The Role of Municipal Bylaws
In BC, a city’s animal control department handles most dog-related matters. If the matter is deemed to be severe enough, it may be referred to the courts under Division 6 of the BC Community Charter.
Only the most serious incidences result in a dangerous dog designation. Up to that point, the municipality’s bylaws apply. A robust animal control bylaw will have specific requirements outlined for owners in the community. Some elements to look for include:
- Rather than generally referring to “aggression” or “attack,” the document should outline specific behaviour: growling, snarling, biting, breaking of skin, etc.
- A mechanism should be in place to address all levels of aggressive behaviours. If the city doesn’t have a bylaw to address a minor bite, it may not be addressed at all since the behaviour falls short of a dangerous dog incident. This is a concern, since serious bites are almost always the result of an escalation in aggressive behaviour from the animal.
- Provisions should be in place that address the treatment of the animal. While cruelty investigations fall under the jurisdiction of the SPCA, the SPCA is stretched for resources and may only be able to attend to the most serious cases of abuse or neglect. By including basic standards for food, water, shelter and tethering, a city’s bylaws allow an animal control officer to address the situation immediately, which can help to sidestep potential aggressive behaviour by stopping any mistreatment of the dog.
- Regulations on breeding and the sale of animals should be included in the bylaws. Irresponsible breeding and lack of early training/socialization are major risk factors in aggressive and problem animals.
Once a dog is declared to be dangerous, it may be subject to strict restrictions and released back to an owner – or a destruction (euthanasia) order may be issued.
Other Factors – Enforcement and Outreach
Of course, a bylaw is only as good as its level of enforcement. Ideally, a city will act on complaints in a timely manner and assign animal control or other city staff to patrol neighbourhoods and parks. For example, parks officers may not have the authority to issue detailed animal control citations, but they can issue warnings for off-leash violations or failure to clean up after dogs.
Unfortunately, strong enforcement of animal control bylaws is not the norm. Many animal services departments are small and may only be able to respond to serious calls while keeping up with impounds, strays and care of dogs in the kennels. Improving bylaws and strengthening enforcement is often seen as an expense – and it can be, in the initial years. But it is also possible to follow the example of Calgary, Alberta in the early 2000s. Within four years of implementing a rigorous “Responsible Ownership Bylaw,” the animal control department was self-funded – largely by increasing licensing rates (most cities have a 20% license compliance rate, while Calgary’s was over 90%) and enforcing fines.
The other elements are education and outreach. Spay and neuter is a factor in preventing unwanted breeding and reducing aggression in dogs. Community education around spay/neuter benefits, as well as low-cost surgery options, could have a major positive impact on community safety. Other initiatives include free or low-cost training, equipment exchanges and bite-free education for children.
Samples of Effective Bylaws
A community may see the benefits of adopting breed-neutral legislation, but the process of creating an entirely new bylaw can seem daunting. Below are examples of effective bylaws that have been extensively researched and applied – and can be easily adapted to apply to your municipality.
The BC SPCA has sample bylaws available by request.
The bylaws of Coquitlam and New Westminster, British Columbia are some of the most well-researched and progressive in the province and serve as great examples.
Calgary was a world leader in animal control best practices for 20 years, under the leadership of Bill Bruce. They had a revenue-neutral program, a high level of community engagement, and the lowest bite rate in North America. With changes in management and a declining economy, unfortunately these successes have waned in recent years, but Mr. Bruce’s track record is impressive and the bylaw remains strong.