A Vancouver Island man known as The Comox Valley dog whisperer has won a court battle to assess a death row dog using methods he claims will allow him to look into the condemned canine’s mind.
A Victoria provincial court judge agreed Thursday to let Ken Griffiths bring his own dogs into the city’s pound to help him assess the accused — a Dogo-Argentino Rottweiler cross named Bronx — after a hotly contested hearing.
The proceeding veered into a debate over the methods and practices of dog behaviourists and dog trainers.
Griffiths insisted that — in reality — he is neither.
“I’m a dog psychiatrist,” he told Judge Christine Lowe at one point.
“I literally know what dogs think.”
Duelling dog behaviourists
Thursday’s hearing was the latest step in an unexpectedly complex battle that has pitted the City of Victoria against an array of characters who believe that Bronx can be reformed.
The dog was seized from his original owner, Richard Bonora, after a series of incidents that began in August 2018 with an unprovoked attack on a dog less than 1/20th of Bronx’s size. The tiny victim was killed with one bite.
The city declared Bronx dangerous, ordering him to be muzzled and leashed, but Bonora — who was born without thumbs — was unable to control him, leading to two incidents in which Bronx bit humans.
Griffiths, who claims to have reformed thousands of dogs, told the court he currently lives with a pack of eight of his own dogs and 18 more dogs — all deemed dangerous or aggressive — that he has saved from euthanasia.
Because Bonora has proven incapable of controlling Bronx, Griffiths adopted the dog earlier in the proceedings, but the city is still moving forward with an application to have Bronx destroyed, setting up a court battle over evidence a judge will consider in September when the matter comes to a hearing.
At that time, the judge will have to decide whether Bronx is dangerous and whether he’s likely to kill or seriously injure in the future. Reports by duelling dog behaviourists will be a key part of that decision.
‘They can get pretty messy’
At the root of Thursday’s conflict was a difference in approach taken by Gritffiths and the city’s expert, who used two stuffed dogs and a plastic doll to assess Bronx’s reaction to other dogs and children.
Griffiths wanted to bring two of his own — live — dogs into the pound to perform his assessment and he also wanted to take Bronx outside.
The city objected, arguing that allowing Griffiths’ dogs into the facility could put staff in a bind if Bronx attacked. The contractor who runs the pound also wanted Griffiths masked at all times in keeping with COVID-19 restrictions.
Vancouver lawyer Rebeka Breder, an expert in animal cases, appeared by video on Bonora’s behalf.
“I don’t know if you’ve done these dangerous dog applications, your honour,” she said to Lowe at the start of the hearing.
“They can get pretty messy.”
Breder said that in her experience, the city’s demands were unreasonable. She framed the issue as one of fundamental fairness.
“Each dog trainer/behaviourist has their own method of assessing dogs,” Breder said.
“What Mr. Bonora and Mr. Griffiths are asking for is that they are given their own ability to do the assessment the way the assessor believes it should be done.”
‘Those are two different things’
The judge told the city’s lawyer that from the court’s point of view, the question is: “How is Bronx going to be assessed in terms of his reactions to other dogs if he’s not permitted to be around another dog?”
Lowe also heard from Gary Gibson, a Port Alberni dog behaviour consultant who has agreed to hold the camera for Griffiths while he assesses Bronx and to provide an independent assessment of what he observes.
Gibson told the judge that dogs know the difference between stuffed toys and other animals and children.
“When a dog acts aggressive to a stuffed dog, it doesn’t give you any information … that will help you understand how the dog would react to a live dog or a live child,” he said.
“Those are two different things.”
He also said it was “crucial” that Griffiths first meet Bronx without a mask.
“Means of communication are especially important for a dog in a stressful situation such as the one Bronx is in now,” he said.
“Hiding the face with a mask can change the dog’s reaction to testing.”
‘Looking at how we get to yes’
Ian Fraser, the head of Victoria Animal Control Services, said he was concerned about liability should something go wrong during the assessment.
He ultimately said he would consent to Griffiths and Gibson meeting Bronx at the facility by themselves — suggesting that he could sit in an alcove, where he could see but not be seen, while the assessment happened.
The judge ended up acting as a kind of mediator between the parties, saying she was “looking at how we get to yes.”
She finally settled on a plan that will see Griffiths introduce himself to Bronx without a mask, then bring his two dogs into the pound while Gibson films and Fraser hides in the alcove.
The judge asked the city’s lawyer, David Giroday, what might happen if Griffiths is able to work with Bronx without incident and control Bronx behaviour, as he claims he can.
“Is it a case where the city would then consider whether Bronx could be released to Mr. Griffiths?” the judge asked
“Or is that never going to be at least a thought in the minds of the city?”
Giroday said there have been discussions.
“The city remains hopeful that there are other resolutions that could happen outside of this court,” he told Lowe. “So long as the city’s concerns for public safety are addressed.”