Breed-Specific Legislation: Pros and Cons

Many cities in the United States and around the world have legislation which prohibits residents within the jurisdiction from owning certain dog breeds.  The genesis of this type of legislation is the idea that prohibiting the presence of certain dog breeds considered “dangerous” or “aggressive” will reduce the incidence of dog attacks.  However, the fact is that any animal, including cats and other types of animals kept as pets, is capable of aggression under the ‘right’ circumstances and in response to the ‘right’ provocation.  The same can be said about most humans!  Based on the studies below – and many others – in our opinion, the key to preventing attacks is proper training for both the animal and the human companion and an understanding of the particular animal by the responsible human.  So, please read on and let us know what you think.

What does the research show?

  • A 2014 policy paper by the Australian Veterinary Association concludes that “Legislation to prevent dog bites and to manage aggressive dogs should focus on the individual dog and the owner not the breed. Breed-specific legislation for dog bite prevention has failed to reduce the frequency of dog bites both in Australia and overseas.”
  • A 2004 Comment in the Animal Law Review of Lewis & Clark Law School by Devin Burstein concludes that breed specific legislation does not work:

gavel“This comment examines breed specific legislation – the unfortunate attempt of legislatures throughout the country to address the valid concern over vicious dog attacks by prohibiting or strictly regulating entire breeds, most often, pit bulls.  Such legislation has succeeded in perpetuating uninformed stereotypes and creating a false sense of security for the public.  However, breed specific legislation has failed to accomplish the goal of making society safer because it fails to address the responsibility of dog owners for dog attacks.  In addition, these laws unfairly punish animal and owner alike by ignoring the obvious facts that dogs are individuals capable of a variety of emotions and behaviors and that no breed is inherently good or evil.  To prevent the tragedies that can occur when a dog attacks a human, legislation must take aim at the heart of the problem, the human owners that allow, through negligence or intentional mistreatment and training, these attacks to occur.”

“The most effective way to prevent bites is to encourage dog owners to become knowledgeable about their animals and to train and socialize them so that they can become good dog neighbours. Many municipalities already have by-laws that deal with animal bites, and in Ontario the Dog Owners Liability Act has proven to be effective in confining, restraining or disposing of biting or attacking dogs judged to be a definite threat to public health and safety, and when evidence warrants, there is always Section #221 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Most legislation deals with bites after the fact. If we want to prevent all bites, there is only one sure way and that is to ban all dogs. That is of course as unrealistic as trying to prevent bites by enacting breed specific legislation.”

ASPCA Position Paper

The following ASPCA article, re-printed here in its entirety, provides a good overview of the issues implicated by breed-specific legislation and highlights the fact that such legislation is ineffective at best and harmful at worst:

Breed-Specific Legislation

Dog attacks can be a real and serious problem in communities across the country, but addressing dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs can be a confusing and touchy issue. Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is the blanket term for laws that either regulate or ban certain dog breeds in an effort to decrease dog attacks on humans and other animals. However, the problem of dangerous dogs will not be remedied by the “quick fix” of breed-specific laws—or, as they should truly be called, breed-discriminatory laws.

Who Is Impacted by Breed-Specific Laws?

pitbull in lakeRegulated breeds typically comprise the “pit bull” class of dogs, including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and English Bull Terriers. In some areas, regulated breeds also include a variety of other dogs like American Bulldogs, Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers or any mix of these breeds—and dogs who simply resemble these breeds.

Many states, including New York, Texas and Illinois, favor laws that identify, track and regulate dangerous dogs individually—regardless of breed—and prohibit BSL. However, more than 700 U.S. cities have enacted breed-specific laws.

Are Breed-Specific Laws Effective?

There is no evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer for people or companion animals. Following a thorough study of human fatalities resulting from dog bites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided to strongly oppose BSL. The CDC cited, among other problems, the inaccuracy of dog bite data and the difficulty in identifying dog breeds (especially true of mixed-breed dogs). Breed-specific laws are also costly and difficult to enforce.

What Are the Consequences of Breed-Specific Laws?

BSL carries a host of negative and wholly unintended consequences:

  • Dogs Suffer. Rather than give up beloved pets, owners of highly regulated or banned breeds often attempt to avoid detection by restricting their dogs’ outdoor exercise and socialization—forgoing licensing, microchipping and proper veterinary care, and avoiding spay/neuter surgery and essential vaccinations. Such actions can have a negative impact on both the mental and physical health of these dogs. In addition, breed-specific laws can create a climate where it is nearly impossible for residents to adopt and live with such a breed—virtually ensuring destruction of otherwise adoptable dogs by shelters and humane societies.
  • Owners Suffer. Responsible owners of entirely friendly, properly supervised and well-socialized dogs who happen to fall within the regulated breed are required to comply with local breed bans and regulations. This can lead to housing issues, legal fees or even relinquishment of the animal.
  • Public Safety Suffers. Breed-specific laws have a tendency to compromise rather than enhance public safety. When animal control resources are used to regulate or ban a certain breed, the focus is shifted away from effective enforcement of laws that have the best chances of making communities safer: dog license laws, leash laws, anti-animal fighting laws, anti-tethering laws, laws facilitating spaying and neutering and laws that require all owners to control their dogs, regardless of breed. Additionally, guardians of banned breeds may be deterred from seeking routine veterinary care, which can lead to outbreaks of rabies and other diseases that endanger communities.
  • Breed-specific laws may also have the unintended consequence of encouraging irresponsible dog ownership. As certain breeds are regulated, individuals who exploit aggression in dogs are likely to turn to other, unregulated breeds. Conversely “outlaws” may be attracted to the “outlaw” status of certain breeds. The rise of pit bull ownership among gang members in the late 1980s coincided with the first round of breed-specific legislation.

What Are the Alternatives to Breed-Specific Laws?

courthouseThere is no convincing data to indicate that breed-specific legislation has succeeded anywhere to date.

The CDC has noted that many other factors beyond breed may affect a dog’s tendency toward aggression—things such as heredity, sex, early experience, reproductive status, socialization and training. Conversely, studies can be referenced that point to clear, positive effects of carefully crafted breed-neutral laws. A breed-neutral approach may include the following:

  • Enhanced enforcement of dog license laws
  • Increased availability to low-cost sterilization (spay/neuter) services
  • Dangerous dog laws that are breed-neutral and focus on the behavior of the individual guardian and dog
  • Graduated penalties and options for dogs deemed dangerous
  • Laws that hold dog guardians financially accountable for failure to adhere to animal control laws
  • Laws that hold dog guardians civilly and criminally liable for unjustified injuries or damage caused by their dogs
  • Laws that prohibit chaining, tethering and unreasonable confinement, coupled with enhanced enforcement of animal cruelty and animal fighting laws
  • Community-based approaches to resolving reckless guardian/dangerous dog questions that encompass all stakeholders, available dog bite data and recommended realistic and enforceable policies

The ASPCA has also published a complete position statement about  breed-specific legislation.

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