BSL (Breed Specific Legislation): Is the Tide Turning?
In one corner, you have dog-lovers ranging from those motivated by altruism to those motivated by science. In another corner, you have those who aren't as enthusiastic about dogs. Ranging from average citizens to legislators to insurance companies motivated by the belief that some breeds of dogs are inherently vicious, Breed Specific Legislation has some support.
The past decade, or so, has seen an increase, nationwide, in the introduction of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) targeted mostly at pit bulls. One of the biggest problems simply is the term pit bull.
The breed has often been vaguely defined as: any dog that substantially conforms to the American Staffordshire Terrier or Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or American Pit Bull Terrier standards. The word "substantially" is the fly in that ointment. Who gets to define "substantially?" Reasonable people can, and will, disagree.
Most such legislation is drawn under the belief that certain breeds are just plain vicious and that’s that. Over and over again, professionals have testified that there’s no scientific validation to that contention, and anecdotal evidence to the contrary also abounds.
Behind the battle cry, "Punish The Deed, Not The Breed," professionals objecting to BSL efforts include veterinarians, behaviorists, trainers, groomers (who really get up close and personal with dogs), animal control officials, and shelter workers. The American Kennel Club (AKC) also actively fights BSL.
In 2012, the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates adopted a resolution urging “all state, territorial, and local legislative bodies and governmental agencies to repeal breed discriminatory or breed specific provisions,” and to encourage enactment of laws encouraging responsible pet ownership.
Therein lies the problem. No breed is inherently vicious and individual dogs of any breed can be vicious. It all boils down to their husbandry.
Some people prefer dogs with an aggressive edge to them, and consider them to be protectors as well as companions. Others prefer dogs that are “marshmallows.” All they want is a lovable goofball to enrich their lives.
Each type of owner will maintain their dogs according to their priorities and will relate to the dog in a manner which reinforces those priorities. Likewise, each type of owner will make a conscious effort to have their dog's outward appearance reflect their preferences.
No matter how they’re maintained, though, no dog can be absolutely trusted. Even “marshmallows” can have an uncharacteristically vicious episode. When that happens, it’s almost always after provocation.
Someone absent mindedly committed what most folks would consider to be an innocuous act, but that violated a tenet of canine etiquette.
The average person is not a trained behaviorist and can’t be expected to know all the triggers that can send a dog into a meltdown. Animal behavior is complicated, and often contrary to human behavior.
A couple of examples illustrate that point. To us, smiling is a friendly gesture, but to a dog, it can be interpreted as baring the teeth (which is a threatening gesture).
To us, maintaining eye contact is necessary to conduct a proper conversation. To a dog, prolonged eye contact is a threatening gesture.
Certainly, we find neither gesture to be worthy of an attack under any circumstance. That’s the difference between being civilized and merely being domesticated. That having been said, the tide seems to be turning in favor of prohibiting BSL.
In the United States, it's been the shelter volunteers who have led the attack on BSL. I believe that politicians found it easy to marginalize those advocates as "well-intentioned folks whose hearts are in the right place."
As the momentum they created further gathered, it became less easy to marginalize them and became better advised to look at the issue with an open mind. In recent years, professional individuals and organizations have joined the fight and now the movement has the politicians' attention.
The state of Rhode Island became the 3rd state in 2013 to prohibit Breed Specific Legislation.
In July, 2013, Governor Lincoln Chafee signed into law a bill that makes Rhode Island the 16th state to prohibit any city or town from regulating dogs or cats on the basis of breed.
Laws in other states, including Massachusetts, while falling short of prohibiting BSL, provide that local authorities must look beyond reactive, fear-based policies, and focus on dog ownership practices.
It’s kind of faint right now, but to me, the writing is on the wall. Dog owners should be prepared to be held strictly accountable for their dogs' behavior. I wouldn’t be surprised to see certified behaviorists eventually offering classes on basic dog behavior for owners and their families.
It will be interesting to see how the insurance industry responds to state laws that prohibit BSL. Many insurance companies already blacklist certain breeds of dogs and collect higher premiums or simply decline to write homeowners’ policies to clients who own a blacklisted breed.
It’s a hot-button issue that can pit neighbor against neighbor and even father against son, but right now, the momentum seems to be on the side that declares, “Blame The Deed, Not The Breed.”
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© 2013 Bob Bamberg