Skip to main content

It would be useful to know what level of delusion, or carelessness (or both) would lead someone to believe that bringing a recently traumatized dog into a room with children – children who are practicing sudden and spontaneous taekwondo movements – would end up just fine. Surely it is some sort of cognitive superpower? If anyone knows just how I might also blind myself to foreseeably disastrous outcomes, please let me know, because I was thinking of making some toast in the bathtub later and I’d like to run the water with peace in my heart.

Owner Tommy Chang took his dog – an American pocket bully named Blu – to his taekwondo studio just days after Blu was released by Vaughan Animal Services after spending nearly a month in a shelter. It was at that studio that the dog allegedly attacked 13-year-old Muhammad Almutaz Alzghool, who was bitten in the face and required more than a dozen stitches. The teen told CBC News that his instructor had encouraged him to approach Blu in order to conquer his fear of dogs, though Mr. Chang’s lawyer disputes that claim and says the child went up to the dog on his own (which would be a strange thing for a kid with a professed fear of dogs to do, but no doubt lawyers will sort out that detail in due time).

Until the incident at Mr. Chang’s studio, Blu’s story was one that held real promise for opponents of breed-specific legislation (BSL): pit bulls have been banned in Ontario since 2005 under the Dog Owners’ Liability Act. The family had mounted a pretty successful media campaign after Vaughan Animal Services, which seized Blu after the dog got loose in October, refused to release him until they could investigate whether he was a pit bull.

Mr. Chang launched a petition, organized protests and engaged local MPPs to try to get Blu back. He pointed out that his dog had never been aggressive or violent, and argued that legislation that allows authorities to detain dogs merely based on physical appearance is profoundly unfair (the Act considers a pit bull to be any dog that has “an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar” to prohibited breeds). And he made good progress – the same day Blu was released, Ontario changed the law to allow dogs that have been seized because of appearance to stay with their families while an investigation takes place. Mr. Chang also indicated that after speaking with Premier Doug Ford directly, it sounded as if the province was prepared to repeal breed-specific legislation altogether.

That almost certainly won’t happen now. Opponents of BSL would point out that this story in fact bolsters their argument that the problem is really one of bad dog owners – a responsible owner never would have taken a dog that had just been through a traumatic separation to a taekwondo studio with children. But the trouble with that argument is that irresponsible dog owners typically are not exposed until something goes terribly wrong. Mr. Chang seemed like the perfect ambassador for the anti-BSL movement – right up until a teen at his studio ended up with more than a dozen stitches in his face.

If Blu was a pomeranian, or a golden retriever, or a Great Dane, would he have reacted in the same way? It’s impossible to say for certain. But where bites by breed are tracked, pit bulls tend to be among the most frequent culprits – of the 142 dogs currently listed as “potentially dangerous” by the City of Montreal, for example (meaning they have been assessed after being involved in an attack or bite), 33 are pit bulls, followed by 26 German shepherds and 19 Labradors. And according to various research, attacks by pit bulls also tend to be more severe; the breed is most often implicated in bites requiring surgery and they are most often involved in fatal attacks.

Those who know dogs know that certain breeds come with strong traits. That’s why a border collie that lives in a studio apartment in downtown Vancouver – who is afraid of bananas and has never seen a sheep or chicken in real life – will nevertheless try to herd a group of small children if let loose in a playground. Responsible pet owners can control and tame undesirable instinctual traits, but there is no test for responsible pet ownership before an individual takes home a new dog.

Ontario’s imperfect solution – and one also implemented by a handful of countries around the world (including Norway and Denmark) and countless municipalities in the U.S. and elsewhere – is to try to mitigate the risk of public danger by prohibiting a breed implicated in the most violent attacks. Is it fair? Not really. But until we can find a way to ban irresponsible dog owners before they decide to bring a distressed dog into a room of children spinning and jumping and kicking the air, it may be the best option Ontario has at its disposal.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.