When did crating your dog become a crime?

Leashes. Crates. Even doghouses. Suddenly they’re all evil. The debate over how to treat Fido is dividing pet owners.

Just outside the small Nova Scotia fishing town of Lockeport, Robbie Fowler’s home sits near a bend in a country road that winds through Shelburne County. Two dogs named Buddy and Magnum, golden retriever mixed breeds, live on chains in the yard. The dogs love to walk in the woods, ride in Fowler’s pickup truck and swim in nearby Allendale Bay. But they hate staying inside. “They don’t even go in the doghouse half the time,” says Fowler. “What they are is hunting dogs.”

That’s why Fowler keeps Buddy and Magnum on chains about 15 feet long. These are attached to “big long-run ropes” that Fowler says allow Buddy and Magnum to move up and down the yard while preventing them from straying out to the road and getting hit by a car. “They run around and get plenty of exercise,” says Fowler.

One day in February, a cruelty investigator from the SPCA turned up at Fowler’s door. Animal rights activists in the area have been filing complaints against Fowler for more than a year, telling authorities that the way he keeps his dogs is causing them to suffer social isolation and confinement. The investigator surveyed Fowler’s yard, taking note of the run ropes and the insulated doghouse with a shingle roof that Fowler built for Buddy and Magnum. “He said: ‘Your dogs cannot get tangled up, they have a good long run, they have a nice house. I don’t know what they’re calling for,’ ” Fowler recalls. The investigator left after concluding Buddy and Magnum were well-fed and cared for.

Over the years, the boundary between animal cruelty and kindness has moved, and some of us didn’t even notice. The days when dogs were sentries first and pets second are long gone. Even the junkyard dog has largely disappeared, replaced by video surveillance technology. Now we buy them organic food, seatbelts for the car, orthopaedic beds for the house, and take them to physiotherapists when they get arthritis. And the age-old practice of tying a dog up in the backyard or leaving it in a crate to housebreak it are as morally abhorrent to some as putting a child on a halter or keeping it in a playpen all day.

David Lummis, a pet market analyst with the research firm Packaged Facts, sees a societal shift: “Pets really do perform the function of surrogate children.”

The movement to ban chains and crates for dogs first gained momentum in the U.S. in the mid-2000s, when animal welfare groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Dogs Deserve Better started focused campaigns to make such practices illegal at the local and state levels. States like California, Nevada, Texas and West Virginia have since passed laws restricting the length of time a dog can be chained or tethered.

Anti-chaining attitudes have also made headway in Canada. There are now bylaws either banning or restricting how long a dog can be chained in Calgary, Victoria and Delta, B.C. In Vancouver, there’s a little-known bylaw that prohibits owners from tying up their dogs and leaving them unattended in public, even if it’s just to run into a café for a coffee. And in Nova Scotia, where Fowler lives with Buddy and Magnum, there’s a concerted push to amend the provincial Animal Protection Act to either ban or make restrictions on dog chaining and tethering.

Groups like PETA also want to outlaw crating, a common practice for dog owners who are housebreaking puppies, while the Humane Society of Canada doesn’t recommend it.

Last month, Manitoba made it illegal to crop dogs’ ears, a relatively common procedure among certain breeders intended to maintain the dogs’ physical standards. Those behind the ban argued, successfully, that it was inhumane and distressing to the animals.

As animal welfare groups successfully push for these changes, perceptions of what constitutes cruelty to dogs are escalating. Not everyone, however, is rising with the tide, and this is exposing fundamental disagreements about the place dogs hold in our lives. For some, an owner’s right to determine what’s best for their dog is being chipped away. The conflict has moved passed rhetorical jabs to the point where outright accusations of animal cruelty—not to mention calls placed to the SPCA—are souring relationships between neighbours. In Nova Scotia, especially in rural and suburban areas, some express outright disgust at the way they see dogs being treated. “If you don’t want to be upset, just look straight ahead when you drive down the road,” says Amanda Cleveland, founder of People for Dogs.

These attitudes are fuelled by stories of cruelty passed around by activists in the province. Scott Saunders, who is lobbying to ban continuous dog chaining in Nova Scotia, tells of a guard dog at a Cape Breton construction site that was found dead in the snow at the end of its chain two years ago. “What bothers me is that is it still 100 per cent legal to strap your dog out like a piece of junk,” he says. “Until they actually die, right on the spot, still tied to that chain, nobody really gives a s–t.”

Nahleen Ashton, who runs a dog rescue shelter in the province’s Annapolis Valley region, also has a powerful story about the dangers of tying a dog outside for much of its life. Last summer, Ashton adopted a dog named the Mighty Quinn, who had spent about eight years on the end of a rope. There was a bald ring around his neck from the rope’s constant irritation. Most of his body was hairless too, exposing oozing sores made worse by his habit of gnawing and licking at himself—behaviour common for dogs tied up continuously, left to feel anxious and distressed. Ashton acquired the help of dog behaviour expert Silvia Jay, who says Quinn’s state is typical of dogs left tied up for so long. “Dogs are not made to live alone, they need social companionship,” says Jay. “In my opinion, dogs should be inside the house.”

She also says tying dogs can aggravate them and make them more aggressive, especially when kept on a short chain. She calls it “restraint frustration,” which occurs if the dog is unable to follow its instinct to approach “environmental stimuli” that catch its attention: passing cars, wildlife and even pedestrians that distract or entice a dog beyond the reach of his tether. “An animal left outside in a backyard is really a ticking time bomb,” says PETA spokesperson Ryan Huling, going even further. “It’s not safe for anyone nearby.” A 1994 study published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that dogs who bite are nearly three times more likely to be chained.

The impact of crating is similar, says Jay, in that dogs left in crates for hours on end can experience distress from social isolation. But instead of becoming more aggressive from restraint frustration, crated dogs suffer from boredom due to the lack of stimuli, which can lead to excessive barking and other behaviour, she says.

Still, even among animal rights activists there is ambivalence. “Crates can be a really good tool to manage a dog and keep him out of trouble, especially as a puppy,” says Jay. Similarly, Brad Nichols, a peace officer who conducts animal cruelty investigations in Calgary, says: “My dogs are sitting at home right now crated. It only becomes a problem when it’s excessive.”

But without a ban or strict legal limits, discretion about how much time is spent on chains or in crates is in the hands of dog owners, something that doesn’t sit well with animal rights activists who don’t trust the general public to look after a dog’s welfare. “I’d rather have a no-tethering law than leave it up to people to decide how long a dog is to be outside on a chain,” says Jay, “because most people are getting it wrong.”

On an unseasonably warm February day, dog owners congregate at a fenced-in, leash-free community dog park in Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood. They laugh as they watch their gregarious pets bounce around, releasing pent-up energy. Standing slightly apart from the others is Greg New, a self-employed accountant there with his dog, Suki, a white and black boxer-pointer mix. New recognizes that much has changed since the days when dogs roamed free in the streets of Etobicoke, then a town on the western edge of Toronto where he grew up. He never sees dogs chained up in backyards anymore, and he feels crating is just as rare. But when asked about a ban on dog chaining, his response is unequivocal. “A blanket ban on tethering is foolish,” says New. “What do you do if you don’t have a fence?”

To answer such questions, animal rights activists and organizations like PETA say all dogs should live inside “with the rest of the family,” and—like children—should only be allowed outside when supervised.

There’s hardly a notion more foreign to Mark Balkwill, a 52-year-old dairy farmer and president of the Essex County Agricultural Association in southwestern Ontario. “To me that’s cruelty to animals, keeping them in the house all day long,” he says.

Back when he was young, most farmers had chained-up guard dogs. “Your dog was your eyes and your ears,” he says. “It was like your alarm system.” Aggressive guard dogs were preferred, since they would make potential thieves and intruders think twice. “Put you back in the car, as we used to say,” Balkwill says, chuckling.

But of all the farmers in his area today, Balkwill can’t think of one who keeps a guard dog on a chain—though not for ethical reasons. Improvements in technology have allowed people to install cameras and motion sensors for security, eliminating the need for dogs to play guard. Thus, even in rural areas, perceptions of dogs have changed. “More farmers and rural people have pets,” he says. “That’s what they are. They end up being part of the family.”

As such perceptions gain traction in both urban and rural settings, sled dogs are now some of the only working dogs left. Shannon DeBruin, a 47-year-old dog breeder and trainer who runs a sled dog operation south of Edmonton called Arctic Sun Siberian Adventures, has been approached by welfare advocates accusing her of cruelty for keeping her dogs chained outside in the snow at temperatures well below freezing. “Someone who lives with many dogs and sees them on a day-to-day basis,” she says, “has a very different point of view than someone who has just one. It’s very easy to over-generalize and make giant leaps of logic.”

As DeBruin sees it, there’s a problem with how people are “anthropomorphizing” their pets; animal rights activists, she contends, are equating the way pets should be treated with the way they believe humans should be treated. “We are not allowing our dogs to just be dogs,” she says. “Why do dogs eat poop? Because they like it. We don’t. Just like I wouldn’t greet someone by sniffing his butt.”

Ron Worb, a long-time veterinarian at Winnipeg’s Anderson Animal Hospital, has also noticed a change. “The vast majority of pet owners that I see day in, day out in my practice refer to themselves as the mom and the dad.” And as would be expected from any loving parents, Worb says pet owners are constantly expecting higher standards of health care for their dogs. “We are being pushed all the time to do more and more.”

One of his canine patients, for example, is suffering from a brain tumour. In an attempt to rid their pet of cancer, its owners might spend more than $8,000 to send the dog to a special clinic for stereotactic radiosurgery. “The human-pet bond, it’s always been present, but it’s becoming stronger and stronger,” says Worb.

Part of the reason for this lies in decades of steady urbanization. As society generally becomes more detached from rural life and the farm, where wounded horses are shot and cows routinely slaughtered, the only relationship most people have with animals is that of a pet, which doesn’t exist to feed us, offer milk, or clothe us. It offers only love and loyalty. With changing demographics, where more than three million Canadians choose to live alone (according to the 2006 census) and the biggest chunk of the population are baby boomers, many of whom are living in empty nests devoid of children, pets fill a void. Humans are social animals too, after all, often relying on the strength of relationships for contentment.

At no time does the depth of such bonds become more apparent than when they are no longer there. John Sookrah, a Toronto mechanic and father of three, was deeply affected by the loss of his family dog, Sonic, a dachshund, whose death last November was unexpected. Sonic had managed to eat several lengths of dental floss, which veterinarians soon discovered had mangled his intestines. They put him down. “His passing did touch us all and made us realize he really was a part of us,” says Sookrah. “My life was actually quite devastated.”

The Sookrahs held a funeral for Sonic in their living room. “My son and I carried him in, like pallbearers,” explains Sookrah. They laid Sonic’s body down on his doggy bed in the middle of the room, surrounded by flowers, family, neighbours and friends. Prayers were said and hymns sung, including the funeral classic Amazing Grace. Afterward, a family friend read a eulogy. “I don’t think any one of us could have done it,” sighs Sookrah.

Helen Hobbs, the funeral director who organized the ceremony and offers such services—along with an urn and cremation—for about $500, often feels a family’s grief over a lost pet is deeper than that of a dead person. “I know that may sound strange to some people,” she says. “They’re so often people’s children.” Children, she adds, that never lose their innocence, their warmth or uncompromising loyalty.

And that’s why people are so passionate about dogs; why neighbours turn on each other over cruelty. At the bottom of it all—the disagreements, the controversy, the legal fracas—there’s just the love of dogs.

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