Public Safety: City of Toronto to Review Dog Ownership Laws

Canine companionship can be very rewarding. Most people understand, and gladly accept, the commitment and responsibility that come along with owning a dog. This includes the legal obligations that have been previously discussed on the OTLA blog.

To recap, the Dog Owners’ Liability Act (the “Act”) imposes strict liability on owners for the actions of their dogs. This means that if the dog is found to have caused harm through an “attack” (a term that is broadly defined by the Act), the owner will be held responsible for any damages – regardless of whether they were cautious, took reasonable steps to prevent the incident, or knew that the dog might have a propensity to attack.

Currently, the Act provides that if a dog is a menace to the safety of persons or domestic animals, the Court can impose “measures for more effective control” which may include confinement to the owner’s property, leash or muzzle requirements, and/or an order to post warning signs. Alternatively, the Court may order to have the dog destroyed. Although destruction orders are rare, the Act is more stringent for pit bull breeds requiring mandatory destruction orders where the dog has bitten or attacked. The Court may also make an order to prohibit a dog’s owner from owning another dog during a specified period of time.

In addition to the Act, dog owners in Toronto must also abide by local by-laws, specifically Toronto Municipal Code, Chapter 349.

This month, the City of Toronto will review its laws with the objective to promote responsible dog ownership and public safety.

Owners could soon find themselves subject to more thorough investigations, harsher penalties, and greater enforcement efforts if their dogs cause injury to others. This will include a review of the Dog Owners’ Liability Act.

Earlier this year, Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean conducted an investigation into a serious dog attack which occurred in August of 2012. The victim was a 7 year old girl who was bitten in the face by a large dog and required 40 stitches. The investigation focused on the response by Animal Services and their procedures. In her annual report, the Ombudsman found that interactions with Animal Services following the bite were,

“…fraught with excessive delay, a lack of clarity about the process, a failure to deal effectively with an apparent conflict of interest and an officer who made insensitive and unprofessional comments.”

As a result, the Ombudsman recommended, “…increased training about existing policies and governing legislation as well as conflict of interest, adherence to record-keeping guidelines, a complaint handling protocol for Animal Services, and a written apology and explanation to [the victim].” In light of these recommendations, the City of Toronto made various policy and procedural changes in an effort to improve service.

On November 26th, the Licensing and Standards Committee will meet to discuss staff recommendations and the feedback gathered from public consultation meetings on the issue. At the consultation meetings, the public was shown a presentation on dog behaviour and responsible dog ownership which also explained the purpose of the legislative review and its initiatives. In keeping with the ombudsman’s report, the Committee will focus on how they can better respond to incidents of dog bites, vicious dogs, and the dangers of dogs at large. The Committee will also consider mandates to encourage dog licencing, improved enforcement, increased penalties, and stricter regulations for owners of aggressive breeds or dogs that have attacked such as mandatory training or exclusions from off-leash parks. Toronto Animal Services is also expected to present a report on dangerous dogs.

The review proves to be much needed, as survey results show that 56% of people do not know how to report a bite and 78% believe the City of Toronto should increase public awareness and education.

Any new or revised by-laws are anticipated to take effect early next year. For victims, the hope is better response, communication and protection. While the legal obligations of dog owners may increase, it is a reminder that owners need to be vigilant and mindful that it is possible for any dog to attack and harm others.

Michael Giordano
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Michael Giordano is a founding partner of Avanessy Giordano LLP. Prior to establishing his own practice, he was a partner of a prominent Mississauga personal injury firm.

He completed his law degree at the University of Ottawa. Prior to law school, Michael studied English and Law & Society at York University.

Michael is an active member of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association and is the current Vice-Chair of the New Lawyers Division. He is a regular contributor to the OTLA blog and has also written for The Litigator.