We realize that there are many questions about breed-specific legislation (BSL). If you have a question that is not included here, please e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Breed-specific legislation often targets “pit bulls.” What is a “pit bull?”
A: That is a good question and one that generates a great deal of discussion with many people. One of the challenges regarding breed-specific legislation is that there isn’t actually a “pit bull” breed. Depending on who is defining what a pit bull is, there are several breeds (American Pit Bull Terrier, the Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier) that are often defined as “pit bulls.” There is not one standard description for what constitutes a “pit bull.”
Additionally, the term “bully breed” can be used in reference to pit bulls and that can encompass all of the above breeds plus sometimes Boxers, Mastiffs and even Boston Terriers. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the definition of what a pit bull is lends itself to some anti-pit bull organizations compiling statistics about dog bites that include all of these breeds, which is misleading.
Q: If BSL doesn’t work, why is it being put in place in so many areas?
A: The people who work at the municipalities that are bringing in BSL have good intentions. Their goal is to “toughen up” on problem dogs and reduce dog bites, which is what everyone wants. Unfortunately, there is a perception perpetuated by the media that certain breeds are prone to be problem dogs. Because of this, we see a knee-jerk reaction to target certain breeds. However, common sense, past experience and a range of studies show that this is not an effective solution.
There is no credible research or reports that show the effectiveness of BSL. In fact, when properly measured, statistics show that BSL is ineffective. It does not substantially decrease the incidence of dog bites or attacks. Upholding BSL bylaws demands additional resources, and the actions required to manage the process of ridding a community of a certain breed of dog are financially and emotionally costly.
Q: Why am I always hearing about certain breeds being involved in dog bites?
A: Journalists and media outlets often make factual errors when reporting on dog bites or attacks. Unfortunately, shrinking newsrooms and a 24-hour news cycle mean that the reporters are pushed to get the story to print, to the website or to broadcast immediately. This increases the chances of misidentifying the breed of the dog involved or getting the facts wrong. Because of the pressures that today’s journalists face to get the news out as soon as possible, if they don’t know, they may speculate or take unverified information as fact. This leads to specific breeds being given an unfair and untrue reputation as being vicious or dangerous types of dogs.
While most reporters want to get the facts right, sometimes they get it wrong. And it’s easy to get sidetracked by clichés or stories that the reporter knows will generate a great deal of attention. A well-researched, factual story about the details of a dog bite is harder to produce. Taking the easy road by using the “vicious pit bull attack” narrative is well established and guaranteed to provoke emotional responses from readers, listeners or viewers. This isn’t to say that all or even most reporters will take the easy route. It is important to remember that with today’s 24/7 news cycle, along with the influence of social media, the demand for immediate information on situations, and the fact that there is often not an editor or senior producer involved with a story, inaccurate or sensationalized media coverage has contributed to the myths, mistruths and misinformation about how dangerous some breeds are and has influenced the establishment of breed-specific legislation.
Q: Why are some breeds considered to be more dangerous than others?
A: There are many reasons that have resulted in a perfect storm of an unfounded bad reputation for some breeds. In the case of pit bulls, there is a perceived association with dog fighting and criminals, there has been irresponsible ownership by some people, and there has been extensive, inaccurate media coverage. This has all helped to build a public frenzy that has created the situation of mislabelling certain breeds – currently the pit bull – as “dangerous.”
A great deal of inaccurate information comes from journalists who erroneously report the specific breed after a dog bite or attack. This feeds into the myth of specific breeds being more dangerous than others. Some of the breeds that have faced this are Dobermans, German Shepherds, Rottweilers and, of course, pit bulls.
One of the challenges in legislating that a specific breed of dog is dangerous is that only the look or pedigree of the dog is taken into consideration. There are some incredible dogs who have never been aggressive, have never bitten anyone, and who show no signs of issues that are targeted only because of how they look – and are now considered to be dangerous. Mistakenly identifying a dog that is involved in a bite or attack as a pit bull when, in fact, it isn’t – has helped to build on the inaccurate belief that it is a dangerous breed.
How dogs are bred and raised, how they are treated by people, if they are being socialized, if they have had positive training, if they have a good temperament, and their specific living situations are all important components to consider. Some dogs are raised to be guard dogs. Some are taught to be aggressive. Some are bred without concern for temperament, or bred specifically to be intolerant of people or other animals. Some dogs are abused by humans and their aggression might be coming from a place of fear or pain. At the end of the day, all dogs are individuals and there are many factors that will influence their behaviour. Studies show over and over again that a dog’s breed is not a predictive factor in whether it will be aggressive. Studies also show that the vast majority (well over 90%) of dogs within any breed will never seriously bite.
Q: Are certain breeds more prone to bite?
A: There is not a reliable answer to this question. There is a range of studies on this, but when reviewing the results of these studies, the methodology needs to be taken into consideration. For example, there will be more reported dog bites from the most popular dog breed in that area because there are more of them.
In 2012, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) attempted to answer the questions around breed and bite frequency by doing a meta-analysis of 26 peer-reviewed studies on the topic, over three decades. While individual studies might show alarming bite rates of a particular breed, these are typically small regional studies and shouldn’t be used to make sweeping generalizations about breeds. When the AVMA reviewed these studies as a whole, they saw no clear patterns. Some studies did show pit bulls as the top biters, but others showed German Shepherds or herding breeds on top. Check out the information here.
You can find more information about this here.
All major evidence-based organizations, from the Centre for Disease Control to the American Veterinary Medical Association, to the Canadian and American Bar Associations and others, recommend taking breed out of the equation when implementing policy. The CDC attempted to study breed as a risk factor in dog bites, but found reliable breed identification to be extremely difficult and something that simply confounded any attempt to study dog aggression factors.
Q: So what does cause a dog to bite?
A: There are a number of risk factors that come up again and again when looking at incidences of dog attacks. A 2013 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that four or more of the following factors were present in fatal dog attacks:
- Dog was not familiar to victim
- Dog was not spayed or neutered (84% of cases)
- Victim was vulnerable or had diminished capacity (e.g., was a child, elderly or ill)
- Victim was alone
- Dog was not a family dog – lived outside or was tethered (76% of cases)
- Dog was mismanaged (not trained, roaming loose)
- History of abuse or neglect
Other studies have identified the following risk factors:
- Gender of dog (more likely to be male)
- Dogs roaming in packs
- A bite or aggressive incident in the past
Q: Aren’t pit bulls more dangerous than, say, a Chihuahua?
A: Any individual dog, no matter what the breed, that has not been properly bred, raised or trained, that has been mistreated or abused, or that has shown aggressive behaviour can be dangerous. Saying that one breed of dog is inherently more dangerous than another is misleading and this feeds into the negative hype. There are individual dogs in every breed that were not bred or raised properly, that have been abused, that have been trained to be aggressive or, in rare instances, are aggressive by nature. In fact, the vast majority of dogs in any breed will never bite.
Q: If pit bulls bite, don’t they do more damage than other dogs?
A: The severity of a bite depends on many variables, including the size of the dog. There are some studies that show a correlation between the size of the dog and the strength of the bite. There is no evidence-based research to show that a pit bull bite does any more damage than any other dog of the same size.
Animal Planet did a short study on whether pit bull breeds had a stronger bite and came up with some interesting findings, including that the force of a bite of a bully breed is actually less than several other breeds. You can find this information here.
Q: What is the best way to make my community safe from aggressive dogs?
A: Most aggressive dog behaviour occurs because the dog has been bred without regard to temperament, has been trained that way, has been abused, has been raised poorly (without training or by irresponsible backyard breeders) or is put in a position of fear or pain. The best way to keep a community safe is to put in legislation with clear, high standards for pet ownership and to enforce those laws. It is a dog owner’s responsibility to make sure that their dog can function reasonably within society.
While it’s important to identify and deal with individual dogs who have shown consistent aggression or who have been identified as a potential risk to the people who come in contact with them because of the dog’s behaviour, we can also reduce risk by reducing the vulnerability of victims. A study showed that children under 15 receive 80% of dog bites, making bite-free education for children an important factor in promoting community safety.
For some great information on how to help teach your children about interacting with dogs, click here.
Additionally, spaying or neutering your pet, providing proper veterinary care, and using humane training methods are other ways to ensure happier dogs and safer communities. Click here for some resources in BC that can provide outreach and low-cost services.
Q: If I see an aggressive dog in my neighbourhood, what should I do?
A: If you see a nuisance or aggressive dog in your neighbourhood, contact your local animal control department. This number should be available on the city or town’s website. Reporting problem dogs does not make you a bad neighbour and does not mean the dog will get in trouble. It means that your city’s animal services team has the opportunity to take action early, before that dog’s behaviour has a chance to escalate.
Almost without exception, any dog that seriously injures people has a long track record of minor bites and nuisance behaviour. By reporting all bites and incidences equally, we will also see a more balanced picture of which dogs (and which breeds) are causing problems.
For more information on what other actions you may be able to take to assist in your neighbourhood, please visit our Resources section.
Q: What happens if I have a dog that gets targeted by BSL? Do I have to move?
A: There are many challenges if you live in a city or region that legislates BSL into action.
If they are implementing BSL, they will often (though scarily, not always) have a grandfather clause. Most likely, you will have to leash and muzzle your dog. Other restrictions may include higher licensing fees, additional liability insurance, and a dedicated containment kennel on your property. Unless you can make a strong case on the basis of breed identification, you are legally required to comply with the bylaw and can be fined or charged accordingly.
Luckily, most BSL requires leashing and muzzling, which can be unpleasant for the owner of a friendly, harmless dog, but is manageable for many. Most jurisdictions stop short of a full ban.
Q: What cities have BSL in place?
A: That is information that is always changing. The best way to find out if a city has BSL is by going to that city’s web page and looking at their bylaws. If they have BSL, it will be listed there.
Q: What can I do to help stop BSL?
A: There are several things you can do to help stop or pull back BSL. They include:
- Be a good dog owner, no matter what breed of dog you have. Everyone should be accountable and model a high standard of dog ownership. Responsible dog ownership means that you are proactive about keeping your dog and the people who interact with your dog safe.
- Speak up about BSL and how it affects innocent families with pets who have shown no signs of aggression and who “look like a pit bull” and about how ineffective it is. Many people are not aware that these laws exist, how emotionally devastating they can be for a family, or how ineffective and costly they are. Share this information with people so that they can be informed about this issue. Even if you don’t have a dog breed or “look” currently being targeted by BSL, it is important to make other people aware of this issue.
- Monitor the activity of your city council, strata council, or any other regulatory body that might be tempted to consider this kind of legislation. When a “pit bull” story hits the headlines, people can become fearful and panic and legislation can be passed quickly when people haven’t looked at all sides of the issue.
- Speak up against media sensationalism. (You can find more information in our Correspondence to Media section.)
It is important to understand that your voice matters if your community is considering BSL. It is crucial that you put forward information to your local government that showcases that BSL does not work – and that it is, in fact, destructive to the families that have dogs who look like the identified breed that is to be banned. It is much easier to stop BSL from being passed than it is to have it repealed.