May 24, 2006

Muzzle ALL Dogs?

At first glance, this article by Roger LeBlanc in the Guelph Mercury appears to be positive, especially when read by "pit bull" owners who have been the sole target of the Ontario government's breed-specific legislation.

The approach suggested by Mr. LeBlanc, however, is yet one more assault on responsible owners of all dogs, regardless of breed.

Muzzle all dogs over 40 pounds!

Let's step back for a second and look at this logically.

First, study after study has shown that approximately 85% of all dog bites occur on the dog owner's property, a relative's property, or a neighbour's property. So, right off the bat, 85% of all dog bites would NOT be solved by this proposal, since the dogs would not have to be muzzled on private property.

Second, there are very few dog bite incidents that involve a dog being walked on leash. Most incidents outside an enclosed property are cases of dogs that have escaped from private property or cases where owners are walking their dogs off-leash illegally. If irresponsible owners are able to flaunt existing laws with impunity, then they'll continue to flaunt more restrictive laws. We see this today in Ontario, with many owners of restricted dogs still walking their dogs unmuzzled and off-leash. The only ones who seem to be obeying the law are the ones who weren't the problem in the first place - the responsible owners who care about their dogs and the community in which they live.

Yes, we do have Michael Bryant's example, the case of Lauren Harper, the five-year-old daughter of Louise Ellis, who was severely bitten by an on-leash dog, after having been given permission by the owner to pet the dog. If, however, we look a little more closely at that incident, we realize that a) the owner was severely intoxicated and b) the dog ALREADY had a muzzle order for having previously bitten. This is an example of an owner who would not have obeyed ANY law, regardless of whether or not it applied only to him. In all likelihood, little Lauren would not have been protected by an all-dog muzzle law because this man was either too drunk or too insolent to obey it!

Third, there must be some consideration, when creating laws, to try to find a balance between public safety and the severe restriction of responsible, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. If we truly wanted to prevent traffic fatalities and we weren't concerned at all about the rights of car owners, we would simply ban all cars. Presto! No more deaths from cars! But we don't do that because the number of traffic fatalities does not justify that sort of sweeping, invasive legislation. If we wanted to prevent pedestrian fatalities, we could fence every road so that pedestrians are forced to stay on sidewalks until they reach an appropriate crossing. We could put gates in those fences that only open when the WALK signal is activated. Aside from the astronomical costs of doing this, we choose not to because we can't treat everyone as if they have no brains. That's what a police state does, but, as a progressive and free society, we give people more rights. One of those rights is the right to make the wrong decision. As an alternative to the micromanagement approach of a police state, we instead try to educate the public on the consequences of making the wrong decision and then we enforce those consequences when a transgression occurs.

The same applies to dog bites. There is NOT an epidemic of dog bites and there is certainly not any great number of attacks on members of the public by out-of-control, rampaging dogs. In the Toronto area, last year, there were 1,000 reported bites (not necessarily attacks, just recorded bites). Out of those, we can surmise that approximately 85% (or 850) were on private property, where muzzle laws would not apply. Out of the remaining 150, probably half were small dogs (under 40 pounds). So, at the very most, we had 75 bites that a muzzle law may have affected. My guess, however, is that a large number of those would have been dogs that had escaped their houses or backyards and so would never have been expected to be muzzled. Even so, if we kept the number as is, that's 75 bites (not necessarily attacks) out of an estimated 250,000 dogs in the Toronto area. Assuming that half of all dogs are over 40 pounds (probably more than half), that means that we're going to have to muzzle 125,000 dogs at least twice a day, every day of the year, in order to perhaps, possibly, prevent 75 bites.

In contrast, those 125,000 dogs are now not going to be properly socialized, are not going to have the opportunity to interact positively with members of the public, particularly children, and are not going to be comfortable or relaxed around other dogs because they're constantly on the defensive. In essence, we will be creating problems where there were none.

I have seen this with my own dogs, who, rather than enjoying their daily walks, are instead focused entirely on these correction devices attached to their faces. It has created frustration and it has caused their social skills to decrease. When approached by other dogs especially, they are automatically placed into a defensive frame of mind and that body language is transmitted to the approaching dog, causing inappropriate behaviour among all the dogs (muzzled or not).

As proposed ad nauseum to the Ontario government, a better approach would be education and enforcement, the same as speeding, the same as drunk driving. On a massive scale, tell people why their behaviour is a problem. Explain the consequences. Then, when people ignore the law, hit them with a very big hammer.

That's a better option than hitting everyone with a small hammer, every day, twice a day, just in case they might decide to do something wrong, sometime in the future!

In order to understand how far-reaching and invasive Mr. LeBlanc's suggestion might be, let's apply it to muggings or assaults on members of the public by criminals. Most of these are committed by men. So, in order to prevent public muggings and assaults, we should require that all men be handcuffed when out in public. This would, of course, create a huge public outcry. So, instead of applying it to all men, we'll target a specific group of men - those over two hundred pounds (because they may do more damage), those who live in risky areas (because that's where the majority of the muggings occur), and only at night time (because that's when most of these incidents happen).

The concept is no different. Trying to prevent a miniscule number of crime incidents by targeting a huge number of responsible citizens is not good law. It treats your average member of the public as if he or she is an idiot, it tramples all over their rights as citizens, and, in the end, it doesn't solve the problem!

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