The Truth About Breed Specific Legislation
BY EMILY VOLMAN
As Jim Sak’s leg starts to shake, Snickers knows what that means and immediately springs into action by pushing Jim against the wall to prevent him from falling. After suffering a stroke a few years back, Sak, a Vietnam War veteran and retired police officer, requires assistance with his mobility and Snickers, an eighty-five pound certified therapy dog, is perfect for the job. He is always by Sak’s side and the two have their routine down pat.
Their routine, however, came to a screeching halt in November 2011, when Sak, his wife Peggy and Snickers moved to Aurelia, Iowa to take care of Peggy’s aging mother. Within days, they received a notice from the City Council stating Snickers was not allowed to live with the Saks because he resembled a pit bull and the city has a ban against such dogs. Despite attending several City Council meetings to point out that the Federal American for Disabilities Act allows all breeds to service the disabled and proving that Snickers has never had an incident of aggression, the Saks were forced to send Snickers to a shelter outside of town. Sak suddenly found himself without his beloved companion and vital lifeline.
The Real Bully: Breed Specific Legislation
Unfortunately, Snicker’s story is not uncommon. City and county bans or restrictions against a singular breed of dog have been popping up around the world since the 1980s. Due to the popularity of gangs and sports figures during that era, pit bulls and other “tough-looking” dogs became sensationalized status symbols in the media. “Pit bulls have been around for centuries,” says Jana Mandes, founder of Nashville PITTIE (which stands for Pit Bull Initiative To Transform Image and Educate). “The dogs haven’t changed. They’re still great dogs with great temperaments. It’s the people who have changed perception about them.”
The bans and restrictions placed on pitties and other larger dogs are known as Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and is the blanket term for laws that either regulate or ban certain breeds completely in the hopes of reducing dog attacks. If the city does not enact a complete ban, they may impose limitations on dog guardians such as mandatory muzzling, special liability insurance, extra licensing, enclosure requirements and prohibitions in military housing. It is estimated that 300 cities and counties currently have BSL in force.
In 1989, Denver, Colorado placed city-wide ban against pit bulls and any dogs with “pit bull type characteristics”. As of two years ago, almost 3,500 dogs in Denver had been euthanized simply because they resembled these loving and highly misunderstood breeds. “What happened in Denver was devastating,” says Mandes. “Thousands of pets were taken from homes and they had never done anything wrong.”
Why BSL Doesn’t Work
Besides the obvious abomination of killing innocent dogs for no reason, breed specific laws are ineffective in so many other ways. Several organizations, from the American Kennel Club (AKC) to the American Bar Association, have issued statements opposing regulations of dogs based on breed. According to the United States Center for Disease Control, there is no scientific evidence that one breed of dog is more likely than another to injure a human being than any other kind of dog, and the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published an evidence-based analysis of the absurd amount of dogs who would have to be removed from a community in order to prevent even one serious dog attack. In addition, the National Canine Research Council published a report stating that “citizens of Denver have continued to suffer a higher rate of hospitalization from dog bite related injuries after the ban than the citizens of breed-neutral Colorado counties.”
“The number one reason BSL doesn’t work is the focus is on the dog, not the people,” says Jodi Preis, founder of Bless The Bullys and Pit Bull Awareness Day (held in Nashville and beyond each October). “It takes away all the responsibility from the person. When it comes to dog attacks, there is almost always a human at fault, and breed bans relinquish the accountability of dog guardians.”
The AKC agrees. In their “Statement on Dangerous Dogs” last published in May 2001, they state that “irresponsible dog owners are the root cause of the problem” and they encourage education to protect communities from any dangerous dog. “If you don’t reprimand, educate and change irresponsible dog owners,” says Preis, “they will be just as irresponsible with the next dog they get.”
But which dogs are “dangerous”? Most of the breed “specific” laws are anything but specific. Although many of them site pit bulls as the problem, they are quick to include “any dog exhibiting those distinguished characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established for any of the pit bull type breeds.” Such labeling is hard to interpret because, in fact, there is not any singular breed called “pit bull”, but rather a variety of bully breeds commonly lumped into that category (including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers)—and, furthermore, there are many breeds that are not pitties at all but are often assumed to be, such as Cane Corsos, Dogo Argentinos, American Bulldogs and Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldogs and others. (Not convinced? Go to www.nashvillepaw.com/pitbull and click on our “Find the Pit Bull Game” link to see if you can pick the true pittie out of the bunch.)
Nashville Paw magazine founder and publisher, Heather Dowdy, cuddles with her rescued pup, Briley. Briley is an American Pit Bull Terrier and, in many cities, would be banned--despite the fact that all she wants to do is give lots of snuggles!
BSL Costs Innocent Lives
These vague descriptions used in BSL have allowed virtually anyone to report an illegal “pit bull” in their neighborhood. As recently as July of this year, a dog named Lennox grabbed international attention when he was euthanized in Belfast, due to Northern Ireland’s pit bull ban. Despite the Prime Minister’s request for a stay of execution and Lennox’s guardian objecting that he was an American Bulldog / Labrador Retriever mix, Lennox was put to death without an opportunity for his guardian to say goodbye.
In Toledo, Ohio, where dog advocates such as Ohio Valley Dog Owners, Inc. have aggressively fought BSL in their state, the guardians of Lucas the American Boxer / Bullmastiff mix had to hire DNA experts to fight his potential death sentence because a shelter had labeled him as a pit bull. “BSL simply is not effective,” says Mandes. “Besides being completely discriminatory, it’s almost impossible to determine a mixed breed dog based on their appearance.”
BSL Costs Taxpayer Money
Another major inefficiency of BSL is cost. Best Friends Animal Society’s Fiscal Impact Calculator (which you’ll find online at guerrillaeconomics.biz/bestfriends) allows anyone to see the potential cost a breed ban law would have on a community. Such expenses as enforcement, kenneling, euthanasia and litigation, among others all come from the taxpayers. In Miami-Dade County, where a pit bull ban has been enacted since 1989, not only has it not reduced the amount of dog bite incidents, but it has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits and enforcement. Cincinnati, Ohio recently overturned a ban on pit bulls and pit bull mixes after the cost of enforcement dramatically increased and their animal control and court system became gridlocked. Another example of the price of breed bullying is Prince George’s County, Maryland, where they spend more than $250,000 annually to enforce its ban on pitties. In a study by the county in 2003, they noted that the ban’s effectiveness had “not improved the public’s safety” and that “there is no transgression committed by owner or animal that is not covered by another, non-breed specific portion of the Animal Control Code.”
BSL Costs Freedom of Responsible Dog Guardians
At the end of the day, even if a community had endless money to blow and DNA experts on staff to sort out the bully breeds, criminals will still own and abuse pittie breeds because criminals don’t care about the law. “You can make the strictest law that you want to, but [people using pit bulls for criminal activity] are already breaking laws,” says Preis. “The only ones who suffer are responsible guardians and their dogs.”
Like Jim Sak, responsible dog guardians and organizations who train service and therapy dogs suffer the most. While some of these laws have excluded service animals in their descriptions, many have not and it has affected assistance dogs for the handicapped, search and rescue dogs and even police K-9 units. Many trained, professional animals have lost their jobs and, worse, their lives simply because of their breeds.
The Local Impact of BSL
In the state of Tennessee, twenty-seven cities and counties have pit bull related bans currently on the books, and as recently as 2008, Senator Tommy Kirby of Wartburg tried to introduce a bill to make it a crime to own a “pit bull dog” in the entire state of Tennessee. “Unfortunately, we have several cities that have BSL, and some of them have had them on the books for a really long time,” says Preis. “Middle Tennessee State University has a boiler plate ordinance that any city can request to use, and it calls for many different restrictions. In Sparta, if you have a pit bull inside your house, you can’t have your windows open. You have to have signs on your property saying you have a dangerous dog, extra insurance and an outside enclosure cemented three feet into the ground with a cover. But if you call the Sparta City Hall, they will tell you that the law is only enforced if they need it. So what was the point? To have a headline for a day? These laws bring the breed reputation down and discourages responsible dog lovers from adopting one of these dogs. In very rural Fayetteville, they passed pit bull specific legislation with so many restrictions that, within the first two weeks of the law, “their tiny animal shelter put to death sixty-five dogs,” says Preis. “All because people could not afford the new regulations. People don’t know you can challenge these laws.”
Says Mandes, “We’re lucky that, in the last year, we have not had any Breed Specific Legislation come up in Davidson or its surrounding counties, but if we do, we have a group of people who are ready to go to Council meetings and educate the inefficiencies of these laws.”
The Real Solution to Dog Bites
“The most important thing is education,” says Preis. “For the last five years, the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada has had the lowest number of dog bites incidents in North America because they spend a significant amount of time and money on education. They go to schools and teach children how to interact with dogs. Most dog attacks happen to children inside their own home.” The American Humane Society reports that 82% of dog bites treated in emergency rooms involve children under fifteen years old and 70% of dog bite fatalities occurred among children under 10 years old.
The United States Center for Disease Control also released a study that showed a dog’s tendency toward aggression can be attributed to other factors beyond breed, such as heredity, sex, early experience, reproductive status socialization and training. “Chained dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite than a dog who is not chained,” says Mandes. “And having a community that offered more low cost spay and neuter programs would help much more than a breed ban.” After all, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sites that more than 70% of dog bite cases involve non-neutered male dogs. Says Mandes, “I’ve found that most people want to be responsible and take care of their pet, but they might not have the financial means to spay or neuter them or were not brought up in an environment that taught them how to take care of their animal.”
The simplest solution would be to enforce the laws that already exist, and, as one pittie advocate pointed out, “if a community cannot enforce the simplest of laws such as a leash law, how could they possible be expected to enforce a ban on a whole breed?” In addition to leash laws, many cities and counties have existing non-breed specific dangerous dog ordinances, but with such small fines, there is little incentive to stay above the law. “Because of the Tennessee Constitution, a criminal fine for an animal infraction cannot be over $50.00,” says Preis, “so if you have your dog running at large once or twenty times, it’s $50.00. It never goes up. I have drafted an ordinance that implements civil penalties in addition to criminal penalties. Although the criminal penalty will remain the same, every time you violate the Animal Control ordinance, you are going to have a civil sanction that increases. For instance, the first offense may cost you $100.00, but the second offense will be $200.00 and so on. The only thing that seems to get the attention of irresponsible pet guardians is squeezing their wallets. The dog guardian is the key, and you have to make them responsible for the actions of their dogs.”
How to Help Fight BSL
Preis maintains a Breed Specific Legislation list and monitors possible bans across the country. You can subscribe to her blog (see sidebar) to receive alerts, or simply “like” Bless The Bullys on Facebook and alerts will show up in your news feed. Preis also suggests writing a letter to your local City Council representative and go to City Council meetings should breed banning discussions come up. “A lot of times, I have seen one person on the Council very determined to pass a law, and the majority of the other council members either have no opinion about it or are sitting on the fence. So, while you may not be able to change the mind of that one determined person, you can make an impact on the people who don’t how they were going to vote. It really does open their eyes when they walk into a Council meeting with a full house. Don’t be discouraged by anyone that you’re not being heard or that you don’t have an impact. Fight for what you think is right.”
Local groups like Bless the Bullys and Nashville PITTIE are a vital place to start in making a local impact, but don’t stop there. National organizations such as BADRAP and StubbyDog are making great strides in positive bully awareness as well, and have great resources and education tools. You’ll find a listing of local and national pit bull resources on our website (see sidebar).
Most importantly, never give up! In the case of Snickers the service dog, the Saks fought for what they knew was right. With financial help from the nonprofit organization Animal Farm Foundation, the couple was able to hire an attorney who filed a motion for an injunction in federal court. It was granted just after Christmas last year and Snickers could finally come home. Before the restraining order was issued, Jim Sak was quoted as stating, “I was a policeman for thirty-two years. I understand there’s black and white, but there’s also an area of gray where you have to use your head. [The Council members are] not using their heads.” Well said, Jim.
For more positive pit bull articles, resources and information, please visit www.nashvillepaw.com/pitbull.
This article is from the Oct/Nov 2012 issue of Nashville Paw magazine.