Why Breed-Specific Legislation Is Ineffective
Breed-specific legislation (BSL) happens when dog breed restrictions become law. These laws are ineffective at keeping communities safe because they target the wrong thing and ignore the real issue — the behavior of the individual dog and owner.
Introduction to breed-restrictive laws
We all want safe communities for people and pets. However, a dog attack can result in panic policy-making when city council members pass an ordinance that restricts or outlaws a specific breed of dog. Once these ordinances are enacted, authorities waste precious resources, including their time, enforcing these ineffective laws. In 2003, a task force found that Prince George’s County in Maryland spent approximately $560,000 every two years enforcing its breed ban. Imagine the cost in today’s economy. Breed restrictions are not only expensive to enforce but are also ineffective at keeping communities safe.
Given the tremendous costs associated with breed-specific laws, are they a prudent approach to community safety or a costly red herring? With the passage of such ordinances comes the question: How do you prove in court the heritage of a mixed-breed dog? Numerous studies have shown that visual breed identification, even by animal welfare professionals, is highly unreliable. (1) DNA testing is now available, of course, but that means municipalities have the burden (and the cost) of proving the heritage of a pet dog if they enact breed restrictions.
What factors contribute to dog-related incidents?
- Owners who allow their dogs to run at large
- Owners who leave tethered or chained dogs unattended
- Owners who neglect or abuse dogs, either failing to provide for their basic health, shelter and sustenance needs or actively abusing them
- Owners who keep dogs in a chronically unclean, unhealthy environment
- Owners who train or keep dogs exclusively for personal or property protection
- Owners who are largely absent
- Owners who irresponsibly breed dogs
- Owners who keep a large number of dogs in a small space
- Owners who fail to sequester female dogs in heat or those nursing young puppies
- Owners who are unaware of laws or available resources
Instead of drafting legislation that involves costly and ineffective breed restrictions, communities should pass laws that target the above factors. Such laws are more effective at creating a safe and humane community. (2)
Targeting reckless owners
Any dog can bite, so when it comes to legislation designed to prevent such incidents, the focus should be on the behavior of the owner and the behavior of the dog. Because reckless dog owners, like reckless drivers, are often recidivists, public safety ordinances should target them.
In fact, in the International Municipal Lawyers Association’s model dangerous-dog law, there is an entire section on reckless dog owners. The model suggests temporarily or permanently restricting ownership rights depending on the violation in question. This is a sound and reasonable response to irresponsible owners, who cause so many of the problems we see involving dogs. (3)
Encouraging a community-policing approach to animal control
When Calgary, Alberta, enacted and enforced a new aggressive-dog ordinance, the city experienced a 56% decline in aggressive-dog incidents and a 21% decline in biting incidents in just two years. Calgary does not restrict particular breeds of dogs, focusing instead on protecting the public from all aggressive dogs, regardless of breed. The city’s animal-control wardens have a problem-solving approach when dealing with members of the public. For example, wardens are encouraged to get out of their trucks and talk with community members. This act alone can help build trust between law enforcement and the public. (4)
This approach is in stark contrast to cities that have enacted breed-specific laws. Studies show that breed-specific laws are ineffective at protecting the public from dog attacks. A study involving the U.K.’s Dangerous Dog Act (which banned pit bull terriers, among other breeds, in 1991) concluded that the ban had no effect whatsoever on stopping dog attacks. In other words, nearly three decades of enforcing an ineffective law has impacted countless dogs and dog lovers in a devastating way. (5)
Another study compared the number of dog bites reported to the health department of Aragon, Spain, for five years before and five years after the introduction of its Dangerous Animals Act. There was no change in the number of reported dog bites after the implementation of breed-specific legislation (BSL), and the breeds most responsible for bites both before and after passage of BSL were those unrestricted by the law: German shepherds and mixed-breed dogs. The restricted breeds — American Staffordshire terriers, pit bull terriers and Rottweilers — were responsible for less than 4% of the reported bites both before and after the law took effect. (6)
Protecting the public while preserving the property rights of responsible dog owners
Responsible dog owners should have the right to own whatever breed of dog they choose. Reckless owners should be prohibited from owning dogs. It is up to community members to demand effective ordinances that protect people from any dangerous dog, regardless of breed, and protect innocent dogs who have harmed no one from losing their homes.
As a community member, you can advocate to enhance public safety measures that keep well-behaved dogs with their families.
This article was written by Ledy VanKavage, the senior legislative attorney for Best Friends Animal Society. Ledy is a past chair of the American Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee and the Illinois State Bar Association’s Animal Law Section. She is the recipient of the ABA’s Excellence in Animal Law award for 2014, the 2018 Wallace Award from the Wallace the Pitbull Foundation, and the Excellence in a State Campaign award from Women in Government Relations. She is a co-author of the U.S. Department of Justice publication The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters.
(1) See Kimberly I. Olson, Pit Bull Identification in Animal Shelters, University of Florida, 2012; Kathleen C. Croy et al., What kind of dog is that? Accuracy of dog breed assessment by canine stakeholders, abstract online; and Victoria L. Voith et al., Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability, American Journal of Sociological Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2013, pp. 17-29.
(2) The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters: https://cops.usdoj.gov/ric/Publications/cops-p206-pub.pdf
(3) A Model Dog Law to Save More Lives: https://bestfriends.org/stories/julie-castle-blog/model-dog-law-save-more-lives
(4) People, Pets and Policies: Toward Community-Supported Animal Sheltering: https://network.bestfriends.org/education/manuals-handbooks-playbooks/people-pets-and-policies
(5) Klaassen B., Buckley J.R., Esmail A. Does the Dangerous Dogs Act Protect Against Animal Attacks? A Prospective Study of Mammalian Bites in the Accident and Emergency Department. Injury, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1996, pp. 89-91.
(6) Rosado B., et al. Spanish Dangerous Animals Act: Effect of the Epidemiology of Dog Bites. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Vol. 2, No. 5, 2007, pp. 166-174.