Breed-specific legislation is a controversial topic for dog owners. Ontarians are generally banned from owning or breeding pit bulls under Dog Owners’ Liability Act and face more severe consequences for dog bites and attacks if their dog is considered to be a pit bull. At a recent rally in Toronto, protestors denounced the ban as misguided and discriminatory to breeds falling under the umbrella classification of “pit bull”. They, therefore, demanded the breed-specific language be removed from the law.

This blog is intended to provide information on the current state of the law relating to dog bites and how it applies to pit bulls and is not intended to express an opinion on this law. 

What is the definition of a “pit bull” in Ontario?

Under Ontario’s Dog Owners’ Liability Act, a “pit bull” is defined as any one of the following: 

  • a pit bull terrier, 
  • a Staffordshire bull terrier, 
  • an American Staffordshire terrier, 
  • an American pit bull terrier, 
  • a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to the dogs listed above. 

Who decides whether a dog is a pit bull? 

Determining whether a dog is a pit bull can be difficult, particularly in situations involving mixed breeds. Courts in Ontario review the following factors, set out under the Dog Owners’ Liability Act, to determine whether a dog is a pit bull:

  • the dog’s origins (whether from a breeder, shelter, or other entity); 
  • the dog’s papers (e.g., if the dog is a Canadian Kennel Club or American Kennel Club-registered dog); 
  • the dog’s veterinarian (such as medical records or the testimony of the treating veterinarian); and
  • breed standards (e.g., the breed standards established for Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers or American Pit Bull Terriers established by the Canadian Kennel Club, the United Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club, or the American Dog Breeders Association). 

What happens if you own a pit bull in Ontario?

Under the Act, it is illegal to own, breed, transfer, abandon, import or train a pit bull except in very limited, regulated circumstances (e.g. dog shows). Any individual found who breaks this law can guilty of an offence under the Act and required to pay a fine of $10,000 ($60,000 if the offender is a corporate) and/or face imprisonment for up to six months. 

What is the law regarding dog bites?

A person can bring a legal action under the Dog Owners’ Liability Act in the following circumstances, regardless of the breed of dog at issue:

  1. The dog has bitten or attacked a person or domestic animal; 
  2. The dog has behaved in a manner that poses a menace to the safety of people or domestic animals; or
  3. The owner did not take reasonable precautions to prevent their dog from biting or attacking a person or domestic animal or behaving in a manner that poses a menace to the safety of people or domestic animals. 

The Dog Owners’ Liability Act holds the owner of a dog liable for damages resulting from a dog bite or attack on another person or domestic animal, regardless of whether the owner knew that the dog was likely to bite or attack or otherwise acted negligently. This means that “strict liability” applies to dog bites – i.e., the victim only needs to prove that the dog bit or attacked them to establish that the dog owner is liable. 

When a court finds a dog bit or attacked a person or pet or behaved in a manner that threatens the safety of people or pets, the court may make an order for the dog to be destroyed for the public’s protection. The court may also compensate victims through damage awards.

What happens if a pit bull attacks a person or pet?

While courts have the discretion to order a dog be put down (“destroyed”) after an incident involving a bite or attack, the law requires the dog be put down if the court finds it is a pit bull. When the court has determined the dog in question is a pit bull, the owner is responsible for proving the dog does not, in fact, meet the definition of a pit bull.

Skilled Personal Injury Lawyers Serving Eastern Ontario and North Bay

The risk of a bite or attack is present with any type of dog and is certainly not limited to those defined as “pit bulls” under Ontario law. At Tierney Stauffer LLP, we provide legal advice and skilled representation to help those who have experienced a dog attack or suffered a bite. Call us at 1-888-799-8057 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our experienced personal injury lawyers.


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