Is the pit bull terrier’s bad rap in Ontario justified?

By Iman Sheikh - Published on March 1, 2016
a pit bull with a muzzle
The Ontario government has no plans to revisit its 2005 ban on pit bulls.

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If you’re a pit bull lover, nothing bites more than Ontario’s Dog Owner Liability Act. In October 2005, the province famously banned the owning and breeding of pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers (Staffies), American Staffordshire terriers (Amstaffs) and any dog that physically resembles these breeds. The politically charged decision continues to upset many, particularly since the OSPCA put forward an application to euthanize 21 pit bulls that were seized in an alleged dogfighting ring. But is the revised act unfairly targeting these dogs? Well, yes and no.

In 2014, a news story revealed that the number of reported pit bull bites went from 168 in 2004 to only 13 in 2013. According to 2004 data from Toronto Animal Services, in the year before the act was introduced, 122 pit bull bites were recorded along with 27 from Staffies and only seven from Amstaffs. The same year, the most recorded bites – 143 – were not from pit bulls either, but from German shepherds.

In 2007, two years after the ban, pit bull bites were down to 30, Staffie bites to six and Amstaff bites to three. German shepherds checked in at 93 and Labrador retriever bites rose from 43 to 63. But no prohibition on German shepherds or Labs exists.

“I think the pit bull ban is putting a very bizarre limitation on dog ownership because it doesn’t even really fix the problem,” says Ottawa-based canine behaviourist Jessica O'Neill. “You’ve categorized one powerful breed but there are tons of them. Any dog that’s above 45 lb. [a male German shepherd averages 66–88 lb.] becomes a dangerous dog if it’s not properly socialized and integrated into society.”

Canadian Kennel Club communications director Andrew Patton says the club’s perspective is also that what really matters is responsible ownership.

“It’s about the deed and not the breed,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about the individual dog, because any dog treated poorly will become aggressive.”

As the administrator of the registry for all purebred dogs in Canada, the CKC does not register or track the progeny of the pit bull terrier because they consider it a mixed breed. They do track Staffies and Amstaffs, however, and don’t agree with their inclusion in the prohibited list.

“They may have been fighting dogs at one point hundreds of years ago,” he explains, “but all that aggression has been bred out of them now. They’re really a lovely family pet.”

According to the act, penalties for pit bull-related offences can be a $10,000 fine ($60,000 for corporations); and/or six months imprisonment. The court can also make restitution orders requiring people convicted under the act to make compensation or restitution to victims.

“I don’t think you can ban a breed,” O’Neill says. “You can’t make it not exist. I think all you do is make people not want to talk about it or be public about it.

“People now are terrified to look for help for pit bulls at a young age. Some obedience schools won’t even work with them so they’re not getting an opportunity to socialize the dog properly.”

While the government says it has no plans to revisit the act, Brendan Crawley from Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General says the legislation applies to any dog that poses a danger to the public, which for example could mean a dog that has attacked before.

One reason pit bulls have a bad rap is because of their size; when they have a behaviour issue, it’s a serious one because they can weigh between 35 and 65 lb. Other larger dogs, great Danes for example, are generally available only through breeders and so are tested for temperament.

The perception that pit bulls are more aggressive than other dogs is false, Patton says.

“In the purebred world, spaniels were always the highest of the bite rates and it happened very rarely,” he says. “But you don’t really think of the spaniel being an aggressive dog. They’re nippy — they were bred to carry birds around so they’re aggressive mouth-wise.”

O’Neill also advises that small dogs often have the same tenacity as larger dogs, but only appear less menacing because of their size. 

“The worst bites actually come from little dogs because it’s easier to let them get away with things. But there’s a perception that they’re little and easier to control,” she says. “The worst bite that I’ve ever seen actually came from a shih tzu, which bit the top of my colleague’s finger off.”

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