08 July 2016

BEHAVIOUR - Dog Bite Prevention and BSL, What Works?

When it comes to breed specific legislation (BSL), emotions run high and empirical evidence is lacking.

The dogs most commonly targeted for BSL are “pit bulls,” a group that includes Bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, and any mix of these breeds.

Identifying pit bulls is a challenge, since the validity of genetic testing is ineffective because “pit bull” is a type rather than a recognized breed, and identification based on physical characteristics is unreliable.

BSL has been enacted in many jurisdictions globally, despite evidence that bite frequency does not drop as a result.

In fact, some jurisdictions have seen an increase in bite frequency following BSL.

Toronto, as a notable Canadian example, has had an increase in bite instances since instituting a pit bull ban in 2005. The Netherlands repealed a 15-year ban after finding that dog bite frequency had not been reduced.

When a jurisdiction is used as its own control, meaning that the jurisdiction is tested against itself before and after enacting BSL, there is no significant reduction in incidence.

So why does it remain such a popular option if it is expensive to enact, difficult to maintain, and demonstrably ineffective?

One study published by the AVMA suggests that this enthusiasm is due to a misperception of risk (people believe that the risk associated with dog bites is higher than it is, and that the risk associated with certain breeds is higher than it is), stereotyping and misinformation about breeds, and the belief that BSL is effective despite evidence to the contrary.

There are alternatives, and they appear to be effective. Italy repealed its breed-specific regulations in 2009, and replaced them with laws that focus on the owner. Health Undersecretary Francesca Martini said, “The measures adopted in the previous laws had no scientific foundation… With this law we have overcome the black list, which was just a fig leaf (over the larger problem), and we have increased the level of guarantees for citizens.”

Calgary, Alberta has adopted a similar approach to dog bite prevention, focusing on owner education and placing the responsibility for safety on the owners, rather than the dogs.

Calgary-based trainer Megan Armstrong, CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA, agrees that focusing on the owner is critical. “We must better educate dog owners on canine communication and body language… In an ideal world, we would be looking at it being mandatory that dog owners train and socialize their dogs versus putting the blame on a breed. Dogs follow our direction, so we must hold dog owners more accountable to how they are training and raising them versus making the dog pay for our errors.”

Despite this evidence, and public support for owner-focused legislation from high-profile pet organizations such as the National Companion Animal Coalition, BSL seems here to stay.

As some repeal BSL, other jurisdictions, like Quebec, are currently contemplating enacting it. And some Canadian insurance providers deny coverage to pit bull owners, or charge higher premiums for owners of pit bulls.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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