On Tuesday (September 27), the Montreal council voted in favor of a widely criticized piece of legislation with a 37-23 majority vote. This is a piece of legislation that has woven itself into American policy as well: breed specific legislation in the form of a ban on pit-bull like animals. This piece of legislation has taken many forms, and can mean a multitude of things to pit-bulls and their owners. In places such as Denver, CO, Waterford, MI, and Dyer, TN (among many others), breed specific legislation means a complete ban on ownership of pit-bull like dogs. In places like San Francisco, CA, this means a sterilization of any pit-bull like dog-- failure to do so could result in a fine, and even a misdemeanor. Another popular form of breed specific legislation is a "restriction on pit-bulls", which can mean a variety of things depending on the particular ordinance. Most commonly, these restrictions include proper registration of pit-bulls, a requirement of a leash whenever the dog is outside, secure confinement to a crate when inside as to prevent an escape, and a requirement to post a sign on one's property alerting that a pit-bull is present. In some places, pit-bulls are even barred from entering dog parks or any place where people or dogs are present.
*For a complete list of BSL laws and ordianances by state, visit DogsBite.org to see if your city/county participates in this vile practice*
Montreal's version of breed specific legislation.
In Montreal, the specific bylaw passed places a ban on new pit-bulls from living within the city limits, and places stringent restriction on pit-bulls already living in the city. For pit-bulls living in Montreal, these restrictions mean a life of confinement, sterilization, and muzzling-- a severe detriment to animals that require exercise for a heathy, happy existence. For pit-bulls currently sitting in Montreal shelters, this ban will mean an immediate euthanization, as they will be prohibited from being adopted out. Many Canadian organizations, such as Freedom Drivers: Animal Rescue Transport, are working to save as many targeted pit-bulls as possible. Currently the organization is seeking volunteers to transport pit-bulls to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where they will no longer be subject to the ban.
What constitutes a pit-bull?
To further complicate matters. it is often difficult to define a "pit-bull." The loosely established definition of a pit-bull is:
"a dog (as an American Staffordshire terrier) of any of several breeds or a real or apparent hybrid with one or more of these breeds that was developed and is now often trained for fighting and is noted for strength and stamina." Merriam-Webster Dictionary .
Now you can easily see why the prejudice against pit-bulls arrises, because its alleged propensity to violence is even noted in its definition-- an occurrence, I found, that is unique to a pit-bull. The same dictionary I used for a pit-bull defines the Golden Retriever as "a type of dog that has long yellowish-brown fur", a German Shepherd as "a large dog that is often used in police work and as a guide dog for blind people " (a curious finding since German Shepherds were the pit-bulls of the early 1900's), and the Labrador Retriever as "a medium to large short-haired dog that is black, yellow, or brown in color." These definitions are short in length, objective in nature, provide specific details on the breed's appearance, and even note the breed's accomplishments. None of that objectivity, specification, or praise can be found in Merriam-Webter's definition of a pit-bull. When an animal's stigma and overall demonization follow them, even in their basic definition, it's easy to see why fear is fostered and why breed specific legislation exists.
More specifically, a pit-bull like dog accounts for breeds such as the American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terrier, and mixes of the listed dogs. These dogs all share a few commonalities: a harsh stigma, short coats, big, blocky heads, and they're all included in breed specific laws and ordinances. Many owners find their dogs to be lazy, docile, loving, adoring, friendly animals that enjoy long walks just as much as a nap on the couch. They smile, they cry out for attention, they beg for table scraps, they'll cover your face is slobbery kisses, and they'll snore and bark at their own shadows. Their owners will also concede that they're not the smartest breed, but that's okay because their goofy personality more than makes up for their lack of intelligence. Yet Merriam-Webster ignored all of this, and instead focused on a horribly inaccurate misrepresentation.
Montreal's BSL bylaw takes this definition a step further in defining a pit-bull as "any dog that presents characteristics of one of those breeds." This nondescript, and ambiguous definition can account for a majority of dogs-- not just pit-bull like dogs as we know them. In fact, this definition can loosely subject any short-haired, big-headed dog to this ban. Sound problematic? It is. It seems that Montreal placed this inclusionary definition to deter owners from challenging the ban, as well as accounting for a larger sum of potentially dangerous dogs.
Does breed specific legislation actually work?
Generally, no. Take Aurora, Colorado as an example. In 2005, Aurora passed an ordinance banning pit-bulls. Following this ordinance, Aurora reported a 73% decrease in attacks by pit-bulls in 2014-- a percentage that should not astound or surprise anyone, considering this decrease was also aligned with a massive decrease in pit-bull ownership. Less pit-bulls, less attacks. However, what should astound you (if you prescribe by the false belief that pit-bulls are dangerous), is that the general amount of attacks actually increased following the pit-bull ban in 2005-- a 77% increase, in fact. In the year the ban was passed, pit-bull bites only accounted for 27 out of the total 110 dog bites that year. Following the ban in 2006, that number decreased (per the trend reported by Aurora), with pit-bull bites accounting for eight of the total 137 bites for the year. What occurred afterward was a noticeable upward trend in number of dog bites each year following the ban. The highest recorded number of bites occurred in 2011-- where only nine pit-bull bites accounted for the total of 252 dog bites in 2011. That number ever so slightly dipped the following year to 241 and then to 243 in 2013-- again, pit-bulls accounted for a very, very small fraction of bites that occurred (six and 10). So Aurora officials were not inaccurate in their statement that their imposed ban reduced the amount of pit-bull bites, however, what they failed to note was a general increase in bites by other breeds following their ban.
Dogs are in fact animals by nature, and just like any animal, they will act aggressively when threatened or provoked. A dog's natural and animalistic propensity to respond to a threat cannot be diminished with legislation, nor can man-created provocation. Dogs will always be provoked, and dog bites will occur. We can enact ordinances forcing owners to leash their dogs; we can tell owners to crate their dog whenever possible; we can tell owners to fence in their yards-- all of which can limit bites, but we will never be able to take the animal out of the dog. If you take pit-bulls out of the equation, you will still have dog bites and attacks, however they will no longer be subject to wrongful culpability; they will no longer carry the burden of our blame.
As an unforeseen consequence to Aurora's ban, Aurora has been forced to dish out a considerable amount of money on behalf of the ban. Not only is it expensive to mass euthanize pit-bull dogs (at the taxpayer's expense), but it's costly to simply defend the law. Aurora has been forced to pay substantial legal fees upon challenges to their law, and in one case (Grider, Belcher and Piltz vs the City of Denver & Aurora) had to pay $130,000 in legal fees alone. No money amount can be placed on the cost of thousands of pit-bulls' lives-- some of which were prized family companions.
These breed specific ordinances only further amplify the widely-held belief that pit-bulls are dangerous animals and should be avoided at all costs. This suggests to the public that we should only be cautious around pit-bull like dogs, and approach every other breed with reckless abandonment. This is not true. It is not a dog's breed that dictates whether it will act aggressively, but its behavior, size, overall strength, and whether provoking factors such as other dogs are present. Just like humans, dogs vary in behavior in temperament, and just like humans, dogs vary in how they handle specific social environments. Where one dog of a specific breed may possess a gentle, docile disposition, another dog from the same breed may be negatively reactive towards certain social environments and present signs of aggression.
In fact, in a 2013 test conducted by American Temperament Test Society, Inc (an orginization that tests the temperaments and ability to interact with humans and other animals in every breed of dog) reported that American pit-bull terriers tested higher in temperament than the Golden Retriever, whose temperament pass rate was 85.2%, whereas the American pit-bull's was 86.8%. Similarly, the American Staffordshire Terrier (a breed that is grouped in the definition of a pit-bull as well) tested an 84.5% pass rate-- meaning, 84.5% of the dogs tested proved to have a calm and friendly temperament when provoked with a variety of stimuli, including strangers, gunshots, man-created aggression towards the dog, and opening an umbrella towards the dog's face. These tests prove that any perceived threat we possess towards pit-bulls is unfounded, and is simply a poor misrepresentation of the breed's true temperament.
These dogs have been demonized by the media simply because of their ties to dog fighting, something we should note, was forced upon them. Contrary to belief, pit-bulls were not chosen to be fighting dogs because of a propensity for aggression, but were instead selected because of the stocky, muscular build that is characteristic of their breed. Pit-bulls are immensely strong, and if provoked, can harm an animal or a human. They have substantially stronger bite power than a majority of breeds because of their strength-- therefore a bite from a pit-bull can be worse than a bite from another breed. However, this does not mean that a pit-bull is more likely to bite than any other breed-- it simply means that their bites are more highly reported and publicized than a bite from another dog. None of this points to a deadly animal, nor does it justify the bans imposed on their behalf.
Breed specific legislation will never work in preventing attacks, what will work, however, is better training on all breeds and a general wariness around dogs you've never met. It is important to remember that all dogs can react to stimuli in negative ways and that the best solution to protecting yourself from dogs is to exercise caution, properly interact with them in a way that won't provoke them, as well as recognizing the signs of increased risk in aggression in dogs during signs of stress or fright. If you rely on breed specific legislation to keep you safe, it simply will not happen.
The only way to end BSL is with the support and understanding of people just like you and I. If we can end this stigma, we can end BSL, and together we can save lives.