No More Puppy Love in R v Huggins
The Ontario Court of Appeal has released its judgement in R v Huggins, 2010 ONCA 746, a hotly-contended case surrounding a notorious dogfight. In a decision that will be an extreme disappointment to dog-lovers everywhere, the Court ordered that “Ginger” the pit bull be put down immediately.
A Walk in the Park Turns Into a Dog Owner’s Nightmare
In 2005, Ginger and her owner, Mr. Huggins, went for a walk in a Toronto park when they happened upon another (non-pit bull) dog, Buddy, and his owner Jody MacDonald. The two dogs got into a fight, and although it is unclear as to which dog instigated the altercation, during the course of the fight, Ginger seriously injured Buddy and also inflicted wounds on Ms. MacDonald. Mr. Huggins was charged under s. 5.1 of the Dog Owners Liability Act, RSO 1990, c D.16 [Dog Owners’ Liability Act] which reads:
The owner of a dog shall exercise reasonable precautions to prevent it from, (a) biting or attacking a person or domestic animal; or (b) behaving in a manner that poses a menace to the safety of persons or domestic animals.
Additionally, the Crown applied under s. 4(8) of the Act that Ginger be destroyed. The section reads:
When, in a proceeding under this section, the court finds that the dog is a pit bull and has bitten or attacked a person or domestic animal, or has behaved in a manner that poses a menace to the safety of persons or domestic animals, the court shall make an order under clause (3)(a).
Clause (3)(a) reads:
If, in a proceeding under subsection (1), the court finds that the dog has bitten or attacked a person or domestic animal or that the dog’s behaviour is such that the dog is a menace to the safety of persons or domestic animals, and the court is satisfied that an order is necessary for the protection of the public, the court may order, (a) that the dog be destroyed in the manner specified in the order;….
Section 4 (3)(a) allows a court to order the destruction of a dog if that dog has bitten or attacked a person. Note that in this section the language is permissive, as this section deals with dogs of all breeds. However, s. 4(8) seems to mandate an order to be made under clause 3(a). It is this issue that forms the basis of the case at hand.
A summary conviction judge acquitted Mr. Huggins but granted the order for the destruction of Ginger. The order was appealed to Hogan J. of the Ontario Court of Justice, who set aside the order for Ginger’s destruction. Before the Ontario Court of Appeal, the primary issue was whether the summary conviction judge erred in law in interpreting s. 4(8) of the Dog Owners’ Liability Act.
This Dog’s Bite Is Far Worse Than Its Bark
The case is interesting since the statutory interpretation under s. 4(8) requires the court to return to s. 3(a) (see above). On summary conviction, the judge outlined two possible statutory approaches.
- That the court may make an order after considering whether it is “necessary for the protection of the public” (a phrase found in s. 3(a)) or,
- That if the dog is a pit bull and has bitten another animal or person, the destruction order must be made.
Hogan J. opted to follow the first method of interpretation, reasoning that if the legislature had intended for all pit bulls behaving in this manner to be destroyed, the legislation would have simply said so instead of referring one back to s. 3(a). Blair J.A., writing for an unanimous Court, disagreed.
The Legislative Purpose Was To Eliminate Pit Bulls
The Court used a purposive approach to justify the destruction order. Referencing a seminal case on interpretation, Bell ExpressVu Limited Partnership v Rex,  2 SCR 559, Blair J.A. reiterated the principle that the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and with the intention of the legislature.
Bill 132 introduced the 2005 amendments to the Act with the express intention of eliminating the dog breed from the province. Since the Act was found constitutional (Cochrane v Ontario (Attorney General), 2008 ONCA 718), Blair J.A. held that the legislative intention of providing a separate clause for the destruction of pit bulls specifically was to ensure the elimination of dangerous pit bulls.
A “Refer-back” Reference Also Must Consider Legislative Intention
The Court then addressed the appeal judge’s finding that, since the legislation referred back to s. 3(a), the destruction order was permissive, not mandatory. Blair J.A. disposed of this reasoning by stating the “pit bull section” (s. 4(8)) would be superfluous and unnecessary, as pit bulls would then simply fall into the same category as all other dog breeds under s. 3(a).
A Bite is a Bite is a Bite?
Finally, it was also contended that the noscitur a sociis rule should apply to support the appeal judge’s interpretation of the statute. The rule means that, where words that are susceptible of analogous meaning are used together, their meaning is influenced by the words with which they are associated. While it is not clear from the written reasons, it seems as if Mr. Huggins’ argument contends that a bite must be “aggressive” since the word “bite” is, in the Act, associated with “attacked” and “menace.” Blair J.A. was not convinced by this argument, holding that the legislature did not contemplate (or worry about!) a debate over whether a dog’s bite was aggressive, playful, done in self-protection or any other reason. Any bite is enough.
It breaks my heart to know that an animal will die. However, begrudgingly, I am forced to agree with both the decision and remedy.
It was Mr. Huggins’ responsibility to control and ensure the dog did not injure anyone in the park. While I recognize that humans are imperfect, the consequences of aggressive and violent dogs are also serious and far-reaching. Without delving into an animal behaviour analysis, a full-grown adult dog who shows vicious tendencies is incapable of rehabilitation in the way a human could be. Following this, the full responsibility of preventing future harm would (in this case) fall entirely on Mr. Huggins, who has once already shown he is incapable of controlling Ginger. It is simply too dangerous for a potential future victim to rely on a dog owner’s reassurances the dog will not be a threat again. So, let this decision stand as a warning to all dog owners to exercise due care in ensuring their dogs behave in public places.