Breed Specific Legislation, or BSL, is a set of public policy laws designed to reduce the amount of dog bite-related injury and death. Lawmakers attempt to confront this problem by examining the statistics surrounding dog bites and legislating against certain breeds. By far, the most common breeds focused upon are the 'pit bull' type breeds. These include American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bulldog, "any dog whose owner registers, defines, admits or otherwise identifies the dog as being of a banned breed," any dog that looks similar to one of these breeds, or any mixed-breed dog which contains a specified amount of any of the aforementioned breeds.
The facets of typical BSL include:
- requiring specially-secured enclosures for the dog;
- requiring the owner maintain a difficult to obtain, liability insurance policy, often valued at $300,000 USD;
- requiring the dog have a microchip implanted under its skin;
- requiring that the dog be surgically rendered unable to reproduce;
- requiring the owner to post government-issued warning signs at every possible point of ingress to where the dog is housed;
- requiring that the owner register the animal with the government every year and pay the registration fees each time;
- require the dog wear a muzzle whenever out in public and be kept on an unbreakable leash of a specified length;
- require the removal any pit bull puppies from the city limits or turn them over to the city to be euthanized.
Some jurisdictions have even banned the breeds altogether, making the ownership, the act of feeding, housing, or in any making it possible for the dog to be within the jurisdiction a criminal act.
The jurisdictions which have enacted BSL have done so in reply to a small number of sensational media depictions of dog attacks. The scientific data shows that 'Pit bull' type breeds, which encompass a sizable number of breeds and breed mixes DO account for a larger percentage of bite-related fatalities and injuries, but only when compared to other, individual dog breeds. The data also shows that more injuries and fatalities are attributed to the other dogs in the studies, combined, than the 'pit bull' type breeds. For example, the CDC conducted a 20-year study of the records and of the 238 dog-bite-related fatalities in the U.S. During that time, only 76 were attributed to 'pit bull' type breeds and their mixes. The majority, 162, were attributed to other breeds and their mixes. The same study concluded,
"Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues. Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites. (J Am VetMed Assoc2000;217:836–840)"
Things to Consider Before You Get a Dog
- Consult with a professional (e.g., veterinarian, animal behaviorist, or responsible breeder) to learn about suitable breeds of dogs for your household.
- Dogs with histories of aggression are inappropriate in households with children.
- Be sensitive to cues that a child is fearful or apprehensive about a dog and, if so, delay acquiring a dog.
- Spend time with a dog before buying or adopting it. Use caution when bringing a dog into the home of an infant or toddler. Spay/neuter virtually all dogs (this frequently reduces aggressive tendencies).
- Never leave infants or young children alone with any dog.
- Do not play aggressive games with your dog (e.g., wrestling).
- Properly socialize and train any dog entering the household. Teach the dog submissive behaviors (e.g., rolling over to expose abdomen and relinquishing food without growling).
- Immediately seek professional advice (e.g., from veterinarians, animal behaviorists, or responsible breeders) if the dog develops aggressive or undesirable behaviors.
Preventing Dog Bites
Teach children basic safety around dogs and review regularly:
- Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
- Do not run from a dog and scream.
- Remain motionless (e.g., "be still like a tree") when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
- If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still (e.g., "be still like a log").
- Do not play with a dog unless supervised by an adult.
- Immediately report stray dogs or dogs displaying unusual behavior to an adult.
- Avoid direct eye contact with a dog.
- Do not disturb a dog who is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.
- Do not pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.
- If bitten, immediately report the bite to an adult.
Thankfully, most jurisdictions recognize the folly of BSL and have legislated accordingly. For example, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer recently signed the widely-celebrated "Fabian's Law," a non-breed-specific, tough-as-nails state law which correctly targets actual dangerous dogs based on that individual dog's violent temperament, not what breed it was born as or if it looks like it has 'pit bull'-like characteristics.
U.S. Courts are also waking up to the fact that BSL is bad policy, but on constitutional grounds. For example, there is the recent case, Smith v. Toledo, Ohio, in which the court found that Toledo's BSL was unconstitutionally vague and failed to allow for Due Process, a right to which every American is entitled.
Unfortunately, for every effort in the pursuit of reason and justice, there are always those who muddy the waters. A few single-issue websites have popped up in the bowels of the internet touting BSL as the only reasonable solution to the dog-bite problem. They all have a few things in common: They rely on emotionally-charged, fallaciously vivid, accounts of dog bites in order to sway the reader and prevent the reader from forming a rational opinion on 'pit bull' type breeds or on BSL. By-and-large, the users of these sites' message-boards use similarly irrational approaches to spreading their message, and regardless of how polite or logical those who disagree with these irrational people attempt to act, they are virtually always insulted and ridiculed until they simply give up trying and leave.
Detractors notwithstanding, the reality of the situation is that the BSL effort has lost its momentum and will continue to do so despite the increasingly noisy opposition.