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Animal regulations with some teeth

Whistler residents divided over calls to ban specific dog breeds

The first thought that came to Martha McLellan when she heard the bone-chilling screeches in front of her home was that a child was being attacked.

Nine months pregnant with her first child she rushed out her front door to see what was going on and was met by her golden lab, Bozeman, yelping for help as a pit bull ravaged him.

"The sound was like children being mauled," she said.

"By the time I got around the corner outside (Bo) was running toward me with the pit bull attached to his foot, and knawing on him and by the time they got to the door he had latched onto (Bo’s) jugular."

McLellan’s husband Mike ran toward the sound of the commotion too. When he saw what was happening he grabbed the nearest stick he could find – a paint extension rod – and tried to separate the dogs.

"The pit bull was going mental on Bo, just ravaging and chewing him to bits and he was at a point where he just wasn’t in control," said McLellan.

"Mike would hit him and the dog wouldn’t even flinch, he had just one focus."

McLellan, who was screaming at the dogs ran for a bucket of water and threw it on them thinking it would shock the attacking dog into letting go but to no avail.

"Mike was screaming at me to get inside because I was pregnant and he didn’t want the dog to go for me," she said.

Two men then arrived on the frightening scene – McLellan isn’t sure who they were – and one grabbed the attacking dog’s collar.

Later her husband told her that one of the men had to choke the attacking dog with his collar until it almost passed out before it would release Bo.

The yellow lab’s neck had a rip in his flesh the size of a man’s hand, his right hind foot was badly chewed, and he lost one of his nails.

McLellan reported the incident to Whistler’s bylaw immediately. Following its investigation the owner of the dog, who was staying temporarily in the resort at the time, was given a letter telling him that his pit-bull was now considered a "dangerous dog" and must be leashed and muzzled at all times in public.

The owner did pay the vet bills and was remorseful said McLellan.

Today, two months after the attack, Bo is still wearing a plastic vet’s collar to stop him from licking the wounds, which became infected despite antibiotic treatments.

And, said McLellan, her pet is not the same canine. Bo flinches at sudden noises and stays away form other dogs.

McLellan feels differently about some dogs too and that is why she wants to add her voice to those raised across the country recently in support of some kind of control over dog breeds associated with violent attacks on pets and people.

"I think these dogs should definitely be controlled more," she said. "They should always be on leashes, maybe muzzled, and monitored more closely.

"I do think it is necessary. I think something should be done in Whistler."

She is not alone in her concerns.

"We felt like we were prisoners in our own home," said Alta Lake Road resident Bob Penner after two Perro de Presa Canarios dogs moved into his neighbourhood this summer.

"No longer could my wife, with any peace of mind or comfort, walk down the road or go outside our house."

Like pit bulls these dogs have a genetic predisposition to hold onto something once they bite it. They bite at about 1,500 pounds per square inch of jaw. Two dogs of this breed were responsible for the death of a California woman outside her apartment.

"These dogs made me angry but they made a lot of our neighbours frightened," said Penner who repeatedly called bylaw about the dogs because he saw them out without being leashed.

Indeed Penner said he found his whole experience with the bylaw department frustrating as he was told there was nothing they could do until the Presa Canarios attacked a pet or a person.

He was forced to start fencing a large part of his garden so that his 35-lb. collie Sasha could go outside without Penner worrying about the Presa Canarios going for his nine-year-old pet.

The dogs have since left the neighbourhood but Penner is still vowing to petition the municipality to formulate a stronger bylaw against dangerous dogs.

"I am not done with this," he said.

He wants to see a stronger licensing process where owners of dogs identified as aggressive breeds are clearly informed that they are responsible financially and otherwise for the actions of their dogs. He also wants licensing to address how people look after two or more of these dogs living together.

"If those dog owners allow them to run free the dogs should be taken away immediately," said Penner who describes two Presario dogs running together as a "time-bomb ticking away. They are a pack."

"The bylaws are not sufficient. The growth of this problem is not flat lining, it is growing. The number of dog owners is increasing."

The desire by communities to ban various breeds can be seen right across Canada. Next month Ontario will table a proposed law to ban pit bulls. The law will also allow irresponsible dog owners to be jailed and vicious dogs to be euthanized.

Municipalities will administer the new law.

A rash of highly publicized pit bull attacks prompted the province-wide ban in recent months. In one case a Toronto man was mauled by two pit bulls he was walking for a friend in August. It took more than 12 bullets by police to kill the dogs.

In Winnipeg pit bulls have been banned since 1990. In 1989 there were 28 pit bull attacks. In the 14 years since the ban was implemented there have been 32.

Closer to home, a Vernon couple is also calling for a provincial ban on pit bulls after their small dog was attacked and killed. The pit bull in this case was seized by the SPCA and put down.

B.C. Solicitor General Rich Coleman does not support legislation banning pit bulls. And he is not alone.

Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) shelter director Carol Coffey believes it would be a clumsy and ineffective way to combat the problem of dogs that attack other animals or people.

"It is a Band-Aid solution," she said.

The problem is that if pit bulls are banned then the people interested in owning than type of dog will just get a similar type of dog, such as a Rottweiler, and then it’s likely that incidents of dog bites for those animals will go up, she said.

"So it is an endless cycle," said Coffey.

In general WAG will not accept any dog which has bitten a person. WAG will accept pit bulls for adoption but only after they have undergone an evaluation by a vet to make sure they do not present any danger to the public. Coffey believes the root of the problem lies with the owners.

"It is important that people realize that any dog is capable of being a dangerous dog," she said.

"Certain breeds do have certain characteristics but what it comes down to is more how the dog is trained and handled by the owner.

"Sometimes people get pit bulls because they want them for protection, or they think it will give them a macho image and they end up really not properly training the dog and socializing the dog. They need to make sure they have control over the animal and that they have leadership with that animal.

"It is more about the owners than it is about the dogs themselves.

"It is definitely a problem with no easy solution and when it comes down to it public safety is number one. But I really think it is better to evaluate it on a case by case basis."

Sea to Sky veterinarian Dr. David Lane is strongly opposed to a breed-specific bylaw ban.

"I keep calling it doggy racism," he said.

"I very much think it is political pandering by people who don’t really know the issue and they are making the decisions.

"What I think should exist are strong laws to deal with aggressive dogs and irresponsible owners who don’t control their dogs."

One way for dog owners to take responsibility is to take training, said Lane, who works with WAG in evaluating their dogs.

"It teaches you how to speak dog and a lot of people are misinterpreting what the dog is trying to say," he said.

And residents should report all run-ins with aggressive dogs to the bylaw department, since it can take action more easily if it has a record of the dog’s past behaviour.

There are two types of complementary regulations in place to deal with dangerous dogs in Whistler. The local animal control act outlines the rules for owning dogs in Whistler and what can happen if owners contravene the bylaw. It defines what a dangerous dog is – one which has bitten, attacked or aggressively pursued a person or animal, or one with a known propensity to attack animals or people – and says these dogs must be leashed and, muzzled while in public places.

Fines of up to $2,000 can be issued for failing to comply with the bylaw. It’s up to animal control officers to determine if a dog is dangerous.

Whistler has no plans to change its bylaws or ban pit bulls.

Along with the municipal rules are those outlined in the Local Government Act, which allow the animal control officer to seize, impound and detain dangerous dogs in the interest of public safety.

Many pit bull owners feel their pets are being unfairly stereotyped. Doug Lundgren owns two pit bulls, Moses and Eddie, both of which he adopted through rescue organizations.

"The dogs themselves are probably the most affectionate dogs there are," said the Whistler resident.

He feels a pit bull ban would be a big mistake.

"After that it will be Dobermans then Rottweilers then German Shepherds then Malamutes and pretty soon all you will be able to own is a poodle, and they are one of the worst biters of all," he said.

A misunderstood dog, Lungren said pit bulls love and thrive on human companionship and owners who fail to realize this and chain their dogs up alone are asking for trouble.

McLellan finds little comfort in knowing pit bulls can be loving because she has seen the unpredictable side of their personality. It’s a side she hopes all owners of these breeds of dog are aware of.

"I tell my story to everyone," she said.

"A couple of days after the attack I took Bo to the Valley Trail and I saw a young guy there with a pit bull puppy," she said.

The puppy owner said, "He is the cutest thing ever, don’t you just love him?"

McLellan replied he was cute but added: "Just make sure you train that dog because my dog just got attacked two days ago and I showed him Bo and I said, ‘this is what can happen and you just don’t want to live with that.’

"He was a really tough guy with tattoos and earrings and piercings and he said: ‘Oh my dog will never do that. He is the coolest dog.’

"Well you don’t know. As much as you think you can train it and take care of it you just don’t know."