A dog behaviour expert says the death of a young woman killed by her dog in Middle Musquodoboit this week should prompt us to look for solutions that don’t include breed specific legislation (BSL).
Shortly after showing up on the scene of the woman’s death on Tuesday morning, RCMP issued an alert on Twitter advising people in the area to stay inside. Police referred to the dog as a “pitbull,” sparking social media discussions between those both for— and against— breed bans.
Silvia Jay is a longtime dog trainer and dog behaviour consultant. She believes breed bans aren’t the answer. She said that for more than 20 years she’s worked with many pit bulls, dogs she prefers to refer to as “bully breeds.”
“They are not meant to be and they weren’t bred to be aggressive to people. I’ve met a good number who were absolutely wonderful and completely trustworthy and I felt completely safe with them right away,” Jay said in an interview.
“I’m not in favour of a breed ban because these people would be losing their family members and also because it’s not a solution to the overall problem of having aggressive dogs in communities.”
In Jay’s ideal world, the solution would involve more stringent measures around who breeds, rescues, and adopts dogs. She said she’d love to see the province step in and regulate dogs coming into the province via rescue organizations. She said there are some “retail” rescue groups bringing in dogs, including bully breeds, purely for profit, with no concern for the wellbeing of the dogs or the families and communities they are going into.
She said these particular rescues don’t independently evaluate the dogs, don’t offer trial periods or contracts, and provide no support once the dogs are sold.
“They hand them directly over to unsuspecting people, sometimes advertised as ‘great with everything, great with everybody,’ and they’re actually none of it and they (the buyers) haven’t got a clue,” Jay said.
“It’s a direct sell, so people don’t have a trial period, people don’t get their money back…They’re often advertised as coming from kill shelters in the United States or Quebec, and that pulls at people’s heartstrings.”
Jay said every dog in the care of a rescue organization should be required to remain at a shelter or a foster home for a minimum of two weeks for close observation.
She believes that demand alone would weed out the retail rescue groups transporting dogs into the province “by double digit numbers” without ever independently evaluating them for temperament and behavioural issues.
Many of these dogs and their owners end up as Jay’s clients, something she said happens far too frequently.
“I’m just one trainer, and this happens to me regularly,” she said.
“Thankfully I’ve never had the severity where there was mutilation or a kill, but there have been bite injuries and a trip to emerge to be stitched up.”
Other pets in the home, often cats, can also be in danger when a dog hasn’t been properly evaluated. She said when new owners are assured their rescue dog is “great with everything and everyone,” it is very stressful to learn the dog is in fact overly reactive and often can’t even be walked in their neighbourhood.
“This is a disappointment for the people who are envisioning a family pet they can take to places and want to take to places and out for walks,” she said.
Jay said she’s seen far too many dogs extremely sensitive to environmental stimuli adopted by retail rescues to families living in busy areas where they can’t escape their stressors.
A quick internet search of the term “pit bull” brings up US dog bite fatality statistics. The public education website DogsBite.org notes that from 2005 to 2017, 65.6% of all fatal dog attacks in the US were by so-called pit bulls. The next closest breed is the Rottweiler accounting for 10.4% of dog attack deaths followed by the German Shepherd at 4.6%.
Jay said we can’t dismiss the statistics, but do need to look at what’s behind them.
“If these large dogs are aggressive to the point where they do real damage, they do real damage so there’s a difference. I recently had a case where there was a chihuahua mix who bit me,” she recalled.
“There was a small little puncture. The dog was completely freaking out. If that had been a dog who was 70 pounds or more, it’s a whole different ball game.”
She believes there are two key reasons accounting for those statistics. The first is the overwhelming number of bully breeds in rescue.
“They seem to go, with exceptions, to people who either shouldn’t have any dogs or people who don’t understand or don’t take the power of that dog seriously enough and so I think that is another problem,” she said. “They don’t see the signs.”
She said these bully breeds are often less communicative than other breeds, and are unfortunately frequently trained with shock or prong collars.
“So if they are communicating that they’re stressed out, they might growl or air snap or show teeth, that is often quelled so they don’t show anything anymore until they freak out and bite,” she explained.
“What it is is the dog trying to communicate that there’s something not working for them at the moment. That should be information for the person, and not anything that should be punished away.”
Jay said although she doesn’t know if the dog responsible for this week’s tragic death was a rescue, clamping down on retail rescues, disreputable breeders, and who can adopt rescue dogs would go a long way towards keeping our communities safer.
“I wish there was something concrete being discussed on a provincial level around retail rescues, but it’s good we’re talking about it,” she said. “This is something the general public needs to be aware of.”
HRM Councillor Steve Streatch represents the area where the fatal dog attack occurred. In an interview, he said his heart goes out to the family of the woman who died.
He said while he isn’t “at all interested” in proposing a pit bull ban, he did pose the question and was immediately inundated with feedback from hundreds of people from throughout the province, across Canada and even from the US.
“It has definitely raised the issue again as it relates to breeds, as it relates to rescue dog scenarios, and as it relates to regulations and training and the ability to rehabilitate some of these poor animals that have been subjected to very traumatic pasts,” Streatch said.
“People in the community have said ‘How do we prevent this from ever happening again?…We feel terrible, but at the same time we cannot have our community or any other community in this situation and potentially jeopardized.’ All I’ve done is ask the question and it has led to a firestorm on social media because there are people very passionate on both sides.”
Streatch said his hope is that the community can work together to find solutions to the issue. While he wants to work with them, he said he has no intentions of bringing any proposals to regional council.
“I want to open a discussion. I’m not saying I want a ban. I want to discuss how do we help,” Streatch said.
“I want people in the community to help find solutions. I am encouraged by this professional (Jay) saying here’s maybe how we deal with it. I’m open to all that stuff and I hope everybody else is too.”