Breed Specific Legilation - The Facts & Fiction
The Pet Professional Guild (PPG) is becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of dogs being seized or banned in a variety of communities worldwide based purely on their breed or appearance, allegedly in the interest of public safety. At the same time, there is little, if any, assessment of an individual dog’s behavior or environment, their owners’ knowledge of canine behavior and training, and/or their suitability as a dog guardian.
PPG holds that Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) such as this paints an unjust picture of certain breeds of dogs and punishes responsible dog guardians unnecessarily. PPG considers BSL to be ineffective in dog bite prevention and the safety of the public at large, and opposes any law or regulation that discriminates against dogs based purely on breed or appearance. Rather than approach the issues of dog bite prevention and public safety via such unsatisfactory means, PPG is of the opinion that educating pet industry professionals, pet dog guardians, and the general public in canine cognition, communication, and the use of science-based, force-free pet care and training methods are by far the most effective means of reducing dog bites and ensuring greater public safety.
PPG recognizes that any size or type of dog can bite. Breed, however, is not a good predictor. A study by Patronek, Sacks, Delise, Cleary, and Marder (2013) concluded that: “Most DBRFs [dog bite-related fatalities] were characterized by coincident, preventable factors; breed was not one of these. Study results supported previous recommendations for multifactorial approaches, instead of single-factor solutions such as breed-specific legislation, for dog bite prevention.”
PPG holds that a neutral approach should be taken to evaluate dogs on an individual basis, focusing on behavior and environment, rather than appearance. Singling out specific breeds as dangerous provides the public with an unfair perception of those dogs while potentially creating a false sense of safety as far as other dogs are concerned. PPG believes instead that a combination of the following is needed in order to reduce the number of dog inflicted bites:
- Public education.
- Owner education.
- Shelter and rescue organization education.
- Positive, early socialization.
- Force-free, science based training.
- Ensuring that dogs are paired within appropriate households.
Breed Specific Legislation Defined
BSL (also known as Breed Discriminatory Legislation) is a law or legal ordinance that restricts or prohibits the ownership of certain breeds (or types) of dogs. In places where BSL has been implemented it varies from a complete ban of certain types of dogs to regulations imposing restrictions on ownership and special requirements including, but not limited to, mandatory muzzling; leash laws; special ‘housing’ (for example, fully enclosed cages); chaining; minimal wall enclosure height; mandatory microchipping; tattoos; registration documents; mandatory spay/neuter policies; yearly veterinary checks and reports stating the animal has no disease or injury that could make him/her ‘especially’ dangerous; prohibited access to public spaces especially, but not limited to, those frequented by children; transfer or sale notification requirements; and registration of the dog on local, provincial and national registries. Other requirements relating to the owner/handler may include minimum age; proof of mental and physical capacity; lack of criminal record; special ‘dangerous dog’ handler’s license; civil responsibility insurance; and proof of training. Note that this list is not exhaustive as the laws and restrictions vary from country to country, state to state, and county to county.
Which Breeds Are Most Often Affected by BSL?
Regulated breeds usually comprise “pit bull” type dogs. However, the breeds targeted vary in different countries and even in different states or counties within the same country. American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American bulldogs, Staffordshire bull terriers and English bull terriers are often included in the “pit bull group,” wherein the term “pit bull” is used generically for a number of closely related breeds such as these. In some cases, too, dogs who are thought to resemble a pit bull are inaccurately labeled, based purely on their appearance. Importantly, a study by Olson, Levy, Norby, Crandalla, Broadhurst, Jacks, Barton and Zimmerman (2015), designed to measure agreement among shelter staff in assigning pit bull-type breed designations to shelter dogs and to compare breed assignments with DNA breed signatures, found that visual identification is unreliable. Their findings included that:
- Animal shelter staff and veterinarians are frequently expected to guess the breed of dogs based on appearance alone.
- Even when observing the same dogs at the same time, shelter staff had only moderate agreement with breed designations.
- One in five dogs genetically identified with pit bull heritage breeds were missed by all shelter staff.
- One in three dogs lacking DNA for pit bull heritage breeds were labeled pit bull-type dogs by at least one staff member.
- Lack of consistency among shelter staff indicates that visual identification of pit bull-type dogs is unreliable.
Other breeds that often find themselves the target of BSL include Rottweilers, mastiffs, chow chows, German shepherds and Doberman pinschers. In Europe, the filo Brasileiro, dogo Argentino, presa Canaria and Japanese tosa are included on many of the lists of dogs affected by breed discriminatory laws. The laws usually target any dog that resembles the listed breed so are ‘type’ specific rather than truly ‘breed’ specific.
Are Breed-Specific Laws Effective?
BSL can and does result in the destruction of dogs. Research, however, would suggest that there is no evidence to support claims that BSL makes communities safer for people or companion animals. Indeed, there is little, if any, evidence to support any claims that BSL has reduced the number of dog bites. Here are some examples:
• Denver, Colorado enacted a breed-specific ban in 1989. Citizens of Denver continue to suffer a higher rate of hospitalization from dog bite-related injuries after the ban, than the citizens of breed-neutral Colorado counties (National Canine Research Council (NCRC), 2013).
• A study by Rosado, García-Belenguer, León and Palacio (2007) compared medically treated dog bites in Aragon, Spain for five years prior to and following enactment of Spain’s Law on the Legal Treatment of the Possession of Dangerous Animals (sometimes referred to Spain’s Dangerous Animal Act) in 2000. The results showed no significant effect in dog bite incidences when comparing before and after enactment of the BSL (NCRC, 2013).
• The Netherlands repealed a 15-year-old breed ban in 2008 after commissioning a study of its effectiveness. The study revealed that BSL was not a successful dog-bite mitigation strategy because it had not resulted in a decrease in dog bites (NCRC, 2013).
• The province of Ontario enacted a breed ban in 2005. In 2010, based on a survey of municipalities across the Province, the Toronto Humane Society reported that, despite five years of BSL and the destruction of "countless" dogs, there had been no significant decrease in the number of dog bites (NCRC, 2013).
• Winnipeg, Manitoba enacted a breed ban in 1990. Winnipeg’s rate of dog bite-injury hospitalizations is virtually unchanged from that day to this, and remains significantly higher than the rate in breed-neutral, responsible pet ownership province of Calgary (NCRC, 2013).
Breed bans continue to prove to be both ineffective and costly. In 2003, for example, it was recommended that the breed ban in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which had cost the county $570,000 over two years in kenneling and maintenance costs, be repealed. A task force declared the ban ineffective. Attempts to enforce the breed ban in the UK have proved expensive, with kenneling costs for confiscated animals alone totaling more than £3 million (US$3.9 million) in the first four years (Bradley, 2014).
Overall, the number of reported dog bites has decreased substantially since the 1970s (NCRC, 2013). Nevertheless, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (2016), more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the US annually. Serious bites are, however, relatively rare and no particular breed is more likely to be responsible for them.
In 2007, of the 2,158 dog bites reported to the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services, California, only 7.4 percent were classified as “serious.” (San Diego Department of Animal Services, 2007 (cited in Bathurst, Cleary, Delise, VanKavage, & Rushing (2011)). In a two-year period, from 2007–2008, there were 2,301 bites reported to the Indianapolis Department of Public Safety – Animal Control, Indiana. Only 165, or 7.2 percent, of these reported bites were classified as “severe.” The 165 severe bites were inflicted by 34 different breeds of dogs. (Indianapolis Department of Public Safety, 2008 (cited in Bathurst et al. (2011)). In 2007, only 10 (5.5 percent) of all reported dog bites in Washington D.C., were classified as severe. The 10 severe bites were inflicted by “nine different breeds of dogs.” (Government of District of Columbia, 2007 (cited in Bathurst et al. (2011)).
A study in Ireland (Ó Súilleabháin, 2015), found that current regulations cited under the Control of Dogs Act 1998, whose objectives were to “reduce the incidence and severity of bites from specific dog breeds (11 total, including mixes and strains) deemed capable of inflicting injury requiring hospitalisation more frequently than all other breeds,” have not had the intended effect: “The regulation of these breeds should have resulted in a decreased incidence of hospitalisations, whereas a significant increase in incidence was observed." (Ó Súilleabháin, 2015).
Ó Súilleabháin pointed out that current regulations may actually have been contributing to increases in hospitalizations due to dog bites: “Regulating breeds places restrictions on dogs that pose little risk and ignores the possibility that any breed is capable of inflicting serious injuries; for example, fatalities have been caused by dogs that fall into the toy breed categorisation (Collier, 2006). Ott et al. (2008) indicated that the breeds currently regulated in Ireland do not possess higher levels of aggression in comparison with other domestic breeds. Breed legislation can mislead the general public into believing that unregulated breeds are less capable of inflicting serious and fatal injuries (Clarke et al., 2013).” (Ó Súilleabháin, 2015).
Who Is Getting Bitten and Why?
Statistics show that the majority of dog bites occur in children or the elderly. The results of a study by Dixon, Mahabee-Gittens, Hart and Lindsell (2012) assessing dog bite prevention knowledge in children concluded: “Our results show a notable lack of awareness and knowledge regarding dog bite prevention among children, as nearly half of child participants failed a dog bite prevention knowledge test based on well-accepted dog bite prevention recommendations. Moreover, based on parent/guardian responses, less than one-third of children had ever received formal dog bite prevention education.”
A lack of appropriate care, supervision and mistreatment of the dog were key components in many dog bite occurrences. According to the NCRC, Patronek et al. identified “a striking co-occurrence of multiple, controllable factors: no able-bodied person being present to intervene (87.1 per cent); the victim having no familiar relationship with the dog(s) (85.2 per cent); the dog(s) owner failing to neuter/spay the dog(s) (84.4 per cent); a victim’s compromised ability, whether based on age or physical condition, to manage their interactions with the dog(s) (77.4 per cent); the owner keeping dog(s) as resident dog(s), rather than as family pet(s) (76.2 per cent); the owner’s prior mismanagement of the dog(s) (37.5 per cent); and the owner’s abuse or neglect of dog(s) (21.1 per cent). Four or more of these factors were present in 80.5 per cent of cases; breed was not one of those factors.” (NCRC, 2013).
Education, Training and Welfare
Taking all the above into account, PPG believes that increasing public safety and continuing to reduce the number of bites is of the utmost importance and that, while canine behavior is complex, many dog bite incidents could be prevented if pet guardians, trainers and legislators were better informed about canine communication and how to act safely around dogs. Canine signs of stress and anxiety can sometimes be subtle, but a greater knowledge of how dogs communicate and how our interactions with them can lead to a greater risk of bites is key to tackling bite prevention.
The importance of this education goes hand-in-hand with positive management strategies; early socialization, as outlined in PPG’s Puppy Socialization Check List, to prepare pets for successful future encounters with people, dogs, new environments and other animals; ensuring that dogs are paired with the appropriate owner(s) and home environment; and force-free, science based training.
In addition, PPG holds that professional force-free trainers have an important role to play in dog bite prevention. The use of non-confrontational, science based, positive operant and respondent training techniques; programs of desensitization and counterconditioning; appropriate socialization; management strategies, and the education of pet dog guardians regarding such topics as canine communication and appropriate force-free pet care and training protocols, are paramount in helping tackle the subject of dog bite prevention and promoting safer communities.
In Section Two of PPG’s Guiding Principles it is stated that: “We always hold the pet’s welfare as our top priority.” (PPG, 2016.). It is PPG’s position that breed specific laws adversely affect a pet’s welfare and are, without doubt, often detrimental to a pet's psychological and physical well-being. PPG holds that the subject of dog bite prevention and safety should be tackled through breed neutral laws, education, stricter enforcement of animal cruelty legislation and a greater accountability of all pet owners, trainers and legislators for the animal’s welfare.
Countless animal welfare organizations and professional bodies worldwide have issued position statements that comprehensively refute the efficacy of BSL as a means of reducing dog bites and increasing public safety, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, British Veterinary Association, Best Friends Animal Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Humane Society of the United States, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Australia and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals UK. All support an end to breed specific laws in favor of breed neutral legislation (laws aimed at ensuring all owners are responsible for the care and control of their dogs, regardless of breed) as do countless renowned specialists in canine behavior, training and communication, a selection of whom are cited below.
What the Experts Say
“Without exception, I stand firmly against BSL. The research has shown time and time again that BSL does not reduce dog bites in the areas where it is enacted, and has caused many innocent dogs to be taken from their families simply because of the way they look.” - Victoria Stilwell, award winning dog trainer and behavioral expert, president of the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior, and CEO of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training.
“PPG’s position is to follow the evidence, which to date strongly suggests that BSL does not achieve the objective of decreasing dog bites or serious dog attacks. Instead, dog guardians should be held responsible for their pets’ conduct, regardless of breed, and dogs who have not offended should not be targeted.” - Jean Donaldson, founder and principal instructor of The Academy for Dog Trainers.
“There is a growing awareness that BSL does not improve community safety and penalizes responsible dog owners and their family companions… Effective laws hold all dog owners responsible for the humane care, custody, and control of all dogs regardless of breed or type.” - Janis Bradley, director of communications and publications, National Canine Research Council.
“Any dog is capable of biting, regardless of breed, sex, or size… With BSL, the veterinary community is put into a challenging position of being asked to identify dog breeds based on appearance, and to report dogs who seem to fit a specified description. Most studies have shown that the visual identification of a breed rarely accurately identified the proper breed when compared to genetic testing.” - Dr. Lynn Honeckman, respected veterinarian."The focus needs to shift to the basic reasons that dog bites exist: tethered/chained dogs, dogs at large, unattended children, and focus on spaying and neutering. These are easy areas to target. These are not expensive areas to target. We have overcomplicated a very simple issue." Deirdre Franklin, CEO/president Pinups for Pitbulls, Inc.
For a full list of position statements, please see What the Experts Say (PPG, 2016).
Why debate what the experts have already concluded? There is no scientifically valid evidence to support BSL. There is no reasonable argument in its defense, and no evidence to suggest that certain breeds of dogs are more likely to injure or bite than others (NCRC, n.d.). According to the NCRC: “[I]n a recent multifactorial study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association on the exceptionally rare event of dog bite related fatalities, the researchers identified a striking co-occurrence of multiple, controllable factors in these cases. Breed was not identified as a factor.” (NCRC, 2013).
PPG founder and president Niki Tudge has stated that: “PPG’s role is to educate and engage more pet professionals and pet owners, promoting the science based, result based force-free message, philosophy and training practices. As founder and president of PPG, I believe that this same goal should be applied to all pets. Research shows us that all animals learn in the same way and that each animal is an individual regardless of its breed. Many of our professional members interact, either personally or professionally, with many, if not all, of the breeds affected by breed specific legislation and will bear witness to the fact that animal learning is not breed specific. Just as important, it is critical to the welfare of our pets and their owners that animals are trained using force-free, positive reinforcement philosophies to prevent and mitigate aggressive behaviors due to fall out from the application of using punishment and fear to modify and change."
There are several factors that contribute to the potential for dog bites and BSL is erroneous in that it pays no attention to a dog’s behavior (or the guardian’s), but focuses instead on the breed or even the dog’s appearance. It is PPG’s position that public policies should focus rather on the behavior of a particular dog, the behavior of his/her guardian, and the environment they live in. We propose that education is key to preventing the majority of dog bites. A greater knowledge of canine communication should be an essential component of said education, as should more widespread knowledge of the adverse effects of using forceful methods in training and interactions with our pets. Multifactorial approaches are needed if the number of potential dog bite incidents is to be reduced, as outlined above. The ultimate goal would be responsible ownership, including appropriate supervision of pets and the housing of pet dogs as family members in a safe and nurturing environment. The duty of care lies with the guardian, the canine professional and the policy makers. As such, PPG holds that humane and effective treatment of all dogs and breed neutral laws should replace BSL.
American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Dog Bite Prevention.
American Veterinary Medical Association. (2014, May). Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of the Role of Breed in Dog Bite Risk and Prevention.
Bathurst, C., Cleary, D., Delise, K., VanKavage, L., & Rushing, P. (2011, August). The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters. Community Oriented Policing Services, US Department of Justice.
Bradley, J. (2016). Breed-specific Legislation (BSL) FAQ.
Bradley, J. (2014). Dog Bites Problems and Solutions. Animals and Society Institute.
Clarke, T., Cooper, J., & Mills, D. (2013). Acculturation – Perceptions of breed differences in behavior of the dog (Canis familiaris). Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin (1) 2:16-33.
Collier, S. (2006, July). Breed-specific legislation and the pit bull terrier: Are the laws justified? Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research 1(1).
Dixon, C.A., Mahabee-Gittens, E.M., Hart, K.W., & Lindsell, C.J. (2012, February). Dog Bite Prevention: An Assessment of Child Knowledge. The Journal of Pediatrics 160 (2) 337-341.e2.
National Canine Research Council. (n.d.). Our Research Does Not Support Breed-Specific Legislation: Centers for Disease Control and American Veterinary Medical Association Statement.
National Canine Research Council. (2013). Potentially Preventable Husbandry Factors Co-occur in Most Dog Bite Related Fatalities: Co-occurrence Whitepaper.
National Canine Research Council. (2013). Reported bites decreasing.
Olson, K.R., Levy, J.K., Norby, B., Crandalla, M.M., Broadhurst, J.E., Jacks, S., Barton, R.C., & Zimmerman, M.S. (2015, November). Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff. The Veterinary Journal (206) 2 197–202.
Ó Súilleabháin, P. (2015, June). Human hospitalisations due to dog bites in Ireland, 1998-2013: Implications for current breed specific legislation. The Veterinary Journal 204(3) 357-9.
Ott, S., Schalke, E., Von Gaertner, A.M., Hackbarth, H. (2008, May). Is there a difference? Comparison of golden retrievers and dogs affected by breed-specific legislation regarding aggressive behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior (3) 3 134–140.
Patronek, G., Sacks, J., Delise, K., Cleary, D., & Marder, A. (2013, December). Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in the United States (2000–2009). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (243) 12 1726-1736.
Pet Professional Guild. (2016). Guiding Principles.
Rosado, B., García-Belenguer, S., León, M., & Palacio, J. (2007). Spanish dangerous animals act: Effect on the epidemiology of dog bites. Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2) 166-174.
Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Australia (n.d.). How can we help to prevent dog attacks in the community?
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