Despite the well-established strength of the human-animal bond (Wensley, 2008), exemplified by the nearly 74 million dogs kept as companion animals in the United States, coexistence is not always peaceful. In the U.S., approximately 334,000 people visit emergency rooms annually for dog bites (Bradley, 2006), with an additional unknown number of individuals incurring other dog bite-related injuries (e.g., breaking a bone while fleeing a threatening dog) (AVMA, 2001). Notwithstanding relative stability in the number of dog bites over time (Bradley, 2006), and the fact that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only two percent of those seeking emergency room treatment for dog bites each year are actually hospitalized (CDC WISQARS), some communities have enacted laws that intensively regulate or even ban certain dog breeds in an effort to decrease dog attacks on humans (AVMA, 2001). Often, such laws are responses to a particularly violent individual dog attack or, as some hypothesize, result from media campaigns that negatively portray a particular breed (Capp, 2004). However, the theory underlying breed-specific laws—that some breeds bite more often and cause more damage than others, ergo laws targeting these breeds will decrease bite incidence and severity—has not met with success in practice. To understand the ASPCA’s opposition to such laws, it is critical to examine what is known about which dogs bite and why, which dogs are most dangerous, and the impact of breed-specific laws to date.
The CDC strongly recommends against breed-specific laws in its oft-cited study of fatal dog attacks, noting that data collection related to bites by breed is fraught with potential sources of error (Sacks et al., 2000). Specifically, the authors of this and other studies cite the inherent difficulties in breed identification (especially among mixed-breed dogs) and in calculating a breed’s bite rate given the lack of consistent data on breed population and the actual number of bites occurring in a community, especially when the injury is not deemed serious enough to require treatment in an emergency room (Sacks et al., 2000; AVMA, 2001; Collier, 2006). Supporting the concern regarding identification, a recent study noted a significant discrepancy between visual determination of breed and DNA determination of breed (Voith et al., 2009).
A variety of factors may affect a dog’s tendency toward aggression; these include heredity, early experience, socialization and training, sex and reproductive status (Lockwood, 1999). For example, intact males constitute 80 percent of all dogs presented to veterinary behaviorists for what formerly has been described as dominance aggression, are involved in 70 to 76 percent of reported dog bite incidents, and are 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs, while unspayed females “attract free-roaming males, which increases bite risk to people through increased exposure to unfamiliar dogs,” and “contribute to the population of unwanted” and potentially aggressive dogs (Gershman et al., 1993; Sacks et al., 2000; AVMA, 2001). Chaining and tethering also appear to be risk factors for biting (Gershman et al., 1993), and programs that target tethering have proven effective in reducing bite rates (Sacks et al., 2000; AVMA, 2001). Other factors implicated in dog aggression are selective breeding and raising of dogs for elevated aggression, whether for protection, use in dog fighting competitions, social status or financial gain (Bradley, 2006); abuse and neglect (Delise, 2007); and inadequate obedience training and supervision (Shuler et al., 2008).
Breed-specific laws must also be evaluated from a welfare perspective. Although intended to improve community safety and comfort, ultimately these laws can cause hardship to responsible guardians of properly supervised, friendly, well-socialized dogs. In some localities, the list of banned breeds includes not just American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers and Rottweilers, but also a variety of other breeds, including American Bull Dogs, Mastiffs, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, German Shepherd Dogs, Doberman Pinschers and any mix of these breeds. Although guardians of these dogs may have done nothing to endanger the public, they nevertheless may be required to choose between compliance with onerous regulations or forfeiture of their beloved companions, and may even be required to forfeit their companions outright. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, where Pit Bull Terriers are banned, the Animal Management Division reports that 80 percent of the approximately 500 to 600 animals seized and killed by animal control every year under the ban are “nice, family dogs” (Taylor, 2009).
Even laws that ostensibly are only regulatory may impose a de facto ban on a breed, creating a climate where it is nearly impossible for residents to live with such breed, and virtually ensuring destruction of otherwise adoptable dogs by shelters and humane societies. In Ohio, due to a state law that classifies all pit bulls as “vicious” and imposes various requirements on their guardians, pit bull guardians have great difficulty locating housing and obtaining homeowners’ or renters’ liability insurance, and most Ohio shelters have a pit bull non-adoption policy. The consequences have been disastrous: while in 1996, 101 Ohio animal control agencies reported handling 2,141 dogs deemed to be pit bulls, in 2004, 68 agencies reported handling 8,834 such dogs, of whom only 1,425 (16 percent) were reclaimed by their original guardians or adopted by new ones, and 7,409 (84 percent) were killed (Lord et al., 2006). In addition, dogs outside a targeted breed may become “collateral damage” of breed-specific laws. The Prince George’s County pit bull ban places significant pressure on the county shelter, which has limited space and yet must hold pit bulls during the pendency of lengthy legal proceedings. As a result, the shelter has had to euthanize hundreds of otherwise adoptable dogs of many different breeds due to lack of space, and has suffered decreased adoption rates because there are so few dogs available (Taylor, 2004).
Perhaps the most harmful unintended consequence of breed-specific laws is their tendency to compromise rather than enhance public safety. As certain breeds are regulated, individuals who exploit aggression in dogs are likely to turn to other, unregulated breeds (Sacks et al., 2000). Following enactment of a 1990 pit bull ban in Winnipeg, Canada, Rottweiler bites increased dramatically (Winnipeg reported bite statistics, 1984-2003). By contrast, following Winnipeg’s enactment of a breed-neutral dangerous dog law in 2000, pit bull bites remained low and both Rottweiler and total dog bites decreased significantly (Winnipeg reported bite statistics, 1984-2003). In Council Bluffs, Iowa, Boxer and Labrador Retriever bites increased sharply and total dog bites spiked following enactment of a pit bull ban in 2005 (Barrett, 2007).
Also of concern is the possibility that guardians of regulated or banned breeds will be driven “underground…making criminals of otherwise law-abiding people” and deterring them from seeking routine veterinary care, including having their dogs inoculated against rabies. In this regard, it is worth noting that whereas rabies currently kills one or two Americans annually and in some years none, up until the mid-twentieth century it killed approximately one hundred Americans annually. Worldwide, rabies currently kills approximately 55,000 people a year, “ninety-nine percent [of whom] are estimated to have contracted the disease from domestic dogs” (Bradley 2006).
It must also be considered that if limited animal control resources are used to regulate or ban a certain breed of dog, the focus is shifted away from routine, effective enforcement of laws that have the best chance of making communities safer: dog license laws, leash laws, animal fighting laws, anti-tethering laws, laws facilitating animal sterilization and laws that require guardians of all dog breeds to control their pets. In 2003, a task force formed to study the effectiveness of the Prince George’s County pit bull ban concluded the ban to be extremely costly while providing little attendant financial or public safety benefit to the county and noted that, as a direct result of the ban, "Animal Management Division human resources [are] stretched thin...thus reducing their ability to respond to other violations of the [Animal Control] Code." The task force recommended that Prince George’s County repeal the ban (Prince George’s County Task Force, 2003). However, while out-of-county pit bull adoptions were initiated, for political reasons the ban was not repealed. The Ohio pit bull law, enacted in 1989, has been accompanied by a doubling of dog fighting complaints by Ohio animal control agencies—from 14.6 percent of animal control agencies making complaints in 1996 to 29 percent of animal control agencies making such complaints in 2004 (Lord et al., 2006). Yet studies examining the impact of Britain’s Dangerous Dog Act of 1991 and the Spanish Dangerous Animals Act of 1999 (notwithstanding their names, both laws are breed-specific) indicate that the targeted breeds were not significantly associated with bite incidence prior to enactment of either law and that bite incidence failed to decrease post-enactment (Klaassen et al., 1996; Rosado, 2007).
Thus, the ASPCA is not aware of credible evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer either for people or other companion animals. There is, however, evidence that such laws unfairly target responsible pet guardians and their well-socialized dogs, are inhumane, and impede community safety and humane sheltering efforts (Sacks et al., 2000; Wapner, 2000; Taylor, 2004).
Although multiple communities have been studied where breed-specific legislation has been enacted, no convincing data indicates this strategy has succeeded anywhere to date (Klaassen et al., 1996; Ott et al., 2007; Rosado, 2007). Conversely, studies can be referenced that evidence clear, positive effects of carefully crafted, breed-neutral laws (Bradley, 2006). It is, therefore, the ASPCA’s position to oppose any state or local law to regulate or ban dogs based on breed. The ASPCA recognizes that dangerous dogs pose a community problem requiring serious attention. However, in light of the absence of scientific data indicating the efficacy of breed-specific laws, and the unfair and inhumane targeting of responsible pet guardians and their dogs that inevitably results when these laws are enacted, the ASPCA instead favors effective enforcement of a combination of breed-neutral laws that hold reckless dog guardians accountable for their dogs’ aggressive behavior. Ideally, a breed-neutral approach should include the following:
Enhanced enforcement of dog license laws, with adequate fees to augment animal control budgets and surcharges on ownership of unaltered dogs to help fund low-cost pet sterilization programs in the communities in which the fees are collected. To ensure a high licensing rate, Calgary, Canada—its animal control program funded entirely by license fees and fines—imposes a $250 penalty for failure to license a dog over three months of age (Calgary Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw, 2006).
Laws that mandate the sterilization of shelter animals, ideally before adoption, and make low-cost sterilization services widely available. (See ASPCA Position Statement on Mandatory Spay/Neuter Laws, 2008[link])
Enhanced enforcement of leash/dog-at-large laws, with adequate penalties to ensure that the laws are taken seriously and to augment animal control funding.
Dangerous dog laws that are breed-neutral and focus on the behavior of the individual guardian and dog (taking care to ensure that common puppy behaviors such as jumping up, rough play and nipping are not deemed evidence of dangerousness). Graduated penalties should include mandated sterilization and microchipping (or other permanent identification) of dogs deemed dangerous, and options for mandating muzzling, confinement, adult supervision, training and owner education. In aggravated circumstances—such as where the dog seriously injures or kills a person, or a qualified behaviorist who has personally evaluated the dog determines that the dog poses a substantial risk of such behavior—euthanasia may be justified. In Multnomah County, Oregon, a breed-neutral ordinance imposing graduated penalties on dogs and guardians according to the seriousness of the dog’s behavior has reduced repeat injurious bites from 25 percent to seven percent (Bradley, 2006).
Laws that hold dog guardians financially accountable for a failure to adhere to animal control laws, as well as civilly and criminally liable for unjustified injuries or damage caused by their dogs. Calgary, Canada, has reduced reported incidents of aggression by 56 percent and its bite incidents by 21 percent by requiring guardians of dogs who have displayed aggression to dogs or to humans to pay fines ranging from $250 to $1500 (Calgary Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw, 2006).
Laws that prohibit chaining or tethering (taking care also to prohibit unreasonable confinement once a dog is removed from a chain), coupled with enhanced enforcement of animal cruelty and animal fighting laws. Lawrence, Kansas, significantly reduced dog fighting and cruelty complaints by enacting an ordinance prohibiting tethering a dog for more than one hour (Belt, 2006).
Further, the ASPCA supports a community-based approach to resolving the reckless guardian/dangerous dog question whereby all stakeholders—animal control, animal shelters, medical and veterinary professionals, civic groups, teachers, public officials—collectively identify an appropriate dog bite prevention strategy. Central to this model is an “advisory council or task force representing a wide spectrum of community concerns and perspectives” whose members review available dog bite data, current laws, and “sources of ineffectiveness” and recommend realistic and enforceable policy, coupled with outreach to the media and educational efforts directed at those in regular contact with “dog owners and potential victims” (e.g., medical and veterinary professionals, animal control/shelters, teachers) (AVMA, 2001).
In summary, the ASPCA advocates the implementation of a community dog bite prevention program encompassing media and educational outreach in conjunction with the enactment, and vigorous enforcement, of breed-neutral laws that focus on the irresponsible and dangerous behavior of individual guardians and their dogs. The ASPCA believes that this approach—promoting education in the appropriate care, training and supervision of dogs as well as state and local laws that address licensing, reproductive status, chaining/improper confinement, cruel treatment and at-large dogs; imposing civil and criminal liability on guardians for their negligent and reckless behavior; and targeting problematic dogs and guardians early with progressively escalating penalties—constitutes the most compassionate, fair, efficient and ultimately effective means of resolving concerns related to dangerous dogs in the community.
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