The short answer is, pretty much everything.
Breed specific legislation (BSL) is a hot-button topic in the animal welfare community. Or I should say, I don’t know any reputable souls in the animal welfare community supporting BSL. It’s politicians and pundits, whose background in animal welfare is limited to the maltese they had growing up, and the general public, who have become frightened by polarizing media reports, endorsing BSL.
The targets of most breed specific legislation are what some unaffectionately refer to as the “bully breeds,” i.e. pit bull type dogs (mainly American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers), Rottweilers, doberman pinschers, chow chows and German shepherds, but most of these laws focus on the pit bull type dogs as they have been the subject of increased scrutiny in the media. (When was the last time you heard a news report about someone being bitten by a yellow lab? And yet it happens.) For pit bulls, it’s interesting how quickly one’s luck can turn. Not long ago, they were considered family dogs and loyal companions. Some statistics even indicate that they were the most popular household pet at the beginning of the 20th century. During WWI, pit bulls served in the military. (Stubby is the most decorated military dog in history.) Petey, the dog in the Little Rascals series, was a pit bull. Helen Keller owned a pit bull. They were used in all sorts of advertising from lemons to dog treats, on postcards, and on war propaganda even representing American patriotism in much the same way as Uncle Sam.
What happened? Over the years, pit bulls especially have gotten a bad rap as “image dogs” by people who force them into fighting rings using against them their desire to please their owners and unmitigating loyalty. If you think that dog fighting is an irregularity, know that the Humane Society estimates 100,000 people in the US participate in backyard dog fighting rings and 40,000 people are involved in dog fighting professionally. Let me say that again: 40,000 people make a living from dog fighting. And the numbers go up when the economy goes down.
So the pit bull (and other “bully breeds”) was once considered a family dog, but that’s ancient history, you say. Now they are bred to be mean, ruthless guard dogs that will bite without provocation as evidenced by the proliferation of dog fighting rings mentioned above. Okay, let’s take a look at some of the cold, hard facts.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that about 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year with 885,000 requiring medical attention and, in 2006, 16 fatalities. Children are the most often injured (as they are at eye level with dogs) followed by adult males. This statistic alone is troubling and requires serious consideration. The problem is that no one can say the “bully breeds” are the cause of these alarming numbers. Even the CDC says, “There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.” Meaning, you can’t tell just by looking at a dog what breed it is. Profiling in the dog world is even less effective than profiling in the human world, but at least humans can speak up and provide documentation. Dogs, of course, cannot.
Case in point. A couple of months ago, I found a six-month-old puppy tied to a park bench. It was light brown with golden eyes. It had a stubby tail and a boxy head. A woman and I were discussing which local shelter might be able to take in the dog on such short notice. We deliberated if we could bring it to a breed rescue. I thought the dog might be a Rhodesian ridgeback. Then this well-intentioned, kind woman, who had a dog of her own, said, “I think he might be part pit bull, look at how his forehead crinkles up.” The dog was not a pit bull. It wasn’t even a pit bull mix. We were both wrong. It was a viszla. In some cases, that mis-assessment would have been a death sentence for this dog. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
Let’s look more closely at dog bites in this country:
- 70% of all dog bite cases involve an unneutered male dog.
- A chained dog is 2.8 times more likely to bite.
- 78% of the 16 fatal dog attacks in 2006 were not maintained as pets, but as guard dogs or fighting dogs.
Of course these statistics are just numbers, if in fact you or someone you know has been the victim of a dog bite. Knowing all of this doesn’t lessen your pain or fear or anger, and I’m not trying to do so. Just consider where the true responsibility lies.
That brings me to the details of BSL. Many communities have laws regulating dog ownership: they have to be leashed and licensed, for example, but recently ordinances have popped up around the country with regard to certain breeds, regardless of temperament or behavior of the individual dog. (I should also take the opportunity to point out that pit bull type dogs as a group have passed temperament testing with a rating of 84.3% in 2007 according to the American Temperament Testing Society. By comparison the affable golden retriever passed with the same score.) The counties listed here have breed specific legislation in place. Some have stringent restrictions to make it uncomfortable for the person to own a certain breed such as: muzzling the dog in public, purchasing liability insurance, placing “vicious dog” signs on the outside of the residence, or making the dog wear a “vicious dog” tag at all times. Let me make it clear that it doesn’t matter if the dog has passed Canine Good Citizen (CGC) tests or is a service dog or is geriatric or is simply the nicest dog in the world. Then certain counties go one step farther and make it illegal to own a pit bull type dog. Period. In some cases, current owners have to relinquish their pets or have them seized.
There are countless stories of families in cities with strict BSL who have had to give up their pet, a member of their family, or be forced to move. Allan Grider, a Vietnam vet, knows how painful this can be. His service dog, Precious, helps him manage his painful bouts with PTSD. In November, the Aurora, Colorado, police department seized Precious under the city’s BSL regulations. Precious isn’t even a pit bull. She’s a lab and boxer mix, but she looked suspicious. He says, “They really messed me up. When she wasn’t here, I wasn’t able to sleep. I wasn’t able to do nothing. I had a really hard time.” After several weeks Precious was finally returned to Grider, but it took quite a few strings and the help of a lawyer.
As I’ve already pointed out, identifying a dog’s breed on sight can be near impossible, and not wanting to take chances, many shelters immediately kill all dogs that look like pit bulls. Clearly stereotyping all dogs that look a certain way and claiming that they are dangerous to society doesn’t take into account the individuality of the dog. That would be like saying all Russian people are this way or all Brazilian people are that way, or if you’ll permit me to take it one step further, sticking all Japanese people into internment camps for years and forcing them to give up their homes, cars, and businesses because they look a certain way. You see where I’m going with this.
Obviously this makes it difficult to enforce BSL, and there is no evidence that breed specific laws make communities safer. As you might imagine, it is very costly to taxpayers and has numerous negative consequences. Let’s take a look at Prince George’s County in Maryland. A task force there found that the cost to confiscate and euthanize a single pit bull was $68,000. In fiscal year 2001-2, the expenditures reached $560,000, and “public safety is not improved as a result of [the ban]…there is no transgression committed by owner or animal that is not covered by another, non-breed specific portion of the Animal Control Code.” The task force has recommended that the county repeal the ban. (If you’re wondering how much BSL would cost in your county, click here.)
Prince George’s County isn’t the only municipality realizing the high cost of BSL. In Baltimore, it was projected BSL would cost taxpayers $750,000 each year. Saginaw, Michigan, repealed their ban because of the burden to taxpayers, including the cost of impounding, euthanizing and legal fees. Florida BSL Senate bill 1276 /House bill 543 for BSL died in committee on April 30, 2010.
Denver Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz says that 78% of her constituents support the BSL, and therefore, she’ll keep supporting it. I would guess that her constituents fail to realize that the ban is costing them approximately $800,000 per year. What is most important for Denver residents and everyone else in support of BSL to realize (here’s the kicker) is that there is absolutely no evidence that these bans reduce the number of dog bites or attacks. At all.
The CDC noted in their dog bite survey that many other factors beyond breed affect a dog’s temperament such as heredity, sex, early socializations (or lack thereof), reproductive status and training. It’s the old nature versus nurture question. That brings me back to my earlier point about dog bites. It is people who are ultimately responsible here. Perhaps instead of spending $800,000 each year to kill dogs who have done nothing wrong, the money could be used for humane law enforcement to bust dog fighting rings and to educate owners on how to properly train their dogs (of any breed).
Here are some other effective ways to put an end to breed discrimination:
- Support your local animal shelter.
- Adopt or foster a “bully breed”
- Help control the pet population the responsible and humane way: Spay or neuter your dog.
- Support anti-cruelty legislation and legislation that targets irresponsible pet owners, rather than a specific dog breed.
- Oppose breed-discriminatory legislation in your community.
- Make your dog part of the family: Don’t tether or chain your dog as a form of containment.
- Microchip your dog.
- Share this information with your friends, family, coworkers and neighbors.
For more information on Pit Bulls, check out the Best Friends campaign: Pit Bulls, Saving America’s Dog.
For more information on BSL and updates on communities around the country, visit Stop BSL.