Sunday, December 29, 2013

Breed-Specific Legislation: From Fame to Fear

Breed specific legislation (BSL) is a law passed by a legislative body pertaining to specific breeds of domesticated animals. In this post, I will be using "pit bulls" as the case in point arguing why breed specific legislation and its implications are not only misplaced, but also harmful and can serve as a gateway for other policy actions. There are many jurisdictions which enforce BSL on pit bulls, including Denver, Malden, and even my home province Ontario.

The term "pit bull" is a generic term used to describe any breed of dog which share physical characteristics to the commonly known profile. In actuality, "pit bull" includes many different breeds, but is generally any type of dog breed which has derived from the cross-breeding of bulldogs and terriers. This can include the American Pit Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Straffordshire Terrier, the Bull Terrier, and so on. There is a lack of clarity on how many "pit bulls" there are, since the name is ambiguous, and many people choose to avoid registering the dog as in some cases it can lead to increased insurances and other burdens for the pet owner. This being said, I would normally provide an estimate of the number of "pit bulls," but because of the ambiguity of the term, I won't bother.

An American Pit Bull Terrier. The build is almost sickening.
The "pit bull" as we know it is classified as weighing anywhere from 35 to 65 pounds, although there are many outliers, as there would be with most dog breeds. They are characterized as having high strength, endurance, stamina and "work ethic." This all adds up to a very strong, resilient dog that can be quite dangerous if provoked. The key word here is "provoked." For now, however, I should review some common misconceptions about pit bulls. Before I continue, I would like my readers to take any statistics - even those supporting my position - with a grain of salt. It will give averages and statistics for a "pit bull" breed, but as I have explained above, such a description is very misleading, as experts may not even agree on a dog's particular breed when it comes to "pit bulls."

One is that the pit bull has a locking jaw. This is commonly refuted, as there is no locking mechanism in the dog's jaw. The next step would be to allude to the dog's high bite pressure, which is allegedly higher than any other dog breed as measured in pounds per square inch (PSI). Studies, however, show this not to be the case. One commonly cited source is the test done on National Geographic by Dr. Brady Barr, which found that the pit bull bite PSI is lower than other strong, common dog breeds - namely the German Shepherd and the Rottweiler. The Rottweiler had a bite force of 328 PSI, the German Shepherd 238 PSI, and the pit bull 235 PSI. As a comparison, humans have a bite PSI of between 150 and 200, hyenas ~1,000 PSI, and crocodiles ~3,700 PSI. In the study provided, the pit bulls were largely outmatched by Rottweilers in terms of bite PSI, and were just barely outmatched by German Shepherds, although the results for the German Shepherd were one of the lowest compared to other findings.

But the basis for support of BSL is not in how strong a pit bull's bite is, but how likely it is to use that bite in an unprovoked situation. A 5-year study conducted by Sacks et al. from 1989 to 1994 found that in all dog fatalities where breed was identified a total of 84 deaths, 29% of the attacks were by pit bulls. A superior study conducted from 1994 to 2009 by Bini et al. found a similar result. Of 82 attacks where breed was identified in a Level I Trauma Center, 35% of the attacks were by pit bulls. Such studies found that many of the attacks were unprovoked. If pit bulls are not a dangerous breed, why is this happening?

There are numerous explanations for such a trend. One is the behavior of pit bulls prior to an attack. Most animals, when provoked, will show a warning sign prior to any attempt to attack. Most dogs will growl, show their teeth, bark or lunge forward in an attempt to intimidate their perceived threat. Pit bulls do not typically show any such signs. This can make prevention more difficult for pit bulls because it can be impossible to interpret when the dog feels provoked. This also explains why it may seem that pit bulls disproportionately attack when not provoked. The reason pit bulls exhibit such behavior (or lack thereof) is because of what they were bred for.

Dogs, typically, win a competition by intimidating the other dog, or by hurting the dog through biting, but not severely maiming them. Pit bulls were raised specifically to compete violently. Owners of pit bulls wanted to breed the toughest dog they could, and so competitions were held. Pit bulls were pitted (I make these puns a lot) against each other in the ring (often with the owner in the ring with them) to fight as viciously as they could. The dogs that emerged victorious were bred to preserve their genes. This type of inbreeding is seen in almost all dog breeds. As an example, Shih-Tzus were selected for their likeness of a lion for Tibetan royalty. They are not a naturally occurring type of dog. Pit bulls were selectively bred for their strength and optimization in inter-dog conflict.

Rin Tin Tin with starring actor Lee Aaker as "Rusty."
Another factor to consider is breed popularity; let us blame Rin Tin Tin. From his first appearance in the early 1900s and then the airing of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin in 1954, demand for German Shepherds skyrocketed as Americans saw an increase in desire for the loveable crime fighter. At the same time, after the ownership of German Shepherds increase after this year, German Shepherds seemed to make their way as being one of the most dangerous dog breeds. The reason for this is that when a dog breed becomes popular, and there comes high demand, the dogs are often bred very improperly, and by inexperienced owners. While it is true that German Shepherds have been selected for higher intelligence via selective breeding, there has been controversy over how the dogs have been bred, and these faulty practices can lead to many physiological issues. Given all of this, what sparked the recent demand for pit bulls?

A fun fact: pit bulls are the only breed to have been featured three times on the cover of Life Magazine. Pit bulls were popularized by the military and by tough guys everywhere because of their appeal as being a strong, resilient guard dog. This creates a profile, and as with all profiles, people will associate pit bulls only with what they commonly see, and thus the most common purchases of pit bulls became people who wanted an unstoppable force standing beside them. A study conducted by Barnes et al. in 2006 found that possession of a "high-risk dog" could serve as a marker for criminal behavior. It was found that "high-risk" dog owners had ten times as many convictions as "low-risk" dog owners. The results were upheld by similar studies in 2009 and 2012.

So if the public is purchasing pit bulls for the purpose of having a dog which is strong, vicious and unwavering, the selective breeding which poisons domesticated dogs is most certainly going to meet up with the pit bull. If owners want pit bulls to be the dogs they have seen them to be, then they will become that; it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Government bans Pit Bulls? Get a Rottweiler instead!
But this is not a predetermined fate for pit bulls. It is undeniable that proper socialization and care in a dog's youth can produce a very friendly, loveable pet. Perhaps, then, it is only obligatory for us to, when buying a pit bull, be aware of their need for special care and give them more attention and socialize them more than we would for another dog. A pit bull's potential for danger is not enough to warrant BSL. If a human being wants to raise an unstoppable breed of dog for purposes of fighting or guarding, then they will do it with whatever breed they can get access to. As we see above, German Shepherds and Rottweilers are very exemplary candidates. The study conducted by Barnes et al. also examined other "high-risk" breeds such as Akitas, which could also be exploited.

We can't justifiably enforce BSL because BSL does not get to the core of the problem. It's a temporary band-aid for an issue which has existed for centuries - humanity's selfish tendency to breed domesticated dogs in such a way that is unhealthy and dangerous for both the dog and the owner. This is a trend that will not cease, and no amount of scape-goating in the media and public is going to rid us of that burden. The hasty profiling being made in these cases is akin to other discussions relating to genetic determinism for behavioral traits, except in those cases, as it pertains to races of humans (search for the areas discussing MAO-A. The ensuing discussion, organized for easiness to read, can be found here).

Thank you for reading.

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