September 7, 2013 15 Comments
An upcoming municipal election and a recent headline have reignited calls this week for pit bull bans in both Calgary and Osoyoos, BC.
In Osoyoos, the local newspaper was kind enough to print a letter to the editor that I wrote them while I was there on vacation and came across an inflamatory, factually incorrect editorial avocating a pit bull ban after an incident there. You can read my reply here, but unfortunately I can’t find the original editorial online.
The most recent Calgary incident is interesting because intervening in a fight between two dogs caused a child to get bit (not seriously – thankfully everyone is okay). The media, both CTV and CBC articles, have made it very clear that the dog that bit the child was a pit bull (“pit bull” is said 5 times in about 150 words in the linked article). The details of what caused the child to be bit – the preceding dog fight – are not discussed, including the breed of the other dog, which dog instigated the fight, or the fact that the owners of both dogs clearly did not have control of their animals. Yes, it was an off-leash space, but control is still required by Calgary by-law.
Update: 660 News has printed this clarification that the child was not bit by the dog at all and injuries were sustained from falling from the carrier. I doubt this clarification will receive the widespread publication the original “pit bull” headlines got – that is, if all news organizations make the correction.
In Calgary, dog bites accounts are rising. That is true. That’s bound to happen as a population increases, but it does seem to have grown disporportionately since 2009. Still, our city – and our responsible pet ownership model – still boasts the lowest bite-per-population ratio in North America, so we’re doing something right.
BSL Doesn’t Work And Often Gets Repealed
First, it should be noted that breed-specific legislation (BSL) is widely acknowledged as ineffective. It hasn’t been found to reduce dog bites or attacks and it often doesn’t even address breeds of dogs responsible for the most bites or attacks.
Ontario has a pit bull ban, and while dog bites have decreased in Toronto since 2005 when the ban was introduced, there has actually no decline in dog bites in that province, at the cost of “countless” dogs being destroyed. And it’s important to remember correlation does not equal causation. After all, dog bites in Calgary also decreased from 2005 to 2008, and there has never been BSL here.
Update: A comment below has drawn my attention to this article showing that Toronto has several different statistics on the issue, others showing no decline in dog attacks, together with stats from other Ontario cities – London and Ottawa – also showing no decline in incidents.
Winnipeg, Manitoba also has a pit bull ban, and a new study “inconclusively” suggests a corrlation. Dog bites there have also not decreased over time, but the study suggests serious attacks only show a decline when compared to another Manitoba city that does not have BSL.
What could this mean for Calgary? Not much. It should be noted that Winnipeg is a smaller city (660,000 to 1.1 million) with fewer dogs and 44% more dog bites – 289 in 2012 to Calgary’s 201. The two cities tackle pet issues very differently, including Winnipeg’s BSL and limiting the number of pets in a household. Yet our statistics remain better. Calgary’s dog licensing rates are upwards of 90%, while Winnipeg is sitting at 40%. If 35% of Canadian households have a dog, that’s 385,000 dogs in Calgary to Winnipeg’s 231,000 – working out to mean you are still twice as likely to get bit by a dog in Winnipeg than in Calgary.
Despite the cautious suggestion that BSL may have impacted Winnipeg slightly, that remains the exception to the rule; countless other governments have witnessed Ontario-like results (read: none). The UK has seen dog bite statistics increase by 66% while BSL has been in place.
Not to mention the extreme difficulty and expense in enforcing this sort of legislation, when pit bulls aren’t even a recognized or registered breed (and what about mixed breed dogs?) – it’s hard to ban something that’s not well defined. From a strictly pragmatic stance, the cost of the legislation is not worth the outcome, since the only real outcomes are the mass seizure, impounding, and euthanization of these dogs, and litigation costs of the BSL – all on the tax payer’s dollar.
As fast as governments introduce the legislation, other governments are repealing it. Some examples of places that have repealed their BSL after acknowledging it didn’t work:
- Edmonton, Alberta in March 2012 (click here for report)
- The Netherlands in 2008, after 25 years and no results
- Italy, in 2009, after 6 years and attempting to ban 90 breeds of dog
- Germany, in 2002
- Connecticut, USA, June 2013
- Ohio, USA in 2012
- Topeka, Kansas, after discovering repealing BSL would save the city money (click here for story)
- If you want to see a full list of (mostly American) governments that have either declined to enact or repealed breed-specific legislation, this website has compiled an exhaustive list tracking from 2003-2011.
BSL Has No Support From Experts
In addition, there is no professional support for BSL, from lawmakers to dog breeders, rescuers and trainers to veterinarians. The following institutions/authorities have official anti-BSL policies:
Calgary & Canada
- The Canadian Kennel Club (click here for policy)
- The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) (click here to download PDF analysis)
- The Toronto Humane Society
- The Calgary Humane Society
- The Edmonton Humane Society
- The BC SPCA (click here for policy)
- Bill Bruce, long-time Director of Animal & By-Law Services, Calgary, Alberta (click here and here to read past interviews, since “By-Law Bill” has since retired)
- The American Bar Association (click here to download PDF statement)
- The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AMVA) (click here for policy)
- The American Kennel Club (click here for policies/info)
- The President of the United States (August 2013)
- The Humane Society of the United States (click here for policy)
- The American Humane Association (click here for policy)
- The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) (click here for policy)
- The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) (click here for policy)
Pro-BSL Position 1: It may not be the breed, but a “certain type of person” is attracted to owning a dangerous dog like a pit bull, and if you can’t ban dog ownership by these people, you should ban dangerous breeds instead to keep them out of the hands of these people.
This is an interesting point, and I don’t disagree – those terrible owners are setting the bad example and getting all of the terrible press. But BSL also punishes the majority of dog owners who aren’t “these types” (and I certainly think there needs to be a firm mechanism in place prohibiting ownership by people proven to abuse/neglect dogs). I know several pit bull owners who are perfectly responsible, took their dogs to training, and have friendly, well-adjusted dogs. The majority are, since there are literally millions of pit bulls in North America, but not millions of attacks. BSL punishes these dogs and owners for the actions of a minority.
If the aim is to stop pit bulls from getting into the hands of these “types”, where does it stop? You ban pit bulls, and anyone who really wants a “bad-ass dog” for protection will just get another breed. Boxers, Mastiffs, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Huskies, St. Bernards, Dogue de Bordeaux, Bull dogs, Labradors, Retrievers, Ridgebacks, Wolfhounds, wolf-hybrids… all of these are large breeds (and therefore have large bites) and any dog with the wrong owner can be dangerous and aggressive. Is the aim to ban any dog over 100 pounds? 50 pounds? It gets ridiculous and out of control quickly.
If you ban one breed because it is perceived to attack people the most, another breed will just take the #1 spot next year, perpetuating the cycle. Breeds with most bites attributed to them change over time, so while pit bulls may be perceived to be the problem now, that will change and any BSL will soon be obsolete while people grow concerned over another breed that’s gained popularity and notoriety.
Banning the dog is not the best solution – or even a marginally good one. The focus must be on these problematic owners, their individual dogs, and enforcing the legislation already in place in Calgary to protect people and dogs.
Pro-BSL Position 2: Pit bulls are responsible for a disproportionately high number of bites/attacks compared to other dog breeds.
Even with all of the mighty powers of Google, I was unable to find reputable sources for this claim. Or recent sources. Or local sources that would be relevant to Calgary or Alberta or even Canada.
So we have to look to anecdotal US studies for the most part. And, of course, methodological issues about defining pit bull, how mixed-breed dogs are classified, and reporting accuracy and frequency all seriously arise when it comes to looking at dog bite statistics, but I looked anyway.
There is the 2007 “Clifton Study” (click here to download PDF), which finds pit bulls as disproportionately dangerous is often cited to support BSL, but it should be noted that this was self-published, not peer-reviewed, and the author of the study has no credentials in animal behaviour, biology, or research in general. The data cited itself is unverifiable, so using this non-scientific “study” to prop up BSL is highly suspect and problematic.
Working, herding, and terrier breeds were responsible for 73% of dog bites in Calgary in 2012, and presumably pit bulls are included in the terrier category, but no further local information is available. In 2010, pit bulls were responsible for 13 of 102 dog bites in Calgary – and for several years prior, Labrador Retrievers held the honour of most frequent dog attacks in our city.
Real analysis of the subject by the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AMVA) does not support BSL, and instead shows that pit bull-type dogs are not implicated in controlled studies of dog attacks. The AMVA assessment is a good read, and it discusses relevant facts such as the dog-victim relationship and certain dog breed popularities over time or in certain locations.
And I’ve linked to this Canadian Veterinary Journal study several times that shows not a single dog-related fatality in Canada in a 17 year period (to 2007) is attributable to a pit bull.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US did a 2000 study of its own on this issue looking at fatal attacks over 20 years and also did not identify any specific breed that was most likely to bite or attack (click here to download PDF of study).
So it’s established by reputable experts and organizations that pit bulls are not more likely to bite or attack than any other breed of dog.
What about the part of the claim that says there are fewer pit bulls, so any bites or attacks signifies a higher proportion/likelihood of attack? Or that it doesn’t matter if other breeds attack more because pit bull attacks are more serious?
Well, first, the proportions claim is hard to determine and verify. Pit bulls aren’t a registered breed, so you can’t exactly look at CKC registration stats to determine their popularity. Again, the identification issues arise; dogs like boxers and bulldogs have long been popular, making top 10 most common lists, and are often also mistaken for pit bulls.
It might be worth noting that in articles claiming pit bulls are Public Enemy No. 1 in the US, Rottweilers are often up there in second place, and are often also targeted BSL, but they have been in held firm as a popular US dog breed, coming in at 9th most popular in 2012, challenging the legitimacy of proportionate claims and BSL.
This 2009 Colorado dog bite study says pit bulls were responsible for 8.4% of bites (Labs were 13%, German Shepherds 7.8%, Rottweilers 3.9%), which, together with the 13% in Calgary in 2010, is certainly not the exorbitant majority of bites often quoted by the pro-BSL lobby.
As for populations, the best I could find was estimates that pit bulls make up somewhere between 5 and 10% of the North American dog population (and growing), possibly up to 30-40% if focusing on urban centres, and upwards of 40% of the population of dogs in shelters.
So, if there are 5-10 million pit bull-type dogs in the US, and 61 million dogs total, that’s 8-16% of the US dog population. Looking at this and the Colorado/Calgary bite figures seems pretty proportionate to me, actually.
BSL is reactionary and not pragmatic. Any dog in the hands of the wrong owner can become aggressive and a public risk, so the emphasis has to be there with public education and laws that look at the actual statistics surrounding dog attacks.
It’s fairly telling that no experts, authorities or associations advocate for BSL, and there are no reliable facts supporting it, but it still gets passed in many places just due to the fear insighted by the media and politicians looking for a false sense of accomplishment.
Like I’ve said, there are more interesting factors at play in dog attacks that should be the focus of solutions. In Calgary, dog attacks are most frequent in the lower-income/notorious neighbourhoods. In Canada, dog attacks mostly involve children. In the US, statistics show unaltered dogs (97%), abusive owners (84%) and guard dogs (78%) as most responsible for dog bites. Because even if pit bulls account for 13% of dog bites in this city, that’s still 87% (approximately 175 dog attacks) not at all addressed by BSL. What’s the plan for those victims?
Calgary already addresses dog concerns with mandatory leash laws and dogs-at-large and dangerous dog by-laws. Perhaps pro-BSL efforts are better spent lobbying for better enforcement of these existing laws (after all, who’s to say BSL, if passed, wouldn’t also be as poorly enforced?).
Or perhaps working towards educating anyone who interacts with dogs on how to properly do so and recognize proper dog body language (that dogs bite unprovoked and unexpectedly is a myth 99% of the time, but if someone doesn’t know the signals, they won’t see it coming). You know – something that successfully addresses 100% of dog bites, breeds, and owners, not just potentially 13%, while needlessly punishing the majority of pit bulls and their owners. As always, public and owner education is key when it comes to interacting with dogs, allowing your dog to be off-leash or meet others, and basic training, and socialization.
I honestly don’t think Calgary is at a huge risk of legitimately considering a pit bull ban, but there are always those reactionary voices out there who can speak loudly and to the right people. And with an election coming up in a few weeks, I’d rather hammer my point – and the facts – home just to be safe. Of course, calls for BSL are based out of fear and anger, and fueled by sensationalist headlines, so maybe my hope that anyone would give this post and these facts real consideration is all in vain. But I’ll put the information out there just in case.
For those truly consumed with this issue, the Canadian Kennel Club offers a straight-forward Canine Good Neighbour certification/evaluation – maybe that’s an interesting starting place for anyone really concerned with lobbying regarding dangerous dogs.
That, and asking for better enforcement of our existing laws. The Calgary Model is famous for the way we handle dangerous dogs and pet by-laws. Personally, I’d love to see folks cracking down on those illegal flexi-leashes.
Is this a lot of focus from someone who doesn’t even own a pit bull?
Maybe. But maybe if the BSL got out of hand or started exclusions by size, then I’d have a problem. World-wide, 75 breeds are targeted by BSL somewhere – and Newfoundlands make that list.
Or maybe I acknowledge I worked in dog training for a few years in this city and got to see just what it takes to create (and help) an aggressive dog – of any breed.
Or maybe I just want to stand up for what makes logical sense for my city. Loud voices with emotional pleas easily get the attention of politicians – someone needs to counter with information and reason.
And does this just seem like a lot of effort for both sides when just 201 people out of 1.1 million (0.0001827%) were bit by dogs (and none fatally) in Calgary last year? Probably, but everyone has a(t least one) cause and that’s what soapboxes are for.