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Opinion: Punish aggressive behaviour of individual dogs, not the breed

Stephen Hume’s recent article regarding the danger that some breeds pose to public safety, raised issues that have long been debated among animal behaviour scientists, humane organizations, legislators and the legal profession. The supposition that “dog enthusiasts” have failed to acknowledge the problem that aggressive dogs pose couldn’t be more wrong.

Hume bases his facts and statistics on data that is neither peer reviewed nor published in scientific publications, and is therefore unreliable. The “data” that pit pull terriers and Rottweilers together were responsible for 74 per cent of fatal dog attacks between 2005 and 2011 came from This American-based group is run by an attack victim whose only agenda is to exterminate what it considers to be “dangerous breeds.” This group’s research methods consist of combing through news media accounts to show pit bull attacks at higher rates than other breeds, which is then presented as “studies” or “statistics.”

Hume’s other facts represent primarily U.S. cases, and conflict significantly with Canadian data published which does appear in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Two studies out of the University of British Columbia in the last few years put a very different perspective on which dog breeds are responsible for biting; these studies published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal (2005) and in the scientific journal Animal Welfare (2011), both highlight the degree to which breed is not a factor in predicting dog bites.

The first study reviewed data from the city of Calgary, which keeps meticulous records on the dog bite cases in its city. Here, the breed most commonly reported was the German shepherd dog (17 per cent of reports), compared with just five per cent of reports involving pit bulls.

In the second study, dogs adopted from BCSPCA shelters were closely monitored following their placement into new homes. Not only were pit bulls and their crosses less aggressive than the other breeds placed, there was no report of aggression in any of these so- called dangerous breeds.

Some groups suggest that it is not the breeds that injure that should be controlled, but rather the breeds that kill. Again, published studies do not support targeting pit bull terriers. In one published study of dog bite-related human deaths in Canada between 1990 and 2007 (Canadian Veterinary Journal 2008), 28 people were reported killed and just one of these incidents involved a pit bull terrier.

Hume calls for proposals to deal with this “problem” of “aggressive” dogs. We have three main ones.

First, we need to get the facts and issues straight, which we hope we started to do with this article.

Second, declare all breed specific legislation (BSL) void, and enact laws that target behaviours of the actual dogs, and not the dogs’ body type or breed. BSL has already been proven to not work and it is expensive. In the U.K. for example, where pit bull terriers and other allegedly dangerous breeds were banned under the Dangerous Dogs’ Act (1991, 1994), the number of people admitted into emergency rooms for treatment of bite wounds (of which three per cent were deemed to be pit bulls) was unaltered two years following the ban being introduced.

Unless you have access to a dog’s pedigree, you are relying on visual clues like body shape and coat to identify a breed. As a councillor in Toronto — where there is a full pit bull ban in effect — commented, “We’ve learned from this that this law is very difficult to enforce and it breaks people’s hearts. Saying that something looks like something else is a very poor basis for a law.”

By contrast, the city of Calgary with its Dangerous Dog Legislation — targeting known risk factors and owner behaviour without any breed restrictions — has made a profit from increased fines and policing of licensing fees.

The third proposal is education. Children, at an early age, should be taught to be respectful around dogs and learn how to behave around any dog (such as: pulling on the tail, or running up to a dog’s face — not good ideas). Adult supervision of their children around dogs is also critical. An increasing number of families have dogs whom they consider family members. Dogs are here to stay and we need to learn to be responsible for, and around, them.

Many people believe that pit bulls, and like breeds, are inherently dangerous because they are often reported in the media in relation to vicious attacks. Unfortunately, irresponsible owners tend to be attracted to strong dogs like pit bulls, Rottweilers, mastiffs and German shepherds. They mistreat these dogs, set them up for failure, and perpetuate the negative stereotypes.

One should remember that for every “aggressive” dog in a yard at the end of a chain, there are hundreds of others of the same breed living as gentle family pets and never making headlines.

The “bazookas”Hume refers to cannot speak nor stand up for themselves. Instead, they can only rely on professionals and people who are willing to do so on their behalf. There is a well known quote among dog enthusiasts: “In the 70s they blamed the dobermans, in the 80s they blamed the German shepherds, in the 90s they blamed the Rottweiler. Now they blame the pit bull. When will they blame the humans?”

Rebeka Breder is an animal law lawyer at Boughton Law Corporation in Vancouver. Dr. Rebecca Ledger is an animal behaviour scientist, and sees cats and dogs with behaviour problems on veterinary referral across the Lower Mainland.

Originally Published: September 9 2012

Written By: Rebeka Breder & Rebecca Ledger

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