The Fallacy of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)
When I started this blog, one of my goals was to provide an informative and open forum with a real honest look into veterinary medicine, not just in my home of Kingston, but also from a larger world-wide perspective. Right now, with an upcoming election in Ontario, there is a small focus on Breed Specific Legislation (BSL for short). What really needs to happen is that BSL needs to be brought to the forefront of the discussion within the public and veterinary community. The short and long of the discussion is that BSL is ineffective and ethically wrong. Here’s why…
In short, Breed Specific Legislation is tantamount to discrimination. The majority of the world has morally accepted and even placed laws into effect to ban discrimination. So why are we taking a step back and writing laws to encourage a bias against a group? It’s not 19th century America anymore! What kind of lesson does this teach children especially in today’s world and the ever present topic of bullying? Society is encouraging the picking on of some dogs for what amounts to how they look, not how they act.
The roots lie in the Dog Owners’ Liability Act which was amended in 2005 to include a specific ban on “pit bulls.” The act was originally intended to protect victims of dog bites while at the same time offering some degree of protection to the dog owner but also holding them liable. In theory, it’s a good idea by enforcing leash & muzzle use for a previous offender and requiring spaying or neutering. The problem goes back to the amendment that placed a specialized ban on “pit bulls” which in itself is “a misnomer and does not refer to a singe, recognized breed of dog, but rather to a genetically diverse group of breeds which are associated by certain physical traits.” The act defines multiple breeds to be considered “pit bulls” including American Staffordshire Terrriers & Staffordshire bull terriers. This creates a potential problem for the dog owners as there may not be a way for them to prove that the dog is not a pit bull. But in some cases, a DNA test will show that a dog is not a pit bull even if it has visible physical characteristics as was the case of a court action I was involved in back in Florida. This helps prove the old adage, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.
Does this dog look dangerous? Don’t judge
Let’s look at part of an example of a breed description from United Kennel Club, which is one of the groups the DOLA directs us to use in identifying a pit bull.
- SKULL – The skull is large, flat, deep, and broad between the ears. Viewed from the top, the skull is square. There is a deep median furrow that diminishes in depth from the stop to the occiput. Cheek muscles are prominent. MUZZLE – The muzzle is broad and thick, with a very slight taper from the stop to the nose. TEETH – Has a complete set of 42 large, evenly spaced, white teeth. NOSE – The nose is large, with wide, open nostrils. Black color is preferred, but shades of red or brown are acceptable. Lack of pigment is a cosmetic fault. EYES – Eyes are medium in size, round to almond shape, and set well apart. All colors are acceptable, but dark brown is preferred. Haw is not visible. Black eye rims are preferred. EARS – Ears may be cropped, but natural ears are preferred. Natural ears are small to medium size, high set, and may be drop, semi-prick, or rose.
- SKULL – The skull is large, flat or slightly rounded, deep, and broad between the ears. Viewed from the top, the skull tapers just slightly toward the stop. There is a deep median furrow that diminishes in depth from the stop to the occiput. Cheek muscles are prominent but free of wrinkles. MUZZLE – The muzzle is broad and deep with a very slight taper from the stop to the nose, and a slight falling away under the eyes. TEETH – Has a complete set of evenly spaced, white teeth meeting in a scissors bite. NOSE – The nose is large with wide, open nostrils. The nose may be any color. EYES – Eyes are medium size, round and set well apart and low on the skull. All colors are equally acceptable except blue, which is a serious fault. Haw should not be visible. EARS – Ears are high set and may be natural or cropped without preference. Prick, or flat, wide ears are not desired.
Can you tell which dog is a pit bull? They sound pretty similar. The other dog is not listed in the breed ban but is in fact an American Bulldog. The second description is that of the American Pit Bull Terrier. This again presents the problem of how these dogs are identified based on appearance and ultimately leads to the killing of thousands of innocent dogs.
Puppies like these are condemned to die because of how they look
Now, most veterinarians are against BSL in any city or municipality, including here in Kingston, Ontario. We have 8+ years of university education behind us and realize that the behavior of dogs is not tied to their breed but rather their handling and socialization. The act goes on to insult the veterinarians by placing the onus of writing a letter after a violation of the act (your dog bites someone) stating that a dog is a pit bull. This is wrong because I feel we cannot morally condemn a dog without knowing the facts. What caused the person to get bit? Did they approach the dog’s home? Did they try to pet it without asking the owner first? Was the dog running loose? Were any warning signs of defensive behavior shown? And most importantly, why are we not asked to write such a letter when the family Golden Retriever, Pug, or Border Collie bites someone?? This is flat out discrimination.
Who now is the vicious dog? It’s not fair to generalize.
Sure, I’ve been bitten before; I remember my first dog bite back in 1999. You know what it was? A dachshund! I’ve also been bitten by chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, and Jack Russell Terriers. You know what’s missing? Yeah, “pit bulls” are not on my list despite seeing 2-3 a day when I used to practice in Florida. Of course, I’ve come across a few that growled at me but who likes to go see the doctor anyway. Just a few days ago, I was nearly bitten again…by a labrador. The time before that I was lunged at by a Saint Bernard. Now, let us look at some facts.
The Canadian Veterinary Journal (distributed by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association) published an article in 2008 listing fatal dog attacks in Canada for the preceding 18 years. Of these 28 fatalities, only ONE dog deemed to be a pit bull was involved. The remaining dogs were husky breeds, rottweilers, a bull mastiff, a border collie, malamute, chow chow, and mixes including German Shepherds or labradors. In a few cases, the dog breed was not identified. A majority of these attacks (18 of 27)were also by dogs known to the victim or their family. Upon further review, a majority of these fatalities were due to the victim entering the dogs’ area/yard. Looking further at US statistics, since BSL was introduced in various parts of the countries, dog bite fatalities have actually increased. When you review the accurately detailed list on Wikipedia, numerous breeds are implicated. Yes, pit bulls are there but so are Rottweilers in large numbers, Saint Bernards, dachshunds, huskies or husky mixes, English sheepdogs, chows, and even a Pomeranian.
Is your dog next?
You’ve made it this far. I hope you’re getting to the same conclusion I am…it’s time to repeal the breed ban and end the discrimination. If the fallacy of the BSL isn’t apparent through statistics, the difficulty in breed identification, or the simple fact that thousands of dogs have been condemned to die for simply being from the wrong gene pool, perhaps the testimony of a parent named Donna Trempe who lost her child to a dog attack. It was not a pit bull either; it was a bull mastiff. You can read the full statement before a committee here but I have included a few excerpts.
- “I applaud certain sections of the bill: doubling fines to dangerous dog owners up to a maximum of $10,000, jail sentences, the requirement for dog owners to pay restitution to victims, and giving police and municipal bylaw officers the authority to search for dangerous dogs. What I don’t agree with is banning specific breeds.”
- “In my opinion, Bill 132 has its good points and its bad points. A bull mastiff, not a pit bull, killed my daughter. Rottweilers killed a three-year-old boy in Vancouver. Presa canarios killed a woman in San Francisco. Even small dogs such as west highland white terriers and cocker spaniels have been recorded as killer dogs.”
- “Am I against dogs? Not in any way. I love dogs and own a German shepherd. What I am against is irresponsible dog owners. I agree with the Humane Society of Canada that banning only pit bulls will not solve the dog-biting problem. German shepherds, cocker spaniels, Rottweilers and golden retrievers are actually the most common biters.”
Photo from Smilin’ Pit Bull Rescue
Ultimately, the root of the dog bite problem lies with the owners who don’t properly socialize their dogs and potentially those few who train them to be aggressive. The main facet of all this still remains that ANY dog can bite, maim, or kill a person. The problem lies with the people; not the dogs. It’s been suggested by numerous people and groups (including the OVMA, the Humane Society of Canada, and the Canadian Kennel Club) that Ontario replace this heinous legislation with the Calgary model which aims to prevent bites through education, spay/neuter programs, and penalties for owners. One of the reasons I believe that pit bulls have been targeted, is that the media hypes these reports up as they always love a good story. Other dogs bite too but you NEVER hear about it because it doesn’t get people’s attention. Despite the bans, bites haven’t decreased. Multiple attempts have been made to repeal the law but the government here in Ontario has always found ways to kill the bill. Fortunately, you can vote these people out of office and replace them with those who support Hershey’s Bill. It’s time for a change. It’s time to end the Breed Specific Legislation in Ontario.
Me with 2 great pit bull/mixes, Dagny (left) and Ethy (right) – some of my favorite patients ever. Very well behaved and a prime example of responsible owners.
Acknowledgement: Inspiration for this post and major assistance with research go to @MacBarksBack or visit his blog mac.bravesites.com for more info about what you can do to fight BSL