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Breed Specific Legislation
Breed Specific Legislation - or 'BSL' - is the practice of using laws to regulate and restrict dog ownership based solely on the physical appearance of someone's dog. It stems from the belief that some dog breeds are simply "born bad," and identifying those examples can be as easy as noting certain physical features. In areas where "pit bulls" are restricted, authorities seek out dogs with large heads, muscular bodies, short fur, etc - regardless of their genetic make-up. Throughout recent history, select breeds have been targeted this way and large groups of innocent animals have lost their lives, typically after a well publicized bite incident stirs fear in a community. This reactionary approach to public safety is regarded by experts as a knee-jerk and highly ineffective treatment for tackling the multi-faceted nature of any community's dog issues, but it continues to be the fall-back solution in select countries as well as towns and counties dotted around the U.S.
It's tempting to compare the practice of BSL with early 19th century Phrenologists, who once believed that a man's character could be predicted by mapping out the shape of his skull. It seems ludicrious now, but the practice of studying external features to determine personality and to predict behavior was widely accepted for several decades until advancements in modern medicine and neuroscience discredited it entirely. We haven't been able to get away from this type of thinking in our culture unfortunately, even though science now understands that it is impossible to predict behavior based solely on appearance.
“I am beginning to believe that breed specific legislation targets nothing more than a small subset of morphological characteristics of dogs and does not address behavior at all" - Kristopher Irizarry, PhD Assistant Professor, Bioinformatics, Genetics, Genomics, Western University. Full viewpoint.
By targeting dogs and ultimately their owners through Draconian measures, beloved family pets are lost and the human-animal bond is weakened. Denver Colorado is one example of a town that has shown us the worst side of targeted legislation. Since a law banning dogs that look like "pit bulls" went into effect, families have been forced to hide their dogs away or risk having them confiscated and destroyed (News Link) and non-pits that are misidentified as pit bulls face the same danger (News Link). The same is true in Ontario, Canada (News Link). Without practical solutions to dog related challenges, communities with BSL suffer as resources that could be used to address very real issues are being lost to court challenges and impossible 'witch hunt' enforcement efforts.
It's About the People
BADRAP salutes the growing number of progressive communities who are on a different path and who embrace humane and non-discriminatory approaches to solving their dog related challenges. Experience has shown that one of the easiest ways to turn the tide for the dogs is to work directly with the residents of some of our most under-served neighborhoods. We can get positive change immediately simply by providing owner support and resources to dog owners who are otherwise unable to afford or access help, and without alienating those same owners from their animal welfare agencies. For more info on Owner Support work, see video below and link to BADRAP's approach here.
BSL Threats - Not necessarily bad news
In many situations, the upset that comes along with a BSL threat can turn into a win/win for communities by opening a long overdue dialogue about dog related issues. Most can agree that building safe, humane communities is a goal worth pursuing. Finding common ground on the issues can seed the creation of real solutions to real challenges and ultimately, all sides can walk away feeling satisfied. Proactive activists and dog experts have learned that it's beneficial to educate the community about dog issues during (and before!) BSL discussions while also offering policy makers viable alternatives to ineffective and expensive legislation. For example, efforts to review and beef up dangerous dog laws that address reckless owners and problem dogs of any breed can bring substantial public safety improvements to communities without resorting to faulty, discriminatory practices.
Lemonade from Lemons
In the SF bay area, Contra Costa County officials who were exploring expensive and unpopular mandatory spay/neuter measures were invited to consider an alternative: a popular owner support program that would serve the same goal of getting dogs fixed, but without profiling dogs and their owners. With the help of community partners, there would be no cost to the county. After a well attended public outreach event, policy makers recognized that dog owners would pour out of their homes to have their dogs fixed if the approach was welcoming and voluntary. With that undeniable success to reflect on, talk of breed specific legislation was dropped and more owner support events were planned to meet the needs of the community. Outlined in the video below is a photo essay of the event that changed the tide in that county.
Bad Laws Recognized. A sampling of cities that have repealed breed specific laws.
Lawsuits. Some of what the City of Denver has invited through its BSL:
How and where BSL has failed, presented by National Canine Research Council. NCRC
BSL threats and activisit victories on the Stop BSL facebook page.
From NCRC, a historical account of the villianization and targeting of breed types, starting with bloodhounds.