At the Animal Behavior Symposium July 25, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) announced its rejection of breed-specific legislation (BSL) in a new position paper.
Some communities -- ironically including Denver -- ban specific dog breeds. Pit bull-type dogs always top of the list (and are sometimes the only dogs on the list).
The position paper begins: "AVSAB is concerned about the propensity of various communities' reliance on BSL as a tool to decrease the risk of dog bites to humans. AVSAB's position is that such legislation is ineffective."
When a serious dog bite occurs, or worse yet, someone is killed as a result of a dog bite, it's a tragedy. But is there really an epidemic of dog bites in America, as some stories in the popular press maintain?
According to the 2013-2014 American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey, there are 83.3 million dogs in America, and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 4.5 million dog bites per year.
Looking at those numbers more carefully, most dog bites occur within families (and mostly to children), and experts agree that with adult supervision and appropriate socialization of dogs to children, most bites could be prevented.
Just over two percent of all bites require a hospital stay, according to the AVSAB position statement. What's most relevant is that there's absolutely no evidence that banning breeds has any impact on dog bite numbers.
Between 1999 and 2006, an average of 27 people (in the U.S.) died annually as a result of a dog attack, according to a published report in the Journal of the American Medical Association - a number which, of course, should be lower.
Still, it turns out that people are far more dangerous to people than dogs are to people. Over 1,500 children died of child abuse and/or neglect within their own families in 2010 (according to the Administration for Children and Families), and there were over 16,000 homicides in the U.S. in 2010 (says the CDC). Sadly, in some major U.S. cities, more than 27 people may die of homicides in a month, according to the FBI.
A common refrain is, "Everyone knows that when dogs do attack, it's a pit bull responsible." Actually, the CDC stopped tracking breeds responsible for serious dog attacks many years ago for two reasons: The agency felt what's most important was what led individual dogs to attack in the first place. And in any case, breeds were likely being misidentified.
It turns out cutting-edge genetic testing has proven that the CDC was right. Various studies utilizing modern genetic testing confirm that dogs with a "pit bull look" are mostly merely mixed-breed dogs, often with no real pit bull in them at all. How a dog looks (phenotype) doesn't necessarily match up with what a dog is genetically (genotype).
However, in communities where breed-specific legislation exists, dogs who happen to match a profile consistent with what officials believe looks like a pit bull can be removed from a family, even euthanized, though that dog has done nothing wrong.
The reality is, there are lots of dogs in America with a profile that matches that of what many would call a "pit bull." Arguably, dogs with this general look you might as well describe at the All-American dog because there are so many of them. The overwhelming majority are family pets with no history of biting
Besides, data indicates that BSL doesn't improve community safety. In 2008, the Dutch government repealed a 15-year nationwide pit bull ban after a government study demonstrated that the ban was ineffective. A year later, Italy repealed its ban, with both countries instead concentrating on supporting responsible ownership.
Closer to home, Denver enacted its breed ban in 1989. Since then, the rate of hospitalizations in Denver due to dog bite-related injuries has been higher than in nearby breed-neutral Boulder, CO, according to the AVSAB position statement.
In 2013, a national study in Canada found that BSL wasn't an effective tool to lower dog attacks. However, public education and the fact that dog owners are taking more responsibility for their pets' actions, have proved extremely effective.
In Calgary, for example, proactive public education programs resulted in a 50 percent decrease in reports of dog aggression. An important focus of these programs is humane education in schools.
Often dangerous dogs are intertwined with socio-economic issues. It's those issues that public officials need to focus, not a dog breed.
The AVSAB position statement is free to download at http://avsabonline.org/resources/position-statements. Full disclosure: I co-authored this position statement with veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sagi Denenberg, of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)
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