Should Pit Bulls be banned?

With recent media coverage of dog attacks, municipalities such as Surrey are considering revisions to their dangerous dog bylaws. A June 20th attack on a senior there was the latest high profile incident. In this particular case, the owner took off after his dog caused serious injury, forcing the police to hunt him down. The dog’s been surrendered for euthanasia, with the owner apparently facing no charges. There are a lot of things wrong with that, but using it and similar incidents as rationale to ban Pit Bulls outright would just be another wrong heaped on a pile of wrongs.

If you’ve been the victim of a dog attack, and if that dog had a bully breed appearance, I completely understand an emotional response to it. In that case, I suspect I might similarly have a fear of that breed. If that personal experience reinforced a perception I already had about these dogs, I might think a ban was a good idea, too. What I hope I’d also do, is take a step back and ask myself, “Do I feel this way because it’s reality, or because of my personal experience and/or what I’ve been led to believe by media coverage and victim advocacy?”

A Pit Bull isn’t a single breed

There are four distinct breeds usually referred to as ‘Pit Bulls,’ including the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. In addition to the variety of bully breeds that exist, visual identification is very difficult to begin with:

From the US-based National Canine Research Council:
Two other studies focused on different aspects of visual breed identification of dogs labeled “pit bulls,” as such labeling is likely to have dire consequences for the dogs (Hoffman et al., 2014; Olson et al., 2015). Hoffman et al. (2014), considered only inter-rater reliability, not accuracy, and found that shelter and adoption agency staff and volunteers (416 from the U.S., 54 from the U.K.) could not agree on which of a group of 20 dogs they considered “pit bulls”: a majority of U.S. participants identified 7 of the 20 dogs as “pit bulls” but for U.K. respondents only 1 of the 20 was thought to be a “pit bull.”.

Further, the same article goes on to say that even DNA-based breed identification is flawed. When you consider that many such dogs are mixed breed, any kind of Pit Bull breed identification for the purposes of a ban won’t work. As such, a ban effectively means that any muscular short-haired dog with a fat head may be subject to being muzzled or barred from public, or in some cases outright confiscation/euthanization.

Bully breeds aren’t proven inherently riskier

If you are banning a dog based completely on physical characteristics, then at the very least it needs to address an actual risk. This would require accurate unbiased statistics that clearly demonstrate risk after taking into account mitigating factors such as owner responsibility, media bias and breed prevalence, just to name three. Given the right circumstances, any dog can bite.

Research done specifically to prove or disprove something is often faulty. Confirmation bias is a serious concern in research, whereby well-meaning people will favour ‘evidence’ that confirms what they want to see. As such, you’ll find the more well-known anti-Pit Bull sources of data claiming conclusive evidence that this ‘breed’ is overwhelmingly responsible for bites, particularly when they cause serious injury or death. Ban Pit Bulls, Animals 24-7/Animal People News and DogsBite are three such sources, and they tend to be a cross-posting circle jerk. Read more about Merritt Clifton, the man behind Animals 24-7/Animal People News and Colleen Lynn, the woman behind DogsBite. Would you use them as reliable sources?

If you take a deeper look into any of the sites above, they typically compile their statistics from media reports and headlines. These media reports usually begin with visual breed identification and are heavily skewed by only incidents that are reported or which they decide to cover. As such, any conclusion drawn from them can’t be accurate, much less conclusive enough to outlaw a wide range of dogs.

Furthermore, when you include confirmation bias by people whose sole goal is to prove that bully breeds are dangerous enough to eliminate, the evidence becomes weaker still. It’s not that bully breeds don’t bite, but it’s the premise that their threat level warrants extermination, which is flawed. Considering just DogsBite as a source, I’ve been unable to find links to external sources for their research. Rather, they compile headline statistics and expect readers to simply trust that they’re correct.

Contrasting the research methodology above, in 2014 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conducted a comprehensive literature review of other peer-reviewed research to determine the role of breed in dog bites in the US, citing findings from 65 sources. I strongly encourage you to give it a read, but the findings speak for themselves:

  • While pit bull types are over-represented in the very small sample of serious bite incidents, breed prevalence and geographical location, media bias, reliable breed identification and owner treatment are mitigating factors.
  • Behavioural assessments and owner surveys showed smaller breeds such as collies, toy breeds and spaniels had the highest propensity for aggression.
  • Controlled studies have shown pit bull types to not be disproportionately aggressive, despite the strong breed stigma and difficulty in reliable breed identification.
  • With most serious dog bites involving small children and un-neutered young male dogs which were familiar to the victims, owner education and animal supervision are deemed key to reducing such incidents.
  • The study concludes, “it has not been demonstrated that introducing a breed-specific ban will reduce the rate or severity of bite injuries occurring in the community.”

Media bias affects data

For the most part, media stories about Pit Bulls focus on particularly unpleasant incidents, and often call for a breed ban. They usually include ‘statistics’ about how much damage they do, and how much more aggressive they are when compared to other breeds. Occasionally, you’ll see a well-reasoned piece that uses less biased data and which includes opinions from real professionals such as veterinarians and animal behaviourists. I’ll let you guess which type of article draws what conclusion.

While I’m loathe to drive any traffic to Pit Bull clickbait, some of the worst examples can be found here, here, here and here. These are but four examples by two local bloggers, of poorly researched sensationalism. However, there’s no shortage of others doing the same on the topic; some of which are real journalists at actual news outlets, like this (though it’s still an editorial). The one thing you’ll note about these and similar editorials, is that they rely almost entirely on other media, or worse, the sources I’ve mentioned above, for their ‘statistics’ in calling for a ban.

Editorialists fueled by emotion and bad data aside, you may notice an interesting trait with dog bite stories. Not a hard rule by any means, but often if a non-bully breed incident makes the news at all, the headline will make a generic reference to a dog bite. If it’s a bully breed, it’s more likely to make the news and the headline will often refer to a Pit Bull by name, include evocative terms such as vicious, mauling or maiming in the title, and include a stock image of a vicious dog. Stories framed this way will always drive more clicks/traffic and thus more revenue for the publisher.

Breed bans only discriminate

Ontario has had just such a province-wide ban in place for more than a decade. Montreal’s mayor has announced a planned ban for the fall and the province of Quebec has hinted that it may follow suit and enact province-wide legislation. South of the border, many jurisdictions in the US have enacted laws banning Pit Bulls. The question is, does it work? The answer, of course, depends on how you measure its effectiveness. If you’re only interested in measuring bully breed bite incidents, like this Toronto Star editorial, then every single breed specific ban will work wonders. As for bites overall? Not so much.

Let’s examine the Ontario case, specifically in the city of Toronto. Using the logic above, the law was very effective, as bites from the four dogs that make up the bully breed dropped from 112 in 2005 down to 19 in 2014. Interestingly, German Shepherds have always been responsible for the most bites since before the ban and remain so now. Total bites however, have not been reduced and have gone up sharply, with roughly 500 reported in 2005, rising to nearly 800 in 2014. Worse yet, by 2012, the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association estimated that the law had led to over 1,000 dogs and puppies in Ontario having been needlessly put down.

If you’re with me so far, a Pit Bull can’t be accurately identified due to many issues, most ban-supportive research begins from biased and incomplete media headlines, and a comprehensive literature review of peer-reviewed research debunked the notion that bully breeds are inherently more dangerous, anyway. While BSL is the most commonly implemented ‘solution’ to the problem of dog bite reduction, Toronto’s case is proof that it doesn’t work unless the goal is purely discriminatory in nature. Despite a long-standing bully breed ban in Denver, it doesn’t appear to be working either. Researching the efficacy of Winnipeg’s long-standing ban, I could find nothing conclusive, only opinions.

Perhaps even more important, in addition to not actually addressing the problem of dog bites and needlessly killing innocent animals, such legislation discriminates heavily against responsible dog owners, stigmatizes the innocent animals it doesn’t kill, and sometimes forces people to move from their communities. When applied to people, this logic is called racism. Trump anyone?

From Metro News Vancouver:
Leanne Bird and her husband’s dog, Peanut, is blind and must use her whiskers and nose to get around. Peanut is also a pit bull, which means it has to wear a muzzle during walks in Richmond, where the Birds lived until earlier this year. The city requires all “dangerous” dogs, which includes all pit bulls, to wear a muzzle in public. That drove the Birds to move their family to Tsawwassen, where there is no breed-specific legislation, because Peanut kept bumping into things and falling down stairs with the muzzle on.

Owner responsibility, behaviour-based bylaws and municipal enforcement

So, leaving alone discriminatory legislation, there are rational, fair and simple solutions to reducing dog incidents. Any dog can only bite or attack if their owner hasn’t got sufficient control of them. Just in my own neighbourhood, I encounter off-leash assholes all the time, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. People who have dogs often don’t understand enough about the breed they have or dog behaviour, abuse or don’t train their animals, overestimate their off-leash recall control, purposely train them to be aggressive, improperly socialize them, and the list goes on.

As a high percentage of bites and serious incidents involve small children and unneutered males, there are a few simple takeaways here. Never leave a dog alone with small child, always have control of your animal (and your child) when introducing a dog to a new child and have your dog fixed when it is old enough. I also believe dogs should nearly always be on-leash when in public and absolutely be on-leash when not in a designated off-leash area. Just these things alone would reduce dog bites significantly. Using the Surrey example at the beginning of this piece, if the owner had his dog on a leash, the attack never would have occurred.

Appropriate legislation and enforcement

As opposed to a patchwork quilt of widely varying animal bylaws, I think we need to start by making owners legally responsible for damage caused by their animals. Those of us who are responsible have nothing to worry about and those of us who aren’t will learn pretty quickly when irresponsibility means large financial penalties and potential jail time.

From Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun:
How about a provision in the criminal code? If a dog kills or causes bodily harm, let the owner face jail time, just as negligent drivers do. Then, perhaps, all dog owners will start taking their responsibilities seriously.

There are jurisdictions that have it right. Calgary is often lauded for its approach to animal bylaws, which places the responsibility where it belongs; squarely on the shoulders of owners. Calgary’s approach to dog legislation is based on the principles of mandatory licensing, public education, and owner responsibility for ensuring animals don’t become a threat to the community. The result is apparently the lowest bite and euthanasia rates in the country and high licensing compliance, in turn funding solid enforcement and animal infrastructure.