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Killer canines spur communities to ban specific dogs

By Denise Flaim
published April 16, 2002

THE "KILLER DOG" headlines have faded. But their impact ripples.

Long before Diane Whipple was fatally mauled by two Presa Canarios in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment building, dog fanciers had worried about breed-specific legislation - BSL for short. Communities in dozens of states have passed legislation to ban or curb the ownership of certain dogs, usually pitbulls and "mastiff-type" breeds. And now, after the Whipple case, those efforts are intensifying.

For a sense of where breed-specific legislation might take us, consider Germany, where in June 2000, two pitbulls owned by a drug dealer stormed a Hamburg schoolyard and killed a 6-year-old in front of his schoolmates. In response, officials banned the breeding and importation of dozens of breeds of "fighting dogs," requiring them to be muzzled or pass strict temperament tests in which a failing grade means euthanasia. Amid the anti-dog hysteria, owners reported being attacked by angry citizens on the street; to document the backlash, an e-mail list with a somewhat controversial name - DogHolocaust - cropped up on the Net.

And the breed with the biggest bite record - the native German shepherd dog - was unaffected.

Most objections to breed-specific legislation share philosophical ground with those against gun control. Just as there are no bad guns, there are few truly bad dogs - the vast majority of canine misdeeds trace back to bad owners.

I don't own a "dangerous" breed, but I know that banning specific ones only punishes conscientious owners and breeders and rewards irresponsible ones, who will in all likelihood just go on to find another breed to exploit. Instead of breed-specific legislation, strict dangerous-dog laws are much more sensible, because they target problem dogs, regardless of pedigree.

That said, guarding breeds such as mastiffs and Rottweilers are not for everyone. They need secure homes with savvy owners who safeguard and socialize them tirelessly. They need ethical breeders who cull ruthlessly for faulty temperaments and develop dogs that are compatible with modern society.

Is there a place, for example, for the fila brasileiro, whose breed standard requires intolerance to the touch of a stranger?

Not if the standard - the blueprint for the breed - stays that way, suggests dee dee Andersson of West Virginia. The author of "Mastiff: Aristocratic Guardian" (Doral, $28.50) and a mastiff breeder for 23 years, she notes that within weeks of Whipple's death, the Presa Canario standard was changed to remove language that required unfriendliness toward strangers. (She is also mortified that mastiffs are repeatedly confused with other breeds that have their roots in the molosser family - something that happened early and often in the reporting on the Whipple case.)

"Kubla Khan had a stable of 5,000 mastiffs - do you think they were nice?" she asks rhetorically about her own breed, whose beginnings predate the birth of Christ. But times change, and today the mastiff standard responsibly calls for the breed to display "grandeur and good nature, courage and docility."

Reputable breeders like Andersson are the cornerstone of any breed: A well-bred, well-socialized dog in the hands of a responsible owner poses little threat to society. Which is why it's chilling to see Neopolitan mastiffs and dogo argentinos and Presas in pet shops, with little information about their origins. And while stereotyped breeds like pitbulls get all the ink, others glide under the radar. Ask any reputable golden-retriever breeder about the aggression problems that breed is seeing. Consider that any size dog can be a killer, like the Pomeranian in California that in October 2000 killed a 6-week- old baby.

"We have the right to have dogs of our choice, but we don't have the right to inflict them on other people," says Andersson. "If one of my dogs gets out and kills someone, they ought to hang me at dawn."

She was pleased with the outcome of the Whipple case, because it fulfilled the anti-BSL mantra: "Punish the deed, not the breed." And, by extension, the humans involved: In the Whipple case, owner Marjorie Knoller received the tough verdict of second-degree murder; her husband, Robert Noel, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, as was Knoller.

Being against breed-specific legislation doesn't make you soft on dangerous dogs; it just makes you sensible about the rest of them.

Write to Denise Flaim c/o Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, N.Y. 11747 or email

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Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.