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Dog Bite Laws: What Is Breed Specific Legislation?

Dog attacks can be a real and serious problem in communities across the country, but addressing dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs can be a confusing and touchy issue. Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is the blanket term for laws that either regulate or ban certain dog breeds in an effort to decrease dog attacks on humans and other animals. However, the problem of dangerous dogs will not be remedied by the “quick fix” of breed-specific laws—or, as they should truly be called, breed-discriminatory laws.

Who Is Impacted by Breed-Specific Laws?

Regulated breeds typically comprise the “pit bull” class of dogs, including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and English Bull Terriers. In some areas, regulated breeds also include a variety of other dogs like American Bulldogs, Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers or any mix of these breeds—and dogs who simply resemble these breeds.

Many states, including New York, Texas and Illinois, favor laws that identify, track and regulate dangerous dogs individually—regardless of breed—and prohibit BSL. However, more than 700 U.S. cities have enacted breed-specific laws.

What kinds of dogs are included in breed-specific laws?

Breed-specific legislation always targets pit bulls, the premier fighting breed. This class of dogs is comprised of several breeds: American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier. The American bulldog can also be classified within this group, as they share a common gene pool and are close cousins. The breed standard for the American bulldog, Scott-type, was developed by crossing early Johnson lines with the American pit bull terrier.

Much less commonly, breed-specific ordinances target rottweilers, the second most lethal dog breed in the United States. Some cities also incorporate additional fighting and bull-baiting breeds, such as the presa canario, cane corso, dogo argentino and other pit bull-mastiff derivatives. Yet, these instances are rare. The focal point of breed-specific legislation has always been pit bulls because this class of dogs is the most common and negatively impacts communities the most.

Wolf-dog hybrids fall into a special class due to their mixture of being part undomesticated. The regulation of wolf hybrids often occurs on a state-level for this reason. States like Alaska, Michigan, Massachusetts and Maryland ban their ownership. When state law is silent on this issue, some cities do incorporate wolf hybrids into their breed-specific ordinances. Notably, all three major military divisions prohibit pit bulls, rottweilers and wolf hybrids in privatized housing.

Visual breakdown

To show how these ordinances are applied across several hundred different dog breeds, we analyzed our estimated U.S. jurisdictions with breed-specific laws. Of the 860 cities that regulate specific dog breeds, 100% target pit bulls. The second most regulated breed, rottweilers, were named in only 7% of these ordinances. Followed by wolf hybrids and presa canarios, each named in 3% and mastiff variations, American bulldogs and doberman pinschers, each named in 2%.

There are several reasons why breed-specific bans and restrictions are not a responsible approach to dog bite prevention:

  • Breed-specific laws can be difficult to enforce, especially when a dog’s breed can’t easily be determined or if it is of mixed breed.

Frequently, breed-specific legislation focuses on dogs with a certain appearance or physical characteristics, instead of an actual breed. “Pit bulls” are the most frequent targets of breed-specific legislation despite being a general type rather than a breed; other breeds also are sometimes banned, including Rottweilers, Dobermans and boxers. However, it is extremely difficult to determine a dog’s breed or breed mix simply by looking at it. A study conducted by Maddie’s Fund, a national shelter initiative, showed that even people very familiar with dog breeds cannot reliably determine the primary breed of a mutt, and dogs often are incorrectly classified as “pit bulls”. Because identification of a dog’s breed with certainty is prohibitively difficult, breed-specific laws are inherently vague and very difficult to enforce.

  • Breed-specific legislation is discriminatory against responsible owners and their dogs.

By generalizing the behaviors of dogs that look a certain way, innocent dogs and pet owners suffer. BSL can lead to the euthanasia of innocent dogs that fit a certain “look,” and to responsible pet owners being forced to move or give up dogs that have never bitten or threatened to bite. Furthermore, dogs that are considered to be of a “dangerous breed” may already be serving the community in positions such as police work, military operations, rescue purposes, and as service animals. Contrary to being a liability, these animals are assets to society; however they, too, suffer due to misinformation and breed-based stereotypes.

  • Puppy socialization prepares dogs for training and interactionBreed bans do not address the social issue of irresponsible pet ownership.

Dogs are more likely to become aggressive when they are unsupervised, unneutered, and not socially conditioned to live closely with people or other dogs. Banning a specific breed can give a community a false sense of security, and deemphasize to owners of other breeds the importance of appropriate socialization and training, which is a critical part of responsible pet ownership. In enacting breed-specific legislation, cities and states will spend money trying to enforce ineffective bans and restrictions rather than implementing proven solutions, such as licensing and leash laws, and responding proactively to owners of any dog that poses a risk to the community.

Argument against breed specific laws, but conceding that other corrective measures must be taken

A large group of organizations and experts believes, “do nothing to the dogs, but educate dog owners, children and the elderly, enact strong criminal laws prohibiting dangerous behavior on the part of dog owners, and gather more information about the problem.”

A respected group of canine professionals took this position in the authoritative paper entitled, A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention. They advocated dealing with the epidemic by instituting a combination of animal control ordinances and educational efforts, as well as more accurate reporting of dog attacks. They opposed breed bans on the ground that any dog could be a bad dog, that it is too difficult to identify breeds like pit bulls, and that people with bad intentions will turn harmless breeds into killer breeds to stay one step ahead of the law.

The following points are often contended by those who oppose breed bans:

  • The USA generally does not favor the restriction and punishment of the masses based on the actions of a few.
  • Focusing legislation on dogs that are “vicious” distracts attention from the real problem, which is irresponsible owners.
  • These very breeds as a whole have proven their stability and good canine citizenry by becoming search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs working inside hospitals, herding dogs and family companions for years.
  • Banning one so-called dangerous breed will merely hasten the upswing in popularity of some other breed that will be used for vicious attacks on people and other animals.
  • There is no valid reason to deprive animal lovers of their well behaved pets.
  • The reports and statistics are flawed. Among other things, a dog bite victim is usually unable to identify the breed of dog that bit him or her. Therefore, victims will name the type of dog that currently is on people’s minds as being the dangerous dog.

Argument in support of breed restrictions as opposed to bans

Many authorities say, “teach people dog safety, regulate by passing tougher civil and criminal laws, and restrict by keeping certain breeds away from the wrong people, places and situations.”

This group agrees with the “community approach” but would go further, eliminating the “one bite rule,” requiring insurance as a condition for ownership of certain types of dogs, toughening the dog control laws, criminalizing the failure to stop a dog attack in progress, and keeping dangerous dogs away from the wrong people, places and situations.

It is now abundantly clear that the bigger, more powerful breeds have no purpose or place in crowded urban settings. In states like California, however, it is illegal for cities to regulate dogs in any manner that is specific as to breed. In other words, no city is allowed to make Presa Canarios, Rottweilers or pit bulls “against the law.” In fact, cities are not allowed to regulate those dogs in any way whatsoever, unless the regulation applies to all dogs. (See California’s prohibition against laws based on breed.)

You might wonder why it is illegal to own a goat or a chicken in a crowded city, but perfectly fine to own a man-eating dog! It makes absolutely no sense. In fact, the laws that makes breed specific legislation illegal are not only illogical, but also hypocritical. The ban against breed specific legislation can hurt dog owners by making it seem legal to own any kind of dog they want, in any setting. Society seems to say to prospective dog owners, “go ahead and get any dog you want.” However, if something happens because that dog was inappropriate, then society may put the dog owner in jail — possibly for life. The prosecution of Knoller and Noel for the horrific mauling of Diane Whipple was a breed specific prosecution. Quite correctly, the prosecutors showed that the breed of dog that killed Whipple was dangerous and totally inappropriate for a crowded apartment building in a crowded city. However, is it fair to keep cities from regulating the kinds of breeds that people keep, and yet allow prosecutors to throw the book at people who keep giant, cattle herding dogs like Presa Canarios in their apartments? If breed specific prosecutions are legal — and they certainly should be! — then breed specific regulations also should be legal.

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