More Facts About BSL & Calgary

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.

This adorable pup is Chewy, currently adoptable through Pit Bulls For Life rescue. See:

This adorable pup is Chewy, currently adoptable through Pit Bulls For Life rescue. See:

BSL Doesn’t Work And Often Gets Repealed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 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)
Did you think this was a pit bull?  It's not.  It's an American Bulldog.

Do you think this is a pit bull? It’s not. It’s an American Bulldog. (Photo:

Other Objections

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.

Did you think this was a pit bull?  It's not.  It's a Boxer. (Photo from:

Did you think this was a pit bull? It’s not. It’s a Boxer.

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.

Did you think this was a pit bull? It's not.  It's a Dogo Argentino. (Photo:

Did you think this was a pit bull? It’s not. It’s a Dogo Argentino. (Photo:

Better Alternatives

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.

Unsurprisingly, our awesome Mayor knows what's up.

Unsurprisingly, our awesome Mayor knows what’s up.

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.

Do you think this is a pit bull?  Still not.  A Presa Canario. (Photo:

Do you think this is a pit bull? Still not. A Presa Canario. (Photo:

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.

9 Facts About BSL

Throwback Thursday seems to be a thing for radio stations and photo blogs, but I’ve decided to dig into the archives of the Soapbox a little.

The second post ever to appear on the Soapbox, almost three years ago, was basically a long essay about breed-specific legislation (pit bull bans, to be specific).

It’s over 4,000 words and contains not a single picture.  Really setting up for blogging success, wasn’t I?

Who knew the long and detailed philosophy writing I was practiced in wouldn’t prepare me for writing for the internets?

A reader's reaction to that Great Wall of Text

A reader’s reaction to that Great Wall of Text.

So I’ve decided to revisit the subject in a (slightly) more succinct way, despite this being a no-brainer subject to most dog people and there being a myriad of other online resources for this subject.

Truth is, every time a dog bite hits the headlines here, the local papers do their polls and a disappointing 40% of Calgarians support the idea of breed bans, causing my internal rage-o-meter to flare up.

So, if I’m preaching to the choir, just be happy I included pictures this time.

9 Facts About BSL

1.  It doesn’t actually work.  Breed-specific legislation is often introduced after a cluster of fear-mongering headlines like “Pit Bull Attacks Toddler” and politicians find themselves struggling to look useful and effective (what else is new?).  This is how Ontario got its pit bull ban.  But the ridiculous part is that these bans actually do nothing to reduce dog bite incidents.  Seriously.  After 5 years, Ontario got no tangible results from their pit bull ban, yet that still hasn’t been reason enough to repeal the ridiculous legislation.  The Netherlands actually did repeal their BSL in 2008 after they found no decline in dog bites in 15 years.

Alma with Homer and Kimbo.  Chows are another "bully" breed often unduly legislated against.

Alma with friends, Homer and Kimbo. Chows are another “bully” breed often unduly legislated against.

2.  BSL is hard to enforce.  Most people can’t even correctly identify a pit bull (you can even test your idenfication skills here), and law or by-law officers are rarely properly trained in dog breed identification to properly enforce these measures.  Sometimes, like in Ontario, owners are actually required to prove their dog is not a pit bull, rather than the government prove it is.  And when the Canadian Kennel Club doesn’t recognize pit bull terrier as an actual breed, that turns into a problematic thing to assess and enforce.

3.  The statistics used to jusitfy BSL are dubious and the definition of “pit bull” cited in dog bite stats is questionable, since often dogs involved in bites or fatalities are of a mixed or unknown breed.  In actuality, in Canada from 1990-2007 there were 28 fatal dog attacks and not one is attributed to a pit bull.

Moses relaxing with his pittie pal, Hooch on a camping trip. Not exactly a menacing pup.

Moses relaxing with his pittie pal, Hooch on a camping trip. Not exactly a menacing pup.

4.  Just like most things, the media plays a big part in the narrative.  If a pit bull is involved in an altercation, the odds breed is going to be mentioned in the headline is much greater than most other dog breeds.  Chances are the story travels further and gets more attention are also greater.  This does not at all mean that other dog breeds don’t also bite, but the media treats it differently, as studies have shown.  You can read more about this bias here and here.

5.  “Dangerous” dog breeds are a subjective classification and change over time.  In fact, did you know that at the end of the 19th century Newfoundlands were Public Enemy No. 1 for dog breeds? Newfoundlands!  But that’s because they were commonly used as guard dogs, and guard dogs are (obviously) more likely to get into altercations with people.  Now what breeds are used for this very purpose?  Or for dog fighting?  This isn’t a meaningless conicidence; if humans use dogs for aggressive purposes, they’re going to act aggressively, regardless of the breed.

Moses and Alma bully breeds?  Hardly.

Moses and Alma bully breeds? Hardly.

6.  There are more interesting statistics to pay attention to.  For example, in Calgary, most dog bites in 2012, while attributed to a variety of working, herding, and terrier breeds, overwhelmingly happened more frequently in the city’s more notorious neighbourhoods.  So when the top 5 neighbourhoods for dog bites also coincide with crime rates, we can then make some interesting correlations between dog bites and types of owners.  Those against BSL have long said how an owner treats, raises, and trains a dog has a lot more to do with its tendency to bite than its breed does.  An AVMA study of dog bites in Oregon also found a correlation between more dog bites and lower-income neighbourhoods.

7.  It’s common sense that circumstances around dog bites tell more about causation than the dog’s breed.  For example, most dog bites (77%) involve the dog’s own family or a friend of the family.  Over half occur on the owner’s property.  And the most frequent victim of dog bites are children – over 85%!  You can easily see how dogs that are protective of property, tethered, or have a high prey drive can all bite under certain circumstances.  I know just from walking my own dogs that many people – especially children – have very poor dog-interaction manners, and if not closely watched and coached, could easily get themselves bit just for not knowing any better.  A dog will basically never bite without warning, but that doesn’t mean much if kids don’t recognize the warning signals or owners aren’t educated in the basics of dog body language.


8.  If we’re going on temperament, you can do much worse than a pit bull.   The American Temperament Test Society tests dog breed personalities and the American Pitbull Terrier scores 86.8%, which is higher than many breeds, including golden retrievers, German shepherds, Maltese, sheepdogs, and corgis.  There are many studies out there showing other breeds like Dachunds, Jack Russells, and Chihuahuas are all more likely to bite than a pit bull.

9.  The vast majority of dog bites are preventable.  Preventable by owners, not legislation.  Preventable by being good, informed dog owners who know local pet bylaws and take time to walk and train their dogs.  Preventable by not leaving dogs tied up, unattended and not letting them run loose.  Preventable by getting dogs spayed/neutered and socialized.  Preventable by owners and parents who don’t let dogs and children interact without close supervision – ever!  Preventable by people knowing to ask before they approach any strange dogs and teaching their children these habits, too.


So there you have it.  BSL in under 1,000 words and now including images!

Recommended further reading:  you can download the entire text of The Pit Bull Placebo, by the National Canine Research Council in PDF here and read the Canadian Kennel Club’s official position against BSL here.

Shark Fin Free

Toronto is really two for two when it comes to the municipal bans these days.

First, Toronto City Council unanimously bans the sale of dogs and cats in pet stores.

And now, by a vote of 38-4, they have made Toronto the latest shark fin free city in Canada (well, as of September 1, 2012, when the ban takes effect).

“A group gathers outside Toronto City Hall on Tuesday ahead of a council vote on a proposed ban on the trade of shark fins.” (Anu Singh/CBC)

Sure, this topic may seem a little out of place at the Soapbox.  But just watch; we’ll come full circle.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary Sharkwater (and if you haven’t, drop everything and get to it), but the whole reason a shark fin ban is a good idea is because upwards of 70 million sharks are estimated to be killed annually for their fins.  And it’s not pretty – the fins are often removed and the sharks are returned to the water alive, finless.  Not to mention the countless other sea creatures that fall victim to the longlines in the process.  It’s a senseless practice, all in the name of shark fin soup.

And how is this cruel form of over-fishing accepted?

Because sharks are basically the aquatic version of the bully breed.  Who cares what harm may be done to these man-eating monsters?

Rob Stewart free diving with Caribbean reef sharks. Freeport Bahamas. Photo: Veruschka Matchett (

The film Sharkwater is an excellent counter to the blood-thirsty shark stereotype, and very akin to the way pitbull advocates combat their own misconceptions and BSL issues, Canadian Rob Stewart is trying to bring a little reality and perspective to popular opinion of sharks.

I mean, did you know you are more likely to get struck by lightning or killed in a sand hole collapse than killed by a shark?  264 million people enter the water in the United States each year – and only 23 people had unfavourable shark encounters in 2000 (and they all survived to tell the tale).

And I’d also like to say that personally, as a diver, the prospect of seeing a shark on a dive is awesome and exciting.  And I’d like them to have all of their fins, thank you.

Yours truly.

Here’s hoping more Canadian cities follow Toronto’s lead when it comes to both recent bans.

Though, I suppose there’s a little irony in that several cities – in the one province in Canada with a pitbull ban – have the backs (dorsals?) of another misunderstood creature.  BSL repeal, please.

In the meantime, be careful not to patronize any restaurants serving shark fin soup, and check for a shark fin free campaign in your area.

Information on Shark Fin Free Calgary can be found here – be sure to sign the petition!

Wordless Wednesday 8: Two Chows and a Newf

This edition of Wordless Wednesday features our wonderful house guests over the Labour Day weekend.

This is Kimbo.

This is Homer.

Homer and Moses actually go way back to 2008, as dog school classmates.

Homer and Moses, Fall 2008

Kimbo is a new addition, and probably one of the calmest, cutest puppies I’ve ever met.

Hangin’ out.

Moses was pretty happy to have some company.

Hey, what’s that you have there?

Mind if I….

… Yeah, you don’t mind.

I tried to take a couple of group shots.

They weren’t really working with me at first.

There we go.

Ha! Something delicious in the air?

I was pretty happy to have our canine guests, too, since it’s been a while since I’ve been on a nice, long dog walk, and it’s still a couple of weeks until we start easing Moses back into it.

A nice evening walk with a couple of Chows.

And it wasn’t until my last walk of the weekend with these guys that a neighbour’s breed profiling brought in the startling reminder that Chow Chows are often considered a “bully breed”.  I had literally forgotten and was surprised – his comments took me completely off guard.

Sadly, even Wikipedia says Chows have “aggression towards strangers or other animals”.  There are at least three municipalities in the U.S. that have Chows listed as a banned breed.  And I don’t think I really need to go into the long list of things that are wrong with BSL.

Just looking at Homer and Kimbo, and trying to reconcile them with this vicious breed stereotype left me dumbfounded.

Oh yeah, a real menace to society.

To Ban the Breed?

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 and


[i]  The Toronto Sun, April 28, 2010:
[ii]  Toronto Humane Society:
[iv]  The Toronto Sun, April 28, 2010:
[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:
[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).
[x]  Consider when reading this that there are approximately 74.8 million dogs in the United States.
[xi][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”
[xvi]  (2008) Full report available on this website:
[xvii]  Always read the fine print.
[xviii]  Link to full text of study here:
[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; 
[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, September 11, 2009. 
[xxxviii]  Or toy obsessed, for that matter. 
[xxxix]  See:  – all-encompassing dog training for dogs of any breed, age, or temperament. 
[xl]  Ibid.