Pit Bull closeup

Breed-specific legislation is the controversial practice of limiting or banning certain types of dogs, with the aim of reducing dog bites and fatal dog attacks. But while breed bans permit discrimination, they don’t actually keep people or pets safe.

Under some breed-specific legislation, breeds labeled as "dangerous" can be banned in a city or municipality. Pit Bulls and related bully breeds are the most likely targets, but other types of dogs, including German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers and Chow Chows, may also be affected. Owners of these breeds face difficult choices: Some may move to other areas in order to keep their dogs, while others resort to rehoming, relinquishing or even euthanizing banned pets. Restrictions may also mandate compliance with specific rules, like keeping the dog muzzled in public or carrying insurance to cover the dog.

I had a chance recently to speak with dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, who appears on Animal Planet’s It’s Me or the Dog and is a strong opponent of breed bans. "Breed bans give people a false sense of security when they believe only Pit Bulls are dangerous and other breeds are less so.” She adds, “The media terrifies people into thinking a certain breed will kill them, while other breeds are safe. People believe what they read many times without going deeper into the ‘why’ behind the bite."

As a result of these misperceptions, otherwise friendly, well-trained dogs with no prior aggression are labeled as dangerous simply because of their physical characteristics — and their breeds.

Dog Owners Need to Take Responsibility

Stilwell and other trainers agree that aggressive dogs are largely the result of human influence rather than inherent breed-specific characteristics. Improper breeding, neglect, lack of training or force-based training and restricted socialization can increase aggressive tendencies. “We are targeting the wrong end of the leash," Stilwell says. 

Stilwell believes that a powerful tool to help prevent aggression lies in holding the owners of aggressive dogs responsible for their dogs’ actions. She believes that some simple tactics can help make pet owners accountable for their dogs’ behaviors. "Microchipping is important for all dogs," she says, not just to help find lost pets but to identify the responsible parties in biting incidents. "When more people are worried about what could happen to them if their dogs bite, they will be more accountable and responsible for their dogs," Stilwell argues, "because they don’t want to be fined or jailed.”

Another important step in preventing aggressive incidents is for dog owners to seek professional help when a dog shows signs of aggression, regardless of the dog’s size or breed. "Don’t wait until your dog has bitten [someone]," Stilwell says. If your dog doesn’t like to be handled, is fearful of strangers or barks at people coming in your house, or is reactive or avoidant around children, you should seek help right away. Stilwell also advises that pet owners proactively supervise all interactions between dogs and children, regardless of breed. "We have the most wonderful Labrador in the world," she says, "but even she could react and lash out if she was in pain.”

Train, Don’t Ban

Education — for people and pets — is the only real way to help put a stop to dog bites. Dogs need to be taught how to behave, and people need to learn how to interact with them — and all training for dogs should be rooted in positive reinforcement, not punishment.

“Confrontational methods exacerbate dog bites," Stilwell says. Dogs are "like 2-year-old children in many ways, and when you’re aggressive with them, they are more likely to be aggressive down the road." One canine study found that 43 percent of participating dogs displayed increased aggression in response to being hit or kicked; the same study found no increase in aggression in dogs who were trained using a clicker. "You can discipline and guide the dog," Stillwell says, "but you don’t need to instill fear to do it."

Stilwell believes that education is crucial in bite prevention. “Since most dog bites are done to children, dog bite education must become mandatory in all schools," she says, "to teach children how to safely interact with a dog and how to respond if a dog appears upset.” Even children who live in homes without pets need to know how to interact safely with dogs; chances are that at some point in every child’s lifetime, she will spend time around a dog. For that reason, Stilwell also believes in teaching parents and caretakers, including grandparents and baby-sitters, how to read canine body language and promote safe interactions between people and pets.

The debate about breed banning is still on and affects countless dogs and people on a worldwide scale. For those who call dogs of banned breeds part of their families, the issue will continue to be a subject of contention and unrest. Only with time and continued evidence supporting the lack of validity and value in banning dogs of certain breeds will the issue hopefully one day be pus at to rest. On that day, dogs can be evaluated based on their histories and behaviors, not by how they look.

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