On Breed Specific Legislation, Public Safety, and Why The Research Matters

Posted on July 16, 2016 by

There is recent nation-wide attention to animal control issues concerning dogs in Canada.  The target is “pit bulls” or dogs with traits that resemble particular characteristics of breeds included in this generic term.  One common response to serious dog bites and maulings is to lobby for a ban of particular breeds by enacting Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) at the municipal and provincial levels.  The popularity of this response is often explained by media-driven hysteria and uninformed policy-making.  This explanation of BSL’s popularity is disputed, however.  In light of this dispute, I start with some common ground: As a public safety issue everyone can agree that animal control should be based on reasonable, scientifically grounded legislation that actually works.

Notably, there has been a world-wide trend towards the eradication of breed specific bans and the implementation of breed-neutral regulation that focus on public safety (see this veterinary news site).  This trend is likely due to studies indicating a failure of breed bans over the past two decades (the AVSAB provides over 30 references from reputable journals and other sources that support a rejection of the claim that BSL increases public safety).  Until recently, Ontario’s controversial province-wide ban since 2005 appeared to be on its way out.  However, a fatal dog attack in Montreal has the entire province of Quebec entertaining the idea of banning certain breeds.  Other cities across Canada are either jumping on the bandwagon or continuing to stay on for the ride.  How can we make sense of this discrepancy between the current BSL debate in Canada and the eradication trend of BSL elsewhere?

I’ll put my cards right out front on this one.  It’s surprising and downright embarrassing to see so many Canadians take a step backwards in light of what should be some very compelling evidence to the contrary.  Here’s why: Breed Specific Legislation is outdated, scientifically unfounded, and rightly condemned by animals professionals.

Breed Specific Legislation is Outdated Along with Other Forms of Discrimination.  You may have heard the claim that discrimination based on breed is analogous to discrimination based on race.  But what exactly does this mean?  Here’s some biology 101.  Breeds of dogs are analogous (or similar) to the populations of humans we often refer to as ‘race’.  Different species–Homo sapiens, Canis lupus familiaris (the domestic dog), and Felis catus (domestic or “house” cats)–have numerous subpopulations organized by various factors, such as geographic isolation or selective breeding to name a few.  In other words, different populations of dogs we call ‘breeds’ can be more common in some places than others.  We can also influence the organization of dog populations by our selective breeding practices. All of this means that the group of terrier breeds often referred to as ‘pit bulls’ are, biologically speaking, just domestic dogs like every other subpopulation of the species. But we can take an analogy between dogs and humans a step further. Dogs are mammals like us, which means we share similar features or traits that place us in that taxonomic grouping, traits often due to our shared evolutionary histories.  One might even say that dogs have relevant brain structures and exhibit the behaviour suggestive of individual experiences and a ‘point of view.’  From this we can infer that each individual dog experiences aspects of the world from a particular perspective similar to how we each experience the world from a different perspective based on our own personal histories (emotional, psychological, etc.).  All of these similarities between dogs and humans seem reasonable.  That dogs, and other non-human animals, are some Cartesian automata (or machines) without minds, individual personalities, or the capacity for pain experience is a fancy of only the most radical skeptics in philosophy of mind.  So let’s stick with our reasonable starting point.

The similarities above are commonly used to support arguments against the discrimination of certain dog breeds. That is, breed discrimination is wrong for the same reasons we think discrimination against humans grouped into certain categories is wrong (e.g. categories such as race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation).  Discrimination is a bad thing when it causes unequal or unfair treatment and harm.  Anti-discrimination laws are in place to “prohibit us from singling out individuals for less favourable treatment because of certain traits (Moreau 2010, 143).  As a discriminatory regulation, Breed Specific Legislation is exactly what it sounds like.  Regulations are put in place that single out individual dogs due to a common set of physical traits.  Often the reason given for a ban on those breeds with the target traits is an assumed connection with aggression towards humans.  That assumption is precisely what I explore here.  Such differential treatment results in targeted dogs receiving unequal treatment that often results in harm to them, such as death.  Given the value of life, a loss of it calls for careful consideration.  Let’s take a look at the role discrimination has played in human history.

We often look back to discriminatory laws concerning humans enacted twenty or even thirty years ago and feel embarrassed about the systemic injustices they were used to enforce. This includes the blood donor controversy concerning gay donors, racial segregation laws up to the mid 20th century, and the residential school system that took place in Canada up until the 1990s just to name a few.  Thankfully, we’ve seen what some might call moral progress.  For example, bans on same-sex marriage have been overturned across North America.  A vast majority of Canadians proudly watched our Prime Minister at this year’s Pride parade in Toronto.  We continue to work on discriminatory issues as a nation and through grassroots movements on social media, such as challenging the glass-ceiling for women in the workforce.  What all of these morally-charged social changes have in common is a general condemnation of discriminatory practice based on physical characteristics or behaviours.  The lesson of the story goes something like this:  we’ve learned that judging a book by its cover is an unsound judgement as time and time again we discover that what’s inside doesn’t always meet our expectations.  In other words, we’ve discovered that discriminatory judgements like this are epistemically suspect–there are no grounds for thinking that outward characteristics, such as physical traits or particular orientations, necessarily determine individual psychology and behavioural tendencies.  But how does all of this talk of social movements concern dog breeds?

If it is wrong to judge the individual personality and behavioural tendencies of someone because of that person’s race or other physical characteristics we must carefully scrutinize the claim that all pit bulls are vicious and should be banned.  That is, to say that entire populations of dogs are vicious because of some connection between viciousness and the way they look should cause alarm bells–this is the very same discriminatory line of reasoning now recognized to be problematic and outdated as described above.  But that’s not all.

Breed Specific Legislation is Scientifically Unfounded.  Attempts to justify discrimination against breeds labelled ‘pit bulls’ rely on one alleged factor that is supposed to distinguish those dogs from the rest: aggressive behaviour.  Folks in favour of BSL often speak to the aggressive behaviour these dogs were bred for “in the pits” from when dog fighting was considered a sport to the thug-like enterprise we know it as today.  There is, however, a tendency to ignore research on aggression, which is problematic for at least two reasons.  The first comes from work in cognitive ethology and the second from biology.

First, cognitive ethology is the study of animal mental experiences (Ristau 2013).  And “it has been recognized for many years [i.e. since at least 1923] that aggression is not a unitary phenomenon” with studies that analyze the relationship between inter-species and intra-species aggression (Huntingford 1976).  Way back in 1966, K. Lorenz distinguished between two situations in which aggressive behaviour is known to occur: [1]inter-specific or ‘between species’ aggression versus [2]intra or conspecific aggression as fighting within the same species.  In categorizing aggression we find a distinction between aggressive behaviour within species and between species.  In other words, we have good evidence to support a distinction between dog-dog (conspecific) aggression and dog-human (interspecific) aggression.  We see real examples of this distinction all the time, such as dogs in shelters who are described as needing ‘one dog homes’, but nevertheless make excellent family pets.  Furthermore, the aggression pit bulls might show in the fighting pits (though not all do and are often killed because of that) does not immediately translate into aggression towards humans.  In fact, if our concern is what the dogs were “bred for,” then dogs that showed aggression towards humans during dog fights were likely not selected for as it would be detrimental to the handler. Given that aggression has also been analyzed in terms of the function it serves in addition to “its motivational basis” (Huntingford 1976, 485), this suggests that the function of aggression in the fighting pit along with the motivations to do so are very different than your standard loving home, which counter-conditions against such behaviour.  In sum, to say that all pit bulls are aggressive is often a statement made in ignorance concerning the evident nuances of aggressive behaviour generally.

Second, one cannot assess the nature of particular dog breeds in a vacuum–biology has something to say about the relationship between genes and the phenotypic expression of them, such as behavioural tendencies.  In popular media, Cesar Milan (a.k.a the Dog Whisperer) claims that all dogs are a product of their environment–change the environment and you then change the behaviour of the dog.  Alternatively, particular advocacy organizations have taken a stand against Milan’s position and claim that dog characteristics “are all about genetics” (Pit Bulls Against Misinformation is one organization).  Despite the disagreement, both sides emphasize the need for responsible and knowledgeable handlers to manage and address dog behaviour.  These claims are based on direct experience in handling dogs in training and rescue.  Alternatively, those who support BSL typically claim that pit bull breeds are inherently aggressive such that it’s in their genes to be that way.  So is dog behaviour due to nature or nurture?

To address that question, one should not ignore how the nature-nurture debate over the cause of phenotypic traits reached a far more sophisticated conclusion after the biologist R.C. Lewontin published a landmark paper in 1974.  This paper marks the beginning of the interactionist consensus concerning the relationship between genes, environment, and phenotypic expression (traits such as behaviour included).   This means that all traits (physical characteristics, behaviour, etc.) result from a complicated interaction between genetic and environmental factors.  Since 1974, there has been a live debate over which factor more heavily influences the phenotypes, in addition to the role of information theory, innate versus acquired characteristics, and phenotypic plasticity (Pigliucci 2001, Kaplan 2000, Northcott 2006, Griffiths 2009, Tabery 2014 to name just a few).  If all of this sounds complicated, it’s because it is.  The point is that talk of a single cause of dog behaviour is not supported by scientific and philosophical literature, which has been around for over forty years.  So aggressive behaviour is not only due to genes and it’s not only due to the environment, but instead results from a complicated interaction between both.  Therefore, to say the all pit bulls are inherently aggressive due to genetic cause is insensitive to tons of relevant research on the multiple causes of phenotypic traits.

Overall, what we learn from studies on the nature of aggression and the relationship between behaviour, genes, and the environment matter for public safety when the aim is to manage our complex companionship with another species, which lives so closely alongside us.  How to put into practice what we learn from our research is up to the policy makers and animal professionals, which brings us to the final point.

Breed Specific Legislation is Condemned by Animal Professionals.  To put this plainly, BSL is downright lazy policy-making.  It takes actual work to construct animal control regulations that truly make a difference to public safety.  Why?  Because a multitude of experts must be consulted, which includes research into what counts as an expert and pursing verbal or written suggestions and direction for how to shape the laws.  Animal professionals that count as “dog experts” will be anyone with significant knowledge about dog breeds and behaviour through experience by occupation (i.e. working directly with dogs) or through research by obtaining facts from reliable sources (i.e. competent knowers in a certain field, such as cognitive ethology for example).  Veterinarians, rescue agencies, humane societies, and animal control officers all fit the bill. Notice that law enforcement officials (unless directly trained in dealing with dogs), as well as journalists who think they’re tracking a pattern, are not included on this list.  The opinions of animal professionals are not just some opinions among many, they are the opinions that actually matter when trying to determine how to reduce dog bite incidents and maulings.  Not all opinions carry the same weight in a given context (see “Not All Opinions are Equal”).  The sorts of people a dog expert category excludes are those of us who have little to no experience with dogs, as well as people whose only experience with a dog is a bite incident.  As traumatizing as a serious bite incident might be, that the person has been attacked does not make that person an expert on dog behaviour.  We must be careful of those who pose as experts, such as certain website hobbyists and others who cook up statistics and facts outside of peer review.  Ignoring the testimony of actual animal professionals is tantamount to ignoring the testimony of doctors for legislation concerning euthanasia–alarming and negligent especially for matters of public safety.  It’s very well-known that animal professionals condemn Breed Specific Legislation for various reasons, such as its ineffectiveness for promoting public safety and its near impossibility to enforce.

Why is BSL ineffective?  In 2014 The American Veterinary Association published a peer-reviewed summary that concludes pit bull type breeds are not found to be disproportionately dangerous in controlled studies. They also find that breed bans cannot be expected to work even if some breeds could be identified as high risk.  Here are some other reputable sources that discuss the problem: ASPCA, BadRap.org, Pit Bull Rescue Central, The National Canine Research Council, The American Veterinary Medical Association, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the American Kennel Club, the Canadian Kennel Club, the Dog Legislation Council of Canada, the American Temperament Testing Society (which shows American Pit Bull Terriers scoring better than Golden Retrievers on temperament tests in 2008), the Human Society of the United States, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, as well as numerous (if not all) provincial SPCAs in Canada.  And there are many more including associations, rescues, and animal control operations that operate at both the provincial and municipal levels that reject BSL.  The voice of these professionals should heavily influence the direction of legislation.  It’s up to public officials to translate that information into laws.  Unfortunately, the enactment or continuation of BSL clearly indicates how public officials are ignoring the people they should be listening to.  In doing so, they inevitably fail to protect the public.

Why is BSL nearly impossible to enforce?  There are discrepancies with visual identification compared to actual DNA (Voith et al. 2013).  To complicate identification further, the use and meaning of the term ‘pit bull’ is disputed.   ‘Pit bull’ is often used as an umbrella term used to refer to at least four different types of terrier breeds who share similar characteristics and history: The Staffordshire Terrier, the American Staffordshore Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), and the American Bull Terrier.  Using this term is not as accurate as identifying dogs by their specific breeds.  But the scope of ‘pit bull’ as slang has widened to the dismay of some advocacy groups.  For example Pitbulls Against MisInformation (PBAM), as well as Bully Breed Soldiers Unite (BBSU) condemn a liberal use of the term and maintain that only the APBTs should be referred to as ‘pit bulls’.  This is likely for a number of reasons, but restricting the use of the term prevents other breeds that merely look similar from misidentification by the media and society generally.  Breed identification is extremely difficult, especially for persons without training.  What is the point of enacting regulations which cannot be enforced?  This is impracticality at its finest, which results in a waste of public funds. Breed misidentification by non-professionals who minimally interact with and track the actions of dogs, such as many police officers and journalists, fuels public hysteria.  Public hysteria demands action from public officials, but hysteria is not an excuse for enacting regulations that do not promote public safety and ultimately waste our tax dollars at the same time.

So there it is.  Breed Specific Legislation is outdated, scientifically unfounded, and condemned by animal professionals.  This means that BSL is enacted when it shouldn’t be.  It’s continued when it shouldn’t be.  As a matter of public safety concerning dogs, animal control regulations require careful attention to detail; the research matters.  At this point, there is no good reason to continue a spotlight on particular breeds as if it’s supposed to increase the safety in our communities.  So what should we do now?  Non-human animal issues, especially those concerning companion animals, are social issues. As Canadians, we often compare ourselves to the U.S. to get a feel for where we stand in that regard.

Lately Canadians have shared a feeling of relief concerning our gun laws, the resiliency of our economy, and a sensible Prime Minister showing sensitivity to public issues surrounding marginalized populations in Canada.  We can’t help but to feel pride in our multiculturalism given the political climate of our European and American counterparts.  Such confidence might be warranted, but we cannot let it hinder our progress elsewhere.  Breed Specific Legislation is just one of many animal issues that matter.  Offenses against animals in the Canadian Criminal Code have not been substantively updated since 1892 (with a beastiality loophole?!?! Come on people).  This is a shameful fact compared to what our neighbours have been doing south of the border.  Animal cruelty in the States is now considered a felony and investigated by the FBI, which means that the U.S. is exploring how to address animal cruelty as a first step in preventing larger crime.  Moreover, Best Friends Animal Society in the U.S. took on the task of rehabilitating and rehoming most of the 50 dogs found on Michael Vick’s property in 2007.  Many of these dogs went on to achieve Canine Good Citizen Status in addition to therapy dog certifications.  Best Friends changed the way fighting dogs were treating in the years to follow as the public began to view them as victims in need of rehabilitation.  Yet for some reason the massive dog-fighting bust in Chatham, Ontario early this year has yet to see any progress in determining the fate of those dogs, who are still kept in an undisclosed location by the Ontario SPCA.  Additionally, the Obama Administration spoke out against BSL claiming it to be “largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources.”  In May 2016, Arizona became the 20th State to prohibit cities and counties from enacting or enforcing breed-based dog regulations with others States soon to follow.  Truth be told, we really don’t need to look too far– our own Calgary, Alberta has an animal control model cited internationally for its success in decreasing dog bites with a former animal control director who publicly spoke about that model overseas.  There are many real examples to turn to in order to address the complexity of breed-neutral regulations that decrease dog bite incidents.

And last, but certainly not least, if you’re still not convinced that discrimination against pit bull type breeds is ridiculous, then true to nerd form I finish with a comic book analogy.  As someone very wise once asked me, “so what you’re saying is that a few pit bulls joined Magneto, but most are X-Men.”  Yes.  Precisely.


References Without Live Links:

Griffiths, Paul, “The Distinction Between Innate and Acquired Characteristics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/innate-acquired/&gt;.

Huntingford, Felicity Ann (1976).  The relationship between inter-and intra-species aggression.  Animal Behaviour, 24, 485-497.

Lewontin, R.C. (1974).  The analysis of variance and the analysis of cause.  American Journal of Human Genetics, 26: 400-411.

Lorenz, K. (1966).  On Aggression.  London, Methuen.

Kaplan, J.M. (2000).  The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic Research.  London: Routlegde.

Moreau, Sophia (2010).  What is Discrimination?  Philosophy and Public Affairs, 38 (2):143-79.

Northcott, Robert (2006). Causal efficacy and the analysis of variance.  Biology and Philosophy, 21 (2):253-276.

Pigliucci, Massimo (2001).  Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture.  London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Risteau, Carolyn A. (2013). Cognitive Ethology.  WIREs Cognitive Science, 4: 493-509.

Tabery, James (2014).  Beyond Versus: The Struggle to Understand the Interaction of Nature and Nurture.  MIT Press.

Sources concerning the Vick dogs and Best Friends and Society: