In 1986, the first dog ever to be used by the Los Angeles Police Department for narcotics detection died of liver cancer at the age of 10. His name was Frog. During his eight years on the force he was credited with locating drug shipments worth more than $160 million.
I mention Frog’s service because he was a pit bull — a dog that Montreal recently decided is such a threat to human safety that it doesn’t belong within city limits. Under Montreal’s new ban, no resident can acquire or adopt a “pit-bull-type” dog. Those who currently own pets bearing this vague label will be subject to a number of complex licensing protocols. New residents to the area risk having their companions seized and put down. Unclaimed pit bulls in the city’s animal shelters will be slated for euthanasia.
The ban, in a word, is stupid: Far from protecting the public, breed-based laws actually imperil it. They divert resources away from the individual animals causing real problems, focusing attention instead on dogs who look a certain way yet haven’t harmed anyone. The American Veterinary Medical Assn., the National Animal Control Assn., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Bar Assn. and even the White House have denounced this approach.
But Montreal is not alone in its folly. In the last three decades, several hundred U.S. cities and towns have passed breed-based laws like Montreal’s. (The city of Los Angeles flirted with an anti-pit-bull ordinance in 1980, but did not enact one.)
Laws of this type can be traced back to at least the late 19th century, when fluffy white “spitz” dogs were persecuted on the mistaken belief that they were uniquely susceptible to rabies. Soon after, Massachusetts banned bloodhounds and Great Danes on account of their supposed “viciousness.” And in the 1920s, a New York magistrate urged that German shepherds be regulated because they were “bred from wolves.” Each of these outcries reflected the media-driven hysterias of the age. Today’s breed bans are no different; only the targeted dogs have changed.
Frenzied media coverage tends to follow dog-bite fatalities — at least if a “pit bull” is to blame. (In Montreal’s case, the dog that killed 55-year-old Christiane Vadnais in early June, triggering the latest panic, was registered as a boxer.) For whatever reason, incidents involving dogs from other breed groups don’t inspire quite the same level of public outrage. Just a few days before Vadnais’ attack, for example, a 4-year-old girl was killed by a “husky mix” in the rural Canadian territory of Nunavut. No one in Canada clamored for a ban.
In fact, of the roughly 60 dog-bite deaths reported in Canada since 1964, “pit bulls” have been involved in only two, while “sled dogs” and “huskies” have been responsible for more than 25.
The most obvious problem with breed-specific legislation is that it is in no way specific. Like “hound,” the term “pit bull” denotes several breeds, not just one. Montreal’s new bylaw prohibits ownership of pedigreed American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers. It also bans any mixed-breed dog thought to be related to one of those breeds and any dog that presents a physical “characteristic” of one of those breeds. It is unclear which canine “characteristics” will be most salient (having four legs and a tail happens to be a “pit bull characteristic”) and who, if anyone, is qualified to make that call.
The second issue is that these laws are notoriously ineffective. Denver banned pit bulls in 1989, yet according to data collected by the Coalition for Living Safely With Dogs, the rate of dog-bite-injury hospitalizations in Denver is now significantly higher than that of the surrounding areas, where no bans are in place. The United Kingdom banned pit bulls in 1991, yet serious dog-bite injuries there have also risen, especially in under-resourced areas. Ontario banned pit bulls in 2005, but in Toronto, dog bites are up, not down.
Cynical politicians tend to frame the need for breed bans in zero-sum terms: Either you care about public safety, or you care about animal welfare. What gets lost in the divisive rhetoric is that there’s a superior alternative: Ordinances that hold every dog owner to the same high standards of civic responsibility serve both interests equally.
In 1991, Multnomah County, Oregon, established a community-based animal control program aimed at reducing dog bites without targeting specific breeds. By imposing strict regulations on nuisance dogs before serious injuries occurred, the county decreased recidivism by 60%. The Canadian city of Calgary has also enjoyed great success with a similar program geared toward responsible pet ownership. A 2013 survey of 36 Canadian municipalities found that increased enforcement of breed-neutral regulations (such as leash- and containment laws) led to the most noticeable drop in dog-bite injuries.
In recognition of such facts, a Quebec Superior Court judge has put Montreal’s ban on hold — for now. One can only hope that science, rather than fear, will determine what happens next. The lives of domestic dogs are shaped by the choices humans make for them. It’s up to us to keep each other safe.
Bronwen Dickey is the author of “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.”