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Published: 3/1/2010

Canadian city changes tack to cut dog deaths

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bill Bruce, with a dog available for adoption, says he ‘saw a huge need for a change in thought.' Bill Bruce, with a dog available for adoption, says he ‘saw a huge need for a change in thought.'
TED RHODES WADSWORTH, J / CALGARY HERALD Enlarge

First of two parts

Two different approaches to dog wardening have reaped very different results for their respective communities.

The older method, exemplified by roving and aggressive dog catchers, breed-specific targeting, and frequent euthanasia, was perfected by former Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon. The outcome: 1,951 impounded dogs killed last year in a county of about 440,000 people and 357 "investigated" bites or attacks.

The flip side is a system of service-oriented patrols, incentives for self-regulation, and a philosophy of punishing irresponsible owners rather than dogs.

Those are the methods adopted by the Canadian city of Calgary under Bill Bruce, director of animal and bylaw services for this city commonly known among Midwestern Americans for the Flames, of the National Hockey League, and the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Although Calgary has more than twice the population of Lucas County, its animal shelter euthanized 203 dogs last year - just under 5 percent of all impounded dogs, compared with Lucas County's 72 percent kill rate - and reported only 158 dog bites, most of the "no puncture" variety.

But similar to Lucas County's dog warden department, Calgary's operation receives no government subsides - running solely on the proceeds from licensing fees and fines.

As local officials search to hire a new head dog warden with his or her own approach to animal control, the Calgary model of Mr. Bruce illustrates how effective public safety and humane treatment of dogs are not mutually exclusive concepts.

The key, according to Mr. Bruce, is giving people the right incentives to be responsible pet owners.

Consider it a tough-love approach: tough on bad owners but loving of the animals.

"The whole model is about responsible pet ownership," Mr. Bruce, 56, said in a phone interview.

"In North America, we don't really have an animal problem; we've got a people problem. I think that's the first realization you've got to come to - it's not about the animal, it's about the people."

One significant difference between the Lucas County and Calgary models is the penalties law breakers face.

Although Lucas County routinely excuses owners from various citations if they surrender their dogs - a step that often leads to the animals' euthanasia - Calgary hits irresponsible owners in their wallets.

Those whose dogs defecate on public property in Calgary are fined $250 - the same fine as for having an unlicensed dog. The penalty is $100 for a dog that chases or threatens to bite a person. A person caught teasing or tormenting a dog is ticketed $100.

"Tormenting a dog is an offense here because if that dog gets out, it's going to bite the first kid it comes to, just because it's got this pent-up anger and frustration," Mr. Bruce said.

The Calgary system was built to penalize and correct relatively minor behaviors before they can escalate into something serious.

"No dog wakes up and decides to start biting people today," Mr. Bruce said. "It always starts with lesser behaviors that are left unchecked."

Fines increase with the severity of the offense. Owners are ticketed $350 if their dogs bite and $750 if the bites are serious enough to require some medical attention. A severe bite or all-out attack results in a $1,500 fine.

Mr. Bruce's staff will seize vicious dogs who attack and hold them for 30 days until the matter goes to court. His department will then destroy the animal if the judge orders so, as is done in Ohio.

"When you have a vicious dog, you can almost guarantee the owner's a jerk," Mr. Bruce said. "The dog reflects the owner's behavior."

Lucas County has no similar system of incremental fines.

If deputies pick up a resident's dog and it's unlicensed, the penalty is having to buy a dog license and perhaps pay a $25 late fee - but only if the owner wishes to reclaim the dog from the pound. Many don't, leaving the fate of the animal to the dog warden's office.

Still, dog owners in Ohio can be charged with a felony and are fully liable if their animals are involved in a serious attack.

Area dog advocates complained for years that under Mr. Skeldon, dog warden deputies wouldn't cite people for violating Toledo's rabies or vicious dogs laws - misdemeanor offenses - provided the owners agreed to surrender their dogs for probable euthanasia.

Acting Dog Warden Bonnie Mitchell has defended that practice of dropping citations against people if they hand over their dog.

"They surrendered their dog to us; why would we double-slap them by citing them too?" she said to members of the Lucas County Dog Warden Advisory Committee.

Jean Keating, co-founder of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates, is among those who criticize the practice, likening it to getting "pulled over for drunk driving and you giving up your car and not getting cited."

"If you don't have that license, they should smack you with a big fine," she added.

Many of the dogs surrendered to Mr. Skeldon were "pit bulls" or "pit bull" mixes, which the former warden refused to make eligible for adoption under a policy still in place. As a result, well over 1,000 "pit bulls" or mixes are killed each year at the pound. Ohio law singles out "pit bulls" as inherently vicious.

Yet "pit bulls" fare significantly better in Calgary, where there are no breed bans or breed restrictions.

"If you've got a 'pit bull' and it's properly licensed and it's not bothering anybody and it's well cared for - it's none of the government's business," Mr. Bruce said. "But if the dog becomes a threat to the community, oh yeah, it's my business."

Of the 203 dogs euthanized last year at Calgary's shelter, 145 were considered irredeemably vicious. Thirty-six were put down for health reasons and 22 for serious injury, according to Mr. Bruce. "We don't euthanize anything that is healthy and adoptable," he said. "I euthanized 203 dogs last year in a city of [nearly] 1.1 million people."

About 105,000 dogs are licensed in Calgary at $31 per spayed/neutered dog (nonsterilized dogs are $52). The compliance rate is 93 percent to 95 percent, Mr. Bruce said.

Mr. Skeldon last year said that Lucas County has roughly 62,500 licensed dogs.

Calgary was not always so pet-friendly or safe from dog bites. The city had 621 dog bites a year in the mid-1980s, even though its population was then much smaller at just over 600,000 people, according to the Calgary Herald. The city also was euthanizing many more dogs at the time and had a policy against adopting out "pit bulls."

Mr. Bruce, who considers himself an animal lover, took the reins of animal control in 2000 after years in Calgary's traffic enforcement department and a stint as assistant to the city's commissioners. He was responsible for enacting many of the current animal policies.

"It was an area where I saw a huge need for a change in thought and an improvement in how we do things," Mr. Bruce said.

His initial plan involved emphasizing animal control as a service and less as an arm of law enforcement. He added owner education programs and invested proceeds from license fees and fines into new facilities and equipment.

The department's vehicles are now equipped with GPS positioning devices and laptops connected to a license database, helping staff to immediately return loose dogs or cats to their owners rather than transporting the animals to the shelter.

"Again the goal here is to get the dog home - back in the care of a responsible owner," said Mr. Bruce, who is often sought as an event speaker by animal groups throughout North America, including the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association.

Tomorrow: The effort to name the dogs up for adoption at a Chicago shelter is one simple step among an array of best practices designed to help save shelter dogs from needless deaths.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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