Many dog owners think of their pets as members of the family, but that’s not how the law sees it. Aggressive dogs may be put down by a court order, and all owners are responsible for dog bites and injuries incurred by their dog.
Sometimes, the law goes even further. In many parts of the country, owners of certain breeds considered “vicious”—usually pit bull-type dogs, Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, and German shepherds—are subject to tighter restrictions due to breed-specific legislation, or BSL, which is also called breed-discriminatory legislation.
BSL may cover a whole state, a specific county, or a particular municipality. Common BSL statutes may require owners of certain breeds to:
- Register with the government
- Spay or neuter their dog
- Use a muzzle and non-retractable leash when off property
- Purchase liability insurance to cover potential injuries
- Remove any puppies from the municipality, or turn them in to be euthanized
BSL may also prohibit the ownership of certain breeds altogether.
Is it fair to target specific breeds? And do the laws work?
Pit bulls: BSL’s favorite target
BSL tends to come down particularly hard on pit bulls. Media reports of fatal dog attacks often involve pit bulls; a few recent examples include that of a 71-year-old woman killed by a pit bull while picking up her granddaughters, a 6-year-old boy killed by a neighbor’s pit bull, and an 83-year-old man attacked and killed by three pit bulls. These deaths all occurred just in July of this year.
Proponents of BSL point out that a large percentage of injuries and deaths from dog attacks come from just a few breeds, and the data proves it. DogsBite.org, a nonprofit that educates on dangerous dogs and advocates for victims, supports pit bull bans, noting that 62 percent of 326 dog bite-related deaths from 2005–2014 were caused by pit bull attacks.
Going back a little further in time, a special report on veterinary medicine published in 2000 by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that while 25 breeds of dog were involved in fatal dog attacks recorded between 1979–1998, over half of those 238 deaths resulted from attacks by Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs.
However, the same report concludes that because the overall incidence of fatal attacks is low compared to the total number of dog bites (4.5 million per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), fatal attack data should not serve as the sole basis for public policy targeting particular breeds. The report also notes that it can be difficult to tell what breed a dog is.
Is breed-specific legislation constitutional?
Advocates for abolishing BSL have tried to show that these laws are unconstitutional, but state and federal courts have upheld their constitutionality on multiple occasions. In 2008, the United States Supreme Court denied a petition to hear a case from the Supreme Court of Ohio, Tellings v. Toledo, which ruled that BSL was constitutional in Ohio. By refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision, effectively securing a win for proponents of BSL.
Several states prohibit municipalities from passing BSL but allow them to pass laws regarding “dangerous dogs” that aren’t breed-specific.
But does it work?
Those in favor of BSL argue that restricting ownership or imposing additional safety measures on owners of dangerous breeds will lower the number of attacks. Given that BSL is constitutional and that certain breeds are, indeed, most often responsible for fatal attacks, the question remains: Does BSL work?
Many opponents say no. The National Canine Research Council cites evidence from several countries around the world showing that BSL is not effective at reducing the number of dog bites. It’s also costly to implement and difficult to enforce.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agrees. It identifies several problems and unintended consequences of BSL, including forcing outlawed breeds “into hiding” and making them more attractive to “irresponsible people.” The organization also asserts that there is no evidence that BSL makes communities safer. It advocates for breed-neutral laws that focus on dog owners rather than dogs.
Take responsibility for your dog
Ultimately, the dog’s owner is responsible for the dog’s behavior. To reduce the chances of your dog attacking—and possibly even killing—someone, have your male dog neutered. Unneutered male dogs are involved in 70 percent of dog bite cases, according to the ASPCA. Socialize your dog, and don’t let it play with dogs or people while unsupervised. Don’t let your dog give the breed a bad name.
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