Last week I posted about Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL), exploring where and how it is enacted in the United States and what the basic beliefs and issues that underpin the BSL movement really are.
This week we’ll look at two more elements of BSL, starting with shortcomings (today, after the jump) and ending with what individuals can do to resist and fight BSL on Wednesday.
Pit Bulls and Aggression
Stories of dogs attacking and even killing people are extremely upsetting. Creating legislation to help create a safer environment for people is important from both a human and animal welfare perspective. I think we can all get behind that. The real question is whether BSL is the best way to accomplish the goal of reducing maulings and fatalities by dogs.
Advocates of BSL (and plenty of regular people as well) argue that pit bull breeds are temperamentally unsound. Pit bulls have, historically, been bred for gameness — generally speaking, this is defined as a willingness to engage in a given undertaking with focus and tenacity — which accounts for a large part of this reputation. That gameness, however, has been cultivated by breeders to be direct toward other dogs or animals they perceive as prey — not humans. (This is why it’s not uncommon for pit bull breeds to be reactive toward other dogs, although “gameness” does not mean “dog aggressive.”) There is some speculation that pit bull dog attacks toward children are a result of them mistaking children for prey rather than for small humans, but there is no established association.
In fact, pit bull breeds have been bred to be very stable toward people, a precondition for any dog being managed by human handlers in a fighting or hunting context. Temperament testing results from the American Temperament Test Society, which focuses on measuring “different aspects of temperament such as shyness, aggressiveness and friendliness” supports this predisposition.
According to ATTS statistics, American Pit Bull Terriers passed 85.3% of the time, American Staffordshire Terriers 83.9% of the time, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers 88% of the time. To put that in perspective, Akitas received 74.2%, Basenjis 67.5%, Border Collies 80.6%, Chow Chows 71.3%, Golden Retrievers 84.6%, GSDs 83.7%, and Rottweilers 83%. Not only are pit bull breeds well within the temperament rating range of other breeds with few or no ownership restrictions, their passing rates are actually above those of many other highly desirable dogs.
The ATTS’s breed pass rate statistics are a good reminder of how powerful a bad reputation can truly be. Many people are terrified of pit bull breeds, even though they have temperament test passing rates that are very close to, and in some cases better than, other popular and well-regarded breeds. Every dog is an individual creature with its own personality, history, and behaviors. But a domestic animal is in the unique position of also being the charge of its owner, a human.
An Owner’s Influence — Good and Bad
Just how much can owner behavior and practices affect dog behavior? Quite a bit. Dogs that are given adequate socialization, training, nourishment, stimulation and regular attention are dramatically likelier to be temperamentally stable and safe around humans. Owners with dogs who happen to not do well around children or other dogs will try to set their dogs up for success by avoiding situations with those factors. Conversely, owners who chain their dogs (17-25% of all fatal dog attacks were from chained dogs, and in many municipalities where chaining is illegal dog bites have dropped dramatically), have failed to socialize them adequately. Any further abuse and neglect fosters more dangerous and unpredictable behaviors.
All this evidence points to the conclusion that any dog can be dangerous, and that the reputation that dogs in the pit bull family have acquired may have more to do with their owners than with this group of breeds as a whole. Remember that the profile of your average vicious and dangerous dog has changed a lot over the course of history. Cujo was a St. Bernard, and prior to the late 1980s, rottweilers and doberman pinschers were the prototypical “scary” dogs. Although it’s not well known, pit bull breeds actually used to be known as “nanny dogs” because of their remarkably stable temperaments, especially around kids.
Every major animal welfare and/or canine organization has voiced their opposition to Breed-Specific Legislature including The American Kennel Club, American Veterinary Medicine Association, The Humane Society of the United States and even the Centers for Disease Control, who state in a 1996 report that, “the dog bite problem should be re-conceptualized as a largely preventable epidemic. Breed-specific approaches to the control of dog bites do not address the issue that many breeds are involved in the problem and that most of the factors contributing to dog bites are related to the level of responsibility exercised by dog owners.”
Shortcomings of BSL from an Effectiveness Standpoint
What BSL sets out to do — protect people from dangerous animals — is good policy. The way it tries to do it is deeply flawed — not because it targets a largely unpopular breed, but because targeting dogs based on a gross generalization such as looks is simply ineffective. Comparative evidence of dog bites between Denver and nearby towns without BSL provides a compelling argument to reconsider how to meaningfully reduce dog maulings and fatalities.
To prevent dog bite-related deaths and injuries, leading industry groups recommend public education about responsible dog ownership and dog bite prevention, stronger animal control laws, better resources for enforcement of these laws, and better reporting of bites.
Like many of the animal welfare challenges we face, the source of the issue is not just a dog problem — it is also a human problem. The occasional unexplainable, unknowable dangerous dog will always be a possibility. We cannot legislate that away. By focusing on promoting responsible ownership, humane practices, and legislation that supports both of these things, we may yet make real change.
- Breed Specific Legislation Part 1
- Breed Specific Legislation Part 2
- Breed Specific Legislation Part 4
Image via Understand-a-bull