Breed-specific legislation: a look at the evidence
by Prescott Breeden
Anti-pitbull, anti-rottweiler, anti-doberman (etc.) legislation in dog politics.
The heated debate over Breed-specific Legislation (BSL) carries a lot of emotion for many people. Some are those who have suffered the terrifying experience of a dog attack while others are dealing with the hurtful discrimination of their loving furry family members. Pit bulls who are service dogs for the disabled, therapy dogs, and loving family dogs that have never harmed anyone are being seized from homes and killed just because of legislation that targets what a dog looks like, not their behavior.[i] The objective of BSL is to lower the number of dog bites and fatalities by creating additional regulations or by banning breeds believed to be the cause. Primarily, BSL targets American Staffordshire Terriers and pit-type dogs but it can also expand to include Dobermans, Rottweilers, and other breeds thought to be inherently dangerous. However, BSL is emotional legislation that is ineffective at lowering bite statistics and blames dogs for their owner’s irresponsibility.
On January 5th, 2011, James McWilliams published an article in the New York Times titled “Breeding Killers?” discussing the topic of BSL and breed bans. He attempts to describe the nature of pit bulls and uses his personal experience to qualify the argument that pit bulls are, “genetically hardwired to be anxious, aggressive and defensive.”[ii] Dr. Jim Ha, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and professor at the University of Washington, responds, “There is no scientific evidence for this. When people make statements like that, they need to back it up. There are a lot of un-sourced statements out there.” Like so many other journalists, instead of reading and citing studies that would present scientific evidence contrary to his personal opinion, McWilliams justifies his genetic pontificating with personal anecdotes. His evidence is that he owned a pit bull in which “no amount of training or socialization helped him in the least”. Needless to say, his experience with just one pit bull does not constitute a scientific study and from a research perspective, this is a sample size of one dog that he uses to characterize millions of dogs.
Thanks to perpetually poor journalism, the pit bull needs advocates with a voice of reason. Opinions have become so polarized that any dog even resembling a pit bull is often treated with fear, paranoia, and hate. Richard Major, a professional dog trainer in Seattle comments about his own dog, “I see it all the time. Sissy and I will be walking down the sidewalk and people will awkwardly cross the street away from us. A person meeting her and admiring her coloring will immediately stop petting her if I mention the words ‘pit-mix’.” Attorney Kenneth Phillips, a legal expert who is known as the “Dog Bite King”, comments, “Usually about five pit bull owners a day seek me for legal help because people want to remove their dogs from their homes.” Denver’s pit bull ban has seized 5,286 pit bulls from homes and families and euthanized an estimated 3,497.[iii] When the ban was enacted, families were forced to either relinquish their dog within 30 days or to move out of Denver.
Dr. Ha points out, “every municipality has ‘dangerous dog legislation’ that defines what a dangerous dog is and what should happen to a dangerous dog, and that legislation is not being enforced”. If the energy that was spent trying to exterminate the pit bull were diverted to enforcing already written laws regarding all dogs, we would start to see the effects in bite statistics across the board. This has been proven in Calgary, Canada, where they cut the number of aggressive dog incidents in half by enforcing licensing laws, not BSL. Phillips creates a potent analogy: “BSL is like saying you don’t want kids to smoke tobacco, so you create an advertising campaign of ‘Don’t smoke Marlboros’. It misses the point.”
Poorly raised, socialized, and cared for dogs, no matter what breed they are (even the ever perfect Golden Retriever), will be prone to inappropriate aggression. Several scientific studies have conclusively shown this.
“It is beyond controversy that dangers, hazards, and annoyances can emanate from dogs, no matter which breed they belong to (Podberseck, 1997; Feddersen-Petersen and Ohl, 1995; Lockwood, 1995). This situation can only be counteracted by good upbringing and keeping of dogs. In contrast to regimenting them, more emphasis should be placed on educating dog owners about responsible dog ownership.” [iv]
“Comparing the results of golden retrievers and breeds affected by the [breed-specific] legislation, no significant difference was found. A scientific basis for breed-specific lists does not exist. Therefore, legislation in Lower Saxony was changed, and the breed lists were withdrawn.” [v]
People in favor of BSL spend a great amount of time trying to find and track bite numbers. The problem is that bite statistics misrepresent the truth because they don’t qualify the type of bite. The literature does not show whether a bite was from an aggressive assault, fear, poor socialization, puppies learning bite inhibition, or an accident during play, and until they do, legislation that is defended by these statistics will be ineffective at addressing the issues. A bite by definition is any incident in which a dog’s tooth or nail breaks human skin, irrespective of intention or circumstance.[vi] Nips from puppies developing ABI (see article: Razor-fanged Puppies), scratches from a dog’s toe nail, and accidental scrapes from a dog’s tooth are just a couple examples of non-aggressive reactions that are still recorded as bites.
Most embarrassing is that bite statistics also include the number of bites from working K-9 dogs in the performance of police duties. Many of these working dogs are not only bred and trained to be aggressive but they are also armed with an attack command. It is sad there is so much intolerance for pit bulls that society feels justified in exterminating an entire breed when they don’t even first characterize the nature of the statistics.
Dogsbite.org is a website devoted to promoting the concept that pit bulls, rottweilers and other commonly stigmatized dogs, are inherently evil. Founder Colleen Lynn created the site after a dog that appeared to be a pit bull attacked her while she was jogging along 15th Ave South here in Seattle. I asked Dr. Ha how he responds to the statistics presented by Colleen and dogbites.org and his response was, “I don’t. It’s unsubstantiated information and rumor and you can’t prove any of the claims.”
Propaganda, as defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary, is “chiefly derogatory information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view”. Not only is Colleen Lynn and other pro-BSL advocates disinformation spin artists, but their propaganda also lacks statistical relevance and is designed to generate fear. Their death toll numbers that experts like Dr. Ha have reviewed and determined “unsubstantiated” still broadcast asking people to donate money and take action. But even if you were to believe their very questionable statistics for dog bite fatalities, it is important to understand the big picture and not fall prey to the fear-mongering tactic of claiming certain breeds pose substantial danger.
A perspective on the relativity of dog bite fatalities
Total Deaths in 2007……………2,423,712
– Heart disease……………………….616,067 25.4%
– Cancer..……………………………..562,875 23.2%
– Stroke………………………………..135,952 5.6%
– Accidents (unintentional injuries)..123,706 5.1%
– Alzheimer’s disease………………..74,632 3.1%
– Diabetes………………………………71,382 2.9%
– Influenza and Pneumonia………….52,717 2.2%
– Intentional self-harm (suicide)…….34,598 1.4%
– Parkinson’s disease…………………20,058 0.8%
– Assault (homicide)…………………..18,361 0.8%
– Dog bite fatalities from all breeds….35 0.00001%
Statistic 1-11: fatalities among some of the leading 15 causes of death in 2007. [vii]
Statistic 12: dog bite fatalities in 2007. [viii]
It’s a non-event. In 2002, over 420 children were killed as the direct result of physical abuse by a parent or guardian.[ix] Yet despite this, many politicians, lawyers, and community activists attack and seek the destruction of the pit bull, a singular breed in a questionable death-toll statistic of 35 that encompasses all dog breeds. Kory Nelson, Assistant City Attorney of Denver, Colorado has declared, “… [pit bulls] should be terminated as simply being a time bomb waiting to go off.”[x]
It is difficult to explain to people that pit bulls are not bred to be killers as people like Colleen Lynn and Kory Nelson would have you believe. Dr. Ha, who works with many aggressive dogs with Companion Animal Solutions, explains:
“The vast majority of the offspring of pit bulls are not of fighting dogs. It takes several generations and the breeding has to be maintained. Plus, there is a huge difference between being bred to fight dogs and to be aggressive. Pit bulls are genetically hardwired to sleep all day. They show what we call ‘spurt behavior’. They have no stamina and they can’t exercise all day (unlike a herding dog), which is why a pit bull can make a wonderful apartment dog. It is not my experience with the dogs whatsoever that they are more likely to be aggressive than any other breed.”
Attorney Kenneth Phillips writes on his website:
“The debate about ‘dangerous dogs’ cannot progress without clarification of the meaning of ‘dangerous.’ A thing, activity, dog or person should be considered ‘dangerous’ if it or he presents an unacceptably high risk of serious injury, even before causing harm. This definition uses the word ‘risk.’ Cars, plastic bags, electrical cords and other mundane objects are considered dangerous to some degree because of their potential for harm, not their individual history of crashing, suffocating or electrocuting.” [xi]
While it’s absolutely correct to say that dogs have a potential risk to cause serious injury, scientific studies have shown us that neither dogs nor any particular breeds pose an “unacceptably high risk”. Cars, plastic bags and electrical cords are more dangerous then any single breed of dog, since empirically they kill more people. It would take almost 4,000 years for all breeds of dogs to kill as many people as those who die accidentally in just a single year. That’s almost a quarter of the entire estimated historical age of the domestic dog.[xii] The World Health Organization estimates that cars alone kill an estimated 1.2 million people every year[xiii], yet activists will label a breed attributed to fewer than 30 fatalities “dangerous” and “lethal weapons” and then toss teenagers the keys to the car.
While the term ‘dangerous dog legislation’ is controversial to many dog lovers, it is imperative to bypass our emotional reaction to the pairing of the words “dangerous” and “dog” and understand that this is not breed-specific and admits the fundamental truth: all dogs carry a potential risk. Every step towards breed-specific legislation and breed banning is two steps away from solving the true issue of owner education and responsibility. “I am completely and absolutely opposed to breed ban and breed-specific legislation,” states Dr. Ha.
The amount of energy spent on trying to exterminate breeds of dogs is not only entirely out of proportion to their actual risk, but also a poor appropriation of time and energy that could be spent on the issue of real concern: irresponsible owners. Phillips says, “my feeling is that if anyone is going to get angry about anything it should be the bad breeders and the bad owners. I had a case where pit bulls attacked an older lady, and in an open courtroom, he burst out, ‘Go ahead and take the dogs, I’ll just replace them!’ He didn’t care about the dogs, he just cared about the status of having that dog.” You don’t have to be an animal behaviorist to notice, as Phillips says, “Defective dog owners make defective dogs.”
“At perhaps no time in history has mankind been as ignorant of natural canine behavior as we are today. Perhaps at no time in history has mankind been more ignorant of the essence of the familiar bond between owner and dog—the bond which drives and directs most canine behavior. And perhaps at no time in history has man publicly forsaken or denied his command of the canine species.” – Karen Delise, Founder and Research Director of the National Canine Research Council [xiv]
The problem is with people. Without responsibility, education, and compassion, dogs from all breeds will continue to be treated inhumanely and euthanized for their owner’s sins. Dogs, regardless of their breed, are wonderful animals that need training and socialization. They are man’s best friend and they deserve our respect.
[ii] McWilliams, J. (2011) Breeding Killers?. New York Times, Retrieved from http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/05/breeding-killers/
[iii] It’s the Pits Rescue. (2010) Dead Dogs and Other Numbers from Denvers Pit Bull Ban. Retrieved from http://itsthepitsrescue.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/3497-dead-dogs-and-other-numbers-from-denvers-pit-bull-ban/
[v] Ott, S., Schalke, E., Gaertner, A. M. von., & Hackbarth, H. (2008). Is there a difference? Comparison of golden retrievers and dogs affected by breed-specific legislation regarding aggressive behavior, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3, 134-140.
[vi] National Canine Research Council. (2011) What is a Dog Bite. Retrieved from http://nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/dog-bites/
[vii] CDC. (2010) National Vital Statistics Report, 58, number 19. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/NCHS/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_19.pdf
[ix] Delise, K. (2007) The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression (pp. 124). Anubis Publishing.
[x] Delise, K. (2007) The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression (pp. 120). Anubis Publishing.
[xi] Phillips, K. The meaning of “dangerous” and “vicious”, dogbitelaw.com. Retrieved from http://www.dogbitelaw.com/PAGES/danger.htm#meaning
[xii] Savolainen P., Zhang YP., Luo J., Lundeberg J., Leitner T.,2002. Genetic evidence for an East Asian origin of domestic dogs, Science Vol. 298 no. 5598, pp. 1610-1613. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1126%2Fscience.1073906
[xiii] WHO. (2004) World report on road traffic injury prevention. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/publications/road_traffic/world_report/en/index.html
[xiv] Delise, K. (2007) The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression (pp. 105). Anubis Publishing.
(Orig. published February, 16th 2011)