Fellow dog lover Radley Balko points to a sad abuse of government power in Denver, CO. City officials are rounding up pit bulls for extermination and searching the houses of known and suspected owners. The ban was passed in 1989 after a pit bull killed a young boy but was temporarily unenforced after the state legislature passed a law forbidding bans against specific breeds. The state law was recently overturned and now local pit bull owners are struggling to keep their beloved pets from being seized and euthanized.
If history is any indication, this is going to mean a lot of dogs will get a lethal injection. In 2003 Denver put down 410 pit bulls and returned 240 to owners with the promise that they would be relocated immediately. Yet despite the bloodbath, city officials estimate that there were still 4,500 pit bulls illegally owned at the peak of enforcement. The prohibition didn’t work, but a lot of innocent dogs were killed and many privacies were violated.
The law is obviously an emotional response to a tragic situation, fed by a media portrayal of the breed as a vicious attack dog. Is there any justification for this? A thorough study [.pdf, Google’s html] by Jeffrey Sacks, et al, in the Journal of the American Vetinary Medical Association tracks dog bite-related fatalities (DBRF) from 1979-1998. At first glance, their conclusions seem to grant justification to the ban:
… the data indicate that Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs accounted for 67% of human DBRF in the United States between 1997 and 1998. It is extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60% of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities.
The data aren’t quite that clear, however. Ascertaining the dangerousness of specific breed requires finding out the number of fatalities it causes and dividing that by the size of the breed population. There’s a great deal of uncertainly about both of these variables. Rottweilers accounted for a large fraction of DBRF in recent years, but earlier in the study they are much less represented. The appearance of dangerousness is likely in large part a reflection of their rise in popularity and not solely the result of a genetic propensity toward violence:
Considering American Kennel Club registration data for Rottweilers in parallel with fatality data for that breed indicates that as the breed has soared in popularity, so have Rottweiler-related deaths (24,195 registrations from 1979 through 1982 and 0 deaths; 272,273 registrations from 1983 through 1990 and 6 deaths; and 692,799 registrations from 1991 through 1998 and 33 deaths).
Those registration numbers are also uncertain, but it is clear from the study that the apparently most dangerous breed changes over time:
To decrease the risk of dog bites, several communities have enacted breed-specific restrictions or bans. In general, these have focused on pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers. However, breeds responsible for human DBRF have varied over time. Pinckney and Kennedy studied human DBRF from May 1975 through April 1980 and listed the following breeds as responsible for the indicated number of deaths: German Shepherd Dog (n = 16); Husky-type dog (9); Saint Bernard (8); Bull Terrier (6); Great Dane (6); Malamute (5); Golden Retriever (3); Boxer (2); Dachshund (2); Doberman Pinscher (2); Collie (2); Rottweiler (1); Basenji (1); Chow Chow (1); Labrador Retriever (1); Yorkshire Terrier (1); and mixed and unknown breed (15). As ascertained from our data, between 1979 and 1980, Great Danes caused the most reported human DBRF; between 1997 and 1998, Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs were responsible for about 60% of human DBRF. Indeed, since 1975, dogs belonging to more than 30 breeds have been responsible for fatal attacks on people, including Dachshunds, a Yorkshire Terrier, and a Labrador Retriever.
Breed-specific bans like the one in Denver misleadingly emphasize the scary breed of the moment and do nothing to address the choices and behaviors of owners. From the same study:
Another concern is that a ban on a specific breed might cause people who want a dangerous dog to simply turn to another breed for the same qualities they sought in the original dog (eg, large size, aggression easily fostered). Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive. From a scientific point of view, we are unaware of any formal evaluation of the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation in preventing fatal or nonfatal dog bites.
An alternative to breed-specific legislation is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior. Although, it is not systematically reported, our reading of the fatal bite reports indicates that problem behaviors (of dogs and owners) have preceded attacks in a great many cases and should be sufficient evidence for preemptive action. Approaches to decreasing dangerous dog and owner behaviors are numerous. The potential importance of strong animal control programs is illustrated by our data; from 1979 through 1998, 24% of human DBRF were caused by owned dogs (typically more than 1) that were roaming off the owners’ property. Some deaths might have been averted through more stringent animal control laws and enforcement (eg, leash laws, fencing requirements)… Generic non-breed-specific, dangerous dog laws can be enacted that place primary responsibility for a dog’s behavior on the owner, regardless of the dog’s breed. In particular, targeting chronically irresponsible dog owners may be effective.
Interestingly, in Animals in Translation, which I reviewed briefly here, Temple Grandin suggests that leash laws in particular may be partially to blame for the rise in dog bites (the Sacks study shows non-fatal dog bites requiring medical attention rising 36% from 1986-1994). From page 159:
I think dogs may be starting to have aggression problems due to overly isolated rearing, too. All of the leash laws towns have passed may be having some adverse effects on dog socialization, because unless the owner makes an effort, many dogs do not get properly socialized to other dogs, or to other people. We need this laws, because stray dogs running loose can be dangerous, especially if a group of stray dogs starts thinking of itself as a pack… But leash laws have probably had a cost.
Putting some perspective on the situation, though, it’s clear that dog bites are not the huge problem as some media hype makes them out to be. From page 150:
…it’s really not necessary to be hyper-vigilant about the genetics of dog bites when you’re choosing a pet. Serious dog bites are so rare that from 1979-1994 only .3 percent of the U.S. population got bitten badly enough to seek medical care. When you consider the fact that just about everyone in America who isn’t living in a prison or a nursing home has fairly regular exposure to dogs, that’s a very small number.
The bottom line: there’s no justification for Denver’s intrusive and inhumane killing of hundreds of innocent dogs. It’s just a disgusting measure used for the self-aggrandizement of meddling city council members.