It’s an inevitable part of most social gatherings: a well-meaning family member or friend makes a beeline through the crowd on their search for the golden answer. ’You study animals right? We want to buy a dog, which breed is good?’ That seemingly innocent question really grinds my gears. Why? Because when you ask people what they are looking for in a dog the responses I get most often are ‘oh, you know, something small that will be easy to look after… doesn’t bark or poop too much.. Nothing too destructive.. Not one of those killer dogs. What breed would you recommend?’ (spoiler alert: the answer is none. There is no magical golden breed that does not bark/poop/chew or otherwise find some small way to exercise her/his autonomy).
This incredibly anthropocentric mindset – that ‘problem’ dogs are born rather than raised, that destructive or violent behaviour is not a reaction but something inherent in specific breeds – is at the centre of this post which will explore the extreme legal manifestation of this prejudice – Breed Specific Legislation.
Breed Specific Legislation (or BSL) is the restriction or regulation of certain breeds of dog considered ‘dangerous’ in the interest of reducing dog bite injuries and fatalities. Regulations vary slightly between states but uniformly apply to the six breeds now deemed illegal to import into Australia (Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro, Japanese Tosa, American Pit Bull Terrier and Perro de Presa) and in some jurisdictions include dogs that merely match a specified physical description. Generally owners of restricted breeds are required to spay or neuter their companion, muzzle them in public and ensure they are wearing a designated ‘restricted breed’ collar for easy identification. Restricted breeds are also required to be kept in secure (in some cases childproof) enclosures with adequate signage outside the residence. In extreme cases dogs that fit the bill are euthanized if they ever have the misfortune to be seized by local council.
The rationale seems clear- by restricting ownership and access to those breeds most likely to attack, the rate of bite occurrence is sure to fall dramatically, right? The Australian Veterinary Association doesn’t seem to think so, stating ‘The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), along with the national veterinary associations of Britain, the United States and Canada, has recognised that breed-specific approaches to dog regulation are not effective as they do not protect the public by reducing dog bite incidents.’
A recent study examining the circumstances surrounding 256 dog bite fatalities in the United States found 7 major co-occurring factors:
- Absence of an able bodied person to intervene (occurred in 87.1% of cases)
- Incidental or no relationship between victim and dog (85.2%)
- Owner failure to neuter dogs (84.4%)
- Compromised ability of victims to interact appropriately with dogs (victims were either <5 years old or had a limited physical or mental capacity) (77.4%)
- Dogs kept isolated from regular positive human interactions vs family dogs (76.2%)
- Owner’s prior mismanagement of dogs (37.5%)
- Owner’s history of abuse or neglect of dogs (21.1%)
Four or more of these factors co-occurred in 80.5% of deaths. Breed was not found to be a significant factor. In fact, what we should really take away from this study is that all of the co-occurring factors are human-controlled.
Why then do we cling to the idea that certain breeds are dangerous and thus our safety can be ensured by simply destroying the ‘problem’? Inaccurate reporting plays a big role in this. Research has shown that the ability to identify specific breeds involved in dog bite incidents is lacking. This can be due to vague or hasty reporting, the difficulty of identifying cross breeds or the sad but true fact that ‘PITBULL ATTACK’ is a far more effective headline than ‘BROWN UNKNOWN MIXED BREED DOG ATTACKS.’
Dog bite incidents involving smaller dogs are often (though not always) likely to result in less physical damage to the human in question and thus don’t quite make for a snappy headline (though this study suggests that if all instances of dog aggression were reported we might think very differently about which breeds are more likely to snap).
Furthermore the stigma surrounding restricted breeds can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, with individuals wishing to acquire a tough, vicious animal selecting a breed seen to fulfil that and training them accordingly. In some cases owners of restricted breeds have felt so pressured by the stigma surrounding their companion they have returned or surrendered their animal to a shelter, or at least considered it.
Are we really so blinded by media and the convenience of being able to say to our supposed ‘best friends’ “It’s not me, it’s you?” It seems to me the best way to tackle the frequency and severity of dog bite incidents is to finally face up to the fact that we humans need to take on a much greater share of the blame and replace trying not to feel guilty with trying not to be guilty.
For a brilliant cartoon on preventing bites and interacting appropriately see here.
Author: Zoei Sutton