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Pit Bull Breed Ban versus Dog Safety Legislation

Is there a middle ground between banning pit bulls in Seattle and ignoring the fact that attacks like the recent awful, terrible, scary mauling of a 71-year-old woman keep happening, by dogs reported to be pit bulls? I think so. It’s not enough to target pit bulls.  We need to prevent aggression from all breeds.   I don’t think we should settle for protecting Seattle against pit bulls. Legislation should apply to all dog breeds, whenever possible, for the most possible protection.

Breed Ban advocates call for all pit bulls (or any dog that looks like a pit bull) to die, in order to keep their families and children safe. On the other extreme are groups that say any law specific to pit bulls is completely unthinkable. But there is a middle ground, between the two, where the pit bull owners can claim responsibility for their own dogs and keep them, all dog owners can make some changes, and the people on the street can feel safer. Even as a person who has met many, many lovely pit bulls, it’s understandable how people can be frightened when they turn on the news and get report after report of horrendous dog attacks.

To ignore this fear or downplay it is unsympathetic, unrealistic, and risky.

I am a firm believer that we need to punish deeds, not breeds. While some proposals do constitute punishment for a crime the dog didn’t commit (euthanasia, big fines), others are just restrictions (dogs must be on leash, muzzled, spay/neuter). Not all legislation is evil. I don’t want to have my bags looked through at the airport, but I want a safe flight. Have I been punished for someone else’s deed? A tiny bit, but more so, I’m contributing to the safety of myself and others, so I’m ok with it. All dog owners need to help make Seattle safer. If that means not walking their Golden Retrievers or their friendly pit bulls off leash down the street, so that it’s more obvious when a dog is on the loose, so be it!

I *do* think Seattle needs something to make the dogs and humans in it feel safer. Humans hurt each other a lot more than dogs do, making the probability of getting injured by a dog much lower than being injured by another person. But we have an innate fear of big animals with sharp teeth, and perceived threats are just as stress-producing as real ones, and the part of our brain that deals with survival isn’t looking at statistics.

Speaking of statistics, a disproportionate number of bite reports were about pit bulls, according to Seattle Animal Control. That said, are more people reporting in that case, because the dog looked like a pit bull? Is there an unusually high number of unregistered pit bulls? (Bites were compared to the number of registered pit bulls.) Was the dog reported even really a pit bull, or did it just look like a pit bull? I don’t know the truth, and I doubt anyone does. That said, we can’t just dismiss the fact that individuals in our community have been gravely injured by dogs that look like pit bulls. I’d *much* rather see a solution that’s not breed specific, so that the next trendy Tough Guy dog never has a chance to start trouble.

Breed Specific Legislation, or BSL, varies all over the map, from full-out banning of pit bulls and even suspected ones, to Toronto’s law that is a bit complicated, but basically requires all purebred pit bulls (American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and some others) to be on leash and muzzled out in public, and prevents new people from acquiring pit bulls. The Toronto law was more vague about what a pit bull was, before, but has now narrowed the scope to purebred pit bulls.

I don’t know whether the best solution will be deed-based, breed specific, size specific, or just more enforcement of laws on the books right now, like leash laws. As a dog trainer in Seattle, I have met a LOT of aggressive dogs, from all different breeds, so I’d like to see a solution that applies across the board, to all breeds, based on the behavior of the dog.  Regardless, I think that people who are willing to have restrictions put on their dogs should be able to keep them.

I think the best legislation would be applied to all dogs.  Here are some ideas, just a mish-mosh, I’m not saying we need to do all of these.  And remember, this would be all breeds:

  • Extra $$ penalty for off-leash dogs. Multiple off-leash violations results in owner losing the right to own a dog. Ideally, the fine would be big enough to make people want to build a fence, rather than gamble. (To report an off-leash / stray / found dog or a dog bite in Seattle, call Animal Control at (206) 386-PETS.  Now is a good time to program it into your phone.  Leash violations in Seattle can also be reported on the Seattle Animal Control website. Do something!)
  • Mandatory spay/neuter for dogs of all breeds.  Exception would be dogs used as breeding dogs, which could be temperament tested. Breeders would be licensed. Show dogs that must remain intact would be considered “breeding dogs.” (this bullet point was added after original publication, see more info in 2nd comment, below this article)
  • Visible Fence law – currently, dogs are just supposed to stay on a person’s property. I strongly believe that all dogs should be considered “at large” if they are off leash outside in an unfenced area or have even have access to a street at all, unless a person is walking through the door (i.e., even inside, with a door propped open, the dog could be considered “at large”. A fence would be a visual barrier that the dog cannot pass through or over.  Would *you* feel safe if a dog rushed at you from behind an invisible fence? (bullet point added after original publication)
  • Dog park ban for all dogs with a history of aggression (which would need to be clearly defined & easy to report). Perhaps the dog park could be supervised like public pools are, and a fee could be charged to pay for that. Here’s one example of a supervised city-owned dog park in Fort Lauderdale.
  • Visible Identification. Dogs wear a harness or collar with a very big ID # in public, making it easier to report them for violations.
  • Muzzle law – all dogs over 30 pounds, say, muzzled in public.
  • Hiring more animal control officers and an education campaign encouraging people to report people with dogs that violate leash laws. If we raised dog registration fees and/or got all dogs licensed, that money could be used to hire more officers. I think Seattle, the whole city, currently has only 2 animal control officers.
  • Personal responsibility. Bigger fines / imprisonment for owners who’s dogs exhibit aggression directed at people.
  • Mandatory for owners to pass a test on reading dog body language or other skills.
  • Do a temperament test for all dogs in the city, and really make sure we get all dogs registered. If they fail the temperament test, restrictions are placed on them. If they pass, they aren’t restricted, but we may want to retest after the dog matures.

I’m not 100% against Breed Specific Legislation, if responsible owners can still keep their dogs without  suffering. I do NOT think BSL grabs the widest swath of the problem, however, and I will work to make sure that we are making Seattle safer from ALL breeds of dogs.  If Seattle does end up passing Breed Specific Legislation, perhaps people whose dog’s passed a temperament test could have a special collar their dogs get to wear, or an id card with a photo for the human, which would exempt them from any Breed Specific Legislation. The dog’s DNA could go on file somewhere as proof that it was that particular dog that passed. They might need retesting every 6 months if they are under 4 years old, say. Or the BSL restrictions could be manageable, like San Francisco’s law to fix all pit bulls.

One very sticky wicket is, how do would a law even define “pit bulls”? Does that include mixes, or only certain breeds that make up the pit bull family? That’s the way Toronto did it, mentioned above. There are those DNA tests, so that’s a possibility, though I’m not certain of the accuracy. Click here for the online quiz, “Find the Pit Bull.”  The vagueness of any definition of pit bull sets the city up for expensive lawsuits, and wastes time and energy.  If your great-great-grandmother was African American and all other relatives were white, would that make you white, or black? Do you still have to sit on the back of the bus?

These are, clearly, just some ideas, food for thought, some ways to start a conversation where we can come up with a workable solution. I welcome an intelligent conversation about this, with no opinions stated as fact and no name-calling or personal attacks from either side. Please leave your email address when you comment. I will NOT share it with anyone, but I need to be able to contact people to verify claims. If, for example, you say you’re a vet, I’d like to be able to verify that, but if you would like your place of business kept private on the web, I can do that. Comments will be monitored and spurious or anonymous comments may be deleted. I want a solution-focused discussion. Seattle needs one.