Can pit bulls overcome breed-specific legislation? In Denver, CO, not quite yet

Breed-specific legislation (BSL), which prohibits or restricts particular dog breeds or types, has been in Denver’s city code since 1989. On Feb. 10th, the Denver City Council approved a measure to end the pit bull ownership ban in a 7-4 vote. But just when it seemed like Denver citizens were on their way to welcoming pit bulls into their families, Denver mayor Michael Hancock vetoed the bill on February 14th.  

Denver is not the only place with a breed ban. Forty U.S. counties, over 1,000 U.S. cities, and a plethora of military bases and reservations have enacted BSL, according to Dogsbite.org. Other countries, such as Germany, Denmark, Great Britain, and Venezuela, also have BSL regarding pit bulls or bull terriers. But why do BSLs target pit bulls in particular? 

Denver is the capital of the state of Colorado.

Pit bulls have a history of being bred and trained for dog fighting, a sport that cruelly subjects dogs to harm for monetary gain. Because they are known to embody strength, strong prey drive, loyalty, and persistence, pit bulls are a favored fighting breed. 

Shocking statistics like “fighting breeds accounted for 89 percent of dog bite fatalities in 2018” and stories of maulings reinforce the stereotype that pit bulls are vicious and scary. Over the past few years, however, many animal activists and pit bull owners have advocated that pit bulls as gentle and loving companions. 

What makes a pit bull?

First off, the term “pit bull” does not define an actual breed, but rather loosely applies to dogs with general characteristics such as blocky heads, medium-sized bodies, and short hair. Pit bulls are descended from the English bull-baiting dog, according to the ASPCA, but there are a variety of bull or terrier dog breeds that can produce “pit bull” offspring. 

Visual breed identification and negative bias may explain why pit bulls are disproportionately represented in dog attack statistics. Visual identification is the main, albeit inaccurate, method of identification. A shelter study found that shelter employees misidentified 67 percent of dogs, and correctly identified the dominant breed of mixed-breed dogs only 16 percent of the time. It’s not just normal people; even veterinarians have trouble identifying breeds! How, then, can places with BSL properly determine which dogs are pit bulls?

Statistics aren’t as objective as we think they are

Take the aforementioned statistic that fighting breeds were responsible for nearly 90 percent of dog bite fatalities in 2018. Out of the presumed 4.7 million dog bites a year, 36 resulted in fatalities. Out of the 36 fatalities, 15 of the victims were young children. And out of the 15 children, 11 of them were between 0-2 years old. 

“Fatality” is a generic term that causes us to presume the victims of dog biting were mostly adults. In reality, nearly half of the victims were young children or infants. A large number like “90 percent” can also raise excessive alarm, but in context, the chance of receiving a fatal dog bite at all is very, very low.  

This is just one example, but, in general, dog bite statistics are difficult to compile and can be taken out of context. In addition to misidentification, the actual number of bites and the frequency of bite per animal contributes to unreliable breed bite rate data, says the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). There is no doubt that statistics are an important source of information, but they are still subject to bias and human error. 

Is it nature? Or is it nurture?

The nature-versus-nurture debate further complicates the BSL issue. BSL advocates use studies and “dog-breeding logic” to support their claims that pit bulls are “genetically predisposed” to be aggressive. Pit bull advocates, on the other hand, say that “bad dogs are the result of bad owners.” Not to rain on both parties’ parades, but behavior can be influenced by both genetics and environment. 

Scientists have actually found 131 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) that may be associated with breed behavior differences because they were found in genes that were expressed in the brain (“Highly heritable and functionally relevant breed differences in dog behavior”). 

One of the study’s diagrams implies that more aggressive pure-bred dog breeds include the miniature pinscher, daschund, pomeranian, akita, and toy poodle. Before we get ahead of ourselves assuming small dogs are generally more aggressive than larger ones, keep in mind that the study examined the genotypes and behaviors of pure-breds. The majority of dogs are mixed-breed, which means they’re genetically and behaviourally more complex. 

“Figure 1. Within- and among-breed heritability estimates, and breed-level behavioural data. Heatmap of breed-average behavioural scores plotted alongside a cladogram of breed relatedness from Parker et al. [19]. (Online
version in colour).” (Source: Highly heritable and functionally relevant breed differences in dog behavior)

The study even stated that “this approach does not provide resolution at the level of the individual”, meaning breed similarities were not definitive predictors of a dog’s behavior. In genetics, simply having a gene for a certain trait does not mean the trait must be exhibited. Behavior, like height and heart disease risk, is a complex trait, which means a lot of factors affect the final product. 

Environments before and during biting incidents also matter. Large and small dogs may react unexpectedly to novel stimuli, especially if they perceive a threat. Small dogs like chihuahuas can still break skin with their bite. “Friendly” dogs like golden retrievers may be anxious and defensive if raised in a poor home environment. Dogs can bite in a variety of situations, and we should not assume that their biting behavior is rooted in genetics. 

Some BSL do not ban pit bulls completely, but require them to be muzzled and on leash in public spaces.

Many psychologists and animal behaviorists believe that both genes and environment play a role in determining behavior. Dog behavior is complicated, and having BSL throw a blanket statement on the debate by assuming that genetics have a strong influence on behavior does not resolve the issue of dog biting in our communities. 

Okay, but what now?

The ASPCA has put forth a statement against BSL, saying “Laws that ban particular breeds of dogs do not achieve these aims [of decreasing risk to people and animals] and instead create the illusion, but not the reality, of enhanced public safety.”

If BSL does not reduce dog bites, what is an effective alternative? Unfortunately, a single, perfect solution to complex societal problems does not exist. 

“While many people will argue that small breeds can become aggressive and attack people, it’s a lot easier to either get victims out of harm’s way or to remove the dog from the situation. In addition, the injuries are usually much less severe,” a Quora user offers as a potential reason for breed-specific laws.

This is a valid point. But rather than discriminate against small or large breed dogs and their owners on a nitty-gritty-who’s-worse basis, we should be promoting and educating the public on the benefits of dog socialization and training. Proper socialization and training, which are known to reduce anxiety and risk of aggression, can have a profound impact on the dog’s personality and how they interact with other dogs and people.

Having veterinarians regularly communicate the importance of training and environment to new puppy owners would be a good start to tackling dog biting issues. In addition, animal organizations and training programs can also look into ways of making these classes more economically accessible. 

When I was volunteering at the local shelter, I noticed that the majority of the larger shelter dogs were husky, German shepherd, and pit bull mixes. People are becoming more open to adopting pit bulls into their families, but many others are still giving them up. Destigmatizing pit bulls and ensuring that all animals are raised in good environments can also help reduce the implementation of BSL. Adopting a dog into the family is a big decision. When choosing a dog, people should definitely consider how a particular dog will fit into their current lifestyle. People should not be flippantly adopting pit bulls out of sympathy, but hopefully they are more willing to look past pit bulls’ negative stereotypes while choosing their pet. 

Sources: Canine Journal, Denver city code, KDVR, Denver Post, Scribd, Maddie’s Fund, AVMA, Arizona Canine Cognition Center, Quora, PawCastle, ASPCA, Petolog, DogsBite

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