By Kerry Vinson
There was a court decision earlier this year in a case that I had been involved in since 2014. It pertained to two large dogs that had gotten out of their owner’s property when a gate was inadvertently left open, at which time one (or both) of the dogs ran over to an adjoining property and attacked a small dog. Unfortunately, this small dog succumbed to the injuries it suffered during the altercation.
As a result, the local municipal animal services seized both of the larger dogs and incarcerated them at their shelter, designating them as dangerous dogs. In fact, they were deemed to be so dangerous that it was mandated they should have no human contact, and for the next two years they were transferred between cages that had doors controlled remotely between them for feeding and cleaning. The agency proceeded to take steps necessary to allow them to destroy both of the dogs.
Of course the owner, who was not allowed to see his dogs during this two year period, tried to have them independently assessed. His efforts were resisted by claims that the dogs were too dangerous for anyone to approach them, much less be let out of their cages for a behaviour assessment. The dogs began to show aggressive behaviour towards people after an extended confinement, whereas they had not previously been known to be people-aggressive prior to their incarceration.
The municipality employed a behaviour expert to do their own assessment, which was carried out with the dogs still in their cages, since they were deemed in advance to be too aggressive for anyone to touch them. Needless to say, both of the dogs failed this assessment; as if there was any question that they wouldn’t in the environment in which it was conducted.
In the meantime the owner went through two sets of lawyers and court hearings in an effort to have his dogs transferred to another environment for a more objective assessment. It was during this process that I became involved, being present at a hearing to petition the court for me to assess the dogs at a neutral venue, where they would not be caged.
The animal services agency did not want any further assessment of the dogs to be done at another facility, and during the hearing they asserted that ”these two dogs are too dangerous to move for the purpose of transporting them to perform a behavioural assessment”. Furthermore, it was asserted that “there is a huge risk to the safety of all, including Mr. Vinson, to do the assessment”. Lest you think I am embellishing this article any, the last two statements are direct quotes from court documents! Essentially, the municipality (and their behavioural expert) both indicated it was not possible for anyone to have direct contact with either of these dogs.
To make a long story short, after yet more subsequent court activity an Order was finally issued mandating the Agency to allow the dogs to be transferred to another facility and reside there for a period of ten days for me to perform a behavioural assessment. This assessment was performed in June of 2016 at the facility, after the dogs had been kept in cages for two years; and it’s worth noting that immediately upon their arrival to the new environment the dog’s behaviour ceased to be aggressive. My evaluation of the dogs was done cold; in other words I had no contact with them until the exact moment each of their assessments began, and they had never seen nor interacted with me before that moment. This was necessary so as not to skew the results in either direction of the assessments.
During my assessments I handled both dogs extensively while walking around a large field adjacent to the facility. I initiated several different interactive tests on each dog including things like leash and collar restraints, downward pressure on their shoulder blades and hind quarters, and forcefully grabbing the scruffs of their necks. These and the other actions I performed have been shown to evoke aggressive responses in dogs.
Before telling you the results of this assessment, I want you to remember that the municipal shelter and its employees had insisted (under oath) that any individual who came into direct contact with these dogs would likely be attacked. Well, this proved to be completely untrue, as neither dog demonstrated any aggression whatsoever to me during the entire time of the assessment. You might be asking yourself “how was this possible”? I think that’s a pretty good question.
The attorney for the Municipality asserted it was because the dogs had been treated too well at the boarding facility for the few days they had resided there before my assessment. This had supposedly changed their behaviour from being extremely dangerous (for two years) while in the custody of the Municipality, to completely non-aggressive and being able to be handled extensively by a stranger. I actually underwent a long cross examination by this attorney with repeated accusatory questions as to what had been done to “spoil” the dogs so they would allow me to touch them! The answer to that, of course, was nothing.
Insinuating that you can keep a dog isolated in a cage for two years and get an accurate barometer of its behaviour, and then place it somewhere else for a few days and the result would be completely inaccurate, is not only absurd but ludicrous! Especially considering that the next day at the trial the owner of the boarding kennel where the dogs had been at testified they had not been treated any differently than any other dogs that were kept at his facility. I’ve got to admit that I was really surprised at the lengths the municipality was willing to go through in their efforts to destroy these dogs, including using tax-payers money to pay for the many court proceedings that were involved. Of course the owner of the dogs used his own money to try and save them, which he told me added up to well over $100,000.
Considering the completely non-aggressive behaviour of the dogs during my assessment (verified by photos such as the one included here) and eyewitness testimony) I recommended that it was not necessary to destroy these dogs for the purpose of public safety, as long as certain restrictions were placed on them, as specified in the Ontario Dog Owners’ Liability Act under Final Order, page 3 section 3(b).
At this point I will point out for anyone reading this article that I have not identified any individuals or the municipality involved in this case, even though it is now public record in court documents. I don’t want to be perceived as accusing anyone specifically of anything irregular. The fact is, I have been involved in several cases very similar (almost identical) to the one described above, with different municipalities. Municipalities seem to realize that most dog owners do not have the resources to fight their authority in court, and that they pretty well have been given a “blank check” by the provincial government to do what they want when it comes to having dogs destroyed.
To wrap this up I will tell you that the Judgment in this case was rendered by the Ontario Court of Justice on March 8, 2017, almost three years since it began and during which the majority of this time the two dogs in question were kept isolated in cages. In my perspective it was a mixed decision, as one of the dogs was returned to the owner, while the other was designated for destruction. The Justice of the Peace agreed with me that it was not necessary to destroy one of the dogs, but agreed with the municipality that this was indicated for the other one.
In retrospect, I think there are some things to be learned from this experience as a whole. First, performing an accurate behavioural assessment of a dog for aggression can be an intricate, complex, and challenging procedure, and can produce differing results in different environments. Secondly, dog owners in Ontario need to be aware of the details of the Dog Owners’ Liability Act, and behaviour they cannot allow their dogs to engage in lest they be subject to seizure by their municipal dog authorities. The best way to avoid the subsequent huge problems from this happening is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
As a reference for readers, I have included a photo of one of the dogs from the case outlined above, taken during my actual assessment. In the picture I am grabbing the dog by the scruff of the neck. Note the body language of the dog during this procedure: completely relaxed and non-aggressive, certainly not what would be seen from an “extremely dangerous” dog. If any readers are interested in reading the complete Judgment in this case (which is now public record) feel free to e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and I can tell you how to access this information.
Kerry Vinson, founder of Animal Behaviour Consultants, has a BA in Psychology and has extensively studied animal learning and behaviour modification. In addition to conducting seminars on canine behaviour at colleges and other venues throughout Southern Ontario, and assessing dogs with behavioural problems, he has been designated by the Province as an Expert Witness in the area of canine aggression. As a result, he has testified on behalf of the Ontario Coroner’s Office in the Trempe Inquest, and in numerous other high-profile court cases between 1999 and 2017. For more information, contact him at (800) 754-3920 or (705) 295-3920.