dogs

Laws Targeting Certain Dog Breeds Are Costly, Ineffective, and Common

Communities are finally starting to realize there's a better way.

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VooDoo Works / Flickr

When Jennifer Frost and her family moved to Sioux City, Iowa, in October 2015, they had no idea that their dog Jake would not be welcomed. Then one morning the following spring, Jake got loose. Frost soon got a call from her microchip company saying that he was with Sioux City Animal Control.

"We called and they said you can't have him back because he's a Staffordshire Bull Terrier," Frost said.

She describes the 35-pound dog as a good pet with a lot of personality, and says he was never aggressive or physically intimidating. Fortunately, animal control gave Jake back, but only on the condition that he be moved out of town. For now, he lives with relatives in New York, an arrangement that Frost's children are struggling to adjust to.

"With four kids that ranged from age 1 to age 7 at the time, this was a pretty big deal for them," Frost says. She describes her 4-year-old crying at night, saying, "I want Jake back" and "Where's Jake?"

Frost and her family had run afoul of a breed-specific law (BSL)—municipal legislation that typically prohibits the ownership of certain types of dogs or places stringent requirements on their owners, including but not limited to requiring sterilization, micro-chipping, muzzling, specific enclosures, special leashes, and licensing.

These requirements are common, with around 581 breed-specific laws in effect across the country, according to the Animal Farm Foundation's BSL map. This type of legislation gained popularity in the 1980s and '90s after a few highly publicized dog attacks sparked calls for action. One of the earliest BSLs passed in Hollywood, Florida, in 1980. It required pit bull owners to purchase liability insurance and register their dogs with the city. In 1989, Denver, Colorado, passed a bill outlawing the ownership of pit bulls completely, becoming one of the first major U.S. cities to do so. The ban is still in effect today.

These laws are typically rooted in a belief that certain breeds are inherently dangerous and that the only way to prevent dog attacks is by banning those particular animals. But the high cost of enforcement and the difficulties associated with accurately identifying the breeds in question—not to mention the anguish families experience when pets who haven't hurt anyone are taken away—mean these laws are more harm than help.

Breed Specific Legislation is Expensive and Ineffective

Despite not being a recognized breed by the American Kennel Club, pit bulls are often the target of breed-specific legislation. Pit bull, a catch-all term, usually refers to the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the American Bulldog, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

BSLs do not come cheap. In 2012, the Best Friends Animal Society commissioned John Dunham and Associates to conduct a fiscal impact study. By estimating the number of total dogs and the number of pit bull–type dogs in the country, the firm found that enacting breed-specific legislation at the national level would cost $476,973,320 annually in enforcement, kenneling and veterinary care, euthanizing and disposal, litigation costs, and DNA testing.

Using this data, the Best Friends Animal Society released a fiscal impact calculator that can figure the estimated cost of BSLs in a variety of communities. For example, it suggests that Denver, Colorado, spends around $937,937 annually on its pit bull ban.

BSLs, even when they don't prohibit ownership, can serve as de facto bans when the costs of adhering to the rules are high enough. Not everyone can afford to build and maintain a kennel that complies with mandated standards or to purchase liability insurance. In the end, many people are faced with the decision to move or surrender their pet. A third option is to keep the dog in hiding, a choice that probably involves denying it necessary veterinary care, outdoor enrichment, and/or socialization with other dogs and people.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the laws have any substantial impact on the incidence of serious dog attacks. A study on the effectiveness of BSLs published in the Journal of the American Veterinarian Medical Association found that in order for a community to successfully prevent just one serious dog bite, 100,000 dogs of a specific breed would have to be removed. This is in large part because serious dog attacks are rare, despite the abundance of media attention that would suggest otherwise. The CDC reports that there are around 4.5 million dog bites every year. The National Canine Research Council, in sourcing the CDC, reported that 40 people were killed by dogs in a year. While those number might seem high, keep in mind that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that there are around 78 million dogs owned as pets in the United States.

Another reason BSLs are so ineffective is that they rely on visual identification. This is often unreliable, because physical characteristics are not always enough to determine a dog's breed. Since pit bulls aren't a single breed, for example, it can be a judgment call as to whether a dog counts. They're often described as having a muscular body, short hair, a flat, broad head, and short ears—a description that could also match the Presa Canario, the Cane Corso, the Boxer, the Dogo Argentino, and the Bullmastiff, none of which are generally indicated by the term. And then what do you do with mixed breeds who may or may not share prominent pit bull–like characteristics? How much pit bull blood is enough to ban a dog?

People don't always agree on what breed a dog is based on physical appearance alone, either, explains Janis Bradley, the director of communications and publications at the National Canine Research Council. "Even people who deal with dogs every day, even people who deal with dogs as their profession, can't even agree on the physical characteristics," she says. "There's been studies done where people in different shelters had been asked to decide whether or not a group of dogs could be labeled as pit bull or pit bull mixes, and not only did their results not agree with any sort of reasonable match regarding DNA results, they didn't agree with each other." And DNA testing only drives up the cost.

But even if visual identification were a reliable practice, BSLs would still be a misguided way of reducing dog attacks—because breed is not a significant indicator in what makes a dog dangerous. "I think people imagined that if dogs looked similar to each other, if dogs shared a common appearance, that they were likely to behave in similar ways, and it turns out it just isn't so for a whole variety of reasons," Bradley says.

The American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Division argues that there are many more accurate predictors of how likely a dog is to bite, including whether it has been spayed or neutered, the kind of environment it was raised in, and how it was trained by its owner. Other factors that can make a big difference to outcome (but have nothing to do with the breed) are whether the dog was provoked into attacking and whether the victim was a stranger or a small child.

"People become afraid and then want a simple answer," Bradley says. "They want to say, 'Okay if we just get rid of this group of dogs, whatever it is, even though we can't define it, that won't happen anymore.' And so that can make people feel better, but it's not something that you do if you are serious about actually making people safer. All it can possibly do is give people a false sense of security."

A Brighter Future

Bradley, like many experts, argues that legislation should focus on the owner's behavior, not the dog's breed. "Making it as easy as possible for people to behave responsibly, so having leash laws and enforcing them," she says. "Things that make it worthwhile to people to participate in a positive community of guardianship, of dog ownership and then also to hold the owners responsible when there really is a problem that they should have been able to prevent."

The National Canine Research Council thinks the focus should be on educating the public on how to be responsible pet owners, to include ensuring children are not left unsupervised around dogs, and understanding what actions can cause a dog to feel threatened. The American Kennel Club, the American Bar Association, the National Animal Control Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior all condemn BSLs as well.

"If someone has a dog that they allowed injure someone and you remove that dog, it makes no difference," Bradley says. "That person goes out and gets another dog, and treats that dog in the same way and therefore that dog becomes higher risk too because the owner isn't exercising humane care and control of the dog."

Fortunately, she explains, government bodies are starting to realize that BSLs are not the best solution. Far more communities "are either rescinding or refusing to enact [a BSL] than are enacting it," she says. "It's on the wane because people more and more are realizing that it is just a strategy that's not productive."

Illinois enacted breed-neutral legislation in 2003 that aims to hold owners accountable for their dogs, while at the same time prohibiting municipalities in the state from passing breed-specific ordinances. The Ryan Armstrong Act, which was implemented after a 7-year-old was attacked (non-fatally) by a Rottweiler, requires the owner of a vicious or dangerous dog to take measures to keep the public safe. Anyone who knowingly owns a vicious dog and fails to take these precautions is held liable—by a misdemeanor or felony depending on certain circumstances—if the dog attacks someone unprovoked and severely harms him or her.

Several other states, including Rhode Island, Utah, and Illinois, have also put laws in place that forbid municipalities from passing breed specific ordinances. And counties such as DeKalb County, Georgia, and cities such as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Florissant, Missouri, have all removed previous pit bull bans.

"The very most important thing is that each dog is an individual," Bradley says, "and the only way you can determine anything meaningful about how a dog is likely to behave is to see what he does and see how he actually does behave. There simply is no shortcut."

That's how Jennifer Frost and her family see Jake. "He's been our family pet, never had any incidents, has been raised with four kids," the mom says, "but simply because of his breed he is put in the vicious dog room at animal control," Frost said. "He has to leave [our family] simply because of his breed."

Frosts is fighting the ordinance in Sioux City. As of August 2016, she is part of a lawsuit with another dog owner. They're attempting to get the BSL deemed unconstitutional by contending it violates their due process rights. If successful they could be compensated by the city, but Frost emphasized that it's not about money. It's about getting justice.

"When we legislate out of fear, nothing good comes of it," Frost says. "It is a fear-based law, it's a discriminatory law, and it's not based on evidence."

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58 responses to “Laws Targeting Certain Dog Breeds Are Costly, Ineffective, and Common

  1. These laws are a bunch of Bull Dog – Shih Tzu.

  2. They’re good dogs, Sue City.

  3. “Where’s Jake?”

    Sorry, kid, but you live in a city ruled by assholes.

    1. Jake’s been moved to where the police are marginally less likely to shoot him.

      1. I always knew that my dog fluffy did go to a farm upstate to live out his years!

  4. enacting breed-specific legislation at the national level would cost $476,973,320 annually in enforcement, kenneling and veterinary care, euthanizing and disposal, litigation costs, and DNA testing.

    Costs can be greatly reduced by removing all but euthanizing and disposal from this list. Just ask any police department.

    1. Really, how much is a round of 9mm these days?
      Like guns, if a dog LOOKS dangerous, it can be outlawed.

  5. These laws are an obscenity. And the actual evidence suggests that they’re based on complete ignorance. The only reason pit bull attacks are common is that pit bulls, as a breed are incredibly common. They actually have a much lower rate of attacking people, per capita, than most other breeds. And their reputation, among those familiar, is that they’re unusually patient dogs. It’s for this reason, historically, that they were known as “Nanny Dogs”. Yeah, people used to leave them with their kids.

    1. Yeah, people used to leave them with their kids.

      Yeah, well, people also used to have 20 kids because they knew they were going to lose some. Sometimes kids are cheaper than dog food.

      In all seriousness though, as usual a thing is being regulated because of bad actions by the owners.

    2. This is based on 2006 data. A list of dog fatalities per 10K registered dogs by breed over a 10 year period:

      69.1 Alaskan malamute
      58.9 Chow Chow
      27.8 Pit bull
      22.2 Rottweiler
      18.5 Akita
      16.5 Husky
      13.3 St. Bernard
      8.8 German shepherd
      7.6 Doberman Pinscher
      6.7 Great Dane

      The registration counts for pit bulls aren’t very accurate so I used the count for German Shepherds since it’s roughly the same.

      There was a fatal attack by a Pomeranian, but that wasn’t enough to make the list. Generally it seemed like one of the common scenarios was parents bringing an infant/toddler to the grandparents’ house where there’s a dog. Everyone thinks the dog is friendly and doesn’t realize they have to supervise anyway.

      I think the problem with pit bulls isn’t so much the breed itself as that they (and Rottweilers to a lesser degree) have become the breed of choice for shitty owners.

      1. This:
        breed of choice for shitty owners.

      2. Everyone thinks the dog is friendly and doesn’t realize they have to supervise anyway.

        The dog probably is friendly, but it doesn’t know little humans. So, it thinks it’s OK to grab the annoying little infant by the scruff, like it would do with an annoying little puppy, and tragedy ensues.

    3. No. Pit bulls were never known as nanny dogs. That’s a myth that was debunked many years ago. Please see Dogsbite.org for more information.

      1. Mary Conner|4.9.17 @ 2:33AM|#
        “No. Pit bulls were never known as nanny dogs. That’s a myth that was debunked many years ago. Please see Dogsbite.org for more information.”

        If you are serious rather than a troll, please add a link to the *specific* part of the web site.

  6. In all the years my mother owned her boarding kennel, there were only two dogs that were a regular threat. Unrelated, different owners, no other commonality we could find … both … cocker spaniels.

    1. schnauzers are an evil breed. Always aggressive from my experience.

  7. I used to think pitbulls were fine, but in the last year since I got my own dog, both my dog and myself have been attacked by several pits while out on walks. Twice at the vet. Soured my opinion of the breed. I’ve reported every owner since they’re illegal in my town, and they’re deed restricted against throughout most of the subdivisions around me. If you can’t control your pet, don’t own one.

    Of course, the libertarian solution to the pitbull “problem” is deed restrictions. Enforced by courts / police. Same effect as law, but without the “government shouldnt regulate that!” as a complaint.

    1. What a good little snitch you are. Fuck you.

      1. Keep your dog under control and I don’t report you. Seems like a good policy, no?

        The other option is I kill it, and that’s a lot worse than giving you an opportunity to fix the problem or find it a home elsewhere.

        I know, I know, who am I to be concerned for myself, my kids and my dog? What tyranny!

      2. Keep your dog under control and I don’t report you. Seems like a good policy, no?

        The other option is I kill it, and that’s a lot worse than giving you an opportunity to fix the problem or find it a home elsewhere.

        I know, I know, who am I to be concerned for myself, my kids and my dog? What tyranny!

        1. Give me the opportunity to fix it? By reporting me to the authorities?

          You assume that every dog you see running around is out to kill your kids? Again, fuck you.

      3. What a good little snitch you are. Fuck you.

        Wait, are we anarchists now? It wasn’t that someone left their garbage bin out 2 days after pickup, the owners committed violence against him/her. Perfectly legit to call the cops.

      4. What a good little snitch you are. Fuck you.

        Wait, are we anarchists now? It wasn’t that someone left their garbage bin out 2 days after pickup, the owners committed violence against him/her. Perfectly legit to call the cops.

        1. Yes. If you aren’t an anarchist, if you think there are legitimate reasons to report someone to the police, such as violence, or having animals that are uncontrolled and acting aggressively, loose in a residential area, then apparently you’re not a libertarian. Reason and libertarianism both seem to be on the decline intellectually these days.

    2. I’ve reported every owner since they’re illegal in my town

      Christ, what an asshole.

      1. Every owner of one that did so. I probably should have qualified that.

        Even so, do you understand deed restrictions?

        1. Deed restrictions are one thing; “I’ve reported every owner since they’re illegal in my town” is another. Do you understand the difference between a deed restriction and a law? Do you understand that you’re calling down whatever force the state chooses to bring on people whose pets you’re scared of?

        2. Yup. Do you understand what it’s like to be attacked by a vicious animal? If that’s not cause for a call to the cops not much is.

          Having to talk with the local cop is pretty minor compared to me reporting to the development authority and attempting to force you to sell your property and move. Perspective.

          1. What, you can’t talk to the owner yourself?

      2. Kivlor seems to be saying he reports owners whose dogs attacked him — I don’t have a problem with that.

        As Sparky said, often the root of the problem is the owner, not the dog. Where’s Cesar Millan when you need him?

        1. Either reading a script, or making a deposit at the bank.

    3. I used to think pitbulls were fine, but in the last year since I got my own dog, both my dog and myself have been attacked by several pits while out on walks

      All the pitbulls I have ever met were very friendly. I have had bad experiences mostly with golden retrievers.

      1. I’ve worked with more aggressive Goldens and Labs than Pit Bulls yet I’ve trained many more Pit Bulls than retrievers. The worst aggression case I had of any breed was a Golden.

  8. Isn’t there a quite bit of evidence that a handful of breeds are responsible for disproportionate number of human attacks, ceteris paribus?

    1. Yep, and top of the list is Labrador retrievers.

      1. Longhaired dachshunds are astonishingly high up the list, too. It seems they’re aware that they’re genetically supposed to be wolves, rather than bewigged sausages, and they’re pissed about it.

      2. Labs cause lots of bites, not because they are a bad breed, but because there are lots of labs. No. 1 dog in the US. Bites per 100 is not that high.

        Any dog can bite given the right circumstance. The trouble with some dogs is their size and strength. Some dogs will do much more damage with one bite than other dogs. I do keep my dog (a Brittany) away from certain dogs for that reason. Dogs receive signals from each other on aggressiveness we cannot see. Some dog breeds are harder to control and have a higher protective instinct. If you are considering a dog, do some research and find out breed characteristics. Certain breeds are NOT recommended for first time dog owners.

        Owners and dog socialization make the biggest difference. If you get a dog, socialize it with other dogs and kids at a young age. It has to know YOU are the boss. Demand obedience. Also obey leash laws. Keeping your dog under control is the safest thing for your dog, other dogs and people.

        1. Labs cause lots of bites, not because they are a bad breed, but because there are lots of labs.

          There are no good or bad breeds. However, some breeds are harder to train for proper and safe behavior around humans than others. Labs are big, active, smart working dogs. Socialization, training, and plenty of exercise is crucial to raise a dog like that safely. That’s not true of every breed: there are other dog breeds that are much easier to raise.

        2. Labs are no where near the #1 dog in the country. They’re the #1 AKC recognized and registered breed and it’s the AKC who puts out that list every year. A vast majority of dogs in this country are not registered with any registry (there’s also the UKC, NKC, JRTCA, ASCA and on and on) and I’m not just talking about mixed breeds but backyard bred purebreds including Labs. The #1 dog by far in this country when looking at total numbers is a group known as pit bulls (and pit bull mixes) which is not a breed but a type of dog.

          If you want to find a common denominator in dogs that attack or kill, here’s a list and all of these are 100% human choices.

          Intact (especially females who have just whelped)
          Untrained
          Unsocialized
          Kept outside/chained
          Abused

    2. Most attacks are not reported including ones that end up in the hospital or even court. I’ve worked with a Lhasa who have torn someone’s arm up to the tune of 25 stitches and no one reported. I’ve worked with a Rottweiler who jumped on a kid and scratched him and animal control was called and they were sued. Another example was a Lab who attacked one of my employees out of nowhere. We had to report him ourselves because the drs. weren’t concerned over a “family dog.” Then had a Pit Bull that snapped at someone’s leg, breaking the skin but not causing any bleeding and the subsequent hospital visit resulted in the dog being quarantined for 10 days.

  9. In the DC area a six-month-old baby was recently killed by the family’s pet dog. How many dead babies is too many? I like dogs, but I like babies a lot more.

    1. On the other hand, you can send a dog outside to shit; the baby just makes a mess of it.

    2. Seriously? Sounds like you are saying that there should be no dogs at all because of the risk of one killing a baby. I guess we don’t need parents either, cars, bikes, cribs, food, etc. as all have killed babies at some point.

  10. Maybe, just maybe, laws should address the actual actions of humans, not the assumed statistical results of politician’s prejudices. It ain’t the dog, it’s the owner.

  11. Many people buy dogs like SUVs and clothes – to make a lifestyle statement. I think this pit bull will match my Harley Davidson leather clothing and give me street cred.

    Unfortunately dogs are living sentient creatures that need nurturing, training, and attention. Many of the pit bull and very large dog owners that I have met in my suburban area do not properly train their dogs and they become an annoying and sometimes dangerous menace to people, traffic, and other pets.

    I love dogs, even pit bulls. I’m generally less fond of their owners.

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  15. I was there for the Denver ordinance against pit bulls. There was a LOT of public discussion on the radio and in the papers, and the upshot of it was to make it as difficult as possible for the types of assholes that want a mean dog to be able to get one. Also, to have a club to beat said owners with when their dog got loose and started attacking people and other dogs.

    You also have to ask yourself “Why is it that pit bulls are reported as having mauled kids and animals at such a higher rate than Cockapoos, Beagles, and Yorkies?” So when is the last time someone had a pair of Cavalier Spaniels get out and lick some poor child to death?

    1. .You are exactly right. See Dogsbite.org for details re pit bulls.

    2. I’ve worked with several very aggressive Cavs. And Yorkies, cockapoos and Beagles. The big difference between the dogs who end up biting and mauling and killing no matter the breed is the owner no matter what the breed. Most owners don’t create and then celebrate severe aggression in their dogs. Some breeds have owners who tend to do this.

  16. You never read about a house cat killing a child.

    In my case, the problem in most places is too extreme in the other direction. I had a redneck neighbor (a renter, of course) who owned a pit bull that kept getting out. The dog chased me and other neighbors in to our houses several times and went after others’ pets.

    After repeated complaints and multiple fines that the redneck probably never paid, he finally left the county with his stupid pit bull. It took years for him to finally leave.

    With an entire neighborhood complaining, I guess the county was waiting for someone to get mauled by the stupid animal before they took serious action.

    People who get pit bulls are like the idiots who drive loud Harleys, play thundering bass in their cars that can be heard for blocks, and drive with loud tailpipes. They have tiny brains and want to feel bigger than their little lives really are.

    1. I had a redneck neighbor (a renter, of course) who owned a pit bull that kept getting out.

      And what does that have to do with the dog breed?

      People who get pit bulls are like the idiots who drive loud Harleys

      Many people get pitbulls because they are a happy, friendly, playful breed; and there are lots of rescues that need homes or they get killed.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwt6qLzBnrA

  17. Related question: What would possess a parent with four young children to obtain a weaponized animal that was bred for bloodsport? I get that puppies are cute, but… Ya know?

  18. Don’t some homeowner’s insurance companies have breed specific restrictions? I was under the impression this was pretty common. That makes me think there is something to the idea that some breeds are more dangerous than others. And why wouldn’t some breeds be more aggressive? I would guess it’s a partially heritable trait that would have been selected both for and against (in different breeds) in the long history of dog breeding.

  19. I’ve worked with literally hundreds of Pit Bulls as a professional trainer and behaviorist. Pit Bulls are not different than other dogs but they are much more common than any other breed and often owned by irresponsible owners. (Don’t fall for the AKC propaganda about the Lab- they’re only counting breeds they recognize. Most APBTs are not registered with any kennel club.)

    If you want to find a common denominator in dogs that attack or kill, here’s a list and all of these are 100% human choices.

    Intact (especially females who have just whelped)
    Untrained
    Unsocialized
    Kept outside/chained
    Abused

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  21. No actual scientific organization (‘dogsbite.org’ is not a scientific organization) has found that breed let alone general appearance is a predictor of dog behavior. It’s just not so. Where there’s smoke there must be fire? No, lots of people can be irrational about something for a long time after it’s shown to reasonable people that their fears have no solid foundation.

    There is a semi-rational component though see in the comments about ‘cred’, ‘trash’, etc. For some it’s a way of expressing race and/or class prejudice against the supposed ‘typical pit bull owner’ in a more socially acceptable way, particularly when it comes to the racial component. Except ‘pit bull’ owners did not used to skewed toward non-white or poorer people, and that’s becoming true once again. Which I see in real life. It was always fairly obvious to me that people didn’t make as negative assumptions about our quite ferocious looking ‘pit bull’ (APBT/Dogo Argentino mix was the best guess, ‘bit white pit bull’), actually about the sweetest creature who ever lived, because an unassuming looking middle age white guy was walking her not a young non-white guy. It’s supposedly about the dogs, but really about people. The anti ‘pit bull’ people say “oh no it’s science look at dogsbite.org”, then often the next word from them or somebody backing them is about ‘trash’, ‘street cred’ etc talking about (their prejudices toward perceived typical) *owners*. They regularly contradict themselves that way.

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