Breed Specific Legislation: Why It Doesn’t Work

I’ve gotten to the point in my rescue career that the phrase “Breed Specific Legislation” (BSL) makes me immediately scowl, shake my head, and launch into a spiel about how much I hate it.  Like many other things in the advocacy world, I feel like everyone who supports pit bull type dogs feels the same way I do. It wasn’t until I mentioned BSL and Mark asked me what it was did I realize that not everyone knows what Breed Specific Legislation is, let alone its negative consequences.

I have to admit – and hopefully this can help some of you relate to what I’m going to talk about – there was once a time when I thought BSL was a good idea. It was back before I worked for the shelter, and I thought, “If they make pit bulls illegal then people won’t have access to them for dog fighting and it’s better for the doggies!” Could I have been more naive? Ha. Just goes to show you how “Joe Schmoe” I was: no inside info about pit bulls, no look into the rescue world, and no biases based on the work I do. So, while I know I’ll be preaching to the choir for a lot of you, I also hope to share some insight for others.

For those of you who don’t know, Breed Specific Legislation is a law or guideline banning or regulating specific breed(s) within a community. Apartment complexes can have them, townships can have them, and entire states can have them.

BSL has holes. Lots of them. While the laws aim to create a safer community and decrease dog bites, there is no evidence that enacting BSL keeps anyone safer – i.e. it does not reduce the number of dog bites. There are a lot of things BSL does and does not do, including:

Breed Specific Legislation is largely discriminative, basing most restrictions on physical appearance. Many breed laws turn to physical characteristics to define their bans, with descriptions of “pit bulls/dangerous dogs” often including but not limited to: muscular, medium sized, short hair, big head. This results in over inclusiveness, and puts a wide range of dog types at risk to be restricted – no matter their behavior. It also lets dogs that are actually dangerous but don’t happen to look like a “pit bull” slip under the radar.

This opens up another issue that I will touch on briefly: the lack of actual, purebred “American Pit Bull Terriers” out there. The majority of pit bulls around the country are mixed breeds, which is why I like to refer to them as “pit bull type dogs”. This is much more vague and makes no definitive assumptions when referring to a dog’s genetic makeup.

BSL uses physical appearance to predict behavior.  Whether a dog is correctly identified as a pit bull or not, no behaviors should be automatically assumed based on this identification. All dogs are individuals, and should be treated as so.

BSL punishes good dogs and good owners.  Have you ever heard the point, “For every one dog that bites, there are millions that don’t?” That’s what we should think about when we look at BSL. Hundreds of thousands of owners with well-behaved dogs are forced to relocate their pups, relocate their families, or, worst case, put their beloved family pet to sleep because of discriminatory breed laws – 100% regardless of behavior or temperament.

BSL ignores the source of the problem: irresponsible pet ownership. Owners must understand that they are fully responsible for the actions of their pet. Letting a dog run free, not getting them neutered, not socializing them properly, putting them in high risk situations – these are all things that set dogs up for accidents, including bites and attacks, absolutely regardless of breed.  BSL does not hold owners accountable for their actions, which puts everyone in jeopardy even with the bans.

BSL is expensive and difficult to enforce. The amount of money it takes to enforce these bans through law enforcement, local shelters, and the public is outrageous. The ASPCA reports that my neighboring community, Prince George’s County, spends $250,000 a year attempting to enforce their breed ban – with little success at creating a safer community.

This is merely a glimpse at the flaws of Breed Specific Legislation (forgive me, those of you who are sitting in your chair thinking, “What about this and what about that!”). There are numerous resources out there for more information about BSL, including Animal Farm Foundation, BAD RAP, and Best Friends Animal Society, as well as a decent number of scholarly articles with different studies.

It’s scary to think – and I’m sure most of you with pit bull type dogs would agree – that any of our dogs could be ripped away from us with little to nothing we could do about it if we ended up somewhere with BSL. Otis is of course one example, but he falls more under the “wrongly labeled as a pit bull type dog” category. While he’s got a blocky head, that’s about it – his lean figure and extra slobbery jowls suggest many other breeds before pit bull. But he could fall victim to discrimination in a heartbeat if the wrong person saw him in a community with a breed ban. Such a shame.

The best thing we can do is speak up. There have been multiple victories when it comes to BSL, including Ohio recently declaring it unconstitutional. If enough people make noise and step forward to prove that breed-neutral dangerous dog laws and regulations would be much safer and more effective than outright breed bans, lawmakers will listen.  Change is possible, and with more education and advocacy on the topic, better days will come. If you have any questions about breed discrimination, feel free to email me at peacelovefoster@gmail.com.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.”                -The Lorax