Some people think that specific breeds – like pit bulls – are more likely to be aggressive and cause injury. Citing public safety, they call for Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) where certain breeds are zuesmuzzled, restricted, or banned. This is ineffective, and here’s why:

There is no way to conclusively identify a dog’s breed.

Unless you have access to a dog’s pedigree, you are relying on visual clues like body shape and coat to identify a breed. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Welfare Science showed that even trained shelter workers are wrong up to 87.5% of the time when they guess at a dog’s breed.

BSL is expensive.

In jurisdictions like Ontario and Denver,Colorado, where there is a full pit bull ban, it has been a costly endeavour with no demonstrated impact on bite rate. More animal control officers are required to seize, police, and investigate reports of “pit bulls”, and there is legal challenge after legal challenge, as well as negative public relations associated with killing puppies and family dogs.

In Ontario, the bill has been consistently in court, with the first lawsuit filed the very day it was enacted: August 29, 2005. It’s been taken to the Supreme Court, changed, and challenged again. There are also lawsuits from individual owners whose dogs have been seized – resulting in damages paid out and thousands of dollars in impound fees while the dog’s fate is determined. After one such case, Councillor Carolyn Parrish commented, “We’ve learned from this that this law is very difficult to enforce and it breaks people’s hearts. Saying that something looks like something else is a very poor basis for a law.” The city of Ottawa has given up altogether on trying to enforce the ban because of cost and logistics.

By contrast, the City of Calgary with its Dangerous Dog Legislation – targeting known risk factors and owner behaviour without any breed restrictions – has made a profit from licensing fees and fines. In a September 2010 presentation in Vancouver, Bill Bruce (Calgary’s Director of Bylaw Services) explained that proceeds from licensing and fines had paid for dedicated Animal Control truck fleet with a networked computer system, and an expanded shelter facility.

There are factors that make dog bites more likely. Breed isn’t one of them.

The Coalition for Living Safely With Dogs and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association joined together to conduct a two-year study about how likely any given dog is to bite. They concluded that all breeds bite, and it was the circumstances around the incident – usually an unrestrained, uncontrolled dog running loose – that caused the bite.

A study by the Centre for Disease Control in 2000 had this to say:

“Several interacting factors affect a dog’s propensity to bite, including heredity, sex, early experience, socialization and training, health (medical and behavioral), reproductive status, quality of ownership and supervision, and victim behavior. For example, a study in Denver of medically-attended dog bites in 1991 suggested that male dogs are 6.2 times more likely to bite than female dogs, sexually intact dogs are 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs, and chained dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite than unchained dogs.”

You may be surprised to learn that despite certain breeds being targeted as more dangerous, there is little scientific study in this area, and little to be gleaned from the relationship between breed and likelihood or severity of the attack:

  • A 2008 study in a Applied Animal Behaviour Science journal  did identify some consistencies between breed and aggression towards strangers, owners, and dogs, they also noted that, “the substantial within-breed variation…suggests that it is inappropriate to make predictions about a given dog’s propensity for aggressive behaviour based solely on its breed.” They also state that, “the relatively average scores for stranger-directed aggression found among Pit Bull Terriers were inconsistent with their universal reputation as a ‘dangerous breed’ and their reported involvement in dog bite-related fatalities.”
  • Other studies have found links between breed and aggression towards humans, usually guardian breeds and small breeds, but not among pit bulls (Gershman et al, Pediatrics,1994; Klaasen et al, Injury, 1996; Duffy et all, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2008)
  • While some studies circulate the internet with staggering claims about injury and death due to pit bull bites, they don’t stand up to scrutiny. Most are based on anecdotal or media reports, which would never be considered a reliable or credible source of data.

Here is some compelling data that attempts to get to the root of risk factors for dog bites:

  • The Canadian Veterinary Journal reported that: “…pit bull terriers were responsible for [only] one of 28 dog bite-related fatalities reported in Canada from 1990 through 2007.”  A separate paper in the same publication analyses data from Canadian jurisdictions with BSL and finds no evidence that it has reduced dog bites. Instead, they target spay/neuter, early socialization, and a higher standard of owner responsibility as factors that need to be addressed for effective dog legislation.
  • A 2006 study from SFU collected data from SPCAs, RCMPs and veterinary sources, and found that it wasn’t breed but irresponsible ownership that created dangerous dogs. It states that BSL creates “a false sense of security” and doesn’t address the real issues behind dog aggression.
  • A 2005 Public Health Agency of Canada report showed that dog bites are most common with children and in the context of unsolicited play or provocation of the dog.
  • The American Veterinary Medical Association has a Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions. Their 2001 paper calls BSL “inappropriate and ineffective” saying that “A dog’s tendency to bite depends on at least 5 interacting factors: heredity, early experience, later socialization and training, health (medical and behavioral), and victim behaviour.”
  • A report in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour in 2006 points out the lack of data available to make informed decisions about breed-specific aggression, and hypothesizes that the percentage of pit bull attack rates may well be lower than the breed’s proportional representation in the community. This report also indicates that 1% or less of the population of any breed (including pit bulls) will ever attack a human.

The evidence shows that, regardless of breed, aggressive dogs are often troubled dogs: running loose, tethered in a yard, under-socialized, under-stimulated, and/or trained to be guard or fighting dogs.

Unfortunately, irresponsible owners tend to be attracted to strong breeds like pit bulls, Rottweilers, mastiffs and German Shepherds, mistreating these dogs, setting them up for failure, and perpetuating the negative stereotypes. Still, for every “aggressive” dog in a yard at the end of a chain, there are hundreds of others of the same breed living as gentle family pets and never making headlines.

What happens when BSL is put into place? For the irresponsible owner, not much changes. Irresponsible owners don’t license or train their dogs. They don’t comply with existing laws, and their dogs continue to misbehave. Even if their dog is seized, another dog will soon take its place – if not the same breed, another “strong” breed that’s easier to obtain.

And for the responsible owner who complies with BSL? Their cherished, well-behaved dogs are subject to discriminatory laws – sometimes even death.

The bottom line? BSL doesn’t work.

In places as diverse as the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the UK and the United States, dog bites have continued and sometimes even increased under BSL.

  • In Italy, BSL started with 13 breeds identified on a “blacklist”. As it became clear that these 13 breeds weren’t really the problem, additional breeds were added to the list, eventually growing to 92 (including border collies and corgis). In April 2009, BSL was overturned completely. Undersecretary Francesca Martini called BSL a “fig leaf” over the larger problem and a measure with no scientific foundation.
  • The province of Ontario was reluctant to release statistics despite heavy public pressure to evaluate the success of the ban. In 2010 the Toronto Humane Society released numbers showing that the bite rate was largely unchanged, and reiterating that “…dogs are not born violent but are made that way by irresponsible owners.” Due to inefficacy and in response to public outrage, a bill to repeal the ban, supported by Liberal and NDP MPs, will be read in February 2012.

What do the experts say?

Organizations like the Canadian and American Kennel Clubs, the BC and Canadian Veterinary Associations, Humane Societies, the Centre for Disease Control, the SPCA and even Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer do not support Breed Specific Legislation. See a full list here.

Our provincial animal welfare organization, the BC SPCA, feels the same way, and offers a model bylaw package to help municipalities create legislation that targets ownership.

What does work?

Promoting responsible ownership and targeting behaviour – not breed – is the only proven way to reduce dog bites and make communities safer. This is known as “Dangerous Dog Legislation” and the City of Calgary has been a leader in its successful implementation. Dog bites have decreased from 200 in 2004, to 145 in 2008. It’s reached a point where bites are statistically non-existent inCalgary– just 0.14% of the city’s 100,000 dogs are culprits, by far the lowest bite-per-dog ratio inCanada.

All major public health and animal welfare groups support Dangerous Dog Legislation such as the model in Calgary, with proven measures to increase public safety, such as:

  • Mandatory leashing of dogs in public or shared areas
  • Spay and neuter incentives
  • Laws against tethering, chaining, or unreasonable restraint of dogs
  • Encouraging citizens to report owners who disregard city bylaws (to Animal Control) or other regulations (e.g., strata or private property rules).

Don’t believe everything you hear in the media!

Still have questions? Talk to your local Animal Control Officers, veterinarians, trainers, or rescue organizations – anyone knowledgeable about the breed. Anyone who has met a family pit bull has seen that they are a loyal, gentle dog that LOVES people. Contact HugABull for more information or to meet one of our “ambassadogs” for yourself!

More information

Animal Farm Foundation’s BSL Talking Points E-book

A downloadable PDF with plain language facts and important background information to use in talking to others about BSL.