Dog trainer and dog behaviour consultant Silvia Jay with her rescue dog Bowie.

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 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.”

Councillor Steve Streatch

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.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Four years ago, we tried to adopt a rescue dog advertised as a lab mix good with cats and kids but with some anxiety-related behavioural issues. We were willing to work with those. The dog may have had some lab but the predominant breed seemed to be some kind of pit bull. She had a powerful prey drive and was relentless in pursuing our cats. Dealing with her anxiety behaviours would have become a near full-time job for me. Although the rescue group grossly mischaracterized her behaviour, to their credit they did recognize neither we nor the dog would be happy and found someone more appropriate to foster her and work on her training before trying to find a permanent home for her.

    1. Phil, this brings back memories. Back in 2004 or thereabouts we had a heartbreaking episode with a rescue dog, a shepherd/beagle/bull terrier mix. She was supposed to be a sweetheart, good with cats, etc.

      The minute we brought her into the house she tried to kill one of the cats; mercifully, the only casualty was a vase of my great-grandparents.

      Much worse, she proved to be uncontrollably, viciously aggressive/reactive to tall men.

      No way the rescue didn’t know about these traits … they took her back without argument, though with some guilt-tripping.

      The kids and I were grief-stricken, but it was like having a live grenade at the end of the leash. My then spouse and I both worked, and the kids were only 12 and 10 – our vet insisted that we return her. We simply weren’t in a position to deal with a dog that dangerous.

      She was later adopted by a retired couple who worked with her for hours a day – we saw her with them at the park a couple of years later. She was wearing a muzzle at all times when out and about, but had come along well with 24/7 care.

      And a couple of weeks later, we got the Best Dog Ever from the SPCA, a shepherd-husky who lived to be almost 16 – and who had been temperament-tested.

  2. Many of my friends have benefitted greatly from Sylvia Jay’s expertise. However, I do wish other dog trainers with different training styles would be consulted when reporting on this horrifying story and the dilemma it poses. From what I gather, Jay’s training style uses primarily, if not exclusively positive reinforcement, which seems these days to be the only socially acceptable style. And frankly there are limits to it, especially when it comes to incredibly powerful breeds and dogs with major behavioural issues. And the truth is not everyone can afford to hire Jay and these dogs are already here in this province.

    I walk in the Hydrostone neighbourhood three times a day with my 100lb german shepherd who proudly sports both an e-collar and a prong collar at the same time. I think many people who see his collars get really uncomfortable. They think I’m cruel. But, these are the tools I needed to train my dog because of his strength and his drive. These are the tools that I feel are my civic duty to use. And these are tools that can be used safely without abusing a dog or causing it trauma. Jay seems to imply above that these tools could have been what caused this woman’s dog to act the way it did. It’s possible. But these are also the tools that could have saved this poor woman’s life.

    Before I got my current dog, from a breeder, I applied to a number of rescues in Nova Scotia. I filled out several elaborate questionnaires and got rejected because I said that I used prong collars in my dog training. It seems that rescues only want to adopt dogs out to people who do positive only training. Some even make people sign a contract. And I think this is part of the problem.

    Regulating “retail” rescues sounds like a very long term project and a good idea. But these dogs are already here, getting into the hands of folks who are ill equipped to deal with them. One step would be for CBC and the Examiner to connect with dog trainers who safely incorporate other tools into their training, tools like muzzles, e-collars and prong collars that can actually interrupt bad and potentially life threatening behaviour in real time.

  3. If you are going to have large dogs, especially large dogs bred for fighting, you are going to have dog attacks. There is no magic policy solution. A fair solution might be to make people liable for the actions of their dogs as if they did whatever their dog did (exceptions for public urination, obviously). If people faced prison sentences for their dogs attacking people they might be more responsible.

    When I see people walking around with dogs bred for fighting, I can’t help but think of the American subculture that goes to the grocery store with an AR-15 strapped to their back. Why did you need to get this particular kind of dog? There are about 300 recognized dog breeds, a handful of which fall into the nebulous category understood as “pit bull”, and plenty of wonderful mutts out there.

  4. 8 month old Golden pup attacked by 2 “Bully” breed dogs at Shubie Park today. One of the dogs came back and attacked the Golden pup a second time. Owner said her “Bully’s” never did that before. Owner had absolutely no control of her dogs. Very terrifying for the pup and his owners. Shubie Dog Park is a dangerous place.