To Ban the Breed?
Pit bull ownership: just another topic too controversial for the dinner table
Simply put, Ontario’s pit bull ban isn’t working.[i] Results of a recent (2010) survey reveal no significant drop in the number of dog bite incidents in Ontario since the provincial government passed breed specific legislation in 2005.[ii]
Similarly, studies in Great Britain and Spain have shown that their respective bans have had similar results (read: none). Further, the Spanish study found that the dog breeds most responsible for bites, both before and after implementing the bans, were by breeds not even covered by them.[iii] Of course, both of these jurisdictions are carrying on with their bans in place.
The Toronto Humane Society’s spokesperson, Ian McConachie, sums it up when he says “dogs are not born violent… they are made that way by irresponsible owners who train them to be that way or neglect them and they develop behavioural problems. […] If we want to reduce the number of dog bites we have to address the root cause of the problem: those irresponsible owners who do not appropriately care for their animals”.[iv]
So the question is what do we do now? Clearly there is a problem, and the misguided breed ban seems to be a failed solution. But where did this trend come from and why? What can really be done about these blood-thirsty unruly dogs and what apparently is becoming an epidemic?
First, let face facts. As Clever Canines Behaviourist and Trainer Tracie Nielson teaches her clients, all dogs bite. There. It’s been said. Or perhaps more specifically, all dogs can and will bite given certain circumstances. Yes, even your kind-hearted Golden Retriever. So the cat (dog?) is out of the bag. When dogs and people interact, it can sometimes end in someone being injured. Now what?
Well, in an attempt to curb the number of times a small child is met with the pointy end of 42 teeth, our benevolent public officials have taken it upon themselves to do what they do best: legislate.
Like Dogs, Dog-Related Legislation Comes in Many Shapes and Sizes
There are a number of different types of breed specific legislation, and canine-related laws span the globe. The most strict form is an outright breed ban where, under no circumstances, is one allowed to posses a dog of a particular breed. This is the type of ban present in Ontario. No one is allowed to own, breed, purchase, or import a pit bull. This legislation was grandfathered in to allow folks who already had pit bulls (or ones that were to be born within 9 months of the legislation coming into effect) to keep their pets, provided they spay/neuter them, only use a leash 1.8 metres long or less,[v] and muzzle them in public. In the event the dog is proved to have bitten or attacked anyone, or “posed a menace”, they are to be immediately euthanized.
The City of Winnipeg is the only other place in Canada presently with breed specific legislation. Theirs dates back to 1990 and bans owning “Pit Bull dogs”, which are defined as “(i) Pit Bull Terrier; or (ii) Staffordshire Bull Terrier; or (iii) American Staffordshire Terrier; or (iv) American Pit Bull Terrier; or (v) Any dog which has the appearance and physical characteristics predominantly conforming to the standards for any of the above breeds, as established by the Canadian Kennel Club…”.[vi]
In the alternative to breed bans, related legislation can also involve mandatory spaying/neutering, mandatory registration or licensing as a “dangerous dog” or similar status, breed specific insurance requirements, or size/weight restricts. For example, in Fairfield, Iowa, all dogs upwards of 100lbs are banned.[vii] These bans can apply to individual dogs with a history of aggression or to breeds as a whole.
A group called the Responsible Dog Owners of the Western States compiled a list of all dog breeds for which there is some sort of ban or restriction somewhere in the United States, finding that there are 75 different restricted breeds the US, from the Airedale Terrier right down to the Wolf Spitz. I will give special mention to the following included breeds: Blue Heeler, English Springer Spaniel, German Shepherd Dog, Golden Retriever, Great Dane, Komondor, Labrador Retriever, Newfoundland, Pug, and Samoyed.
Breed bans and restrictions are certainly not a North American phenomenon, either. Twelve countries in total have some sort of ban against pit bulls (pit bulls being the most common – and sometimes only – target of these types of bans).
In Germany, ownership of pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, or bull terriers is banned and punishable by fines and a maximum of two years in prison. Great Britain authored its Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991,[viii] banning pit bull terriers, Japanese Tosas, Argentine Dogos, and Fila Brasilieros. The Ukraine has a Dangerous Breed List naming over 80 breeds, including several varieties of Bull Terriers, Bulldogs, Livestock Guardian dogs, Boxers, Briars, Labrador Retrievers, Welsh Terriers, German Shepherd Dogs and their mixes. The Ukrainian resolution also includes compliance requirements such as mandatory insurance and micro-chipping, restricted leash length, and muzzling dogs in public places, and further allows adapting municipal laws to enforce even more restrictions. In Ecuador, ownership of pit bull-types and Rottweilers is banned, and Venezuela has legislation pending for 2014 to enforce a ban on “pit bull-type” dogs.
Why the Ban?
In the United States, because state and local jurisdictions are afforded broad police powers, including protecting the public’s safety and welfare, lawmakers have not had trouble finding that breed specific legislation is rationally related to the issue of public safety from allegedly dangerous breeds of dogs.[ix]
The reasoning behind these breed bans is easy to figure out: when dogs and humans mix, sometimes someone winds up wounded. In the United States, approximately 800,000 people per year[x] seek medical attention due to a dog bite.[xi] Breed specific bans are an attempt to pin-point the repeat offenders, or the most dangerous dogs in the eyes of the public, and protect us from these menaces. The bans usually come about as a reaction to a highly-publicised fatal dog attack.
But one could argue – and I do – that such bans are misguided, have over-simplified the situation, and neglect a number of important realities. Not to mention they don’t seem to actually be preventing dog bites and other injuries.
Problems & Criticisms
1. While we appreciate Big Brother looking out for our safety and well-being, based on the numbers of dog attacks, you’re about 20 times more likely to get struck by lightening than you are to be attacked by a pit bull.[xii] Just sayin’.
2. As we’ve heard, all dogs bite. Not just pit bulls. And we can now see that the pit bull bans in Ontario and elsewhere have done nothing to reduce the number of reported dog bites over time. Simple bites aside, many attacks – and even fatalities – can be attributed to dogs whose breeds are not widely addressed by bans, and to ban one or two specific breeds and their mixes does nothing more than enforce an incorrect breed stereotype and encourage “breed profiling”. Most pit bull owners will be happy to attest that their dog is loyal, loving,[xiii] gentle, trainable, and a good working dog. In ban-free areas, pit bulls have been successful police and rescue dogs, as well as general service dogs.
3. We largely have the media to thank for public concerns about pit bull ownership. It is not hyperbole to suggest that one is more likely to hear of a pit bull attack on the news than, say, a poodle attack. And no, that does not mean that poodles never attack. It just means that it takes some extra searching to find the story of the Daschund who killed the elderly woman,[xiv] or the Jack Russell Terrier responsible for the death of a six week old infant.[xv] Of course, prominent in the story about the Jack Russell was the fact that the family owned a second dog – a pit bull. That the pit bull was not part of the attack was not mentioned.
An American report on media bias by the National Canine Research Council[xvi] compared the type of media coverage given for dog attacks that occurred during a four day period in August 2007. On day one, a Labrador mix attacked an elderly man, sending him to the hospital. News stories of his attack appeared in one article in the local paper. On day two, a mixed breed dog fatally injured a child. The local paper ran two stories. On day three, another mixed breed dog attacked a child, sending him to the hospital. One article ran in the local paper. On day four, two pit bulls broke off their chains and attacked a woman trying to protect her small dog. She was hospitalized and her dog was uninjured. Nevertheless, this attack was reported in more than 230 articles in national and international newspapers, on the major cable news networks, and was reported in far more detail than the incidents of the first three days.
It is not a stretch to see how such news coverage influences calls for breed bans from the frightened public and its legislators.
4. The statistics often cited to justify a breed ban and as “proof” that pit bulls (and other breeds) are truly heartless killers are dubious at best.[xvii]
One particular example I will note is the frequently referenced study by Merritt Clifton,[xviii] which pin points pit bulls as the most frequent offenders of dog bites and serious attacks. This study has several key problems. First, Clifton leaves attacks involving dogs whose breed was uncertain out of his study completely. Second, he starts with biased breed definition; why does he classify a dog as a “Pit bull/Lab mix” or a “Pit bull/Sheltie mix”, rather than Lab/Pit bull or a Sheltie/Pit bull? It appears that whenever one of the stereotypically “dangerous” breeds is in the mix (e.g. pit bull, Rottweiler, Akita), that breed is listed first and the bite or attack is accredited to the first breed and not the latter. This can definitely swing the results, and for Clifton to then tell us that pit bulls and their mixes are responsible for 74% of serious dog bites and attacks has to be taken with a grain of salt. Not to mention Clifton got his data pool solely from press reports and not hospital records or animal services, which, as noted above, is highly problematic, allowing media bias to influence his results.
Statistics on dog-related fatalities are more readily available than just simple dog bite incidents, and in Canada between 1990 and 2007 there were 28 human fatalities attributed to dog attacks.[xix] While some dogs responsible are listed as an unknown breed or generally as a mix, not one death is specifically attributed to a pit bull.
In addition, as the National Canine Research Centre reports, the majority of dog-bite statistics are misleading since they include a number of animal exposures such as nips from excited puppies, scratches from a dog’s nail or tooth, individuals who are bit helping an injured dog, or bites by police K9 professional dogs while on duty.[xx] All incidents are tallied up under one heading, and the specific circumstances of each bite are not accounted for.
5. Have we learned nothing from Michael Vick? Pit bulls have their unfortunate involvement in illegal dog fighting partly to thank for the reputation of the breed as a whole. This, of course, is not at the behest of the dogs themselves, but due to the irresponsible, cruel, and morally reprehensible folks who buy, breed, or “train” these dogs to be aggressive specifically for the purpose of fighting. Until more is done to prevent these activities and punish the participants, we simply need to remember that the population of pit bulls and other dogs used for this awful purpose is not an appropriate representation of all pit bulls. To think otherwise would actually be judging a book by its cover, as they say.[xxi] Cesar Millan[xxii] himself is a big advocate of avoiding breed stereotypes; dogs are dogs.
6. Although breed bans are well-intentioned, they inherently assume breed is the most significant factor in dog bites and related incidents, when several other criteria should be taken into consideration when looking at the issue.
For instance, it should be noted that most (77%) of dog bites and attacks involve the dog’s owner or a friend, and over half of the bites occur on the dog owner’s property. Children are the most frequent victims of dog attacks, and of the 28 Canadian fatalities mentioned above, 24 of them (or 85.7%) were children under the age of 12.[xxiii]
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a study from Oregon which analyzed the number of overall dog bites was and found lower income neighbourhoods produced more biting dogs of all breeds, and fewer dogs that were neutered, which is considered to be another biting risk factor.[xxiv]
Further, in Canada, instances of dog attacks are disproportionately higher when involving multiple dogs and dogs in rural areas.[xxv] (This is not the case in the US.)
7. Once a ban is in place, problems with enforcement become an issue. Who determines whether a dog is one of the banned or regulated breeds, and what is the procedure for that determination? In North Salt Lake, Utah, the city manager has sole authority to make those decisions. In other places it is animal control officers or even the mayor; no special training in breed identification is required. Some places have implemented breed bans without any input from a veterinarian, which would presumably be expert to consult regarding identification of a dog’s breed). Ideally, I suppose, the advance of DNA analysis for dogs is becoming more available to remedy the current methods of “canine profiling” and arbitrary enforcement. But because, in the US at least, the government has the burden of proving that a suspect dog is one of the breeds banned,[xxvi] cities will have to seriously weigh whether or not they will pay the high cost of DNA tests or simply give up trying to enforce the ban.[xxvii]
8. Of course, the common – and largely unsuccessful – objection to these and related breed bans has been that the legislation itself is unconstitutionally broad or vague, and the terms used (such as “pit bull” or “wolf-hybrid”) are poorly defined if at all.
It was on these grounds in Cochrane v. Ontario (Attorney General)[xxviii] that one Ms. Cochrane sued to attempt to prevent enforcement of the Ontario ban. She also argued that allowing the Crown to introduce a veterinarian’s certificate certifying that the dog is a pit bull as evidence violates the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. In the end, the Court of Appeal[xxix] found that her “over-breadth” claim failed since the legislature had acted on a “reasonable apprehension of harm”, and disagreed that the definition of “pit bull” in the Act was insufficiently precise. The court restored the original wording of “pit bull terrier” in the ban on the basis that, when read in the context of “a more comprehensive definition”, the phrasing “pit bull terrier” was sufficiently precise. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear further appeal and the thus ban is currently upheld in its original form.9. And finally, why are we banning dogs when it’s the owners we need to be addressing? Dogs do not bite without warning and rarely behave in an unpredictable manner. Dogs actually send very clear signals. As responsible owners (and ideally our dog’s Alpha figure), it is our duty to take steps to educate ourselves and learn to understand those signals. Dogs rarely bite without warning you first, and just because a human does not recognize that warning does not mean a ban on their existence is the only or best solution. A large number of dog bites and attacks could have easily been prevented with proper education.
Further, dogs that have been labelled as “aggressive” or “dangerously insecure” often have mistreatment by owners to blame for their dispositions. In fact, National Canine Research Council reports that 84% of US dog attacks that took place in 2006 involved owners who abused or neglected their dogs, or failed to properly contain them.[xxx] Instead of legislating dogs by breed, we should be focusing on dog owners by competence.
So What Now?
Simple: better legislation. Or more specifically, better, owner-focused legislation that has nothing to do with dog breeds.
Firstly, we can look at better enforcement of the dog ownership legislation currently in place. For example, the City of Calgary readily admits its animal by-laws are enforced on a complaint-only basis, when better enforcement of leash/dogs-at-large laws with adequate penalties for violators could help to curb the instances of dogs roaming loose or out of control. Calgary’s current animal by-laws limit leash length (2 metres/6 feet) and prohibit unsupervised tethering of dogs, which would be a step in the right direction if these laws were adequately upheld.
There should be improvements to the laws that hold dog owners financially accountable for failure to adhere to animal control laws in place, and also hold them civilly and criminally liable for unjustified injuries or damage caused by their dogs.
Instead of a breed ban, enact non-discriminatory dangerous dog legislation in its place. Take, for example, the Michigan dog bite statute which specifies that “[i]f a dog bites a person, without provocation while the person is on public property, or lawfully on private property, including the property of the owner of the dog, the owner of the dog shall be liable for any damages suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness”.[xxxi] A law like this or similar targets the behaviour and the owner, rather than the breed of the offending dog.
Dog owners that have been found guilty of violating animal laws should be adequately punished and monitored in the future. This is an area that will need improvement, as Ontario’s Dog Owners’ Liability Act does not prevent a person from owning another dog after an incident.
There should be harsher punishments for individuals found guilty of abusing or neglecting their pets, and they should be prohibited from owning future pets and be monitored. Currently in Canada, animal cruelty – other than upon cattle – is a “summary conviction” offence, and not a more serious “indictable” offence, meaning the accused is only “liable to a fine of not more than two thousand dollars or to imprisonment for six months or to both”.[xxxii] Oddly enough, the penalty for uttering a threat to kill, poison or injure an animal that is the property of any person, is greater than actually being cruel to the animal, as it can be proceeded with as a indictable offence with attendant liability to imprisonment for a term of up to 24 months.
We also need to address the existence of puppy mills, where dogs are being interbred and poorly cared for (both physically and socially). Cross-breeding within generations can create unhealthy and unstable dogs that are potentially very dangerous and prone to life-long behaviour issues regardless the amount of training and socialisation. Dogs removed from their parents too young (so they are still “cute” for the pet store window display) frequently arrive poorly socialised and may require extra training, care, and attention.
In the US, where the population of abused, neglected, and rescue dogs is a serious problem, laws that mandate the sterilization of shelter animals and make low-cost sterilization services widely available are appropriate.
And of course, proper training and socialisation for all dogs should be encouraged and promoted. While these services do not come cheap, perhaps discounted obedience for low income families could be offered by municipalities.[xxxiii] Or perhaps government tax breaks to a certain extent for pet owners is an option. Owner and community education when it comes to dog ownership and interaction is the best and most immediate solution to the problem.
Once a ban is in place, by no means is it permanent. Legislation can be amended and reversed. In April 2007, Italy revoked its dangerous breeds list and replaced it with laws holding owners more responsible for their pets’ actions.[xxxiv] In 2008 the Netherlands also revoked their fifteen-year ban on pit bulls, acknowledging that the ban was unsuccessful.[xxxv] Cincinnati also lifted their ban on pit bulls after finding the ban expensive to enforce ($160,000/year) and after a number of losses in court, including one instance where an owner sued after the seizure of American Bulldogs that were mistakenly identified as “pit bull mixes”.[xxxvi]
In the Meantime…
Until dog-related legislation makes rational sense and is properly enforced, there are some common sense steps the rest of us can take to avoid been a dog bite statistic and fuel for breed ban advocates.
For Dog Owners:
1. Train your dog! It’s very simple and is the best preventative measure. And this applies to owners of dogs of all breeds. Just because your Chihuahua is not big enough to bite deeper than the leg of someone’s pants, and can be picked up when he’s being a jerk, doesn’t mean he isn’t a dominant little bastard in need of some serious obedience training. According to animal behaviourist, Stanley Coren, Ph.D., when dogs are given a basic course in obedience training they are 89% less likely to be involved in a dog bite incident.[xxxvii]
2. In relation to the above, avoid treat-training if you can. Now, I realise that suggestion opens up a whole different can of worms, but think of it this way: dogs who are constantly seeking food will be more likely to nip should someone’s small child still have the remains of his lunch on his face or hands. And then if his mother happens to report your otherwise friendly dog to animal services…. Well, the main point here is make sure you do not create a dog that is food-obsessed.[xxxviii]
3. Be in control of all interactions between other people and your dog, or other dogs and your dog. Just because someone says “he’s so cute” or “I love dogs” does not mean they are automatically qualified to pet your dog. If your dog is too excited, or if the person makes you uncertain of how the greeting will go, it is okay – and recommended – that you simply not allow them to meet your dog and move on. If/when someone asks to pet your dog, it is okay to say no; they are not public property.
4. Don’t leave your dog alone with children unattended. Ever.
5. Don’t leave your dog tethered and unattended, whether it be outside of 7/11, in your yard, or in the box of your truck. You never know who will attempt to approach her or if she could possibly escape.
6. Throw out your flexi-leash. You cannot control your dog (or keep them safe) when they’re 20 feet away. And it’s probably against the law anyway.
7. Take steps to properly socialise your dog with other dogs and other people. A good training regiment will include this.[xxxix]
8. If your dog does bite a person or another dog – no matter how serious – seek professional help to ensure it does not happen again.[xl]
9. If you’re going to rescue a dog (through a shelter, rescue organization, or privately through adoption), do your research. Make sure you know what you’re getting into and you’re ready and willing to meet the challenges of the commitment you are about to make. Be prepared – financially and emotionally – to deal with any behaviour or health problems you may discover.
10. If you’re going to get any dog, do your research; make sure you’re not supporting a puppy mill.
11. Ensure your dog is properly exercised. Always. Interactions involving over-excited dogs with pent-up energy can often go south – quickly.
12. Educate yourself about the laws and by-laws that affect you and your pet. If you see something you don’t like, canvass your representative for change.
13. Be a courteous and responsible dog owner in general. Believe it or not, not everyone likes dogs, and sometimes they’re simply not appropriate to bring along with you. Make sure you always pick up after your dog. Also be sure to register your dog with the proper authorities. Those fees usually go to the maintenance of the municipal shelter and the dogs there, and the up-keep of your local off-leash parks – not to mention registration will ensure he’s returned should he get loose and reported to the local animal services.
For Everyone Else:
1. Never ever pet a dog without asking the owner first. Ever. Remember: all dogs have the capacity to bite.
2. Never approach an unattended dog (even if they’re tethered).
3. Never leave your children unattended with a dog and always closely monitor child-dog interactions. Note that children are the most frequent victims of dog attacks. Ensure your child remains calm and are not running around or screaming. Excited small children can trigger herding, protecting, correcting, and prey instincts in all breeds of dogs – all of which can lead to nipping, biting, or even attacks.
4. When greeting a new dog, be calm. Teach your kids this.
5. Skip the baby talk: you’re just embarrassing yourself, the dog does not understand you, and it can cause excitement in the dog which can lead to jumping up and mouthing or nipping.
6. If you’re scared of dogs and one is approaching, remain calm. Don’t scream, run, or stare at them in horror; simply move confidently away from them. If you’re scared of dogs, avoid off-leash parks.
7. Don’t be afraid to report unruly or dangerous dogs, or dogs you suspect of being abused or neglected to the authorities. The animal by-laws are in place to protect you as well as the animals.
This article has been reproduced with permission at CanadasGuidetoDogs.com and CleverCanines.ca.
[i] The Toronto Sun, April 28, 2010: http://www.torontosun.com/news/canada/2010/04/28/13747081.html
[ii] Toronto Humane Society: http://www.torontohumanesociety.com/
[iv] The Toronto Sun, April 28, 2010: http://www.torontosun.com/news/canada/2010/04/28/13747081.html
[v] I completely agree. No dog ever needs a leash longer than 1.8 metres (approximately 6 feet), regardless of breed.
[vi] The City of Winnipeg, The Pound By-Law No. 2443/79
[vii] Read the ban here: http://cityoffairfieldiowa.com/utility/showArticle/?ObjectID=78&find=dog
[viii] Northern Ireland has the same restrictions under the Dangerous Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order, 1991
[ix] Campbell, Dana (July/August 2009). “Pit Bull Bans: The State of Breed–Specific Legislation”. GP-Solo (American Bar Association) 26 (5). http://www.abanet.org/genpractice/magazine/2009/jul_aug/pitbull.html.
[x] Consider when reading this that there are approximately 74.8 million dogs in the United States.
[xi] http://www.kboi2.com/news/local/50238067.html[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] At the risk of humanising.
[xiv] Walsh, Barry (2005-05-18). “Dog mauling victim dies”. Chronicle-Tribune (Marion, IN).
[xv] “Kentucky Infant Killed by Family Dog” http://www.wbko.com/news/headlines/13946527.html
[xvi] (2008) Full report available on this website: http://nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/dog-bites/dog-bites-and-the-media/audience-interest
[xvii] Always read the fine print.
[xviii] Link to full text of study here: http://lassiegethelp.blogspot.com/2007/08/dangerous-breeds-dog-bite-statistics.html
[xxi] You’re not supposed to do that.
[xxii] Yes, the one and only Dog Whisperer. Highly recommended. Start with his book Cesar’s Way.
[xxvi] Under Ontario’s ban, it is actually the owner’s burden to prove their dog is not a pit bull.
[xxviii] 2007 CanLII 9231 (ON S.C.)
[xxix] Cochrane v. Ontario (2008 ONCA 718)
[xxxi] M.C.L. § 287.351; http://www.animallaw.info/articles/aruslweiss2001.htm#n47
[xxxii] Criminal Code, s.787.
[xxxiii] One could always argue that low-income people who cannot afford pets should not have them in the first place, but we all know this is nearly impossible to enforce and people are going to do what they’re going to do. It is no coincidence that dog bites in low-income neighbourhoods is disproportionately high, and something should be actively done to remedy the issue.
[xxxvii] Quote from Dr. Coren, article from Canada.com, September 11, 2009.
[xxxviii] Or toy obsessed, for that matter.
[xxxix] See: www.clevercanines.ca – all-encompassing dog training for dogs of any breed, age, or temperament.