It’s been over a decade since the government of Ontario introduced Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) across the province. Because of that legislation, certain breeds, including Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, pit bulls and cross-breeds that resemble them, were “banned” from Ontario, a move that created a lot of public outcry. Many wondered how the legislation passed, since every recognized expert who appeared at the public hearings went on record as saying that banning dog breeds is not an effective solution to any perceived dog-biting problem.
Now, ten years later, Quebec is inching ever closer to adopting Breed Specific Legislation, while other regions such as Calgary, and even some European countries, have rejected it outright or modified their legislation to shift responsibility to owners. So do breed bans work? To determine the efficacy of BSL, let’s take a closer look at what’s happened in Ontario:
- According to the best available statistics covering the period both before and after Breed Specific Legislation (up to the present), the number of reported dog bites in Ontario has remained fairly constant. I emphasize the word “reported” since many bites go unreported; so the actual number is somewhat higher.
- In biting incidents where a breed of dog has been identified, the culprits are currently spread over a spectrum of all breeds, very few of which can be identified as members of breeds that have been “banned”. Therefore, the problem with so-called pit bull-type dogs biting people has simply been transferred to other breeds (or mixed breeds).
And here’s something else to think about: there is no such breed as a pit bull. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, “most dogs referred to as ‘pit bulls’ are merely individuals with a common general phenotype”. So when people (even professionals) are tasked with identifying dogs as pit bull types under Breed Specific Legislation, they can easily make an error since visual identification is not reliable. In one follow-up study, identification errors were made in an astounding 75% of cases. In one case in Montreal in 2016, for instance, media outlets widely reported a story about a “pit bull” biting a woman on command from his owner. The SPCA conducted a DNA test on the dog, only to find it was a Rottweiler, Golden Retriever and Mastiff cross.* Unfortunately, this documented misidentification of dogs by some authorities has resulted in abuses whereby completely innocent dogs have been seized and destroyed (or ordered to be destroyed).
Digging into the facts
As a court-designated expert on aggressive dog behaviour, I can tell you that any dog of any breed can become aggressive and bite someone if he/she is not trained, handled, and cared for appropriately. The number one cause of aggressive dog behaviour is irresponsible owner behaviour, not breed specific dog behaviour. It’s primarily a people problem, not a dog problem.
World view on Breed Specific Legislation
This is a view shared by many organizations, including the National Canine Research Council, a non-profit that has chronicled the implementation of Breed Specific Bans in countries such as Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, and Canada. Their findings indicate that, across the board, bans in the countries mentioned have not been effective in reducing the incidence of dog bites or overall serious dog attacks, since there is no scientific evidence that banning any specific breed of dog is a solution to the problem.
A more positive model of an effective approach is practiced in Calgary, where the emphasis is placed on responsible ownership of dogs of all breeds (90% of all dogs in Calgary are reportedly licensed, fines are steep, and awareness programs start in schools).
A better approach to the issue of dog bites
The Trempe Inquest in Ontario outlines 35 recommendations aimed at reducing serious or fatal dog attacks. They include focusing on education for dog owners, regulations on unlicensed and indiscriminate dog breeding, and minimum standards for dog training, among other things (read the full list at cdndogs.ca/trempe-inquest). These recommendations were arrived at through a well thought-out process and objective testimony before an impartial jury, but sadly they have been mostly ignored by the provincial government.
In addition to adopting the Trempe Inquest recommendations, legislators can help reduce the incidence of dog bites by enforcing already existing laws aimed at eliminating unethical breeding operations that produce medically- and behaviourally-unsound animals.
The personal element
After reviewing comments from people on both sides of the argument for a “pit bull ban”, I have observed that many supporters of the legislation have a friend or relative who was injured, or worse, by dog bites. Of course, we empathize with these tragedies. But it’s also important to realize that in a study published in 2008 by The Canadian Veterinary Journal, which analyzed 28 fatal dog attacks in Canada between 1990 and 2007, only one of the dogs involved in these attacks was on the list of breeds banned in Ontario. In a recent tragic and fatal attack in Saskatchewan, the two dogs involved were not remotely similar to pit bull types. I won’t mention what breed they were, for the simple reason that banning that breed (or any other) is not the solution to the problem of canine aggression in Canada.
*Read the full story at spca.com/?p=13169&lang=en.
Kerry Vinson, founder of Animal Behaviour Consultants, has a BA in Psychology and has extensively studied animal learning and behaviour modification. In addition to conducting seminars on canine behaviour at colleges and other venues throughout Southern Ontario, and assessing dogs with behavioural problems, he has been designated by the Provincial Courts as an Expert Witness in the area of canine aggression. As a result, Kerry has testified on behalf of the Ontario Coroner’s Office in the Trempe Inquest, and numerous other high-profile cases between 1999 and 2017 in both Ontario Provincial and Superior Court. He is regularly asked by the media to comment on dog bite cases.