The government of Ontario has decided to follow the political leadership of Italy and ban the import and breeding of pit bulls, or pit-bull-like dogs. This ban will be enforced by municipal governments starting in November. In Italy there are currently 92 restricted breeds (including corgis and border collies) that cannot be owned by minors or convicted felons.
The motivation behind Ontario's legislation, to prevent the mauling and killing of citizens by a dangerous breed of dog, is laudable - but the legislation cannot achieve its aim. There is a far more efficient and inexpensive way of regulating problem dogs (and their owners) - and that is to price problem breeds according to their threat.
I should go on record as stating that I do not own a pit bull, and I don't care for them. My primary objection to this legislation is that market mechanisms can achieve a far more favourable outcome than can laws, and at a fraction of the cost.
Thousands of people are bitten by dogs of all breeds every year. Some of those dogs inflict more injury than others because of their size; these dogs may be more prone to attack because of their nature. Not all humans are temperamentally and physically equal and neither are dogs. Ontario can try to deal with the problem by banning pit bulls, but like Italy it will eventually find itself adding breed after breed to the original ban.
The problem isn't only the breed, it's primarily the owner. People who acquire pit bulls - or Rottweilers, or Dobermans, or corgis - for the purpose of protection, or status, or who just want a "tough" dog around, will always find a replacement after the next "muscle dog" is banned. There will always be a substratum of bad people who want to own dogs that are perceived as threatening and merely banning specific breeds will not eliminate those people.
There is a market solution to this problem, and it is simpler and far easier to enforce. Every dog owner should have to carry dog-specific insurance for their animal, in the same way that every car owner has to carry insurance for their car. This coverage would be distinct from the insurance coverage in most home-insurance policies. There would be several advantages over the current breed-specific ban approach.
First, dogs that are bigger and more aggressive, and more likely to inflict serious injury upon humans or other animals, would be more expensive to insure.
Insurance for driving a Ferrari comes at a price; in the same way, a dog that has a reputation for aggression or the capability to inflict great injury would carry a risk premium. At a minimum, this means that dog owners who choose to own one of these dogs would have a strong incentive to ensure that their dog was properly trained and restrained.
The requirement to carry breed-specific insurance would also permit the police to seize dogs, and criminally charge individuals who did not carry the required insurance, as they do with uninsured car drivers.
The second benefit of breed-specific insurance would be that it would give all dog owners the incentive to ensure their dogs were well trained. In the same way that a driver who has multiple accidents pays a premium for auto insurance, dog owners who had multiple claims against their dogs would find it more difficult, and more expensive, to insure their dogs. In short, the worst offenders would be priced out of the market.
The third advantage of this policy would be measured in the savings to cities like Toronto that have hired bylaw-enforcement officers to police the breed-specific legislation. The requirement of dog owners to carry insurance for their dog would demand a greater degree of responsibility among the owners, and enhance the ability of the existing police force to police the actions of bad dogs and their owners.
The Ontario government can start down a slippery slope of breed-specific bans, or it can step back and consider an administratively simpler and cheaper solution to the small number of problem dog owners in the province.
And that solution is: Make dog owners pay for the risk of the breeds they choose.
Greg Narbey is a professor of politics at Humber College in Toronto.