The Dog Question

Well, I did ask for challenges to write about topics that I do not usually address, and this one certainly fits the bill. Vincent asked me to write about:

The problem with Breed Specific Legislation. (Pet Laws)

Initially I had no idea what he was talking about. To say that I’m not a dog person would be a severe understatement. I have never owned a dog, and have no interest in doing so. Consequently I tend to be rather behind the times when it comes to news of interest to dog owners. A quick Google soon put that right.

Breed Specific Legislation, then, is the idea that certain breeds of dog are “dangerous” and need to be banned for reasons of public safety. Those breeds subject to this type of legislation tend to be animals such as Bull Terriers, Rottweilers, Dobermans and German Shepherds. Such laws are vigorously opposed by pro-dog organizations such as the American Kennel Club. I found an excellent summary of the issues on a web site run by the Animal Law Center at Michigan State University.

Not being a dog person, I’m a bit reluctant to pronounce on this issue, but there are a number of things that seem to need addressing:

• Is there a problem with dangerous dogs (and if so what is it)?
• Does Breed Specific Legislation solve that problem; and
• Is the philosophy that underpins such laws supportable?

As to the first question, there certainly appears to be an increase in issues with dog-related violence. This BBC item from earlier this month quotes the RSPCA in reporting a substantial increase is both the amount of (illegal) dog fighting taking place, and also the prevalence of problems with violent dogs in general. One RSPCA inspector, Sam Garvey, is quoted as follows:

“There are people that are using dogs,” she says, “because they know that they can’t have a gun, they can’t have a knife.

“So instead they’ll have 42 teeth on the end of a lead. That’s keeping other people away from them.”

Presumably a similar situation is developing in the USA. The sorry tale of Michael Vick is probably only the tip on an iceberg.

So there is a problem, in that people are apparently buying and training dogs specifically to use them in fights or as weapons. But the question I want to ask is whether this is a problem with dogs, or a problem with people. Dog fighting is clearly a dog welfare issue. The fact that it is becoming much more popular is bad for dogs. I note, however, that there appears to be a parallel increase of interest in violent exhibition fighting between humans, and I suspect that if the people running dog fights could not get dogs then they would use cockerels or some other species easily goaded into combat.

As to the wider social issue, Sam Garvey specifically states that people are using dogs because guns and knives are illegal. So presumably if we banned those people from having dangerous dogs then they would seek to arm themselves in other ways, possibly by obtaining guns. Banning the dogs would not solve the problem.

I have no idea what actually would solve the problem. I’m not convinced that the world today is so much more dangerous than it was when I was a kid that people feel the need to protect themselves by carrying weapons. I suspect that people’s feelings of insecurity are a result of a combination of factors including increasingly hysterical reporting in the mass media, cultural diversity and the death of local communities. (Do you even know the names of your neighbors? I don’t.) Sheer population density may also be an issue. None of these things are going to be fixed by banning dangerous dogs.

In any case, there is an enormous difference between banning “dangerous” dogs and banning particular breeds of dog. Firstly I am not convinced that there are specific types of dog that are naturally more vicious than others. There are certainly types of dog that are larger and stronger than others, and those types of dog may be dangerous simply because of their size, but small dogs can be vicious too. Pit bulls, for example, are quite small as dogs go. They are strong; because they were bred to manage herds of cows, but then so were corgis. I wouldn’t like to be the person who has to tell Her Majesty that she can’t keep corgis any more because they are dangerous. Pekinese were bred as guard dogs. And many other small breeds of dog were bred to hunt.

I’m well aware of the danger of arguing from anecdotes, but my personal evidence tends to support my thesis. The only bull terrier I have ever known (a Staffordshire, not an American pit bull) was mostly charming, though being solid muscle she could still cause damage by accident. I’ve also known a German Shepherd who was expelled from the police force for being too soft but was a fabulous success as a family pet. The only dog that has ever bitten me was quite small and not at all thuggish-looking.

Besides, if I wanted to buy a dog as a weapon, I wouldn’t want to spend a fortune on a pedigree animal. I’d go looking for a tough, street-fighting mongrel that I could buy cheaply and that would be just as violent as a pure breed. The UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act attempts to get around this by banning:

any dog of any type designated for the purposes of this section by an order of the Secretary of State, being a type appearing to him to be bred for fighting or to have the characteristics of a type bred for that purpose

But, as the BBC article points out, all this sort of woolly definition does is make money for lawyers.

Dog welfare organizations have an additional argument: that any crimes committed by violent dogs are mainly the fault of people, not of dogs. The BBC report says:

The RSPCA says the legislation is flawed, the focus is wrong. They want emphasis shifted from the dog to the owner or, in their catchier phrase, “the deed not the breed”.

I should note also that pro-dog organizations are often just as concerned by the “dangerous dog” phenomenon as ordinary citizens, in part because the dogs themselves are often victims of the process. People who keep dogs as weapons often treat them quite cruelly in order to train them to be vicious.

There are other ways to deal with dangerous animals. The Animal Law Center post quotes a Michigan state law that defines a dangerous dog as any dog that has actually attacked a person or another dog. That might be seen as shutting the door after the horse has bolted, but it is exactly the same law that applies to humans.

Which brings me to my final point: the whole philosophy of Breed Specific Legislation seems to me to be deeply suspicious. All domestic dogs are basically the same species, Canis lupus familiaris, which is in turn actually a sub-species of the gray wolf. Different breeds of dog may differ radically in appearance, but genetically they are all the same species. To define a specific breed of dog as “naturally vicious” is therefore analogous to defining a particular ethnic group of humans as “naturally vicious”. These days making statements of that sort about humans is thankfully frowned upon, but the fact that people are making such statements about dogs suggests that the whole idea that you can judge someone’s personality from their appearance has by no means gone away. That worries me.

To sum up, then, it seems to me that Breed Specific Legislation is one of those knee-jerk legal responses to what might be called a “moral panic”. It appears to be in the same class as trying to ban Goth music because it “causes suicides”, or banning role-playing games because they lead children into practicing sorcery. It is an easy thing for a politician to do, and it gets you lots of kudos with a certain type of “concerned” voter, but to does little to actually solve the problem, and is unfair to many responsible dog owners and innocent dogs.

Good question, Vincent. Thank you.

2 thoughts on “The Dog Question

  1. Thanks for writing that up, Cheryl. I can chime in for the “Dog People” contingent. We’ve got this problem in the States as well. Being proud Pit Bull owners (OK, he’s mixed with Dalmatian, but most people identify him as a Pit) my husband and I have already decided to never live in Denver, CO since they’ve “outlawed” Pit Bulls.

    Add to this the fact that the only dog to ever bite my husband was a small terrier, about the size of a Pekinese, and the only dog to ever bite my sister was a slightly larger neurotic Spitz, and you’ll see the absurdity of “Breed Specific Legislation.” *Any* dog can be dangerous if poorly handled (and a lot of little dogs are particularly ill-trained, since people assume they’re “harmless”) and almost every dog can be wonderful if handled properly.

    This sort of effort would be better spent getting dogs away from bad handlers than targeting a breed of dogs randomly.

  2. After seeing Cheryl lay out the issue, it reminds me of what former National Guardsman Ed Green always says about planning for capabilities rather than intentions.

    But if I apply that to breeds and argue that Rottweilers are big and have sharp pointy teeth, well, so do German shepherds who, as Cheryl illustrates, have a better reputation (provided you’re not watching a WWII movie, and even that underscores the effects of training a dog.)

    If I try to legislate against bad handlers… There are existing laws that can come into play if an actual crime has been committed with a violent dog. Obviously, the effort here is to change the civil law and prevent problems rather than waiting for crimes to happen and investing resources in criminal due process.

    The more I think about it, the less persuasive the idea sounds.

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