Punish the deed, not the breed

Breed-specific bans have been tried in many places, but are being reversed as unworkable. Prosecutors must focus on irresponsible dog owners.

May 27, 2001|By D. Caroline Coile

WHEN 7-YEAR-OLD Kasey Eyring was attacked by a pit bull in January in Southwest Baltimore, she became one of a growing number of young dog-bite victims in this country.

Kasey suffered severe face injuries after a pit bull escaped its owner's back yard. Estimates place Baltimore's pit bull population as high as 6,000, and officials say they are responsible for 300 of the 1,000 dog bites reported annually in the city.

In a six-year study of fatal dog bites from 1989 to 1994, more than half the victims were children younger than age 10 - and more than half of the attacks occurred on the dog owner's property. The breed most commonly at fault was the pit bull, responsible for 24 deaths.

On May 7, when the Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval to a bill banning pit bulls, it embraced a simplistic solution to a people problem not a dog problem. Breed-specific bans and restrictions have been around since the 1970s. These restrictions have included requiring targeted breeds to be kept indoors or be muzzled and leashed in public. And some have required posting signs for a dangerous dog on the owner's property or obtaining large insurance policies. The catch is that some insurance companies won't insure these targeted breeds.

Baltimore's bill would have banned Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers and American bulldogs, and any other dog trained to attack. Violators would have faced a fine of up to $1,000 and 12 months in jail.

When the City Council reversed itself and rejected the measure on May 14, it followed the national trend. Most communities that have enacted breed-specific legislation have repealed the laws.

A five-year study published in the Cincinnati Law Review concluded that statistics did not support the assertion that any one breed was dangerous, and found that when legislation is focused on the type of dog it fails because it is unenforceable, confusing and costly. Focusing legislation on breeds that are labeled as vicious only distracts attention from the real problem - irresponsible dog owners.

Pit bulls have replaced German shepherds and Rottweilers as the primary focus of breed-specific legislation. Defining what constitutes a pit bull (or any breed) can be difficult; some ordinances ban "pit bulls and any dogs with similar characteristics," a description that courts have ruled overly broad and unconstitutional. Even dog-breed experts have difficulty identifying mixes, and DNA cannot be used to label dog breeds. Animal control officers have falsely labeled a diverse array of pure and mixed breeds as pit bulls.

Locating, identifying, confiscating, housing, destroying and disposing of banned dogs are expensive. Cincinnati was spending $200,000 a year to confiscate and destroy less than 20 percent of the city's pit bulls before the city repealed its long-standing pit bull ban last year.

Flaws seen in legislation

Opponents of breed-specific legislation contend its biggest flaws are that it does not prevent dog bites, and that most of the dogs of the targeted breeds are well-mannered pets. In Cincinnati, almost none of the confiscated pit bulls had ever been guilty of a single aggressive act.

Owners who wish to keep dogs for malicious purposes can simply switch to another type of dog and continue to jeopardize public safety, according to the American Dog Owners Association. With more than 500 breeds in the world, it is almost impossible to legislate against all potentially dangerous dogs. The breed involved in the recent fatal attack of a San Francisco woman was the Presa Canario, which would not have been covered by the Baltimore legislation.

In the six-year study of dog-bite fatalities published in the medical journal Pediatrics (Vol. 97 No. 6, 891-5), dogs identified as pit bulls, Rottweilers or German shepherds were responsible for 50 of the 109 deaths. The three breeds were among the most popular breeds in the country, making it difficult to interpret these statistics. The authors of the study point out that many breeds were involved, and that dog-owner responsibility was a greater factor than the breed of dog.

Other sources of dogs

Banning a breed does not stop people from getting that kind of dog, but it does force them to buy their dogs from irresponsible sources - and prevents them from obtaining the proper socialization, training and medical care for their dog.

Although large dogs are more likely to cause fatalities, dogs of all breeds and sizes can bite humans. The National Center for Injury Prevention says that in 1994 (the last year for which nationwide statistics are available), more than 880,000 dog bites requiring medical attention were reported, compared with 585,000 in 1986.

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