Why Are Big Dogs Banned from Public Transit?

Every City Has a Different Set of Rules for Animals. How Are These Decided?

By Erik Ryken

Why Are Big Dogs Banned from Public Transit?

It would be great if big dogs could ride the public transit system but in most North American cities they are prohibited. For instance, when travelling on GO Transit in Toronto, you are allowed to bring your pet with you provided that it is in a cage, and that this box fits with you in your seat. Service dogs are the exception.

Last November, GO Transit bent the rules on their train to accommodate Turbo the goat, en route from Port Credit to downtown Toronto for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. Although he was the first goat to ever use the service, it’s unclear if other goats will be welcomed, or if his celebrity status made this a one-of-a-kind experience.

In all seriousness, there are lots of dog owners who would love to bring their pup on public transit but who are stuck with cars as their only option. This makes things difficult for dog owners without cars and does a disservice to the goal of increasing transit ridership.

On Twitter, GO Transit insist pets are welcome but their policy only allows for small pets. They explain this is for the safety of other passengers. Is any dog larger than a person’s lap unruly? Is every small dog the model for commuter behavior?

The Twitter trail reveals divisive perspectives on commuters’ attitudes toward dogs. Some inform GO that riders are breaking the rules while others decry #BigDogDiscrimination.

Here’s my problem: whatever your position is about dogs on transit, you have to admit that the rules are confusing and differ so greatly by neighboring transit lines that it’s hard to take them seriously. Policies that restrict dogs by their crate size see them as luggage, not the complex beings they are. This makes the rules simpler to enforce but provides a crude representation of our companions.

Toronto, Calgary, and Seattle are all cities where big dogs can take transit, the conditions being that they are leashed and avoid peak periods. Municipalities surrounding these cities differ greatly. For example, York Region Transit’s bylaw is almost identical to the Toronto Transit Commission’s, but animals are admitted at the discretion of the bus driver.

When the discussion about changing the rules comes up in cities like Vancouver, where the existing policy is restrictive, strong opinions divide people on the issue.

Some believe dogs shouldn’t be allowed because of passenger allergies. As someone with a host of allergies myself – including dog saliva and many perfumes – I can tell you the issue isn’t resolved by banning large dogs, or even pint-sized ones. While everyone experiences allergies differently, it’s clear the rules are not designed on this basis. If that were the case, it would be far more helpful to ban scented products and nuts from public transit. Enforcing these would penalize so many riders that I can’t imagine any transit authority would even consider it.

This brings forward another question: would people be discouraged from riding public transit if dogs were allowed with fewer restrictions? To me, it seems people are more attached to what rules are in place than in seeing them change. Breaking rules is often seen as a greater offence than the rule itself. Hence, the need for people to out riders with pets on social media as if they were committing a kind of grave #EtiquetteFail.

My question is, how much input do people get into the development of these policies? Every city’s transit system has a different set of by-laws, but with coordinated effort these can be changed. Where are we collectively on these restrictions? Can our cities learn to see pets as friends, and not merely as luggage?