“Dog bites man” is not news — unless the dog belongs to a breed that has been declared dangerous, in which case the media is all over the story. In turn, the public response has often been to pass laws banning or restricting the breed.
But studies have shown that Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is unscientific and ineffective. Worse, breed discriminatory laws serve as a distraction from the main deterrent to dog attacks: Education about responsible dog ownership.
Emily Mc Cobb, DVM, head of Shelter Medicine at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and a board member of the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, says, “Owners need to learn about dog safety. The hype and the media storm that tend to surround dog bites keep us from getting at the root of the issue. Targeting a specific breed is not going to solve the problem.”
What are these laws — and how widespread are they?
BSL is a blanket term for a hodgepodge of laws relating to specific breeds, or breed categories, of dogs. They range from outright bans of these dogs to restrictions and conditions on ownership such as required registration with local animal control, or mandatory spay/neuter and microchip implants.
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Powerful dog breeds have been demonized throughout history. In the 19th century it was bloodhounds, believed to have been used to hunt down slaves in America and search for Jack the Ripper in London, that were feared and loathed. German shepherds and Doberman pinschers suffered for their association with the Gestapo during World War II, Rottweilers struck terror into moviegoers’ hearts in the 1990s after the debut of a horror film called “Man’s Best Friend…” The list goes on.
These days it’s the pit bull that gets a bad rap, largely because of its association with dog fighting rings. It wasn’t always so. Famous dogs that fall under the aegis of the pit bull label include World War I’s Sergeant Stubby, the most decorated dog in military history, and Petey on the original Little Rascals. RCA and Buster Brown shoes both used the breed in their commercials. Helen Keller and Teddy Roosevelt are among the many famous people who owned dogs identified as pit bulls.
The American Temperament Test Society determined that pit bulls were less aggressive in confrontational situations than many stereotypically friendly breeds, scoring 86% in overall ability to interact appropriately in public — versus the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (83%), the Miniature Poodle (78%) and the Old English Sheepdog (77%).
Owners may be required to purchase liability insurance, typically up to $300,000 for a single incident. In some cases, classes of individuals such as convicted felons are prohibited from owning designated breeds.
Other laws restrict some breeds from access to public areas, or establish conditions, such as wearing a muzzle, for the dogs to be taken out in public. In some localities, owners must alert the public that dogs of the breed are resident in their homes.
Although pit bulls are currently the most commonly affected dogs, several other types are frequently targeted by BSL as well. The language of the ban that the city of Aurora, Colorado, enacted in 2005 is fairly typical:
It [is] unlawful for any person to have, own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor, transport, or sell within the city any pit bull or restricted breed of dog.
“Pit bull” … is defined as any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one (1) or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel club or United Kennel Club for any of the above breeds.
“Restricted Breed Of Dog” shall mean any American Bulldog (Old Country Bulldog), Dogo Argentino, Canary Dog (Canary Island Dog, Presa Canario, Perro De Presa Canario), Presa Mallorquin (Perro de Presa Mallorquin, Ca De Bou), Tosa Inu (Tosa Fighting Dog, Japanese Fighting Dog, Japanese Mastiff), Cane Corso (Cane Di Macellaio, Sicilian Branchiero), Fila Brasileiro or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one (1) or more of the above breeds.
In cities such as Denver, where pit bulls have been banned since 1989, dogs identified as belonging to the breed are confiscated and, often, killed. Based on animal control data, Denver’s Westword News estimated in 2009 that 3,497 pit bulls had been put down in the 20 years since the ban had been passed. The effect on the lives of people who own these dogs is more difficult to quantify.
Currently, only Ohio has a statewide breed-specific vicious dog law, but such legislation is widespread in individual counties and cities around the United States. Donald Cleary, Director of Communications and Publications of the National Canine Research Council, says, “The number of jurisdictions with breed specific restrictions in force fluctuates. For a presentation at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Convention in 2009, we used the number 300, but that is only a rough estimate.”
Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, which tracks legislation affecting dogs throughout the country, concurs that it is impossible to keep track of these laws. “They change with the seasons,” Peterson says.
Like other major professional organizations concerned with public safety and animal affairs — they include the AVMA, The National Animal Control Association and the Centers for Disease Control — the AKC is opposed to BSL, which Peterson compares to racial profiling. She says, “When there is an incident in a local area, the reaction is to create a dangerous dog law, and sometimes lawmakers react with breed bans because that breed of dog that was involved in an incident. A law that targets a breed because a single dog was involved in an incident is not a good law.”
Why BSL doesn’t work
According to Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cumming School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, there’s no question that some breeds have a greater ability to inflict damage with bites than others. “To say that different breeds don’t have different tendencies is ridiculous,” Dr. Dodman says. “The bull dog types were bred for courage and tenacity, for helping butchers to get bulls under control. They are going to be much more committed to a bite than herding dogs, which were not permitted to harm the sheep historically.”
But there are numerous dogs besides pit bulls and other so-called dangerous breeds that are capable of causing harm. And a study by the University of Colorado School of Medicine conducted between 2003 and 2008 determined that unsupervised children ages five and younger are at the greatest risk for dog bites, and that family pets, including a high percentage of breeds considered “good” with children such as Labrador retrievers, are the most frequent offenders. The director of the study, Vikram Durairaj, MD, points out that, although a predisposition of a dog to bite is hereditary, that’s just one causal factor out of many. “Dog bites,” Dr. Durairaj says, “are also related to early experience, later socialization and training, health and victim behavior.”
Another key problem with BSL is a widespread inability to identify the breeds targeted with any degree of accuracy. Victoria L. Voith, DVM, Ph.D., DACVB, a professor of animal behavior at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University in Pomona, California, has studied breed identification extensively and concluded that visual assessment is inaccurate far more often than not, even among those who work with dogs regularly. “Shelter workers are generally 75 percent wrong when they guess the breed of a dog — and most do just guess,” Dr. Voith says. “The only sure-fire way of knowing a breed is DNA testing, which most shelters don’t use.” The average person — and most dog trainers — wouldn’t recognize a Dogo Argentino, Cane Corso, or other breeds cited in the Aurora, Colorado, ban if they fell over them.
A paper published in the October 1, 2010 issue of the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine analyzes other flaws in BSL, including the facts that it’s a fear-based response to very unreliable data about dog bites and that it has never been proven to work in other countries. Using a variety of statistical models, the authors concluded that thousands of dogs would need to be killed to eliminate even one serious bite, making it implausible for BSL to substantially decrease the number of dog bite-related injuries in a community.
Dr. Dodman notes that there will always be people who want dangerous dogs precisely because they are dangerous, but that banning a single breed is “completely mindless.” “People who want fierce dogs will just go for another status ‘special’ breed if you ban one kind,” he says.
Alternatives to BSL
No one disputes that there should be laws to keep the public safe from harmful dogs. But AKC spokeswoman Peterson argues that these laws should be based on a fair process, established by the community, that identifies specific dogs as dangerous based on measurable actions that can be applied to any breed. And procedures to deal with dogs that have been proven dangerous, she argues, must include penalties imposed on irresponsible owners.
“We already have a lot of good laws on the books, but they’re not enforced,” Peterson says. “Many towns just don’t have enough resources or manpower. If leash laws were enforced, for example, you wouldn’t have dogs roaming around that could create a potential dangerous dog situation.”
Dr. Emily McCobb agrees. “We aren’t giving our animal control officers a leg to stand on,” she says. “We’re not putting enough resources into the problem.” She sees licensing as essential to promoting good dog ownership, and favors such ideas as strict differential licensing fees, with significant cost breaks for people who have their animals spayed and neutered.
As Dr. McCobb sees it, informing owners about good caretaking practices is the key. “We need to do more to educate families about getting the appropriate pet for their individual circumstances, and explain to them how to interact safely with their dogs,” she says. “Owners need to be responsible what’s going on in their house. I tell my children not to approach a strange dog. That’s just common sense.”
Dr. Dodman suggests a novel idea: In order to get a license for a dog, you would have to take a test, just as you are required to take a test to get a drivers license. “Maybe 10 questions about such issues as restraints and leash laws,” he muses. “If you want a license for a breed considered dangerous, you might have to answer questions dealing with particular care issues.”
There are virtually no experts who blame dogs for posing a public risk. “It’s a people problem far more than it is a dog problem,” says Dr. McCobb. “There are far more bad people than there are bad dogs.”
This article is a version of one I wrote for Your Dog, the newsletter of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, last year. The smiling sweetie pictured is from the Positively Pit Bull gallery of the Oh My Dog Blog.