why bigoted breed-specific laws must be repealed, or how ontario laws almost ruined my life

This Wednesday, November 18, Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo (Parkdale-High Park) will introduce a private member's bill calling on Ontario to remove the breed specific wording of the Ontario Dog Owner's Liability Act.

There is no doubt that dog owners must be held accountable for the actions of their dogs. But the same laws must apply to all owners of all dogs. No law should single out specific dogs based on myth, fear, unfair publicity - and bigotry.

I'm talking about pit bulls, of course, a group of breeds and crosses who, along with their owners, have been made to suffer because of public ignorance and prejudice.

I won't try to tell you all I know about bully boys, what incredible animals they are, and how profoundly so many of them have suffered, first from the cruelty of sadists and profiteers, then again as they are punished - killed - because of bad human laws.

All you need to know about these amazing dogs can be found here at BAD RAP, which stands for Bay Area Dogowners Responsible About Pitbulls. BAD RAP has a special section about the "Vick Dogs," the dogs that survived Michael Vick's torture camps, and - although they were thought to be beyond hope - were rescued and rehabilitated. I've blogged about the Vick dogs before, but please do go, read, watch. Unless your heart is made of stone, bring tissues.

You can also read more about breed-specific legislation - why it's wrong and why it doesn't work - here at DogWatch.

So instead of explaining why breed-specific legislation is wrong, I will tell you a personal story of something that happened to our family - something bad that could have been unimaginably worse.

You've heard of Buster. Buster was our very special dog. He had a list of physical and emotional issues as long as your arm. He was both an enormous problem and an enormous joy.

Walking Cody one cold, rainy, December night (December 14, 1999), I saw a dog, alone, walking with its head down, with a slow, plodding gait that spoke of desperation. Not two weeks earlier, I had told my sister that I felt ready to get another dog. We had lost our little terrier Clyde four months earlier, and I told Judy, "The next stray dog that crosses my path is mine."

I ran back to our building, picked up the intercom, and shouted to Allan, "Come downstairs! There's a dog out here! Put your shoes on, get down here!"

I looked around: no dog. Where was he?? Then a moment later, he emerged from an alley between two buildings. I knelt down and opened my arms, steadying myself with deep breaths so my excitement wouldn't scare him off. Head down, he walked into my embrace.

By the time Allan was outside I was holding the dog.

We took him upstairs. He wore a chain-link collar from which the tags had been clipped off. He had almost no fur left, and his exposed skin was gray. He was covered with open wounds and infections. He was dying.

* * * *

Thus began a saga that changed our lives forever. Buster had almost certainly been trained to fight, or else used as a "bait dog" for other dogs to attack. It took him a very long time to trust any person. He could only allow a new person to touch him through a special sensitization process we learned from a trainer. But once he trusted, oh boy. He was the best friend you'd ever have.

Buster could never be loose around other dogs. We found this out the hard way, after a charlatan calling herself a trainer made a series of bad decisions. A dog had to have its ear sewed together and Allan spent five days in the hospital. We knew that Buster would attack any other dog, so we made sure he never had that opportunity.

The only exception to this was Cody. Buster loved Cody and was always gentle and sweet with her. In fact, he treated her like an older dog treats a puppy, letting her play-bite, smack and otherwise harass him, sometimes playing with her, other times looking on with bemused tolerance.

Buster had three different chronic illnesses, all of which involved regular visits to specialists and an array of medications. At one point I had a spreadsheet to keep track of them all: these drops in both eyes every eight hours, this drop in one eye once daily, these pills on an empty stomach, these pills with food, and so on.

Caring for Buster took a lot of energy, and cost a fortune. (And almost cost Allan a finger!) And every day I felt lucky to have him. No creature loves you like a dog, and no dog loves you like a former stray. But the love you receive from a former stray, abused pit bull is on another order of magnitude. I used to say that if a man loved me the way Buster did, he'd be arrested for stalking. This dog was intense.

* * * *

The summer before we moved to Canada, Buster was desperately ill. He almost died. I could not abide the thought of our family not making it to Canada together. We sought out specialists, had tests done, put him on a special program. I was frightened, but we pulled him through.

On August 30, 2005, we all drove north together.

Note the date. The Ontario Dog Owner's Liability Act with its anti- pit bull provision went into effect on August 29. Two days earlier, and he would have been grandfathered in.

On September 2, the moving company delivered our furniture. I hung out on the front lawn with both dogs on leashes. When people would walked past with dogs, Buster would start to react, and I'd take our dogs around the house to the backyard.

Later that day, our doorbell rang. It was Animal Services. A neighbour had reported that we had two pit bulls that appeared aggressive and dangerous. (One of those dogs was Cody, which tells you something about this person's judgement.)

My heart was pounding as we spoke to the Animal Services staffers. We told them one dog was afraid of people, so it was best that they didn't come in. They were fine with that. As we chatted with them, Allan purposely left the screen door open - so they could clearly see Buster lying down, relaxing, totally unconcerned. As long as he had a buffer zone, he was always fine. He would never lunge or bark at a person unless they approached him too closely.

After a chat, the Animals Services person told us they were noting that the house had two dogs: one Shepherd-Lab mix, and one Boxer mix. They told us to get both dogs licensed, wished us well, and left. It was a long time - several days - before I was able to realize that we were safe.

* * * *

Let me tell you what could have happened, indeed, what should have happened under Ontario law.

A neighbour reported a pit bull sighting.

It was now incumbent on us to prove that Buster was not a pit bull.

We would have had no way of doing so. He's a mutt without papers. How could we prove a negative?

Since we would have been unable to disprove the neighbour's allegation, Buster would have been taken from us and destroyed. Period. No due process. No hearing. No second chances. The dog that we had cared for with our lives and souls would have been taken away and destroyed. Not because he had behaved dangerously or menacingly. Because a neighbour made an accusation.

Do you see what's wrong here?

Animal Services told us that when they explained the law to the reporting neighbour, the person felt awful and immediately wanted to rescind the complaint, but that can't be done. This nosy, bigoted, misinformed neighbour didn't even understand the severity of the law he or she had just invoked.

On August 30, 2005, we moved to Canada to start a new life.

On September 2, my life was almost ruined.

The brutal post-script to this story came 10 weeks later. One of Buster's chronic illnesses suddenly worsened, and we made that terrible final decision. But that was our choice, for his own good, and we were with him until his last breath, and beyond. It could have been otherwise. It came very close.

* * * *

Join me in contacting Cheri DiNovo, and if you're in Ontario, your own MPP. Support this private member's bill that would bring sanity back to Ontario dog laws.

For more information: Dogs Need A Voice.

Facebook Group: here.

YouTube: here. (Buster's in it!)


I've written a lot about Buster, so for those with time, inclination and extra tissues: details on the Animal Services visit, and part two of that; on losing him: one, two, three, four, five. I've never been so grateful for community; six: on love.

two busters upstate

b on new mats 016

b on new mats 012a

pups at play 002

cody on the landing 001



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