Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Muzzling the real solution to the problem

Some new legislation has been proposed in Worcester, the city next door to my town. This legislation proposes specific restrictions on pit bulls and their owners. Most importantly, pit bulls would have to be muzzled when out in public, though other restrictions are proposed as well, such as requiring pit bull owners to put signs in their front yards advertising that a pit bull lives there. The local paper has some details.

The MSPCA has a brief article about the legislation, with some quotes from one of the sponsors of the bill:

District 5 Councilor William J. Eddy pointed out that over the past three years, only 2 percent of the dogs licensed by the city are pit bulls, while 25 percent of all dog bites over the same period were caused by that breed... “Some will say this is not a (dog) breed problem, but an (dog) owner problem,” Mr. Eddy said. “These are aggressive dogs that can cause great damage. There isn't another breed in Worcester that has that kind of statistics.”

I am one of the people who will say that this is not a dog breed problem, but a dog owner problem. So how do I answer Mr. Eddy?

More bites are caused by pit bulls than by any other breed. Therefore pit bulls are dangerous.

First of all, is it “more bites” or “more reported bites”? Is it possible that people are more likely to report a pit bull bite because of the way the breed is perceived? Is it possible that mixed-breed dogs that bite are assumed to be pit bulls, because it is very hard to tell what is and isn’t a pit bull and because people assume that pits are liable to bite? The National Research Council released a report in 2007 arguing that there is a media bias against pit bulls, and that pit bull bites are more likely to be widely reported than bites involving dogs of other breeds.

But let’s say pits do bite more than other dogs. Is that a problem with the breed, or with perceptions of the breed, and therefore with the kind of people likely to own pits? Pits are the most popular breed used in the underground and illegal sport of dog fighting, for which they are bred and trained. The National Research Council reports that dogs which are not kept as pets, and dogs which are not humanely controlled by their owners, are the dogs which are most likely to bite. Are people more likely to treat pit bulls this way than Labrador retrievers? I think so.

Eddy is further quoted:

“We have a problem in this city and we have an opportunity to address this problem. Frankly, I think it’s long overdue.”
Yes, it is long overdue, and yes, let’s address this problem! (Lucky for Worcester, they have a veterinary school with a behavior department right next door.) So why is BSL (breed specific legislation) a bad answer?

Because it won’t work. This is the really important point! I don’t argue against BSL because I think it’s acceptable for dogs to bite children. I absolutely do not think that is acceptable. But BSL is not the answer. What will BSL actually do?

  • Irresponsible owners who disobey the new muzzle law and are fined may surrender their dogs to a shelter instead of paying the fine. This is what happened in nearby Boston when a muzzle law was enacted there. (Original article in the Boston Herald is behind a pay wall; I linked to a version archived on an anti-BSL site, but don’t be confused by the URL. The article is from a real newspaper.)
  • If the law successfully prevents dog fighters from using pit bulls, there is nothing to stop them from choosing another breed. The law isn’t targeted at dog fighters, however. Having to muzzle their dogs in public shouldn’t be much of a problem for people who don’t generally take their dogs out in public.
  • In fact, there is really no such thing as a pit bull. The term refers to a loose group of dog breeds. Telling what is a “pit bull” and what isn’t has made BSL enforcement somewhat arbitrary in other cities. Take the test, see if you can do it. So this law is likely to be applied to dogs for whom it is not really intended.
But why not just try it? After all:

“We’re not talking about banning this dog; rather what we’re saying is that when you’re out on the public streets, pit bulls should be muzzled,” [Eddy] added.
So what’s the harm?

  • Passing this law will be a Band-aid measure which will make the public think that the problem has been solved. There are some useful ways to address the problem of dog bites, but if this good energy for change is directed into a poorly designed law, there will be no impetus to find real solutions.
  • A muzzle requirement will make it harder for responsible owners to socialize their dogs. How would you react to a muzzled dog which you met on the street? Would you want to pet it, or would you be afraid of it? If you were a dog and every human you met on the street was afraid of you, would you be enthusiastic about meeting new humans? Not to mention the human socialization problem! If your new neighbor had a sign in her front yard proclaiming that a pit bull lived there, would you be as likely to go over to welcome her to the neighborhood with some food? (My neighbors actually did that when I moved in. It was great.)

Dog Zombie, you are so right. I have seen the light. But does that mean we should sit back and do nothing?

I almost always have opinions on what should be done to fix the world!

  • The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) put together a task force on dog bite prevention which, in 2001, published a lovely article titled “A community approach to dog bite prevention.” This article has some specific suggestions for how communities should handle the problem, including both suggestions for prevention (controlling loose dogs, educating of animal control officers), and suggestions for how to handle bite incidents (having a protocol which includes reporting of the bite and follow-up investigation).
  • Sue Sternberg (who is well known in the shelter community) is promoting a “Lug Nuts” program, in which teens who might otherwise participate in dog fighting are encouraged to instead enter their dogs in pulling competitions. What a creative idea for redirection! Extra points to Sternberg for working within the parameters of the problem instead of supporting rules passed down from on high.
  • I think people need consequences. People need to be fined if their dogs are aggressive in public. Dog aggression needs to be taken seriously before bites happen, and no matter what breed is involved (“punish the deed, not the breed”). And laws against dog fighting need to be actively enforced.
My final message to Mr. Eddy: You have hold of an important issue. Please take steps to address it wisely. The solution you have proposed will be successful only in winning you votes, not in reducing dog bites. There are better ways. Find one.

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