Breed Specific Legislation – Banning Dogs on Sight

In a previous post I discussed the increase in dog bite incidents in recent years Increases in Dog Bites – What to Make of it? | The Animal Nerd.  Today, I’m delving into a related and highly controversial topic, that of Breed Specific Legislation.

Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) has been defined as “laws that regulate or ban dog breeds that are believed to be dangerous to humans or other animals”.[i] The regulation of dog ownership by breed and the prohibition of certain dog breeds has been a hotly debated issue for several decades in the United States and a considerable number of other countries; primarily in Europe but also in other regions as well.[ii]  In most cases, breeds are restricted based on the belief that certain of them, such as bull terriers, German shepherds and rottweilers, are  prone to violent attacks; while other breeds are restricted for other reasons.  For example, certain regions in China have prohibited dogs that are taller than 35 centimeters, and have specifically banned a wide range of breeds, to include, dalmatians, bearded collies and keeshonds.[iii]

The practice of restricting certain dog breeds began in the 1980s in response to media reporting of people being mauled and based on a growing popular belief that certain dog breeds had been selectively bred for aggressive behavior and were inherently dangerous.[iv]  Over the next two decades, laws and regulations were enacted in countries, states and municipalities, placing varying levels of restriction on certain breeds that were believed to have those characteristics.[v]  These restrictions have ranged from setting requirements for registration and a mandate for liability insurance, to authorizing local authorities to confiscate and euthanize and dogs believed to be from banned breeds.[vi] On the other hand, twenty-two states have prohibited the enactment of BSL to varying extents.[vii] Some insurance companies have gone so far as to deny coverage to households that have certain dog breeds, while others increase the premiums charged to those homeowners and renters.[viii]

The rationale used by governments in imposing restrictions on dog breeds is generally based on a public concern over dog attacks that are reported in the media and on certain beliefs held regarding specific dog breeds.  The problem with media reporting on these cases is that these reports are often rushed and sensationalized, based on low-quality information.  The collection of data related to dog bites is haphazard, without any consistent reporting of the severity and circumstances of bite incidents.[ix] The use of reporting by emergency rooms and police investigations is generally based on third-party information without verification of the dog breed involved in bite incidents.[x]  Further, as found by Arluke et al (2017), articles written by human healthcare professionals tend to use poor quality information, bordering on histrionics, when reporting non-clinical aspects relating to dog bites.  This includes speculation on the behavioral characteristics of dog breeds, “pack mentality”, and breed stereotyping.  Unfortunately, such articles are often cited by civil authorities when drafting BSL.[xi]

The stereotyping of certain dog breeds is a major component of BSL.  For example, the popular myths that “pitbulls” have “locking jaws”, can bite with far more force than other breeds, and will not stop attacking until they have killed their prey are often cited in popular literature.  These myths have also been used as the basis for legal decisions in the United States,[xii]  with court rulings venturing into lurid imaginings of the inherent viciousness, aggressiveness and other dangerous characteristics of pitbull terriers.[xiii]

Beware Of This Dog Pit Bull Terrier Sports Illustrated Cover Photograph ...

Sports Illustrated, July 27, 1987

The biggest single influence on the development of BSL has been the news media treatment of dog breeds.  Beginning in the 1980s, media outlets began reporting lurid accounts of dog attacks.  Magazines and newspapers began publishing articles describing pit bull terriers as “time bombs on legs” and circulating accounts of inner-city drug dealing gangs “brandishing their fierce pit bulls just as they would a switchblade or a gun”, going on to describe pitbull terriers as a breed that “revels in a ‘frenzy of bloodletting,’ and described as ‘lethal weapons’ with ‘steel trap jaws’ and as ‘killer dogs,’ and the new ‘hound of the Baskervilles.’. [xiv]  Sports Illustrated Published an issue with a picture of a snarling pitbull on its cover with the caption “Beware of this Dog”, and an article titled “The Pitbull Friend and Killer”.[xv]  One Denver reporter went so far as to stage dog fights for the purpose of producing a 1990 report titled “Blood Sport”.[xvi]  This media frenzy continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s; in 1987, the phrase “Pit Bull” appeared in more than 850 American newspaper headlines.[xvii]  This media attention, led to a public outcry to ban or regulate pitbulls and other breeds considered dangerous.  And, as indicated above, the exaggerated media accounts of the danger presented by these dogs influenced the language and wording of court decisions and state or municipal legislation.  This is borne out by court findings, such as Toledo v Tellings, in which the appellate court stated “Breed-specific laws were enacted because, in the past, courts and legislatures considered it to be a ‘well-known fact’ that pit bulls are ‘unpredictable,’ ‘vicious’ creatures owned only by ‘drug dealers, dog fighters, gang members,’ or other undesirable members of society.”[xviii]  This has led to accusations that BSL includes elements of racial discrimination and racial profiling of minorities.[xix]

Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, BSL is based in flawed and inaccurate information.   In spite of media reporting of dangerous dog breeds, numerous studies in Europe, Australia and the United States have found that dogs from restricted breeds are no more likely to inflict bites on humans than those of unrestricted breeds.[xx],[xxi], [xxii], [xxiii], [xxiv] In fact, there is a strong indication that the data regarding bite incidents or aggressive behavior is skewed, as police and medical authorities are more likely to report incidents involving restricted breeds than non-restricted ones.[xxv]

The danger in relying on published statistics related to dog bites is that the information from which the statistics are drawn is largely unreliable.  Early studies conducted by the AVMA used data that was “collected entirely from media reports and those media reports were relied upon as complete and entirely accurate.”[xxvi]  Thus, authorities who rely on published reports to gauge the relative danger of specific dog breeds were reliant on the reporting of people who have no direct knowledge of incidents related to the dogs in question.  And that has not changed significantly since then:  For all intents and purposes, if anyone who reports an incident says that it involved a dog from a restricted breed, that is accepted as gospel by government authorities.  The Centers for Disease Control

Which leads us to the issue of how restricted dogs are identified.  Veterinarians, police, animal shelter workers and private citizens are expected to reliably identify the dogs that are subject to state and/or local restrictions; but are consistently unable to make these visual assessments.  This is particularly so when they are called upon to apply restrictions to mixed-breed dogs.  A 2013 study found that people working in dog-related fields were able to identify the primary breeds of dogs only fifty percent of the time, with very little agreement among respondents.[xxvii]  A 2015 study of animal shelter staff found that they could not reliably identify “pit bulls” and tended to label dogs as pit bulls who were found to be primarily other breeds through DNA analysis.[xxviii]  And a 2014 study of shelter workers in the United States and the United Kingdom found very little consensus in identifying dogs that would be subject to breed restrictions.[xxix] A comprehensive review by the National Canine Research Council concluded that visual identification of dog breeds is “inconsistent and unreliable.”[xxx]  This difficulty in identifying dog breed is compounded by the fact that mixed-breed dogs rarely have much physical resemblance to either of their parents.[xxxi]

The difficulty in identifying restricted dogs in further complicated by the poor definition of these animals.  In the case of “pit bulls”, this is an umbrella term that is used to cover a “type” of dog, which has been defined in various jurisdictions as including Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, the pit bull terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, American bull terriers, American bulldogs, English bull terriers or any mixed breed parented by one or more of those breeds.  Essentially, a “pit bull” is a dog that someone believes resembles a “pit bull.”  Based only on outward appearance, these dogs are considered dangerous in a number of jurisdictions.

The United Kingdom’s recently enacted “XL Bully Ban” is an example of banning dogs according to their physical “type”.  In response to a public outcry over highly publicized reports of maulings and deaths attributed to dogs that had been marketed and sold as “XL Bullys” or “American XL Bullys”, these dogs have been banned.  However, unlike pitbull bans which specify dogs that belong to specific breeds, the XL Bully ban is imposed on dogs that meet a very subjective physical description, which includes a general description as a “large dog with a muscular body and a blocky head”[xxxii], followed by criteria for height, head shape, body, hindquarters, tail, etc.  and a statement that “A suspected XL Bully breed type does not need to fit the physical description perfectly. If your dog meets the minimum height measurements and a substantial number of these characteristics, it could be considered an XL Bully breed type” and that this definition includes “cross breeds that look more like XL Bully dogs than any other type of dog”.    Based on this law, it is now “illegal to breed, sell, advertise, exchange, gift, abandon or allow these dogs to stray.”[xxxiii] Any people who own a dog that is considered to be an XL Bully are required to have the dog leashed and muzzled when out in public and must obtain a certificate of exemption in order to keep the dog.  This certificate requires that every dog must be neutered, microchipped, and the owners must pay a fee of £92.40 and obtain third-party liability insurance for each dog.  The owner must present the certificate of Exemption whenever asked by a police officer.   Further, all animal shelters or rescue organizations are prohibited from adopting or fostering these dogs, meaning that any of them in shelters at the time of the ban must be euthanized.

As I mentioned earlier, these bans on breeds or “types” of dogs are rationalized by the belief that certain of them are inherently predisposed to aggressiveness and to violent attacks on humans and other dogs.  However, this belief has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false.  Recent studies of aggressive behavior in dogs has shown there is a wide variation of behavior among individuals of each breed and that a dog’s breed is not a predictor of its behavior characteristics.[xxxiv]  The differences between dog breeds are primarily physical characteristics, with little or no inheritable behavior traits;  a dog’s breed is found to be a poor predictor of disposition or behavior.[xxxv]  A study compared the aggressive behaviors of restricted dog breeds with those of golden retrievers, considered to be among the best-natured and gentlest of dog.  This study found no differences between the breeds tested, concluding that “a scientific basis for breed specific lists does not exist.”[xxxvi]

As discussed earlier, the data concerning dog bites and the effect of BSL is weak and generally drawn from questionable sources.  However, the information we have from regions with dog breed restrictions has shown there is little or no difference in the bite cases or dog-related hospitalizations.[xxxvii] The 2018 Denmark study found that restricting breeds and the required use of leashes and muzzles had very little effect on the number and severity of bite injuries.[xxxviii] The implementation of BSL in Missouri was found to have no effect on bite-related cases requiring visits to emergency rooms.[xxxix]  The overall ineffectiveness of BSL is demonstrated in a 2010 analysis of dog bite data, which concluded that it would be necessary to ban 100,000 dogs in order to prevent a single hospitalization due to dog biting.[xl]

si.cover.dec29.2008.jpg

Sports Illustrated, December 28, 2008

The XL Bully Ban aside, BSL is slowly losing popularity.  This is due to a recognition that the laws are ineffectual and unfairly target dogs that are not actually dangerous, and to changing perceptions about the dogs that are targeted.  For example, in 2008, twenty-one years after Sports Illustrated’s famous “Beware of This Dog” cover story,[xli] that same magazine published a highly sympathetic cover story about the plight and recovery of the dogs from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring.[xlii]  As of April, 2023, seventy-three municipalities in the United States had repealed their BSL bans,[xliii] and twenty-two states have enacted laws to ban the implementation of BSL, with some of them going to far as to prohibit insurance companies from restricting dog breeds of policy holders.[xliv]

 

Among the many organizations that oppose BSL are the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the National Animal Control Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Bar Association, the American Kennel Club, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association, and other professional organizations with expertise in canine behavior and welfare.  Hopefully, this trend will continue and more dog breed restrictions will be repealed in favor of laws that target irresponsible or criminal dog owners and in public education regarding dogs and animals in general.

[i] NAIC (April 13, 2023).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation (naic.org)

[ii] Petolog, retrieved from Full banned dog breeds by countries updated 2023 XL Bully UK (petolog.com)

[iii] PBS Pet Travel, retrieved from https://www.pbspettravel.co.uk/blog/uk-favourite-dog-breeds-which-are-banned-in-other-countries/

[iv] Weiss (2001).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)

[v] Alain, J. (2023).  Retrieved from Restricted or Banned Dog Breeds in Each State (thepetzealot.com)

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Wisch, R. (2022).  Retrieved from Overview of States that Prohibit BSL | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)

[viii] Leefeldt, E. and Danise, A. (October 3, 2023).  Forbes Advisor.  Dogs Breeds Banned by Home Insurance Companies.  Retrieved from Dog Breeds Banned By Home Insurance Companies – Forbes Advisor

[ix] Patronek, G. J., Slater, M. and Marder, A., (2010).  Use of a Number-Needed-to-Ban Calculation to Illustrate Limitations of Breed-Specific Legislation in Decreasing the Risk of Dog Bite-Related Injury.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 237 (7).

[x] AVMA.  Why Breed-Specific Legislation is Not the Answer.  Retrieved from Why breed-specific legislation is not the answer | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)

[xi] Arluke, A., Cleary, D., Patronek, G. and Bradley, J. (2017).  Defaming Rover:  Error-Based Latent Rhetoric in the Medical Literature on Dog Bites.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 21 (3).  doi: 10.1080/10888705.2017.1387550

[xii] DogsBite.org.  Legislating Dogs.  Retrieved from Appellate Court Decisions Affirming Pit Bulls are Dangerous (dogsbite.org)

[xiii] Barnett, K.  (2017).  Post-Conviction Remedy for Pit Bulls:  What Today’s Science Tells Us About Breed-Specific Legislation.  Syracuse Law Review 67 (24).

[xiv] Brand, D. (July 27, 1987).  Time Bombs on Legs:  Violence-Prone Owners are Turing Pitbulls into Killers.  Time.

[xv] Swift E. M. (1987).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/1987/07/27/the-pit-bull-friend-and-killer-is-the-pit-bull-a-fine-animal-as-its-admirers-claim-or-is-it-a-vicious-dog-unfit-for-society

[xvi] UPI (July 23, 1991).  TV Reporter on Trial for Staging Dog Fights.  Retrieved from TV reporter on trial for staging dog fights – UPI Archives

[xvii] Delise, K.  (2007) The Pit Bull Placebo:  The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression. Anubis

[xviii] Barnett (2017)

[xix] Linder, A. (2018).  The Black Man’s Dog:  The Social Context of Breed Specific Legislation.  Animal Law (25) 51. 51-74

[xx] Cecchi, F., De Toni, G. and Macchioni, F. (2022) A Survey on the Number of Dog-Induced Injuries Inflicted by Pure-Breed and Mixed-Breed Dogs in Italy.  Dog Behavior 7 (3). doi: 10.4454/db.v7i3.143

[xxi] Creedon, N. and O’Suilleabhain, P. S. (2017). Dog Bite Injuries to Humans and the Use of Breed-Specific Legislation:  A comparison of Bites from legislated and non-legislated dog Breeds.  Irish Veterinary Journal 70 (1).  doi:  10.1186/s13620-017-0101-1

[xxii] Wyker, B. and Gupta, M. (2023).  Emergency Department Visits for Dog Bite Injuries in Missouri Municipalities With and Without Breed-Specific Legislation:  A Propensity Score-Matched Analysis.  Research Square 1 (2023).  doi:  10.21203/rs.3.rs-3411634/v1

[xxiii] Nilson, F., Damsager, J., Lauritson, J. and Bonander, C. (2018).  The Effect of Breed-Specific Dog Legislation on Hospital Treated Dog Bites in Odense, Denmark -A Time Series Intervention Study.  PLOS One.  doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0208393

[xxiv] Slater, E.(2017)  Deed or Breed?  Evaluating Bite Reports and Breed Specific Legislation in South Australia.  Flinders University.

[xxv] Creedon and O’Suilleabhain (2017)

[xxvi] Delise (2007)

[xxvii] Voith, V. L., Trevejo, R., Dowling-Guyer, S., Chadik, C., Marder, A., Johnson, V. & Irizarry, K. (2013).  Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability.  American Journal of Sociological Research 3 (2).  17-29.  doi:  10.5923/j.sociology.20130302.02

[xxviii] Olson, K. R., Levy, J. K., Norby, B., Crandall, M. M., Broadhurst, J. E., Jacks, S., Barton, R. C. & Zimmerman, M. S. (2015).  Inconsistent Identification of Pit Bull-Type Dogs by Shelter Staff.  The Veterinary Journal 206 (2).  197-202, doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.07.019

[xxix][xxix] Hoffman, C. L., Harrison, N., Wolff, L. and Westgarth, C. (2014).  Is That Dog a Pit Bull?  A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 17 (4). 322-339 doi:  10.1080/10888705.2014.895904

[xxx] NCRC (2021) Visual Breed Identification.  Retrieved from Visual Breed Identification – National Canine Research Council

[xxxi] Scott, J.P., & Fuller J.L. (1965). Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

[xxxii] DEFRA (November 22, 2023).  Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/official-definition-of-an-xl-bully-dog/official-definition-of-an-xl-bully-dog

[xxxiii] Blue Cross.  Retrieved from https://www.bluecross.org.uk/advice/dog/wellbeing-and-care/xl-bully-ban-explained

[xxxiv] Hammond, A., Rowland, T., Mills, D. S. and Pilot, M. (2022). Comparison of Behaviorl Tendencies Between “Dangerous Dogs” and Other Domestic Dog Breeds – Evolutionary Context and Practical Implications.  Evolutionary Applications 15 (11). 1806 – 1819.  doi: 10.1111/eva.13479

[xxxv] Morrill, K. et al (2022). Ancestry-Inclusive Dog Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes.  Science 376 (6592). doi:  10.1126/science.abk0639

[xxxvi] Ott, S. A., Schelka, E., von Gaertner, A. M. and 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 (3).  134-140.  doi:  10..1016/j.jveb.2007.09.009

[xxxvii] O’Suilleabhain, P. (2015). Human Hospitalizations Due to Dog Bites in Ireland, 1998-2013:  Implications for Current Breed Specific Legislation.  The Veterinary Journal 204 (3). doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.04.021

[xxxviii] Nilson. F. et al

[xxxix] Wyker & Gupta

[xl] Patronek et al.

[xli] Swift, E. M.

[xlii] Gorant, J.  (December 29, 2008).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/2008/12/29/happy-new-year

[xliii] NAIC

[xliv] Wisch

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