|PUNISH THE DEED, NOT THE BREED
By D. Caroline Coile
Originally published May 27, 2001
WHEN 7-YEAR-OLD Kasey Eyring was attacked by a pit bull in January in Southwest Baltimore, she became one of a growing number of young dog-bite victims in this country.
Kasey suffered severe face injuries after a pit bull escaped its owner's back yard. Estimates place Baltimore's pit bull population as high as 6,000, and officials say they are responsible for 300 of the 1,000 dog bites reported annually in the city.
In a six-year study of fatal dog bites from 1989 to 1994, more than half the victims were children younger than age 10 - and more than half of the attacks occurred on the dog owner's property. The breed most commonly at fault was the pit bull, responsible for 24 deaths.
On May 7, when the Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval to a bill banning pit bulls, it embraced a simplistic solution to a people problem not a dog problem. Breed-specific bans and restrictions have been around since the 1970s. These restrictions have included requiring targeted breeds to be kept indoors or be muzzled and leashed in public. And some have required posting signs for a dangerous dog on the owner's property or obtaining large insurance policies. The catch is that some insurance companies won't insure these targeted breeds.
Baltimore's bill would have banned Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers and American bulldogs, and any other dog trained to attack. Violators would have faced a fine of up to $1,000 and 12 months in jail.
When the City Council reversed itself and rejected the measure on May 14, it followed the national trend. Most communities that have enacted breed-specific legislation have repealed the laws.
A five-year study published in the Cincinnati Law Review concluded that statistics did not support the assertion that any one breed was dangerous, and found that when legislation is focused on the type of dog it fails because it is unenforceable, confusing and costly. Focusing legislation on breeds that are labeled as vicious only distracts attention from the real problem - irresponsible dog owners.
Pit bulls have replaced German shepherds and Rottweilers as the primary focus of breed-specific legislation. Defining what constitutes a pit bull (or any breed) can be difficult; some ordinances ban "pit bulls and any dogs with similar characteristics," a description that courts have ruled overly broad and unconstitutional. Even dog-breed experts have difficulty identifying mixes, and DNA cannot be used to label dog breeds. Animal control officers have falsely labeled a diverse array of pure and mixed breeds as pit bulls.
Locating, identifying, confiscating, housing, destroying and disposing of banned dogs are expensive. Cincinnati was spending $200,000 a year to confiscate and destroy less than 20 percent of the city's pit bulls before the city repealed its long-standing pit bull ban last year.
Flaws seen in legislation
Opponents of breed-specific legislation contend its biggest flaws are that it does not prevent dog bites, and that most of the dogs of the targeted breeds are well-mannered pets. In Cincinnati, almost none of the confiscated pit bulls had ever been guilty of a single aggressive act.
Owners who wish to keep dogs for malicious purposes can simply switch to another type of dog and continue to jeopardize public safety, according to the American Dog Owners Association. With more than 500 breeds in the world, it is almost impossible to legislate against all potentially dangerous dogs. The breed involved in the recent fatal attack of a San Francisco woman was the Presa Canario, which would not have been covered by the Baltimore legislation.
In the six-year study of dog-bite fatalities published in the medical journal Pediatrics (Vol. 97 No. 6, 891-5), dogs identified as pit bulls, Rottweilers or German shepherds were responsible for 50 of the 109 deaths. The three breeds were among the most popular breeds in the country, making it difficult to interpret these statistics. The authors of the study point out that many breeds were involved, and that dog-owner responsibility was a greater factor than the breed of dog.
Other sources of dogs
Banning a breed does not stop people from getting that kind of dog, but it does force them to buy their dogs from irresponsible sources - and prevents them from obtaining the proper socialization, training and medical care for their dog.
Although large dogs are more likely to cause fatalities, dogs of all breeds and sizes can bite humans. The National Center for Injury Prevention says that in 1994 (the last year for which nationwide statistics are available), more than 880,000 dog bites requiring medical attention were reported, compared with 585,000 in 1986.
Some of the increase can be attributed to growing human and canine populations. And people are increasingly getting dogs for protection; the attack and guard dog business is booming. Yet, few owners have the experience needed to control these dogs, nor do they have time to train, socialize and exercise them - all factors that can lead to increased aggression and unruly behavior.
Most dogs, including pit bulls and other targeted breeds, are trustworthy and loving pets often considered family members. In its native England, the Staffordshire bull terrier (a breed defined as a pit bull by most ordinances) is nicknamed the "Nanny Dog" because of its abilities as a trusted child's nursemaid.
Admired for their courage, tenacity and good nature, pit bulls were among the top breeds for family pets in the United States in the early 1900s. During World War I, a pit bull (or a pit bull mix - nobody knows for sure) named Stubby was honored as a national hero for acts of bravery while serving with the 102nd Infantry. After the war, he led more parades than any dog in U.S. history.
The next pit bull to gain national attention was Petey, who became a star in "The Little Rascals" and "Our Gang" films.
In the 1970s, dog fighting gained public attention and attracted drug dealers and other people who tried to train and breed pit bulls to be aggressive guard dogs. They began using misinformed training techniques, including beating, starving, teasing, drugging and even feeding gunpowder to the dogs - methods that create behavior problems in any breed.
Last June in Germany, two pit bulls attacked a group of boys playing soccer and killed a 6-year-old. Autopsies revealed that one of the dogs had been drugged and starved for the previous three days. The dogs were running free despite orders to confine them because of their past behavior. The ensuing public outcry set into motion one of the toughest breed bans in the world.
Besides the countrywide ban on pit bulls, several German states ban fighting dogs, dogs with dangerous potential, and dogs more than 15.7 inches tall and 44 pounds. Owners can get permits to keep these dogs if they prove they have the necessary knowledge and skill to own one, and if the dog passes a temperament test. The standards for passing either requirement are vague. A dog failing the five-hour test, which costs the owner $500, might be destroyed.
Targets of discrimination
Even dogs that pass these requirements have become targets of discrimination in Germany: A man walking his bull terrier was restrained while his dog was doused with gasoline and set afire; a Jack Russell terrier colored like a pit bull was kicked to death; and a woman with bull terrier decals on her car was beaten unconscious. The situation has aroused worldwide protests from dog owners who have banded together to form the Internet DogHolocaust Web site.
A founder of the DogHolocaust site, dee dee Andersson, says: "Punishing innocent dogs for the crime of one dog is wrong. Towns, states and countries need to write enforceable, fair legislation that will punish individual dogs that cannot be controlled or that demonstrate dangerous behavior."
Germany joins Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, Singapore and other places worldwide that have enacted breed-specific legislation. England's Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 banned pit bull, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro breeds from being sold, bred or transferred, or from appearing in public unless leashed and muzzled. It has resulted in the confiscation of many pets, prolonged court battles and increased expenses, with no evidence it has decreased dog-bite incidents.
Better solutions sought
Several organizations offer better solutions to communities contemplating breed-specific legislation.
Most active are the American Dog Owners Association (518-477- 8469 - Web site: www.adoa.org); the American Kennel Club's legislation department (919-233-3720 - Web site: www.akc.org), the United Kennel Club's State Canine Awareness Network (616-343-9020 - Web site: www.ukcdogs.com/scan.html) and DogWatch (www. dogwatch.net).
Suggestions include increasing opportunities to educate dog owners about dog behavior and responsible dog ownership, offering spay and neuter services at reduced costs (intact animals are more likely to be involved in fatal incidents), increasing penalties for negligent, inhumane or reckless behavior of dog owners and educating people, especially parents and children, about ways to reduce the chance of being bitten and what to do in case of attack.
Prosecutors are increasingly charging and convicting irresponsible owners with serious crimes including manslaughter; increasing prosecution, fines, and sentences is one way, say anti-breed-ban groups, to "punish the deed, not the breed."
D. Caroline Coile is author of "Pit Bulls For Dummies," published this month by Hungry Minds Inc. She earned a doctorate in psychology and neuroscience from Florida State University and has done research on dog behavior and sensory systems.
Copyright © 2001 The Baltimore Sun