Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: Why Breed-Specific Bans Don’t Work
By Ed Sayres
A recent editorial in the Sacramento Bee (“A Dangerous Dogs Act of 2015?” Nov. 8) called on the California State Assembly to propose a law to allow cities and counties to restrict specific dog breeds “up to and including outright bans.” People should absolutely be safe from harm and protected from violent animals. However, this is an issue that deserves to be addressed thoughtfully, rather than with knee-jerk legislation. While breed-specific bans may offer comfort in the wake of a tragedy, they simply do not achieve what they set out to do.
Breed-specific bans suppose that certain dogs – most often the numerous breeds and mixes that are lumped together as “pit bull” types – are more dangerous and prone to biting than others. If these breeds are banned or restricted from a community, the theory goes, then fewer attacks will occur. This is a fear-based response to stereotypes and individual occurrences, not fact.
In reality, a peer-reviewed study prepared by the American Veterinary Medical Association titled “Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed,” which addresses thirty-five years’ worth of scientific literature on the subject of serious bite injuries, found that “it is difficult to support the targeting” of pit bull-type dogs “as a basis for dog bite prevention.” The review also found that studies that control for breed prevalence “have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.”
So why don’t breed-specific bans work?
Breed-specific bans are prejudicial, based on stereotypes akin to racial profiling for dogs. No breed is genetically coded to bite more than another. “Pit Bulls,” Dobermans, Boxers, German Shepherds and Rottweilers – the breeds most commonly targeted by bans, are often the same breeds used by law enforcement, in search-and-rescue, and as therapy or service dogs. Clear guidelines and a fair assessment process are needed so dogs can be deemed dangerous based on their behavior, not their breed.
Breed-specific bans are costly, both financially and emotionally. Animal control officers must be trained to identify and handle banned breeds. Funds that go to the enforcement of breed-specific legislation take away from other worthwhile animal control programs. “Dangerous” animals relinquished to shelters and rescues often can’t be adopted back out, requiring their perpetual boarding or their eventual destruction. And owners who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of a ban must decide between giving away their family pet and attempting the often-difficult process of applying for a waiver (if one is even offered). Not surprisingly, many owners try to circumvent these bans by registering their pets as different breeds or simply not registering them at all.
Breed-specific bans are an overly simple solution to a complicated issue. What the editorial mocks as “dickering over…what could be a result of poor training” is a very real aspect of why breed-specific bans do not work. Irresponsible dog ownership – everything from failure to leash your dog all the way up to dog fighting – contributes to an environment in which dog bites can occur. Education of dog owners and the public at large regarding animal care can help avoid stressful and confrontational situations in which bites are likely to occur.
Around the world, countries and municipalities that have enacted breed-specific bans have found them to be ineffective or impossible to enforce. The Dutch government repealed their “pit bull” ban in 2009, after determining that it did not decrease the number of dog bites in the Netherlands. Italy repealed its breed-specific ban after six years of trying to enforce it effectively. Winnipeg was able to successfully decrease dog bites only after the city replaced a breed-specific ban with legislation targeting aggressive actions instead of profiling specific dogs.
In the twenty years since the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which the editors hold up as a model to be emulate, the number of dog bite cases reported in the United Kingdom has continued to climb. Ownership of the breeds restricted by the Act has certainly not been stamped out, as evidenced by regular reports of raids on dog-fighting rings throughout the country. And even the Chief Inspector of the Special Operations Unit of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has been quoted as saying, “The Dangerous Dogs Act does not work, it has never worked.”