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You know in your heart and in your head that breed-specific legislation unfairly scapegoats certain dogs and won’t make your community safer. But how do you convince your state and local lawmakers, and your neighbors, some of whom might be swayed in favor of breed-specific laws by sensational media reports of dog bites?
It can require some re-education, notes Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the Massachusetts SPCA. “I have the most reasonable people come and say to me, ‘Well, if pit bulls aren’t all bad, why are they in the news all the time?’ And I’m like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’” She points out to them that the media tend to focus on a small number of attention-grabbing incidents rather than the normal lives of dog-owning families.
After years of lobbying by the SPCA and other groups, Massachusetts last year passed a law that prohibits towns and cities from adopting breed-specific legislation—something that about a dozen of the state’s 351 municipalities had in place, including Boston and Worcester. Advocates succeeded through persistence and taking the time to meet with lawmakers one on one, presenting research and answering questions. “It’s not an issue that’s ever going to be won on sporadic meetings or going to a hearing and doing nothing else,” Holmquist says.
It also helps to spotlight positive images to combat the negative impressions lawmakers might have. Advocates brought a pit bull puppy to the Statehouse on lobby day, for example, and also told lawmakers about a pit bull who had saved her owner from being hit by a train.
In Edmonton, Canada, advocates successfully lobbied the city council last fall to drop its longtime restrictions on pit bull-type dogs, which required them to be muzzled in public and chained even in a yard with an 8-foot fence, and forced their owners to have $1 million in liability insurance.
Dogs could fall under the city’s restrictions simply because of their appearance, explains Stephanie McDonald, CEO of the Edmonton Humane Society (EHS), which helped lobby for a change. Licensed veterinarians determined which dogs were placed in the restricted category, but even the vets didn’t always agree, McDonald explains. The breed restrictions were also impossible to enforce, she adds, because they didn’t apply to registered American Staffordshire terriers or registered Staffordshire bull terriers. Confusion over which pit bull-type dogs the restrictions applied to played a big role in the council’s decision to overturn the bylaw, McDonald says.
The city had also begun exploring the idea of restricting dogs based on whether DNA tests showed them to be more than 50 percent American Staffordshire terrier. In a few cases, decisions about which dogs should be restricted were actually reversed based on the results of a DNA test.
To highlight the difficulties of identifying dogs and enforcing the law, McDonald showed the council members slides of shelter dogs, asking which should be subject to the restrictions.
“They didn’t even come close,” she says.
The council thought all the dogs looked like pit bulls, but DNA testing revealed that none of them had a majority percentage of American Staffordshire terrier. A dog named Otto, who McDonald describes as “the most pit bull-looking dog you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” turned out to be only 25 percent Amstaff, while Tyson, another dog with physical traits typically associated with pit bulls, had no Amstaff at all.
To support the bylaw change, EHS developed a crisis communications plan with the city in the event an attack occurs, and also created more training classes to help reintegrate dogs who had been kept isolated because of the restrictions, McDonald says.
Outreach to the community through blogs and the news media helped convince people that responsible pet ownership can do more than breed restrictions to protect public safety, and the council members responded to their constituents’ wishes, McDonald adds. She recommends spurring action by determining what matters to elected leaders, which is often public safety. “You just really have to figure out what’s driving them, and what’s important to them in their particular areas, and then have a conversation with them.”