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Blame the Breed?

Report questions the efficacy of breed-specific bans in reducing dog bite-related injuries

Report questions the efficacy of breed-specific bans in reducing dog bite-related injuries

For those municipal officials who think their problems will be solved by exiling the Rotty and pit bull citizens from their locales, a recent study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association has some eye-opening news: Even the weiner dog, the Yorkie, and the beloved Lab have launched fatal attacks on humans.

In the last few years, cities across the country have jumped on the breed-banning bandwagon, believing that all Rottweilers and pit bulls have an inherent propensity to bite to kill. But the JAVMA study (Vol. 217, No. 6, September 2000) raises serious questions about whether breed bans and breed-specific regulations are effective ways of combating dog bite-related injuries.

After examining the incidence of dog bites that occurred between 1979 and 1996, researchers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The HSUS, and the Division of Education and Research of the American Veterinary Medical Association concluded that fatal attacks represent only a small portion of dog bite injuries and therefore should not be the driving force behind public policies on dangerous dogs.

Using The HSUS's registry of dog bite-related fatalities along with the results of a search on Lexis-Nexis for other reported incidents, the researchers examined the fatality cases to find out which breeds and crossbreeds of dogs were most often responsible—a list which, as expected, was topped by Rottweilers and pit bulls.

Bad Owners Make Bad Dogs

However, researchers pointed out that this data was likely to be biased for a variety of reasons. For example, previous research suggests that the method used to gather data identifies only 74 percent of actual bite incidents; attacks by certain breeds are more likely to be reported to the media and thus more likely to figure prominently in the statistics. Furthermore, even if it were possible to calculate more reliable breed-specific bite rates, the numbers would not reflect the fact that some breeds of dogs may have a higher number of owners who are not good caregivers. "Less responsible owners or owners who want to foster aggression in their dogs may be drawn differentially to certain breeds," the researchers noted.

In spite of these and other potentially convoluting factors, researchers concluded that Rottweilers and pit bulls accounted for 67 percent of bite-related fatalities in 1997 and 1998. Since it is "extremely unlikely that [these breeds] accounted for anywhere near 60% of dogs in the United States during that same period," they continued, "...there appears to be a breed specific problem with fatalities."

But it would be a misstep to consider only fatal bites in deciding public policy, according to the researchers. Fatal bites constitute an infinitesimal number—less than 0.00001%—of all dog bites annually, and while the incidence of fatal bites has remained at a relatively constant level over time, nonfatal bite cases are on the rise.

Moreover, many of the factors that affect a dog's propensity to bite are no more specific to a pit bull than they are to a poodle. According to previous research cited in the study, male dogs are 6.2 times more likely to bite than female dogs, sexually intact dogs are 2.6 times more likely to bite than sterilized dogs, and chained dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite than unchained dogs. "Indeed, since 1975, dogs belonging to more than 30 breeds have been responsible for fatal attacks on people, including Dachshunds, a Yorkshire Terrier, and a Labrador Retriever," the authors noted. Biting may result from factors such as heredity, gender, early experience, socialization, extent of training, health, reproductive status, quality of ownership and supervision, and the bite victim's behavior toward the dog.

What Happens to the Pit Mix?

Breed-specific bans fail to address these issues, most of which are owner-generated problems. The authors noted that rather than reducing injuries caused by aggressive dogs, breed-specific regulations may simply cause owners to turn to other breeds that are "legal" but possess qualities similar to those dogs considered off-limits.

Breed-specific bans also raise a variety of practical issues. For example, how should overall statistics on bite-related fatalities account for mixed breeds? Do local ordinances or regulations apply to these dogs? How much "purebred" pit bull would have to be in a dog's genetic makeup in order for the dog to be subject to the regulations governing pit bulls? Enforcement of breed-specific legislation would require objective methods of determining dogs' genetic origins—a process that would be both time-consuming and expensive, wrote the authors. While some cities have tried to address this problem by including descriptions of the breed in question, "such descriptions are usually vague, rely on subjective visual observation, and result in many more dogs than those of the specified breed being subject to the restrictions of the ordinance," wrote the researchers.

Breed-specific bans also raise two constitutional issues. Since all kinds of dogs may bite, an ordinance that targets a single breed may violate owners' equal protection rights; in addition, ordinances have come under fire as "unconstitutionally vague" because of the difficulty in determining breeds. Nonetheless, the researchers acknowledge that a number of breed-specific ordinances have been upheld by the courts.

People-Specific Solutions

Concerns about the effectiveness, practicality, and constitutionality of breed-specific regulations led the researchers to suggest several alternatives that might better serve the goal of reducing dog bite-related injuries and fatalities. These alternatives include regulating dogs and owners based on their behavior, targeting chronically irresponsible dog owners, and strenuously enforcing leash laws and laws against dogfighting. According to the study, less than 0.5 percent of bite-related fatalities were caused by leashed animals being walked outside of owners' properties; therefore, regulations that limit fence heights or outlaw fences altogether may be increasing the chances of dangerous encounters between children and unsupervised dogs.

The researchers concluded by stressing the importance of educating dog owners about the characteristics of different breeds, the calming effects of sterilization on dogs' aggressive tendencies, and the importance of socialization and training. Acknowledging that data on the subject of dog bites is patchy, the authors wrote that only "formal evaluations of the impacts of strategies tried by various communities" will allow for legitimate, science-based recommendations about future policy. "In the interim," they wrote, "adequate funding for animal control agencies, enforcement of existing animal control laws, and educational and policy strategies to reduce inappropriate dog and owner behaviors will likely result in benefits to communities and may well decrease the number of dog bites that occur."


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