Breed-specific legislation (commonly referred to as BSL) is a law or ordinance that is passed to impose regulations on specific dog breeds.
Such regulations can also apply to mixed breeds and even dogs that visually appear to be, or resemble, a certain type of breed. While many people equate BSL with the 'banning' of breeds, it can also be enacted to mandate limitations and precautions such as mandatory muzzling, not being off-leash in a public setting, liability insurance requirements for the owners, enclosure requirements, etc.
What Is The Purpose of BSL?
Breed-specific legislation is a political reaction to public outcry following a well-publicized bite or attack incident by a dog of a particular breed. Acting on the belief that a breed of dog is inherently dangerous and therefore jeopardizes public safety, BSL is introduced to remove the threat to public safety by either banning the breed outright or placing strict limitations on the breed's ownership.
Which Dog Breeds Are Targeted By BSL?
There is no limit on which breeds could potentially be targeted with Breed Specific Legislation - it is at the whim of officials in various levels of government. One commonly cited example of how extreme BSL can become is Italy where, at one point, over 90 different breeds of dogs were included in Breed Specific Legislation.
In North America, breeds (and breed mixes) that are commonly targeted by BSL include: Pit Bull type dogs (the commonly used name of "Pit Bull" is not actually a breed, it describes a 'type' of dog), American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, Bull Terrier, American Bulldog, Akita, Rottweiler, Chow Chow, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, German Shepherds, Dobermans, and wolf-hybrids.
The Problems With Breed Specific Legislation
"Panic policymaking is defined as the speedy creation of new laws and regulations or new duties for governmental and private institutions in a situation of sudden, unreasoning, and excessive fear and anger." (1) The majority of breed-discriminatory laws stem from just such a situation: A dog bite or attack, usually with high media visibility.
According to Cass Sunstein, "In the aftermath of a highly publicized event people are more fearful than they ought to be – the phenomenon of ‘availability bias.’ An available incident can lead to excessive fixation on worst-case scenarios." (2)
Implementing BSL is based on the belief that it will improve public safety - but how can we tell if it works? If a breed of dog is thought to be inherently dangerous to public safety due to a propensity for biting, it's logical to conclude that the banning or restriction of the breed will result in a decrease in the overall number of dog bite incidents.
Breed bans have been in place for an extended period of time all over the world. Due to this, reliable statistical evidence is available that shows dog bite incident numbers have not improved after BSL is put in place and, accordingly, many instances of BSL are being repealed.
Examples of this include:
Studies of pre-ban and post-ban dog bite rates in the United Kingdom and Spain concluded that their Breed Specific Legislation had no effect on reducing dog bites.
Italy has dramatically revised its breed restrictions, stating that the restrictions had no scientific justification.
In 2008, a 15 year ban on Pit Bull type dogs was ended in The Netherlands because it had not lead to a reduction in the overall number of dog bites. They now focus their efforts on owner education and leash laws.
Despite a breed ban going into effect in Denver, Colorado (1989), citizens of Denver continued to have a higher hospitalization rate for dog bite-related injuries than Colorado counties without breed bans.
BSL is predicated on the mistaken belief that certain breeds are genetically predisposed to aggressive behaviour rather than acknowledging any dog can bite regardless of size or breed, and that there are a wide variety of unique contributing factors that can add up to any one dog's bite behaviour.
Emotional responses to sensationalized incidents create breed bans despite the fact that an incredibly small percentage of dogs within a given breed may be guilty of an aggressive act. How can such a large population of well-behaved dogs be punished (and all too often be put to death) because of the acts of so few? There is no logical, objective or scientific reasoning that can explain it, and that's why so many professional organizations oppose Breed Specific Legislation.
Examples of this include:
American Animal Hospital Association,
American Dog Owner's Association,
American Humane Association,
American Kennel Club,
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,
American Veterinary Medical Association,
Association of Pet Dog Trainers,
Best Friends Animal Society,
Canadian Kennel Club,
Centers for Disease Control,
Humane Society of the United States,
The Pet Professional Guild,
International Association of Canine Professionals,
National Animal Control Association,
National Animal Interest Alliance,
National Association of Obedience Instructors,
Countless veterinary medical associations and humane organizations.
What's The Alternative?
Among those who oppose BSL it is generally agreed that the most effective way to safeguard public safety is through a combination of licensing, education, spay/neuter, humane dog ownership practices and dealing with the actions of individual problem dogs (and their owners) rather than targeting breeds.
"Breed-specific legislation is not an effective approach for regulating dogs' behaviour in communities. Although such bans might comfort individuals who have had unpleasant experiences with particular breeds or have heard of attacks by specific dog breeds in the media, the bans do not act to effectively regulate the behaviour of any breed or of dogs and their owners collectively ... Government officials at the local and state level should focus on the problem itself - dangerous canine behaviour - and concentrate their efforts on dogs' and owners' conduct. In doing so, officials can maintain a safe community for both dog owners and other residents." (3)
The program put in place by the city of Calgary is often used as a shining example of effectiveness. While the population of the city continues to increase, the dog bite rate is at a 25 year low without any Breed Specific Legislation in place.
1 Susan Hunter and Richard A. Brisbin, Jr., Panic Policy Making: Canine Breed Bans in Canada and the United States, 1, Prepared for delivery at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association (2007).
2 Cass Sunstein, Worst-Case Scenarios, (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 6.
3 "Breed Specific Legislation in the United States" - Linda S. Weiss. Michigan State University College of Law (2001). Place of publication: Animal Legal and Historical Web Center.