Following the recent pit bull attack on the Vancouver Seawall, there have been calls to ban the breed. Similar reactions are being considered in Ontario, and are already in effect in Winnipeg. Opponents of such bans say that the breed isn’t to blame; rather it’s bad owners that give the breed a bad name. But even those calling for responsibility on the part of the owner seem to think that regulation is the way to go: mandatory obedience classes, regulated breeding, licensing, heavy fines, and so on. But regulation is a blunt object, imposing cost and reducing choice not only for the reckless, but also for those who have reasonably trained their dogs or taken other cautionary measures.
Fortunately there’s already an institution that can handle such problems in Canada – the courts. When one person harms another, either through intent or negligence, they can be prosecuted under both criminal law and common law. In light of the recent attacks, it seems clear that owners have a duty to exercise care when they have their dogs in public areas. If that duty is breached and a dog attacks, the victim can simply sue the dog owner, and for more than simple damages.
If the dog owner is deemed negligent, courts can award various types of compensation. The most obvious compensation is for direct costs of clothes, and medical expenses. But courts can also award compensation for lost future earnings, as well as pain and suffering. And the penalty that can send the greatest message to dangerous dog breed owners isn’t used as vigorously as it could be in Canada; that is punitive damages – damages intended to punish someone for particularly heinous behavior and create a deterrent to others.
When an owner’s conduct is found to be intentional, willful, wanton, or malicious, the courts may permit an award of punitive damages in addition to the other awards discussed earlier. Walking an unmuzzled, unleashed pit bull that has been bred or trained for aggressive behaviour might well constitute such an act. Because punitive damages are awarded not to compensate the victim but to punish the owner, it is not even necessary for punitive damages to be paid directly to the victim. Often punitive damages are paid to a separate charitable organization, such as an animal shelter.
Courts also have non-monetary options. They could order obedience classes for the dog, have the dog destroyed, ban the owner from owning large dangerous dogs, send the owner to jail, and/or impose community service.
As is too often the case in Canada, we turn to our legislators and regulators to provide blanket solutions that may best be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. If handled through an aggressive judicial approach, dog owners would quickly realize that one of the costs of owning such breeds is the chance that the dog could attack and that they could be expected to pay heavy penalties. Responsible owners will still have choice, and additional incentives to properly train their dog and leash/muzzle it in public. Irresponsible owners would quickly learn the consequences of negligence.