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Breed Specific Legislation: Back With a Vengeance?
Posted on 03/09/2011 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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by Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel

The issue of breed specific legislation is rearing its ugly head and is on the rise once again. The state of Texas has had some high profile dog attacks in recent years, one in particular from 2009 when ten year old Justin Clinton was killed by two at-large dogs. His mother, Serenia Clinton, won a civil case against the dog owners, and now her attorney, Cynthia Kent, is seeking to get one of her two bills introduced into the legislature as ‘Justin’s Law.’ She wants either an outright ban on ‘pit bulls’ or severe limitations on ownership. At press time, neither bills have been introduced. Denver refuses to revoke its pit bull ban, despite yet another lawsuit challenging the law. The city has had to spend tons of money defending the ban over the years, but refuses to relent. This lawsuit may be a loss for the city—some dog owners are suing under the Americans with Disability Act, as they have legitimate APBT service dogs. Many other cities across the country have introduced or passed a newer form of BSL:mandatory spay and neuter of ‘pit bulls’ and other breeds. Most troubling is proposed legislation in Saginaw, Michigan. City council members there want to enforce an ownership limit of 3 dogs and restrictions of ‘dangerous dogs.’ Their definition of dangerous dogs includes the following ‘breeds:’ “pit bull,” Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Doberman Pinscher, Chow Chow, Great Dane, St. Bernard, and Presa Canario. Many of us have been preaching for years that non-pittie dog owners need to support their pittie brethren in the fight, and now here’s proof that the disease of BSL can spill over into other breeds. (While I am well aware that ‘pit bull’ is not really a breed name but rather a generic term, for the sake of this article, as in my last column, I am using that term.)
BSL started cropping up in the United States in the early 80’s as a response to high profile dog attacks. It was a result of sensationalizing dog attacks through the media, complete fear-mongering, and perpetuation of insane myths surrounding pit bulls. Where responsible reporting used to exist, media hype and myths have taken its place. The media hypes up pit bulls as insane monsters that attack without provocation, rather than reporting the complete facts and events surrounding the attack. Unfortunately, pit bulls became the fad dog in the 80’s and popularity has continued to rise. It’s only common sense that should a breed become popular and misused, there will be a proportionate increase in bite numbers in that breed. However, the public and politicians that create legislation read these stories as proof that pit bulls are unpredictable and are inherently dangerous. Not only that, but ridiculous myths about pit bulls are presented as ‘fact,’ such as pit bulls having locking jaws or exceptionally powerful jaws compared to other breeds. Yet no one reports anything positive about pit bulls, like pit bulls success at temperament tests, such as the tests conducted by the American Temperament Test Society. ATTS is a non-profit that has been conducting comprehensive temperament tests on dogs since 1977. The test is administered through a walk in a neighborhood or park, with various stimuli, and situations with other humans from neutral to friendly to aggressive, all taking into account the dog’s training. The test consists of 10 subtests altogether, and if the dog fails one of the subtests they could fail the entire test. According to the 2009-2010 tests, 772 American Pit Bull Terriers were tested, 664 passed with 108 failing, for a rate of 86%. APBT’s were not too far behind Labrador Retrievers that were at 92%, and surpassed Golden Retrievers that were at 84.6%.

Unfortunately, the trend in media was to only report on pit bull attacks, and not attacks committed by other breeds that could not be sensationalized. That trend has grown to be the norm. In her extensive research for her book The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths, and Politics of Canine Aggression, Karen Delise uncovered many examples illustrating this trend. In 2002, an elderly woman was found dead in her daughter’s home, with several dog bites, and a pit bull and a pit bull mix were in the home with her. A newspaper headline read: “Killer Pit bulls Rip Granny to Shreds.” However, the daughter who owned the dogs could not believe the dogs would have killed her mother. She had an independent investigation conducted, and the autopsy found the woman had died of cardiac arrhythmia and the bites were inflicted after her death. The dogs did not kill her, but no retraction was ever printed by the media. In 2004, a large mixed breed dog killed his owner in California, and the death was only given a brief mention in the local paper. A child was killed by a ‘pit bull’ in Michigan a month later, and that story ran in 100 newspapers. In November 2006, four children were killed in one week by dogs, a never before seen number. One of these attacks involved pit bulls, and the other three were other breeds of dogs. CNN featured one dog attack for their coverage, and guess which one it was? The reporter called pit bulls “killing machines” and compared them to “machine guns and Uzis.” Yet the other three children killed by non pit bulls were never even mentioned. Delise found that from 1985-2006, over 14,500 newspaper articles have used the term ‘pit bull’ in their headlines to grab attention and make news.

One example in Delise’s book really illustrates the underlying problem with BSL: that it’s not the breed that’s the cause of bites, but the surrounding circumstances that are not disclosed by the media. She emphasizes the distinction between a family dog and one that is clearly not, or what Delise calls ‘resident dogs.’ A 6-year old girl was killed in an alley by two pit bulls in Michigan. The headlines read: “Family’s Two Pit bulls Kill Hamtramck Girl, 6” (Detroit Free Press, April 5, 2005) and “Family Pit bulls maul girl, 6, to death as she walks to swings” (Detroit Free Press, April 5, 2005). Of course the public and local politicians found this to be an outrage and evidence that clearly a pit bull ban was needed. However, there was more to these “family dogs” than what the media portrayed. The two dogs, one male and one female, had both belonged to the mother’s boyfriend, who was deceased. Both were intact, and confined to the basement of a vacant house where no one lived. Both dogs were underweight and necropsies found no dog food in either of their intestines. Rat poison, nails, rubber bands, plastic, and remnants from a box of rat poison were found in their stomachs. Yet the media portrayed these abandoned, neglected dogs as “family dogs”? Dogs living in conditions such as these cannot possibly be expected to behave as a well socialized, well cared for family pet who is raised as a member of the family. Breed of dog has nothing to do with it.

The elimination or restriction of certain breeds of dogs will not reduce dog bites. These attacks are not caused simply because a dog is a certain breed. Several factors need to be examined that contribute to dog attacks rather than breed. First and foremost, proper care and nutrition are basic needs that all animals are due. Neglected and abused dogs cannot be blamed for attacks; rather the owner is at fault for creating a desperate animal. Dogs kept chained constantly may be more apt to attack-25% of all fatal attacks have been committed by chained dogs. While many dogs that are well-cared for can live contentedly on chains, other less fortunate dogs on chains may feel threatened, protective of their limited territory, and isolated, and as a result, tend to be more aggressive. On the opposite spectrum, dogs at large are left to their own devices and to make their own decisions. Communities MUST start with enforcement of basic leash and care laws before considering any kind of further restrictive legislation—that will easily curtail any dog at large issues. Reproductive status of dogs, when taken into consideration with the other factors (care, socialization, environment, etc.) can play a role as well. Again, well cared for, socialized intact dogs are usually fine, but unsocialized, untrained intact dogs, particularly living with multiple dogs (yet another factor) may develop territorial pack mentalities. Dogs used solely for negative functions in the wrong hands—guarding, protection—or illegal or immoral purposes such as fighting or indiscriminate breeding will not have the same behavior and temperament as a family pet. All of these factors boil down to owner responsibility.

Another issue with all BSL is that of breed identification by those who are expected to enforce these laws. Many of these laws refer to breed standards to assist in identifying dogs. Breed standards were never written as a means to identify breed for a dog of unknown parentage, but to define the ideal specimen of that breed. Even worse is the attempt to identify mixed-bred dogs, as many laws include. There currently exists no legally accepted scientific method to positively identify breeds or mixes, and many breeds look very similar, especially to the general public. Some mixed breeds may look like purebreds, while some purebreds may look like mixed breeds to the undiscerning eye. I have a black German Shorthaired Pointer, a less common but acceptable color in the breed. I’ve had DOG people at dog shows not know what breed he is; the most common guess is a Bluetick Coonhound! If even experienced dog professionals have trouble identifying breed, how are inexperienced law enforcement officials expected to identify what breeds a mixed breed are comprised of? What usually results are arbitrary or incorrect identifications. In my opinion, these laws are unconstitutionally overbroad and vague, as the public cannot be certain whether or not the laws apply to their mixed breed dogs of unknown parentage.

The vilifying of pit bulls by the media has caused the public and politicians to leave all common sense behind and truly believe that pit bulls are inherently dangerous dogs, despite the fact that no data exists to show that BSL reduces dog bites and attacks. In fact, a study published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association shows, from a purely statistical perspective, that BSL will have little impact on dog bites. The study found that due to inconsistencies in dog bite reports, ER visits, and hospitalizations, dog bites are nearly impossible to quantify. Add to the mix the problem of breed identification, if breed is even listed in the incident. The article used what little data about bite prevalence that could be found and found a maximum of 15% of dog bites were attributable to any particular breed. They used that 15% as the number for the targeted hypothetical breed in their analysis. (They did NOT use the old Center for Disease Control dog bite fatalities report nor the JAVMA report from the year 200 on breeds involved in fatalities from 1979-1998. Both of those reports have disclaimers cautioning that the reports do not infer breed risk and do not in any way support BSL.) Nationally, there were 365, 846 dog bite ER visits in the year 2000, out of a population of 281, 421, 906 people. That boils down to 130 ER visits per 100,000 people per year. Apply that 15% of bites caused by the targeted breed, as removing that breed of dogs would decrease bites by 15%. The risk would then be 85% of what it was prior to BSL, or 110.5 ER visits. The number of dogs in this instance needed to be banned to prevent a single ER visit would be 5, 128 dogs. The study shows that BSL, by the numbers, would not significantly decrease the risk, while large numbers of dogs would have to be removed or regulated, at a great cost to the community and to dog owners.

Many cities and even other countries have lifted BSL as it has had no impact on dog bites and attacks. BSL just doesn’t work—it’s a result of media hysteria, it’s difficult to enforce, and will not significantly reduce bites. It will also come at great cost to communities that attempt it. More law enforcement hours will be needed to enforce the law, and worse, more dogs will end up burdening shelters. Only responsible owners will be affected, no let me rephrase that, PUNISHED by these laws, and little impact will be had on those already irresponsible owners or those using dogs for illegal or immoral purposes. These ‘bad’ owners may simply dump dogs and move on to another breed once their breed is banned or restricted. Instead of BSL, communities should more aggressively enforce laws that emphasize owner responsibility, such as leash laws, dog fighting, and animal cruelty statutes. Furthermore, a well-written dangerous dog statute that defines dangerous and vicious dogs by acts and conduct would be much more effective in realistically reducing dog bites and attacks all across the board, rather than just impacting certain breeds. Bill Bruce and his Animal Bylaw Services in Calgary have achieved a safer community through enforcement of common sense dog laws (no BSL) and owner education; simply enforcing their licensing laws was one of the factors that got the ball rolling. Calgary has a 90% dog license compliance rate! The key is owner responsibility for all dog owners, which will better protect the community from dog bites and attacks.