Does Banning Specific Dog Breeds Improve Public Safety?

An investigation in the UK shows that breed-specific legislation is not working.

Posted Nov 28, 2018

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Pitbull terrier
Source: CC Public Domain

In many places one of the most contentious issues faced by dog owners has to do with laws that attempt to protect the public from dog bites from dangerous and aggressive dogs. Typically, such laws are hastily put together as a political response to an outcry in the media due to some high profile incidents where people were mauled, or perhaps even killed, by dogs of an identifiable breed. An example of this can be found in the UK in its 1991 "Dangerous Dogs Act."

I think that most responsible people can agree with a law that makes it a crime for an owner to allow any dog "to be dangerously out of control." However the law in the UK took an action which many dog owners and dog organizations find offensive — namely the banning of specific breeds of dogs. Section 1 of the Act includes the so-called Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL), which makes it illegal to own, sell, breed, give away or abandon specific breeds/types of dog regardless of the animal’s behavior or temperament. The British parliamentarians chose to be fairly conservative in designating the list of dangerous breeds, limiting themselves to four dog breeds known to be bred for fighting. These are the pit bull terrier, Japanese tosa, dogo Argentino, and fila Brasileiro. However, like most other examples of breed-specific legislation, the act permits any dog to be seized as a "dangerous dog" simply because a member of a police force concludes that the dog "looks like" one of those breeds. If this happens, the dog is placed in a police-appointed kennel pending examination. Even if the dog has no genetic relationship to one of these banned breeds, based only on its appearance, the owner may still have to go through the courts if they want to keep it. To do so they must be deemed a "fit and proper" owner and the dog must be assessed as not posing a risk to public safety.

Numerous animal welfare groups have argued that breed-specific legislation is really not useful, and is ultimately unfair and arbitrary. Politicians, on the other hand, have become concerned for budgetary reasons. Specifically it was revealed that in the past eight years, 3 million British pounds has been spent on kenneling seized dogs, and over 5 million pounds on police costs for investigation and prosecutions. Ultimately the combination of pressure from animal groups and budget minded politicians triggered a parliamentary investigation by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The inquiry was launched to investigate breed-specific legislation and the wider implications associated with dog control covered by the Dangerous Dog Act. The resulting report indicates that there are definitely problems with the current law, and no evidence for any benefit to public safety.

The data obtained reveals a distressing pattern, since more than half of the dogs killed after being seized by police have not harmed anyone. The latest available figures show that in 2015 to 2016 a total of 307 dogs were destroyed after being seized, but that 175 of these (57%) would be widely regarded as “innocent." In fact, the vast majority of dogs seized during that period (599 out of a total of 731, or 82%) had not attacked anyone or showed dangerous intentions. Nonetheless, their owners faced a long and expensive legal fight if they decided to try to get their pets back.

The death of innocent dogs does not seem to bother some of the politicians involved. For example the parliamentary report notes comments made by Environment Minister Lord Gardiner, when he appeared before the committee. He was questioned about a case of a pit-bull type dog which had to be put down by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home despite the fact that it was clear to all involved that the dog posed no threat to anyone. Asked whether he regarded the death of the dog who appeared to have been "good-tempered," as "merely collateral damage," the minister blandly replied "Yes", with no further elaboration.

The information uncovered in this investigation makes it clear that the existing legislation has not improved public safety. The report noted that figures from 2015 suggested that hospital admissions related to dog bites had risen 76% from those recorded 10 years previously. Furthermore the committee pointed to RSPCA statistics which indicated that of the 30 people killed by dogs between 1991 and 2016, 21 of them (70%) had been attacked by dogs that were not banned breeds.

Obviously this new set of data indicates that breed-specific legislation is not working in the UK. However, its very existence allows individuals with political agendas to use the list of banned breeds to further their own aims. Recently PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) submitted a proposal to amend the Dangerous Dog Act by adding Staffordshire Bull Terriers to the banned list of dangerous dog breeds. What is astonishing is that they argue that it should be done for their protection of the dogs.

The PETA website states that Staffies are "one of the most abused [breeds] – in fact, the RSPCA has confirmed that 80 per cent of its cruelty-to-animals prosecutions concern Staffies. The breed is also the most likely to be abducted and used by criminal gangs for fighting rings or as guard dogs." The website then asks the question "why would anyone fight the introduction of legislation that would prevent people from bringing more of them into a world that treats many so cruelly?"

Apparently the members of PETA do not see the absurdity of their argument. It is equivalent to arguing that the solution to the problem of child abuse is to make it illegal for people to have children. However, the motivation behind PETA's proposal becomes obvious when we consider that its founder, Ingrid Newkirk, stated in an interview with Newsday in February 1988, “In the end, I think it would be lovely if we stopped this whole notion of pets altogether.” Obviously, putting all dog breeds on the banned list would be one way to help achieve this "lovely" outcome.

In response to PETA's action, a national petition was signed by more than 156,000 people in a bid to stop this breed from being banned. The petition was set up by Steve Quinn, who said Staffies are loving companions and people created dangerous dogs rather than breeds of dog being bad.

Once a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, it has to be debated by Parliament. The outcome has apparently gone well for the petitioners since a spokesman told the BBC that "The Government has no intention of prohibiting the keeping of Staffordshire Bull Terriers." This was interpreted by many people as an act of kindness which will keep another dog breed from being abused by breed-specific legislation. It was also was taken as an indication that the government is considering recommendations for a major set of changes for the Dangerous Dog Act, perhaps also modifying or abandoning the concept of breed-specific legislation itself, however after a parliamentary debate of the report the UK decided not to make any new amendments to their Dangerous Dog Act.

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