The American Humane Association estimates there are 800,000 dog bites requiring medical attention each year, which has put vicious-dog legislation at the forefront of many city and state agendas. In an attempt to protect the public, approximately 300 localities have banned breeds of dogs that are thought to be dangerous, according to the National Canine Research Council. Localities often struggle with the best way to protect the public from dangerous dogs. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) supports legislation with a focus on a dog’s behavior over a ban on certain breeds that some people believe to be dangerous.
Behavioral experts recognize that the breed of a dog does not dictate its disposition; instead, the training and care of the dog determines its tendency toward aggressiveness. Results from the American Temperament Test Society showed that “pit bulls” have a temperament rating slightly better than other dogs, with an 86.8-percent passing rate, compared to an 82.8 percent rate for all breeds.
A study done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that factors other than breed can affect aggression in dogs, such as socialization, breeding, gender, training and early experiences. In addition, the CDC found that the study “…does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and this is not appropriate for policy-making decision related to the topic.” The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) also commented on the study, stating, “In contrast to what has been reported in the news media, the data…cannot be used to infer any breed-specific risk for dog bite fatalities.”
Many jurisdictions have found breed-specific legislation to be ineffective. In February 2012, Ohio repealed its breed-specific ban. In Prince George’s County, Md., a task force was formed to look at the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation that had been put into effect. After completing its research, the task force recommended repealing the ban, finding that:
• Public safety did not improve as a result of the ban;
• The county was spending more than $250,000 per year to round up and destroy banned dogs; and
• There were other laws in place that dealt with vicious animals, public nuisance and other public safety concerns.
The goal of public safety is not served by diverting valuable resources away from regulating animals that represent a true threat to public safety. Jurisdictions would need to pay for enforcement, kenneling, veterinary care, DNA testing, and litigation and euthanasia costs. Maryland is considering overturning a court case, Tracy v. Solesky, which declared pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls as inherently dangerous dogs.
A cost calculator, developed for Best Friends Animal Society, provides estimates of costs associated with breed-specific legislation. Using this calculator, the cost to Maryland to ban pit-bull type dogs is estimated at more than $8 million. If a federal ban on pit bulls were to pass in the United States, the study estimated it would cost almost $460 million to enforce.
Laws that focus on the behavior of the dog, rather than the breed of dog, will protect the public far more effectively without penalizing pets that don’t represent a threat. Breed discrimination gives people a false sense of security by suggesting that dogs that behave aggressively have been removed from society. As we can see from the Prince George’s County study, public safety did not improve when a breed-specific ban was in place.
Randomly euthanizing several breeds of dogs, from pit bulls to German shepherds to Rottweilers, most of which have never displayed prior aggressive behavior, is not the answer. Behavior of a particular dog is the only reliable method for determining whether that dog is a threat to public safety.
Cathy Calliotte is vice president of marketing and communications for the Washington, D.C.–based Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. PIJAC provides its members a voice in state and national legislative issues through advocacy and timely information regarding upcoming policy issues that affect the pet industry, pet owners and the animals they care for.