Some of my favorite people are dogs. Unlike some humans I could mention, a dog has never asked me to borrow money, cut me off in traffic, or used up all the toilet paper in the bathroom without the courtesy of refilling it (or at least warning me by strategically placing the empty cardboard tube on top of the toilet seat).
Dogs are great. They’re enthusiastic, warm, and cuddly. They provide comfort, security, and have been shown to have extensive psychological and therapeutic effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that, among other benefits, the health advantages of keeping pets include decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and feelings of loneliness. Additionally, people who own dogs are likely to live longer on average.
Most of us love these fur-balls, but certain breeds have been so culturally villainized that some people advocate for legislation that bans beloved dog breeds or heavily restricts these dogs’ owners.
When I was growing up, Rottweilers were the evil-dog-flavor-of-the-month. Hollywood and the news media solely depicted them as vicious, snarling beasts, only kept for scaring people and chasing away intruders. These days, Pit Bulls are the canine-non-grata.
Without a doubt, unrestrained aggressive dogs and dog attacks can be a dangerous and serious problem for communities, and need not be taken lightly, but there are numerous problems with the approach and implementation cities and municipalities have taken towards banning and restricting certain dog breeds.
Bully the Breed
Over 1,000 US cities and dozens of counties within 36 states have what is known as “breed-specific legislation.” Breed-specific restrictions often require the owners of certain dog breeds to do things like muzzle the dog in public, contain their pets within a kennel that is built to given specifications (e.g., chain link walls and concrete floors), purchase a minimum dollar amount of liability insurance, make the dog wear a “vicious dog” identifier, etc. Local law might include any of these controls or more.
It’s disappointing that my own state of Georgia has proposed similar legislation. If it passes, House Bill 313 will label the following dog breeds as dangerous: Boxer, Akita, Husky, Chow Chow, Rottweiler, Great Dane, Doberman Pinscher, all four breeds commonly known as pit bulls, German Shepherd, and wolf hybrids.
In addition to requiring a “canine that is entirely or partly” one of these breeds to be labeled as dangerous, the legislation mandates that shelters must provide bite statistics to people who are looking to adopt. If approved by the state house, senate, and governor, the bill will go into effect on July 1st, 2017.
What this means is that, not only will some of the most common canines in Georgia be labeled as dangerous, “the proposed bill would burden taxpayers because of DNA testing costs and the fact that shelters will have to provide statistics about dog bites, medical costs related to dog bites and legal damages awarded to dog bite victims.”
Breed bans are even worse, as they can lead to dogs being rounded up and exterminated. A ban can require that all dogs that resemble a “targeted breed” be removed from the jurisdiction or are subject to being killed by animal control. Although, in some cases, grandfather clauses may allow banned breeds to stay if they are registered by a certain date, however, they may still be subject to other restrictions.
As you can imagine, when confronted with a breed ban, many pet owners decide to hide their banned dogs. This leads to negative health consequences for the animals and potential problems for the community because banned dogs will be unable to visit veterinarians and receive rabies shots. Bans also have a negative impact on communities because pit bulls and other banned dogs that work as therapy or search-and-rescue dogs will not be allowed either.
What might be the most troubling is that, in both cases, legislation does not take into account how a dog actually behaves. The time and effort an owner spends on training and raising a “dangerous” dog is rendered useless because even the best-behaved pooches will be seen as unsafe in the eyes of the law. Banning and labeling dogs as dangerous effects where dog owners can live, whether or not they can visit dog parks or veterinarians, and doubtlessly has a huge impact on whether or not an abandoned animal will be adopted or euthanized.
Problems of Identification
One of the biggest problems with both breed-specific restrictions and bans is that it can be very difficult to identify a dog’s breed. Even the naming of dog breeds gets complicated. For example, pit-bull-type dogs might refer to any of the following: the American Pit Bull, American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Bully.
Generally, people are really bad at identifying the breed of a dog based solely on appearance. An animal that appears to be one breed might genetically be labeled as another. According to one study of 120 shelter dogs, staff identified 55 as “pit bulls” but only 25 could be ID’d as such by DNA testing. It’s troubling that, in the case of breed bans, an inability to accurately identify a dog’s breed may lead to local governments killing dogs who only have the appearance of a “dangerous” breed.
Any dog with teeth can bite. A dog’s breed does not necessarily equate to a level of risk for a bite or dog attack. The American Veterinary Medical Association, has stated that “it’s the dog’s behavior, general size, number of dogs involved, and the vulnerability of the person bitten that determines whether or not a dog or dogs will cause a serious bite injury.” The AVMA urges people to learn how to recognize aggressive dog behavior and teach their kids how to interact with dogs and to not rely on stereotypes or breed-specific-legislation to minimize the number of dog bites.
Furthermore, according to the CDC, “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.” They go on to say that there are numerous alternatives to breed-specific policies that are practical and “hold promise for preventing dog bites.”
Man’s Best Scapegoat
Not convinced? Extensive studies have shown that breed-specific-legislation has had almost no effect on stopping dog attacks and a task force report from Maryland concluded that public safety did not improve even after a local municipality spent roughly $250,000 per year to capture and kill banned dogs.
Regarding pit bulls, perhaps because of their muscular, intimidating appearance, because the media over-hypes pit bull attacks, or because these breeds have been used for peoples’ sick entertainment and gambling over dog fights, these mostly-sweet dogs have been given a bad rap.
It’s short-sighted to assume that this kind of legislation will only affect the buying and selling of certain dogs. Once dog breeds are labeled as “dangerous” it makes it very difficult for individuals with these pets to rent apartments and or even visit dog parks. Please, can we stop bullying certain dog breeds and let peaceful dogs lie?
Originally published on fee.org on March 24, 2017.