Animals play an integral role in our lives, and most everyone agrees that our pets are absolutely part of the family. So what if one day a law was passed stating that you are no longer able to take your child out of the house without public scrutiny, and you can’t bring any new siblings home? It would be traumatic, to say the least. Sadly, this is the case for some people doing nothing more than living with a four-legged family member they love.
In the early 1980s, a number of fatalities and serious injuries caused by certain breeds, including Pit Bulls, brought to the public’s attention a perceived need for more stringent laws governing the restraint of dogs. According to lawmakers, the goal of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is to discourage, restrict, or prohibit certain breeds of dogs which are defined as “dangerous” within certain jurisdictions.
However, BSL is not an effective approach for regulating dogs’ behavior in communities. An extensive study from the Michigan State University College of Law reveals the bans carry too much potential for arbitrary or improper enforcement such as inaccurate breed identification by officials, animal control and court system overload, and the potential for not identifying a genuinely “dangerous dog” as such because he doesn’t fall into the specified breed categories.
Believe it or not, there is not a shred of proof that the American Pit Bull Terrier, one of the breeds consistently singled out, is vicious or dangerous. Police dog trainer W. Handel, in his article, The Psychological Basis of Temperament Testing, defines temperament as, “the sum total of all inborn and acquired physical and mental traits and talents which determines, forms, and regulates behavior in the environment.” According to the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS), American Pit Bull Terriers have a higher pass rate on these tests than Golden Retrievers or Beagles, both breeds that are considered ideal family dogs. (See chart.)
When properly trained and socialized, American Pit Bull Terriers make great companions. Rich Tamborski, owner of Canine Training Specialists, believes, “Pit Bulls are wonderful dogs. It’s the ones that end up in the hands of the wrong people that make the papers. It has nothing to do with a specific breed and more to do with poor quality breeding and negligent [guardians.]”
Punish the Deed, Not the Breed
While BSL is not the answer, groups on both sides of this issue agree that public safety is important, and people need to be held accountable if they are walking around with a weapon at the end of the leash. Dangerous Dog Laws were introduced as alternative methods to reducing the number of dog attacks. As one of the oldest leaders in the dog community, the American Kennel Club (AKC) has been against BSL since it was first introduced. According to the organization’s position statement they support laws that, “establish a fair process by which specific dogs are identified as ‘dangerous’ based on stated, measurable actions; impose appropriate penalties on irresponsible owners; and establish a well-defined method for dealing with dogs proven to be dangerous.” The AKC strongly opposes any legislation that determines a dog to be ‘dangerous’ based on specific breeds or phenotypic classes of dogs.
What Works, What Doesn’t?
Well-known dog trainer, Victoria Stillwell, best known for her role as the star of Animal Planet’s hit TV series It’s Me or the Dog, is adamant that BSL does not work. “Statistics have shown that throughout the world, wherever BSL has been initiated, the number of dog bites has actually increased since the legislation has passed. This is the case in Scotland, England, parts of Canada, certain cities in the US, the Netherlands, and beyond,” she cites. “In every single case, dog bites have become more of a problem since governments began banning breeds.” Unfortunately, despite the fact that banning breeds has proved to be unsuccessful, there are still jurisdictions that restrict living with Pit Bulls, or Pit Bull-type dogs, such as Denver, Colorado, and Miami, Florida.
Getting it Right
Last year the Animal Legal Defense Fund gave Illinois an award for having the most progressive animal protection laws in the country. No doubt, Chicago’s “Dangerous Dog” law played a big part. In November 2001, the City refused to enact any laws that would target specific breeds, choosing to hold dog guardians accountable, instead. Dr. Susan Ferraro, president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association at the time, felt strongly that it was not fair to single out one particular breed or one particular weight category of dogs. “We wanted to make this ordinance more generic and get people to understand that all dogs have the potential to bite, and that all biting dogs are not fighting dogs,” she says. “This is really where our expertise [as veterinarians] comes in.”
What You Can Do
Unfortunately, many people who live with dogs unfairly labeled as “vicious” receive evil stares and negative comments on a regular basis. Think twice before you judge a dog on appearance only and keep an open mind. Better yet, take the time to meet a dog you believe is “scary,” and you may be surprised by the kisses and kind greeting you get in return.
Above all, remember that most dog behaviorists and trainers believe a dog is a product of her environment, and the love and training she receives. Rita Biddle, Akita Breeder and dog show judge, has been raising puppies for 30 years. While Akitas are often thought of as aggressive dogs, she knows she is the biggest factor in determining her dogs’ success. Biddle believes, “A dog is not a trophy or something cute to tie up in the yard. People need to take their dogs to socialization classes and teach them to be good citizens. If a person can’t devote the time and energy needed to make a dog part of their family, they shouldn’t have the dog. There are no bad dogs, just bad [guardians].”
The ASPCA recently confirmed that 75% of dogs labeled “Pit Bulls” in fact had no Pit Bull DNA whatsoever. In addition, Dr. Victoria Voith, author of Shelter Medicine: A Comparison of Visual and DNA Identifications of Breeds of Dogs, asked shelter directors, animal control officers, law enforcement, and trainers to view 20 dogs and name each breed. Nearly 75% of the “Pit Bull” identifications were wrong.
Tagged American Kennel Club, American Temperament Test Society, Breed Specific Legislation, Canine Training Specialists, Chicago Veterinary Medical Association, Dangerous Dog Laws, Dr. Susan Ferraro, Dr. Victoria Voith, It’s Me or the Dog, November 2011, Pit bull, Rich Tamborski, Shelter Medicine: A Comparison of Visual and DNA Identifications of Breeds of Dogs, The Psychological Basis of Temperament Testing, Victoria Stillwell