This is a story about two dogs. Both are greatly loved by the same family. Both happen to be Pit Bull mixes. And both have been deeply affected by breed-specific legislation’s dirty little secret.
What Is Breed-Specific Legislation?
According to the website StopBSL.org, breed-specific legislation (BSL) is “A law that bans or restricts certain types of dogs based on their appearance, usually because they are perceived as ‘dangerous’ breeds or types of dogs.”
Breed-specific legislation doesn’t just refer to an outright ban on certain types of dogs (bans make it illegal under the law to own or harbor one of these dogs in your home, making them subject to seizure by animal control with the possibility of being destroyed). BSL can also include certain restrictions, such as requiring owners to keep their dog muzzled in public at all times, making their dog wear a visible “vicious dog” tag or other identifying marker, forcing them to prominently display “vicious dog” signs outside their home or apartment, or requiring them to purchase and maintain additional liability insurance.
Breed-specific legislation applies only to dogs of a certain appearance. It does not require the dog to take a DNA test to confirm its actual genetic makeup, or take into account how the owner has raised, trained, or managed the dog. And most importantly, it doesn’t take into account the dog’s actual behavior.
Bentley, an adorable Pit Bull/Boxer mix, was adopted by my sister’s family when he was around 8 weeks old. Saying that he grew up to love his family (even the cats!) with his whole heart wouldn’t even begin to characterize how loving and gentle he is. Bentley was a smart, playful, emotionally intuitive and sensitive puppy who loved to climb onto my nieces’ and nephew’s laps, wrapping his front legs around them and laying his huge head on their chests.
At the time, my sister and her family resided in a moderately-sized township in Ohio that did not have any formal breed-specific legislation on the books. This should have meant that Bentley was free from any type of formal discrimination due to his appearance. Sadly, that was not the case.
My sister recalls, “I used to take Bentley running with me, on leash, every morning before work. One day I noticed a township police car following us. The officer waved us over and asked us to stop. He got out of the car, approached, and asked if I had the appropriate “papers” for my dog.
“Of course anyone who is going running at 5am doesn’t carry vaccination records or dog licenses with them, so I said no, the paperwork was at home. The officer proceeded to make thinly veiled threats about how I needed to have these records with me at all times when out with Bentley, before finally allowing me to go home. The very next day, I went running again – with Bentley’s paperwork. The same officer stopped me again, I showed him the papers, and he again detained us for a few more minutes before letting us go. During this entire interaction, Bentley sat quietly and obediently by my side.
“After that, we started taking different routes whenever we ran. And invariably, almost every time, before we finished our route (which we ran at the exact same time every morning), that same officer tracked us down, stopped us, and asked to see Bentley’s papers. I couldn’t believe it. It was such obvious harassment, but the officer was intimidating. I never reported it because I was afraid of what he would do to Bentley, or to me, if I retaliated against him by reporting him.”
A few years later, my sister was forced to rehome Bentley to her mother-in-law after a neighbor in her apartment complex complained about her having a Pit Bull. The neighbor complained that she was “terrified” of living next to a “vicious dog”, and contacted both the police and the manager of the apartment complex so many times that eventually the manager gave in and regretfully told my sister that Bentley could no longer remain on the premises. Bentley now lives with my sister’s elderly mother-in-law in a neighboring township with no issues.
Having to give Bentley up is still difficult for my sister to talk about to this day.
Years later, my sister’s son rescued Ronin, a 1-yr old mixed breed listed as Pit Bull/Greyhound, from a local animal shelter. Ronin had been taken during a raid on a dog-fighting operation, where he had been a “bait dog” – a smaller, more submissive dog used to test and stoke the aggressive instincts of larger, more powerful fighting dogs.
Ronin was covered in scars and what appeared to be old cigarette burns. Someone had slashed the backs of his rear legs with a razor blade, which the rescuers suspected was done to prevent him from running away while in the fighting ring. Ronin was terrified, unable to walk up or down stairs due to his leg injuries, and trembled constantly.
My nephew nursed him back to health and showered him with love. Slowly, Ronin came out of his shell and began to blossom. He is a whip-smart, loving, sensitive, and empathetic dog. Although he still carries the physical and emotional scars of his abuse (he prefers women, and is terrified of any man wearing a baseball cap), he has adjusted into being the perfect family dog.
My nephew and his family (which now includes his wife and 2 sons) also live in a city in Ohio that does not currently have breed-specific legislation. One day last year, Ronin slipped out of the house through an open door and, before anyone could stop him, ran to the park directly across the street where another woman was walking her dog.
Ronin, who loves to play and despite his previous trauma gets along very well with other dogs, playfully ran up to the dog. My nephew’s wife, who was 6 months pregnant at the time, went after Ronin, but before she could get there she saw the other dog panic and lash out at him, causing the two dogs to briefly scuffle. In the next instant she saw a police officer, who had been walking through the park, run towards the dogs. Horrified, she watched as the officer pulled out a taser and tased Ronin on the flank.
Ronin immediately went down to the ground. The woman walking her dog stood for a moment, said nothing, then quickly walked away. My nephew’s wife ran up to Ronin and checked him; he was stunned, but breathing. The officer actually seemed somewhat concerned, and even apologized, saying that he was just trying to “break up the fight.” Ronin was on the ground for approximately 2 minutes before he was finally able to get back on his feet. My nephew’s wife was able to get him home without incident. No reports were filed.
My nephew and his wife have never gotten a satisfactory answer as to why a taser was used in this manner on their dog. To this day, Ronin has been afraid to go into the driveway or into the park on leash. He walks only on the sidewalk, and shows visible anxiety while walking in the vicinity of the park.
Breed-Specific Legislation’s Dirty Little Secret
There is an even darker side to breed-specific legislation, one that isn’t so readily apparent.
Breed-specific legislation not only legally sanctions harassment against certain dogs just because of their looks, it makes this harassment appear morally acceptable – making it more likely that this type of discrimination will permeate other communities where BSL is NOT legal.
The mere existence of breed-specific legislation propagates fear, ignorance, hatred and discrimination even in communities without BSL laws. The damage it does extends far beyond the confines of the communities that have been fearful and shortsighted enough to have legalized and implemented it.
To illustrate the point, ask yourself this question: would Ronin have been tased by a police officer in a public park if he had been a Golden Retriever? A Greyhound? A Maltese? It’s almost impossible to imagine this happening to a dog identified with any of these breeds. Yet BSL has helped perpetuate a negative attitude towards Pit Bull-type dogs that enabled this scenario to have ever happened in the first place.
Why Breed-Specific Legislation Doesn’t Work
Tragically, as if breed-specific legislation being discriminatory and morally wrong weren’t bad enough, it also simply doesn’t work. BSL is costly, ineffective, hurts good dogs (and good people), and ultimately accomplishes nothing to keep people safe. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control, and every single US public canine welfare association all strongly oppose BSL.
- BSL does not prevent dog bites or improve public safety. According to statistics from a report published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the UK, BSL does not make communities safer. That report (one of many done both abroad and in the United States) shows that despite the presence of breed-specific legislation, hospital admissions for dog bites were up 76% from those recorded 10 years previously, and of the 30 people killed by dogs between 1991 and 2016, 70% had been attacked by dogs that were not banned breeds.
- BSL requires every dog to be identified as a breed. This has proven impossible to do accurately by simply looking at them, especially with mixed breed dogs.
- BSL is costly. Municipal resources needed to enforce the laws and train animal control employees to attempt to identify banned breeds are considerable.
- BSL does nothing to make irresponsible dog owners accountable. Any dog is more likely to become aggressive when they are unsupervised, not neutered, and not socialized properly with people or other dogs.
- BSL is discriminatory against responsible owners and their dogs. It forces responsible pet owners to either have to move or give up their dogs who have never bitten or even threatened to bite. Also, dogs that are considered members of a dangerous breed may be serving the community in military operations, police work, search and rescue, or as service animals and therapy dogs.
- No one can agree on what makes one breed “safe” and another “dangerous.” According to Best Friends Animal Society, the non-profit group Responsible Dog Owners of the Western States compiled a list of 75 dog breeds that have either been restricted through legislation or banned outright in communities throughout the United States over the years. Among those breeds were Boston Terriers, French Bulldogs, Airedale Terriers, Blue Heelers, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and (are you ready for this one?) Pugs.
Any dog can bite.
Exposing The Secret
Breed-specific legislation not only fails to enhance public safety, it’s expensive to enforce and violates the rights of dog parents. The best public safety laws focus on the behavior of individual dogs and their individual people, not on how a dog looks.
The good news is, the public is speaking out against breed-specific bans – especially those involving Pit Bulls – more than ever before, and lawmakers have been forced to take notice. Recently, in Springfield Missouri, voters overwhelmingly rejected by a margin of 2-1 a Pit Bull ban that had been enacted by the city council in 2017. And in Yakima Washington, the Yakima Humane Society (who contracts with the city for animal control services) went head-to-head with a Pit Bull ban that had been in place since the late 1980’s by notifying the city that the SPCA would not renew its contract if the city maintained the ban. This forced the city of Yakima to repeal all breed-specific discrimination by a vote of 5-2.
Even when elected officials are adamantly opposed to repealing a ban, the public can organize and make their opinions crystal clear. It’s these unfair and completely ineffective laws that lead to breed-specific legislation’s “dirty little secret” – and more unfounded fear, hatred and harassment of the dogs who are irreplaceable members of their human families.
After all, every dog is an individual – just like the humans who love them.
Have you or your dog ever been victims of breed-specific legislation? Please share your story with us in the comments below!