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Why some experts question if aggressive dogs should get lifetime ‘criminal records’

Louise Lawrence is no stranger to dangerous dogs.  

In fact, she spends much of her time working with dogs with behavioural challenges at her Toronto-based animal training business. 

She says dangerous dog orders, or DDOs, are essentially a permanent “criminal record” for dogs, and she questions the need to impose them for the duration of a dog’s life.

“It really limits a dog’s potential quality of life,” she said. 

Lawrence is among those voicing concerns as the city takes steps to crack down on dangerous dogs, following several high profile maulings in the past year.

Per new city regulations announced last month, owners of dangerous dogs will need to ensure socialization training and publicly display a new, city-regulated “beware of dog” sign on their property.

While Lawrence says the signs, which will be personally delivered by Toronto bylaw officers, are a good idea, she worries about stigmatization and how it could hurt people’s insurance and housing options — and she’s not the only one.

Lawyers and trainers alike are concerned about how lifetime labels can impact the quality of life for offending dogs and their owners and erase the possibility of rehabilitation.

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing like a parole board for dogs,” said Jennifer Friedman, an animal lawyer in Toronto.

What is a Dangerous Dog Order?

The City of Toronto’s public list has 363 active DDOs, as of May 3. 

The list, which will soon include a virtual map with pictures of the offending dog, can be found on the city’s website.

Bylaw officers serve DDOs when dogs engage in a single severe dangerous act, or multiple non-severe dangerous acts, often consisting of a bite.

Afterwards, owners must train and microchip their dog, ensuring it wears a dangerous dog tag, muzzle and leash at all times in public.

A red circular tage hangs from a mailbox. The tag includes a white silhouette of a barking dog with sharp teeth.
After receiving a dangerous dog order, owners will receive a tag from the city that they are required to attach to their dog’s collar. This particular tag belonged to Jared Purdy’s former dog, Roxy. (Liam Baker/CBC)

An owner’s only ability to appeal an order is to go before the Dangerous Dog Review Tribunal, and they have only 30 days to apply for a hearing. Out of 82 appeals, only nine have been successful. 

DDOs could negatively impact homeowner and renters insurance, Friedman says, while also denying them access to daycares and boarding facilities.

Lawrence says a DDO can also limit potential freedoms, especially in the downtown core, increasing stress and anxiety for dangerous dogs.

“They only have a six foot leash that they can be on [and] they can only play in places that are the owners’ property,” she said. 

However, Coun. Paula Fletcher (Ward 14) says that the owners brought these consequences upon themselves.

“It was the actions of the owner that placed this on the dog and at the moment, there’s no requirement to revisit that,” Fletcher said.

WATCH | Animal advocates want a focus on rehabilitation for aggressive dogs: 

A push to rethink lifetime dangerous dog orders

3 days ago

Duration 2:35

Some animal advocates in Toronto say orders shouldn’t be a ‘life sentence.’

Scales of severity

Longtime dog owner Jared Purdy says he doesn’t believe all dog attacks warrant a lifetime order. 

His dog Roxy, who died two years ago, received a DDO in 2020 after biting another dog. Purdy says Roxy’s DDO didn’t seem fair given she didn’t bite a human.

“There’s no distinction between a dog that attacks another dog versus a dog that attacks a person,” Purdy said. “That’s just ridiculous.”

A lady with a black sport coat and white dress shirt stands outside of her beige coloured home with one large fluffy dog and one small fluffy dog
Jennifer Friedman, with her dogs Leo and Brooklyn, outside her home in Toronto. Friedman says that there is no mechanism anywhere in Canada for re-evaluating dangerous dogs later in their life. (Liam Baker/CBC)

“Just because a bite or attack or menacing behaviour is against another animal, it does not mean that it’s considered less severe, per se, than [an] attack against a human, as contemplated by the by law,” said Tracey Hamilton, chair of the city tribunal.

The city’s website lists a severity scale for dog bites and attacks. The responding bylaw officer is responsible for properly determining the level of severity, said Carleton Grant, Toronto’s executive director of municipal licensing and standards.

Dogs can be rehabilitated: trainer

Lawrence says that dogs that have shown aggression are not necessarily doomed to a lifetime of dangerous behaviour — and rehabilitation is possible.

“I’ve seen incredible things happen through behaviour modification that have really changed a dog … in terms of the behaviour that they present,” Lawrence said. 

“In a situation where they would have previously felt the need to escalate — to growl, lunge, bark, snap, bite — they choose to walk away.”

Angry dog; Shutterstock ID 702139315; user: -; manager: -; email: -; project: -
Lawrence said that a lack of freedom to move around, especially in the city’s downtown core, can increase anxiety and frustration in dogs. Under a dangerous dog order, dogs must wear a muzzle and leash at all times in public. (The Len/Shutterstock)

Lawrence says addressing a dog’s physical and emotional pain can also address aggressive behaviour.

“The number one cause of dog bites is pain and the number two cause is anxiety,” she said. 

In some cases, where an offending dog is younger, she says they can grow to be softer and less aggressive. She says a dog’s aggression can be linked to genetics, and how owners take care of their pets. 

Preventing Dangerous Dog Orders

While the city says it currently has no plans to change the lifetime bans, both Lawrence and Friedman say that proper enforcement of off-leash bylaws could help reduce the number of dangerous dog incidents.

“Typically what precipitates an allegation of a dangerous act is an unleashed dog who’s approaching a dog who doesn’t want to be approached,” Friedman said. “Or someone is in a leashed area off-leash.”

Lawrence says one option is having owners licensed, rather than their pets, to ensure they are fit to adopt a dog. However she says she understands that the costs of such a permit could make pet ownership inaccessible for many.

Lawrence is urging the city to re-evaluate the lifelong ban, saying the possibility of lifting a DDO could provide incentive for owners to ensure that their dogs are trained after receiving one.

By giving “people the tools to better understand their dog,” she says, “we can start to change their view on, ‘OK, this isn’t a life sentence for my dog.'” 

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