Neighbour, bitten by dog, worried for others
BY GLORIA J. KATCH
Special to the VOICE
A special meeting last Monday to amend bylaw 97-2010 on muzzling pets in a public place appeared less like a municipal meeting and more like a courtroom sequence from a reality TV show. Nancy Bozzato, Municipal Clerk for Pelham, officially swore in all the witnesses testifying, including Welland and District SPCA officers, while the Mayor with gavel in hand acted as judge, and municipal councillors looked on, like jurors in a court room. The only element missing from Welland and District SPCA Investigation #15137 was Titan, a five-year-old, 170-pound mastiff, who has been officially muzzled for life while in a public place, as a result of council’s unanimous vote in support of upholding the bylaw.
“This is not a death sentence by any means. It’s just an assurance that it won’t happen again,” said Animal Control Officer, Ryan Huurman, addressing both the sympathies for the dog, and alleviating any safety concerns the victim or council members had.
Described as a “big gentle teddy bear,” Titan, according to his owner, Tara Young, of Haist Street, was tending to his own business on the evening of Feb. 9, which in doggy terms means urinating on the pole in front of their house. The Youngs reported they were just returning after picking up a pizza, and were exiting their truck, when Titan, who was on a short leash, decided to relieve himself at his favourite spot.
Titan heard Irene Boychuk directly behind him, during her regular evening stroll. Young alleges Boychuk said, “Hello,” and then tried to pet Titan without asking. When Boychuk’s hand was close to Titan’s head, he turned and nipped her hand and bit into her thigh before jumping back. The incident happened quickly, leaving Boychuk with a bleeding finger and severely bruised thigh. Pictures of the attack had been reported to the police, and were placed into evidence, noted Bozzato.
The only significant difference between the testimonies of dog owner and victim was that Boychuk told council she would not attempt to pet a 5-pound dog urinating, let alone a 175-pound dog urinating, and that Titan surprisingly lunged at her for no reason. Young testified the incident was just “a timing issue,” and that Titan was startled and has never acted aggressively or bitten anyone before. Young said the dog has always played well with her three children without incident.
That night, seeing that Boychuk’s finger was bleeding and she was shaken, Young drove her home. Boychuk told the Voice she reported the incident to the SPCA because she thought it was what a person bitten by dog is supposed to do. She said this incident was not “a complaint,” but she was attending council to ensure the bylaw was upheld.
Councillors questioned Young regarding the type of collar and leash the dog had, if the dog underwent obedience training, and if muzzling Titan would be detrimental to his lifestyle. Young said Titan had completed obedience school and did have a collar with prongs that tightened around his neck.
Amanda Ellis, Enforcement Manager with the Welland and District SPCA, said while pronged collars help, animals should be able to be controlled from a longer and stronger leash, and not from his collar or by holding the leash within a few feet of his collar.
Boychuk cited several reasons in favour of muzzling, including that Titan’s leash was too “thin,” and said Young “had no control over the dog.” She told council that no one could be certain if this dog wouldn’t get spooked and attack someone again in future.
“I’m not asking that the dog get put down,” she said, adding that she wanted it muzzled in public so this incident doesn’t happen again.
Council members also asked the SPCA if mastiff dogs were categorized as one of the more aggressive breeds. Huurman said he wasn’t an expert on animal breeds, but pointed out it was the dog’s training and upbringing that made it aggressive or a threat to other people and pets. Ellis noted it was natural for a dog to “growl or react” in protection of its owner if a person unexpectedly approaches from behind.
When asked if a dog which has bitten a person only once is usually muzzled, Hurrman was affirmative.
“The SPCA would be negligent, if they didn’t use the bylaws in place and issue a muzzle order, in case [the dog] bit a child a week later. Personally, in 99.9% of the investigations that I do, I would issue a muzzle order.”
Huurman noted that muzzle orders have also been issued even when a dog didn’t bite a person, but acted in “an aggressive manner.”
Councillor Lisa Haun asked, if the bylaw was upheld, whether Titan walk in other municipalities without a muzzle. Huurman explained the SPCA maintains records and the muzzle order applies to the dog owners and dog, regardless of the area or municipality the dog is in.
Huurman said the Youngs have a fully fenced yard for the dog to play and urinate in, but it must be muzzled if the dog is going to the public area/boulevard in front of the house. Young remarked that the dog tended to be docile and lazy, so having to muzzle him just to use the front pole was an “inconvenience,” but didn’t pose a huge problem for her. Young maintained that Titan wasn’t a threat to the public, which is why she opposed muzzling him. Otherwise, she said, “I think I’ve said everything that has to be said,”
Just prior to Mayor Junkin asking council members to vote to uphold, rescind or amend the bylaw for this case, Councillor John Wink said he has several grandchildren, and would not want this experience to happen to any one of them. If council members voted against upholding the bylaw, then council may be legally liable if someone were bitten by this dog again.
Bozzatto said an appeal to the muzzling bylaw was made in 2016, but she recalls only two challenges to the bylaw in about 20 years.
According to Craig Genesse, Senior Bylaw Officer, Bylaw 97-2010 states that persons may be fined $200 for not complying with a muzzling order, failing to keep a vicious dog confined, or letting their dogs run at large. Persons can also be fined $50 for failing to display a sign on the owner’s premises indicating a dangerous dog is present.
Ellis told the Voice their staff performed 108 dog biting investigations last year. However, she said the public health department’s statistics are much higher, because it receives reports from doctors and walk-in clinics, which provide care to people bitten by an animal.
Due to confidentiality issues, the public health department does not report the cases to the SPCA. Even when police receive reports of a dog bite, they do not always inform the SPCA, so its statistics under-represent the true picture.
“Animals can be unpredictable,” she said.
As far as muzzles are concerned, there are new styles now that allow animals to pant, as well as even bark, and drink water, as they only need to use their tongues, pointed out Ellis. While looping the leash around a dog’s nose and mouth is commonly seen, this is not considered a muzzle, which is a “securely fastened device.”
Understandably, Ellis notes why many owners walk their dogs with their leash securing their mouths, because if someone is bitten, “it’s a liability.”
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