On discrimination and the deadly bite of breed-specific laws

Miles and Reese: theoretically dangerous.
Miles and Reese: theoretically dangerous.

The United States has a rich history of discrimination. The only thing Americans are uniformly indiscriminate about is the grounds on which we’ll discriminate; we’re willing to embrace prejudice based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, pickup truck manufacturer, you name it.

Ignorance-based laws make Miles kind of blue.
Ignorance-based laws make Miles kind of blue.

It is true that most nations possess a past full of irony and tragedy that stem from ignorance-based hate. What is troublesome about our own inequities is that we set the idealistic bar so high, but we apparently don’t care if we clear it, let alone touch it. There are seemingly weekly shootings of unarmed (black) citizens by (white) law enforcement, some states continue to maintain or consider “religious freedom” legislation (a term that’s a clever spin on the more truthful “institutionalized bigotry”), the gender wage gap remains a canyon, our Supreme Court is only now considering whether gay people nationwide (in addition to those in 36 states) can enter a legally sanctioned union and enjoy the same rights as married heterosexual couples, and there is no shortage of boneheads driving around in vehicles bearing unlicensed stickers of Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes fame) urinating on the logos of other vehicles.

In recent decades, we have even extended our tolerance of intolerance beyond our fellow man to man’s best friend.

The ‘BS’ in BSL, Or: (Pit) Bullshit

With Dog Bite Prevention Week, May 17-23, on the horizon, we’re about to be besieged with fear-mongering and misinformation from those intent on instituting the canine equivalent of racial profiling.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that no individual dog breeds are more likely to bite than others, and that targeted breed bans are ineffective in reducing dog bite-related injuries, breed-specific legislation (BSL, with an emphasis on the BS) remains widespread. The most common target of BSL is the “pit bull,” a breed that is not even truly a breed. Pit bull is a generic term that is applied to American bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and mixed breeds that match certain physical characteristics as outlined by panicked municipalities and reactionary lawmakers. In my hometown of Denver, the loosely worded pit bull ordinance lists the aforementioned breeds and includes “any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one (1) or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics” based on “standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club.”

To confuse matters, here are the names of the related breeds as listed by the AKC and UKC:

  • AKC breeds: Bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier
  • UKC breeds: American bully, American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier

The breed attributes also vary, and many of the detailed standards are shared with other pedigrees. Incidentally, I can’t find a single piece of BSL in which the offending dogs are being judged by AKC or UKC representatives; they are most often being (mis)identified by victims—who have been conditioned to think PIT BULL! any time a medium to large dog with a squarish head, stocky build, smooth coat and short ears attacks—or animal control officers. In Denver’s case, suspected pit bulls are evaluated by “three certified staff members;” a 2009 Westword article described the fiasco that can ensue when animal control is wrong.

In its exhaustive review of dog bite data and behavioral research Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breeds, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) noted that the pit bull is “particularly ambiguous” as a breed and includes “a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified.” Because identifying the breed of a given dog, especially a mixed breed, is difficult for anyone who is not an actual kennel club judge, some cities with breed-specific bans, like Kearney, Mo., provide a helpful checklist of pit bull criteria, complete with cryptic characteristics and a black-and-white line illustration of a canine that evokes the RCA Victor dog, right down to the adorably quizzical visage; the beauty of its design, and the design of these laws, is that they can be applied to any dog that looks suspicious. Imagine if we did that to people.

Miles, a Catahoula, matches at least 50 percent of pit bull traits detailed in many breed-specific laws.
Miles, a Catahoula, matches at least 50 percent of pit bull traits detailed in many breed-specific laws.

The AVMA report further concluded that “controlled studies have not identified (pit bulls) as disproportionately dangerous.” Guess what breeds were found to be more aggressive based on behavioral studies and owner surveys? Small to medium dogs, particularly collies, spaniels and toy breeds.

The difference, of course, is that a large, muscular dog like a pit bull has the potential to cause greater physical damage than, say, a Pomeranian, which can be punted like a football if it gets feisty. But if we ban dogs based on size, strength and ability to harm or kill, then we should prohibit pretty much every dog over 45 pounds. Kiss your murderous golden retrievers, your vicious Bernese mountain dogs and your wrathful border collies goodbye. (And while we’re outlawing dangerous things, can we start with something less companionable, like firearms, which kill more than 30,000 Americans annually, a thousand times more than dogs’ average of 30? We should also ban bees, moose and lightning, all of which also claim more lives yearly than dogs.)

‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’

In his funny, moving, memoirish book Real Man Adventures, author T Cooper often mentions the two rescue pit bulls he shares with his wife and their two young daughters. He also discusses how the myths associated with them are more powerful than the facts, specifically the wild and widely held belief that pit bulls have some sort of supercanine power that allows them to lock their jaws onto an object (like a human limb) in a manner not possible among other breeds.

Dogs cannot control their reputations, and the image of pit bulls has been tarnished by association with drug dealers, gangsters and other reprobates, as well as the emotionalized campaigns for their banishment in the rare event that one is involved in the type of gruesome mauling—particularly of a white woman or a child—that the TV news loves. The name alone conjures a hellish, combative beast, and pit bulls are well known for their (forced) use in illegal dog-fighting operations.

The AVMA report and other studies have concluded that human-controlled factors including the environment in which the dog is kept, training methods, whether the dog is neutered or spayed, and whether the target is known or a stranger play more significant roles in dog bites than breed. According to the findings of a 2008 study based on the survey of more than 800 dog owners and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, “dog owners frequently had only limited knowledge of dog behavior and often were unaware of factors that increased the risk of dog bites…” Many dog owners don’t take the time to understand basic canine behavior or fulfill their dogs’ needs for social interaction and physical attention, and some, including those drawn to oft-forbidden breeds like pit bulls and Rottweilers more for their tough image and outlaw status than their companionship, just don’t care.

Miles may be inclined to support a ban on husky-border collie mixes.
Miles may be inclined to support a ban on husky-border collie mixes.

And so we ban dogs that a small handful of idiots like to have as accessories, thus preventing responsible people from also having the dogs, thus sending hundreds of thousands of innocent dogs to shelters each year, tens of thousands of which are euthanized.

In Denver, the pit bull ban has not been effective in reducing dog bite injuries. Neither has the pit bull been the primary, or even secondary, source of dog bite injuries in recent years despite the lingering popularity of the “breed” (thousands of dogs identified as pit bulls are seized or turned in each year along the BSL-rich Front Range). The bans are effective only in eliminating dogs.

Last year, a local television station, in a rare effort of research and insight, ran a report regarding dog bites along the Front Range, where many cities and counties have joined Denver in adopting breed-specific bans. The No. 1 source of dog bite injuries—with 222 reported bites between 2012 and 2014—was the Labrador, a breed beloved nationwide and especially in the mountain West; from Colorado Springs to Boulder, canines identified as Labradors represent about 14 percent of all registered dogs. People came fast and furious to the animal’s defense:

“Labs are a very popular breed out here; more of the dogs means a greater chance of inadvertent bites.”

“A lot of families choose Labs, so they’re often around kids who are vulnerable to accidental bites.”

“Even friendly dogs will bite under the right circumstances.”

Pit bulls were third on the list with 152 reported bites, behind German shepherds (169). Yet pit bulls were the most euthanized breed across the Front Range. In 2013 alone, 766 pit bulls were euthanized compared with 435 Labradors and 230 German shepherds (it should be noted that of the 4,800 dogs euthanized in the region in 2013, 2,400 were put down for aggression or having “high arousal”—you’re on your own with that term).

Dog bite statistics are inherently flawed and should be interpreted with care. There is no uniform, nationwide reporting system, and breed distinctions in bite reports may be unreliable; furthermore, the circumstances in which dog bites occur are not always documented or analyzed. But this does not stop some people from manipulating statistics to fit their agendas and perceptions.

Two of the most dedicated and dubious figures in the war against pit bulls are Merritt Clifton and Colleen Lynn, who twist figures like stretchy balloons in the hands of a dexterous clown. Clifton runs the grotesquely nonprofit “news” website Animals 24-7 and is a self-perceived scholar who was the subject of a 2014 Huffington Post takedown by Douglas Anthony Cooper entitled “The Academic Imposter Behind the Pit Bull Hysteria.” Lynn, a dog attack victim, runs the tizzy-inducing Dogsbite.org, an organization that, like Animals 24-7, Scientology and those “churches” with television stations and amusement parks, has no business receiving nonprofit status.

Clifton, Lynn and their ilk—breed, if you will—distort data to support their points-of-view instead of arriving at their perspectives based on facts. The excellent animal welfare blog KC Dog Blog routinely and pragmatically contrasts actual statistics and scientific research with the deceptive slant employed by BSL supporters. Alas, the author does not rant like a snotty, attention-starved infant, or Fox News anchor, and therefore his calmer and more informed perspective is marginalized and largely ignored. “We are plagued these days by superstitious zealots who prefer cranks to experts,” Cooper lamented in his Huffington Post piece. “(A)ll sorts of people take Jenny McCarthy more seriously than they do tenured professors at Harvard Medical School.”

The only demographic safe from discrimination, it seems, is intolerant morons.

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8 thoughts on “On discrimination and the deadly bite of breed-specific laws

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  1. As usual it’s we humans who cause the most damage. I particularly agree with the paragraph which begins ‘And so we ban dogs…’
    For some humans those accessories are deadly weapons. Some people here get Staffies and want them to be mean, hard dogs. When they realise that their dog is more likely to lick someone to death than attack they brutalise them, causing mental anguish and creating a traumatised, confused and unsafe dog who becomes *unsuitable for rehoming*.
    Sometimes I don’t like human beings very much.

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  2. Thanks for sharing; I was curious about the perspective of those who have trained and boarded pit bulls and other breeds/mixes that have a negative reputation. I was amused to learn in my research that the dog with the fourth-most reported bites in my region was the Chihuahua, with only five fewer reported instances than pit bulls.

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    1. Ah the Chihuahua, the most put upon of handbag dogs, dressed up and carried about and not allowed to be a dog at all. I think I’d bite as often as I could in that situation.

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      1. Yeah, I guess one should not be surprised that those things are biters. And I love the phrase “unsuitable for rehoming.” The poetry of lawyers and bureaucracy….

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      2. A long time ago in the Netherlands I stayed with a family who had chihuahuas and it changed my opinion of the dogs. They were all characters, feisty dogs who loved to go for walks and race about. I think they are a great dog for walkers, as when they get older and tire quickly, they are light enough to pop in your back pack until either their batteries recharge or you get home. I know one woman who gave up walking when her Labrador became to arthritic to accompany her because she couldn’t bear how sad it looked when she put her boots on but left him at home…

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    1. Thanks much for reading! I recently wrote about this topic for a legal client (I was surprised to learn that the American Bar Association, among many other organizations, is opposed to breed-specific laws); the evidence indicates that while certain breeds do possess inherent traits, aggressive behavior is really the result of training (or lack thereof), home environment and other factors that we as pet owners are responsible for.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are 100% right. I am a dog trainer and that is what I tell my clients. I’ve boarded pit bulls, a rottie, a mix doberman, and a GSD mix, and they were all amazing dogs. Their parents were very committed to their well being and training and that made a big difference. The funny thing about it is that in all the time I’ve been training and boarding dogs the one that nipped me, brace yourself, was a mini pinch. Could you believe that?

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