Dangerous Dog Diatribe


What is BSL?

Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is legislation that proposes certain breeds of dogs are inherently “dangerous” “aggressive” or “vicious” and that ownership of said breeds should be heavily regulated or even banned. BSL identifies a dog as dangerous based on breed alone regardless of the actions or behaviors an individual dog. At present it is mainly concerned with bull-breeds and mastiff type dogs, though the list of banned dog breeds is growing.

Why does it exist?

The reason BSL exists at all is some people became afraid of certain dog breeds due to media exploitation. Or they were involved directly or indirectly with a fatal attack by a dog. That is really sad. As bull breed expert Diane Jessup said to me, “People have wanted love Pit Bulls but are not allowed to by the media”. Not everyone will take the extra steps to find out the truth. When you actually look at the stories behind dog incidents you always find the same criteria, which are various forms of human negligence or ignorance. We will go into that in depth in a later segment.

Breed banning started in the late 80’s to early 90’s. I believe the first cities to institute BSL were Denver and Miami. It gained legs in a time when media attention and fear tactics were leveled at dogs unlike any other period in history. This was especially true during the 1980 when the Pit Bull and anything that resembled a bully breed led the media to frenzy. This media sensationalism has removed much of the rational thinking surrounding dogs and their behavior.

Urban myths become reality with the help of sensationalistic media. This has been the case with breeds of the past be it the 1800’s with “bloodhounds” or the 1970’s Doberman myths. Dogs get reputations because people attach unrealistic behaviors to them. In addition, when dogs get a reputation for being aggressive, people who are drawn to that type of behavior seek out the dogs with the reputation. It becomes a vicious cycle. When breeds become a trend or a “fad” they suffer, whether in the case of pit bulls and substandard owners using the dogs for ill intent or the Dalmatians who are over-bred every time 101 Dalmatians is re-released.

What is wrong with BSL?

Unfortunately most BSL addresses little in the way of responsibility for the dog owner’s practices, behavior, and education. It simply, and inaccurately blames a breed for a single dog’s action. This BSL system of breed identification and subsequent bans is flawed because identifying a breed is not how we make communities safer or lessen dangerous dog-related incidents.

To level blame at a dog “breed” for a dog attack is akin to blaming a certain make of car for a car crash. Cars generally crash because of human error. Humans need to get this one correct; it is the humans who are breeding, selling, maintaining and training or not training the dogs. If left to its own devices a dog would hunt, scavenge, have sex, frolic and play a bit and look for shelter. The weak ones would die and the rest would get vetted out and ranked accordingly as time went on, period.

There is no canine conspiracy afoot in the shadows of dogs’ minds. Maybe a plan to steal a steak left on a plate or raid the cookie jars… (food-seeking) but that’s about it.

This notion of “bad dogs” is anathema. Dog behavior is contextual and dog behavior is shaped by daily stimuli, be it positive, negative, or stagnant. One thing we know for sure is that dogs do not “snap out of nowhere”. It takes time. Sadly the vast majority of people who own dogs, as well as many so called “professionals” do not know how to assess dog behavior correctly.

Most people are not educated about how to deal with a dog that is exhibiting potential aggressive behavior or behavior that appears aggressive, when it is actually not. So many dog behaviors, benign or serious, are dealt with incorrectly or not noticed at all.

Perhaps you live next to or near a negligent dog owner whose dog is being allowed to cause problems. For most people it is not a concern. Maybe that is why BSL has gained so much ground? The majority of people are unaware or do not care because it does not affect them directly. It mainly affects people with dogs that have been banned; Pits & Rottweilers get it worst, then Akitas and Chows, it descends to look-alike dogs, some rare breeds like the Dogo and “bully breed” dogs who have been bred to be big as deterrents to home invasion.

I would surmise that more people and dogs have been adversely affected by the law banning dogs than by dogs that have done anything fatally egregious based on the current statistics of dogs involved in fatal attacks.

Do the math. How many people died from swimming in the ocean last year? People still flock to the beach. How many people died in cars, or were killed by a known human? The list of other seemingly innocuous risks that cause more harm than in comparison to dogs is long and almost comical, bath mats, tea cozies, balloons, etc. Yet somehow dogs are perceived as more dangerous, even in the face of statistics that prove otherwise.

In the U.S. there are fewer than 20 deaths a year by dogs. Dog bites that result in some form of surgery or stitches etc… are fewer than 200 yearly.

The CDC says that 4 million dog bites are reported through the emergency department records in a year. I will hazard a guess that these people are going to the ER because it was an animal and they are concerned about rabies as well as wanting to have a record of the incident possibly for legal purposes or for insurance claims. People cover bases, especially in the litigious world we have now. These 4 million bites are on par with kitchen accidents and play ground injuries. Yet, the last time I checked swing sets and kitchen utensils were not on the list to be banned.

Considering the number of dogs in the U.S. alone, some 74 million, by sheer numbers the odds of actually getting bitten by a dog is astronomical, yet it rarely happens. This is amazing evidence in favor of the safety of dogs! The CDC also states that of the 4 million reported dog bites most come from known dogs; many of these dogs’ are family pets.

Based on the facts, we can all go get a beverage or go play with our dogs right now and stop worrying about dangerous dog breeds. Based on the numbers of fatal attacks however you break it down; dogs are an extremely low-risk.

In no way do I think being hurt or killed by a dog is meaningless or that it should not be dealt with logically. What I am concerned about is the unfair treatment of dogs and their owners that have never and most likely will never hurt anyone purely based on breed-type.

Sorry, BSL is not the answer. Dogs have been an integral part of our survival and our history. Dogs continue to give us immeasurable joy and serve human kind in so many ways. Human behavior and ignorance are the root causes of dog attacks. Getting rid of dogs will not solve anything. We need to deal with the root cause.

The myth about Pit Bulls does not only invade the fear centers of soccer moms and young children. There are dog trainers who refuse to work with them no matter the astounding history of friendliness of the dog. There are people working in shelters right now who are afraid of a dog because it is a Pit Bull. Not because there has been any cause for alarm, just because the person has been conditioned to fear Pit Bulls.
What makes this sad is that it leads to unfair treatment of dogs by the very people who could be helping them and educating the community. If we are misdiagnosing or choosing what dogs to promote or place based on personal bias we are in trouble. This mindset is the residue of breed banning and media generated canine fear.

What can be done to reduce dog attacks and improve dog related legislation?

I have often said that the cause for breed bans is a fear and a lack of education about dogs. The subject of the BSL debate is dogs and their behavior, which can be attributed directly to humans. Ownership practices and the lack of proper education about dogs are at the forefront of all fatal dog incidents.

Holding dog owners responsible for their dogs’ actions is one way to redirect the responsibility to dog attacks where it belongs. Maybe the tide will turn in that direction. In a recent incident on Staten Island New York the owners of two dogs are being held responsible for their dog’s actions and are facing 7 years in jail for misconduct with their dogs.  Perhaps owner accountability is the answer. People pay attention when consequences hit them in the pocketbook, or when they face time in prison.

What about dog behavior?

There are many questions at the heart of BSL.  Why do dogs react in certain ways? How do we accurately predict which dogs are dangerous? How do we have better control and understanding of dogs? Agreed, these are questions that deserve proper answers, but the bigger question is; how do we get dog owners to wake up and become properly educated and more responsible?

Essentially all dogs could be considered “dangerous”. Even the best dog can bite in bad circumstances. Here is a window into the dog’s point of view; dogs react when they feel unsafe. It is up to us to help them feel as safe as possible when around humans. We can do this by with socialization and training.

You know what you hear many times before a dog bites someone? “Dogs love me; I am great with dogs”. Dogs bite because they have teeth. I have a sneaking suspicion many of the so-called 4 million bites reported by the CDC are people doing things that education could have prevented. If a dog is scared it will choose to flee if given the chance. Aggression is not predation; aggression in animals is designed to create distance. We’ll get into the roaming dogs and then abused dogs that make the news in a later segment.

The basic leash laws and laws for proper humane containment and management of dogs are quite good for preventing many incidents. How to humanely train and manage a dog is well documented. This is knowledge that has existed for many years.

Dogs are helpless in many ways. Humans, however, have it all. One thing in particular that we have is reason, logic, and some good old science and math to help us when we begin to make assumptions or have an issue that sets us off disagreeing. BSL is an issue that has definitely caused disagreements. The other component humans have is empathy and compassion, especially for those who are not able to help themselves. These are the tools that will ultimately save our relationship with dogs.

I am not suggesting that people who are afraid of dogs suddenly love them, or that every Pit Bull can be saved. We just need qualified people to set some guidelines for dog ownership, handling, and training. The laws surrounding fatal dog attacks should be based in reality so everyone, the dogs and their owners and the communities they live in are better educated thus lessening the already low amount of dog incidents.

Quantifying and identifying dog owner actions, dog owner negligence, or ignorance is not only possible but is a more accurate and effective way of reducing dangerous dog-related incidents and is also how consequences for such incidents should be determined. I believe we need to address aggressive dog behavior, scientifically.

I would propose these people who are legislating BSL do not know much if anything about actual dog behavior. How can you ban something if you do not know the truth about what you are banning? Education is the one thing that can alleviate everyone’s concerns.

We humans caused this problem and so we need to fix it. Dogs did not create the trouble they are in, or create the fear they cause.

There is a sad trend in the world. It is not just the USA folks; however here in the US there are segments of culture that have acquired some “local power” and they have forgotten or are choosing to ignore knowledge we’ve had for a long time about dogs. Or perhaps they want to play “god” with their “position”. This information about dogs is basic scientific discovery that we have about actual dog behavior! We already have the answers for making people safer and dogs better trained and maintained.

The alternative to BSL is we can get educated and educate those who are perpetuating the myths about dog breeds (the media/insurance companies / your neighbors etc…) we can help those poor souls who have been duped into thinking there is some dog monster lurking out there.

All animal welfare groups such as shelters, animal control facilities, rescue agencies, should be working together for a better-educated communities. Animal education needs to be consistent and uniformly constructed based in science from the studies we have already done. Much of the trouble with dogs and humans is the inconsistent information about how to deal with dog issues, be they training or management and especially when we are dealing with behavior such as aggression or fear.  Worse yet are the people who deal with behaviors thinking the dog is aggressive when it is not and using some harsh dominance “method” to “train” the dog. Then the dog actually becomes aggressive.

This goes for responsible dog trainers, responsible breeders and big corporations like Pet Co. & Pet Smart et al. All of us people “in it for the dogs”; we have to get the truth out to people that dogs are not the problem, it is people who are responsible for virtually all dog attacks. No matter how you look at it; this is a people problem.

The procedures for positive training, animal welfare, animal husbandry and the humane management of dogs are well documented. Why it is not put forth as a standard for ALL people owning, working with, or involved with dogs is ridiculous. We have these standards for children, and I am sure there are standards for and tigers and bears and seals etc… Those animals get taken seriously. While dogs the most familiar species known to humans gets tossed about in some philosophical debate that has already been solved. We already know much of what we need to know to help dogs and humans live as an even more compatible match, why we are not taking advantage of this information on a grand scale is laughable and depressing.

Some call it the Disney effect, as many people think dogs are capable of making moral judgments. Some feel the dog should “know better” because it was “trained once before” or this classic “I had dogs as a kid, they never did that”. I am reticent to continue where the other lines of “thinking & beliefs” descend. It is truly astounding what some people “think”, “believe” and put into “training” practices or make into laws, concerning dogs, especially when you find out how little they actually know about dog behavior.

The real monsters of BSL and dog prejudice are fear and ignorance; the good news is that we know there is a cure for that. It’s called education by way of the truth. Your dog could be next on a “dangerous” list or on a list of dogs that insurance companies will not cover or charge an extra fee because they think the dog “breed” is a “high risk”. Keep your eyes open!

Research References:

The Pit Bull Placebo – Karen Delise (Anibus Press)

In addition to these references listed; I have interviewed the most well respected and lauded dog trainers and dog behavior experts in the US and some of the best Pit Bull advocates and rescues for my documentary film Judging the Innocent (2009 K9 Son Media). http://www.pitbullguru.com/documentary.html

Next up, part 2: The inefficiency of BSL as it relates to identifying dogs and assessing canine behavior.

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