman. Officials and the media labelled the dog as a “pit bull type” dog – but the dog exhibited no characteristics of a “pit bull type” dog.
According to DNA tests, the dog pictured above, was golden retriever, rottweiler, and mastiff mix. Despite the facts, the mayor of Montreal used this case as an example of the danger of “pit bull type” dogs.
(You can read more about this case here.)
“People have no idea if they even have to go through all of this. They don’t know whether or not the bylaw applies to them or not.”
At any time, someone could claim that a family’s dog is a “pit bull type” dog. And if that dog was not muzzled as the bylaw requires or if the family does not have a permit for a “pit bull type dog,” that dog could be seized, euthanized, and the family would face a fine of several hundred dollars.
The bylaws also violate people’s rights. Alanna told us that according to the law:
“An officer can enter homes without a warrant to insure compliance, but they do need a warrant to seize a dog.”
That bears repeating: If anyone reports that you have a “pit bull type” dog, regardless of evidence, an officer can enter your home at any time.
While Montreal will allow “pit bull type” dogs who have been with their families prior to October 3, 2016 to stay in their homes, there are major restrictions. Alanna says that complying with these regulations won’t be easy for some families:
“The cost of the permit in and of itself is punitive, it’s $150. For low income families or homeless people, in total for all the obligations that are required to be fulfilled, the cost to obtain this permit is going to be about $650.”
That latter cost is because dogs must be neutered and have a rabies vaccination, as well as be on a 4 foot leash and be muzzled at all times. Of course, the Montreal SPCA is an advocate for vaccination and neutering, but for homeless people or those with little income, this might not be possible, especially because the law gives people less than a week to comply. The SPCA does provide these services for free for low income families, but again, people may not be able to get to the SPCA in time due to the short notice, many don’t even know this program exists and many people won’t even realize that the law might apply to them or their dog.
Everyone with a “pit bull type’ dog must undergo a criminal background check. This might not seem like a problem for most of us, but Alanna clarifies the issue:
“People have to pay for a criminal background check. Low income families can’t afford that. While we’re certainly okay with people with some offenses related to animal cruelty or neglect not owning dogs, there are other offenses that do not correlate to being an irresponsible dog owner.”
She went on to say that regardless of your financial state, these new laws will affect people’s ability to stay in their homes or find new housing:
“It’s already difficult to find affordable rental housing that allows dogs, but now forget about it. It’s going to be impossible. There’s also a question of home insurance. There are a lot of uphill battles, specifically for people of limited financial means.”
The bylaws also require a “pit bull type” dog to be muzzled at all times when outdoors once they obtain the special permit unless they are in a fenced area over 2 meters high. Alanna’s concerned for how this affects a dog’s welfare.
“If a person doesn’t have a fence that is 2 meters high, they have to muzzle their dog in their own back yard, and leash their dog, as well.”
The muzzles themselves present a problem. Dogs can’t eat or drink with a muzzle on and they are confusing and frightening for many dogs. According to the SPCA’s veterinarian:
“Muzzling a dog prevents them from naturally interacting with other animals, which can create aggression.”
Alanna pointed out that this means many families need to hire trainers to acclimate their dog to a muzzle. Once again, many people have no money to pay for a trainer.
The laws regarding muzzling are murky, but when taken at face value, Alanna says shelters would have to muzzle dogs while in their kennels and before they obtain the special permit, people will be required to muzzle their dog at all times, even in their own home! However, provincial animal welfare legislation says that a dog cannot be muzzled and unsupervised. Alanna told us that the Montreal SPCA will either have to break the city laws or their provincial animal welfare laws.
But, one must wonder how much of an issue it will be. There likely will not be many, if any, “pit bull type” dogs in shelters in the near future. Alanna explained that:
“After October 3rd, lost “pit bull type” dogs cannot be reclaimed by their owner – which means they necessarily have to be put down. Even if a family were to, for example, have a robbery in their home and their dog were to run off – through no fault of their own – the new bylaw would require that this family be unable to reclaim their lost ‘pit bull type’ dog – even a dog with a special permit – and the dog would necessarily have to be put down.”
Regardless of breed or type, a dog is a member of your family, think about how you would feel if your dog was given a death sentence simply for escaping your home, something which millions of dogs do.
As of October 3rd, the Montreal SPCA can’t adopt out “pit bull type” dogs. Transferring the dogs to other rescues and shelters appears to be possible according to the laws. Many rescues and shelters from other areas of Canada and the United States are offering to take in these dogs. According to Alanna, that is not a long term solution:
“Sending dogs elsewhere is not sustainable in the long term and requires a lot of logistics and financial resources. Basically, most of the dogs we get fall under the definition of a “pit bull type” dog. Other provinces and shelters are also overrun with dogs that fit this description. But right now there are a lot of people reaching out and we’re going to take advantage of it, but it’s not a long term solution.”
This all seems hopeless, but it’s not. Despite the immense financial burden the Montreal SPCA has taken on to fight bsl, they don’t have any plans of giving up. They don’t have to do this alone. There’s a lot we can do to help them.
Alanna encourages people to get involved in their Safer, Kinder Communities campaign. The campaign fosters awareness and advocates responsible dog ownership. It also highlights the facts surrounding dangerous dogs:
- Any dog could become dangerous, regardless of breed.
- Permanently chained dogs are 3 times more likely to attack.
- Dogs with inappropriate behavior must be controlled and managed.
- Well socialized dogs who are well exercised are less likely to bite.
- The environment in which a dog is raised, socialized, educated and trained are key factors which shape the behaviour of a dog, regardless of the type or breed.
The campaign isn’t only designed to advocate against BSL, it’s designed to decrease dog bites based on real scientific evidence.
In fact, Alanna told us that BSL was on the decline in Canada:
“We worked with a number of municipalities who realized their BSL was ineffective. Up until this occurrence (the death of Christiane Vadnais allegedly due to a dog attack), the trend in Quebec and in Canada has been for BSL to be repealed. This one incident and the way the large majority of the media treated it changed everything. Now 50% of the municipalities in our area have BSL. Dog neglect and attacks had gone down in some municipalities since repealing their ban.”
(BSL is also on the decline in the United States. You can refer to the National Canine Research Council for more information.)
If you live in Montreal or any other area where BSL is in place, Alanna advises you to write your local officials. People should also be proactive and contact their officials the moment the topic of BSL comes up in their government. People in Canada can find information on their elected officials by visiting this website. The best way to advocate is with facts and scientifically based alternatives, like those mentioned in the Safer, Kinder Communities campaign.
As for Alanna and the rest of the team at the Montreal SPCA, they are all emotionally and physically exhausted, not to mention dealing with the immense financial strain this situation has put on their organization. For them, Alanna says:
“It’s also personal for a lot of us. The majority of us, or people we know, have these types of dogs. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Walking our dogs used to be a fun experience, but now we’re subjected to discrimination and harassment.”
Love of their dogs isn’t the only thing that keeps them going. The outpouring of support has been an immense help.
“It’s been a really, really dark time. Despite it being a really difficult time for the SPCA and people who generally care about animals and having fair and effective legislation. The outpouring of international support has been a light in the darkness. For us, sticking to our mission and the idea that we’re an organization that can speak on behalf of animals is what we do and the fact that that’s been supported internationally has been so nice.”