The Fallacy of Breed Specific Legislation

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The Fallacy of Breed Specific Legislation

By Marie Seelmeyer


               In response to a few highly publicized fatal and serious dog attacks over the past two decades, certain breeds of dogs have been labeled as dangerous and restricted or outlawed in many areas. This paper will review the history and effectiveness of breed specific legislation (BSL) also known as breed bans. It will also present scientifically based solutions to dog bite issues.

Definition and History

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal (2010) defines BSL as “…a blanket term for laws that either regulate or ban certain [dog] breeds completely in the hopes of reducing dog attacks.” The first documented BSL was a Hollywood Florida city ordinance requiring all owners of pit bull type dogs to “complete special registration forms and prove the possession of $25,000 of public liability insurance…” (Weiss 2001, p1).  Currently, over 38 states and hundreds of cities and counties have a complete ban or some form of breed restriction. These laws range from increased registration fees for targeted breeds in North Little Rock Arkansas to complete banning of these breeds anywhere within the city limits for any reason in Denver Colorado.(Weiss, 2001, p1)

The Reasons for Breed Bans

             Sacks, Sinclair, Gilchrist et al. (2000) reported that pit bull type dogs, Rottweilers, and mixes containing these breeds were responsible over 60% of fatal attacks of humans over a twenty  year period (page 837). Other studies support this data. Considering breed only, and no other contributing factors, a conclusion can easily be reached that pit bulls and Rottweilers pose a threat to human safety. Pit bulls were originally bred for fighting bulls. Rottweilers were bred as military attack dogs. Both breeds have very powerful jaws designed to tear apart the body of an opponent. Consequently, bite wounds inflicted by these dogs will be more serious than those inflicted by a toy or companion breed of dog. Breed-specific legislation is an attempt to reduce the number of “dangerous dogs” in a given area, in order to protect the public.

The Fallacies of Breed Bans

            Sacks  et al. (2000) reported only fatal dog bites, which account for a small percentage of total dog bites. The study considered several factors including the age of the victim (most were under 11 years of age), the location and control of the dog at the time of the attack (over 80 % were off-leash), and the number of dogs involved in the attack. Breed specific legislation does not address any factor except breed.

            Sacks et al (2000) stated several flaws in their study.  They could not obtain actual breed population numbers, and therefore could not accurately report percentages of each breed involved in fatal attacks. They were unable to obtain a list of actual breeds included in the “pit-bull type” description. Only with more detailed and truly breed specific information can an accurate study be conducted (p838).

            Often breed specific legislation defines a breed type based on physical characteristics, not pedigree or DNA analysis.  The Denver Colorado ordinance (Section 8-55b-1) reads in part “A ‘pit bull’…is defined as any dog…displaying the majority of physical traits of [American Staffordshire terrier, or Staffordshire bull terrier].”  Boxer mixes, bull terrier mixes and other combinations of dogs may exhibit physical traits similar to those of the banned breeds, but have no Staffordshire terrier or American pit bull terrier DNA or parentage. In Aurora Colorado, the determination of breed traits is made by an animal control officer, not an American Kennel Club trained judge, or even a veterinary professional. This definition and its application are subjective and not scientific.

The Denver ordinance forbids anyone from possessing, or transporting a pit bull within the city of Denver. This law prevents responsible owners of these dogs, who lawfully reside outside of Denver, from obtaining veterinary care or training services within Denver. Consequently, only 4 of 20 certified pet dog trainers surveyed in the Denver-metro area will accept “bully breeds” (which includes pit bulls) for training (personal phone survey, February 13, 2010). These factors discourage appropriate veterinary care and training of dogs responsibly and legally owned.

Professional Position on Breed Bans

            Several professional organizations have spoken out against breed-specific legislation. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (2001) “opposes any law that deems a dog as dangerous or vicious based on appearance, breed or phenotype. . . The only [accurate] predictor of behavior is behavior.” The ASPCA  (2010) “opposes ‘dangerous dog laws’ that designate/define specific breeds as ‘dangerous’…without regard to temperament or behavior of the individual dog.” The American Veterinary Medical Association (2010) “supports dangerous animal legislation by state, county, or municipal governments provided that legislation does not refer to specific breeds or classes of animals.” To my knowledge, no professional animal care organization supports breed specific legislation.

Alternatives to Breed Bans

The AVMA Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interaction (2001) advocates a multifocal approach to reduce dog bites. Veterinary and behavior professionals should work in cooperation with legislators and animal control officers to devise legislation that targets the behavior of individual dogs, the reasons for that behavior, the potential for repeated aggression and the responsibility of the dog’s owner.

Communities should support and promote public bite prevention and basic dog behavior workshops. Local communities can use incentives, such as reduced licensing fees, to encourage basic obedience training. For example, the city of Aurora Colorado currently offers reduced licensing fees for dogs who have achieved the Canine Good Citizenship Award (Aurora Animal Care Division 2010)

            Animal control agencies should strictly enforce current leash, licensing and  spay/neuter laws.  According  to Osher (2010), “… there are about 177,000 dogs in Denver, 22,000 of which are licensed” (p. 1A). Based on this estimates 155,000 dogs are unregulated in this city of 600,000 people. Dogs which are unlicensed may also be untrained and/or not provided with appropriate medical care. Enforcing of the current animal licensing requirement would promote more responsible dog ownership in general.

Individual dogs determined to be potentially dangerous should be thoroughly evaluated by a veterinarian and a qualified behavioral professional to determine the reason for the aggression and the potential for repeated aggression. The court should consider the results of these evaluations with the owner’s history of responsible, or irresponsible, care when determining an appropriate disposition. When practical, that disposition can include court ordered medical treatment or behavioral modification.


            Breed Specific Legislation represents a temporary treatment to a multi-faceted problem, based on incomplete data and public reaction. Several factors influence dog aggression and the extent of injury caused by these bites. The ASPCA advocates dangerous dog legislation that “target[s] only those [individual] dogs who truly pose unjustified risks to people or other animals.” Local governments, animal care professionals and animal owners should work together to decrease dog related injuries and improve the lives of all dogs, regardless of the dog’s breed.


American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Breed Specific Legislation.              

Retrieved March 10, 2010

American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dangerous Dog/Reckless Owner Laws.  the-issues/dangerous-dog-reckless-owner-laws.html  Retrieved March 12, 2010

American Veterinary Medical Association, Dangerous Animal Legislation (2005)   …

American Veterinary Medical Association Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine           Interactions, A community approach to dog bite prevention. JAVMA Vol. 218 No. 11(2001)  pp1732-1746. doi: 10.2460/javma.2001.218.1732

Association of Pet Dog Trainers, Breed Specific Legislation Position Statement (2001)    …

Aurora Animal Care Division, Available Licenses and Permits.                  e/Licenses__Permits__and_Forms/index.htm.  Retrieved April 6 2010

City of Aurora, Requirements for Keeping Pit Bulls and other Restricted Breeds. Code of the   City of Aurora Colorado Chap. 14 Sec. 14-75.   –            publication/019892.pdf. Retrieved March 25, 2010

Denver, Revised Municipal Code-Animals Article 5, Chapter 8, Sec. 8-55-60 (1989)   …                        Retrieved March 20, 2010

International Association of Canine Professionals, Position Statement on Breed Specific           Legislation.…     North Little Rock Municipal Code Sec. 10-44 (2001).…

Osher, C (2010, March 26) Bark Place. The Denver Post, pp.1A, 9A

Sacks, J., Sinclair, L., Gilchrist, J., Golab, G., & Lockwood, R (2000) Breeds of dogs involved in      fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998. JAVMA Vol. 217 No. 6,           pp 836-840. doi:10.2460/javma.2000.217.836

Weiss, L (2001) Breed Specific Legislation in the United States                                        Michigan State University College of Law.   …