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Breed-Specific Legislation

Some cities and municipalities have tried breed-specific legislation (BSL)-which regulates or bans certain breeds of dogs-as a way to reduce dog bites. Although the effectiveness of this type of legislation continues to be hotly debated, two recent scientific studies comparing bite rates before and after BSL have shown that the rates remained the same after legislation was enacted. There are several reasons why legislating against certain breeds is not likely to be effective.

First, the breeds most often involved in bite injuries and fatalities change from year to year and from one area of the country to another, depending on the popularity of different breeds. Although genetics do play a role in determining whether a dog will bite, other factors-such as whether the animal is well socialized, supervised, humanely trained and safely confined-play much greater roles. Aggression comprises many complex behaviors that are influenced by a wide variety of factors.

Second, correct breed identification by bystanders, pet owners, police, medical and animal control personnel is unreliable. It becomes virtually impossible with mixed breeds. Just because a dog looks like a pit bull mix does not mean they are. A mixed-breed dog's genes often include more than just two pure breeds, and, thanks to their genetic diversity, mixed breeds may not even look like their parents. It's convenient for us to identify dogs by the breed (or two breeds) we think they most look like, but the label in no way accurately describes their ancestry. A case in point is the so-called "pit bull." This term is loosely used to describe four breeds of dog: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the bull terrier. Because these breeds, and mixes of these breeds, are hard for people to identify, any short-haired, medium-sized dog with a wider-than-average jaw who's involved in an aggressive incident can be labeled a "pit bull." It's not uncommon for newspaper stories about aggressive "pit bulls" to be accompanied by photos of boxers, bullmastiffs and even Boston terriers.

Third, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which conducted a 20-year study that listed the breeds involved in fatal attacks, there's currently no accurate way to identify the total number of dogs of a particular breed and, consequently, there's no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill. In fact, the CDC says its own 20-year study is not an appropriate tool for making breed-specific policies or legislative decisions. Instead, the CDC advocates "dangerous dog" laws that focus on individual dogs of any breed who have shown aggressive behavior.

Responsible dog ownership of all breeds is the key to dog bite prevention. More effective legislation than BSL is legislation that holds pet guardians accountable for their dogs' behavior by requiring them to pay for victims' pain and suffering and to take corrective action, such as spay/neuter surgery and proper confinement and supervision of their dogs.