BSL (Breed Specific Legislation): Is the Tide Turning?

Updated on October 16, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Do You Favor Breed Specific Legislation?

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    © 2013 Bob Bamberg

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      • Bob Bamberg profile image
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        Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi Heidi, now BOL is an interesting concept! Actually, the good owners far outweigh the bad. I engage with pet owners on a daily basis and the majority of them are intent upon doing the very best they can for their dog. There are some who think they're doing well by their dogs, but aren't. Those are the ones who are open to change.

        But then there are those who won't let facts get in the way of their opinions, and who you can never convince to correct the error of their ways. In those situations, I feel bad for the dog because the owners' husbandry doesn't rise to the level of neglect or abuse, so intervention isn't on the table. There are some knuckle draggers out there. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 4 years ago from Chicago Area

        I agree with the comments that it's not the dog, it's the owners! And, yes, ANY dog has the potential to bite. Pits are just the devil dog du jour. Next year? Who knows. Working in the rescue community, it is heartbreaking to see the bias and irresponsible ownership happening. Thanks for spreading the word against BSL! I'd rather see BOL (Bad Owner Legislation).

      • Bob Bamberg profile image
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        Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hopefully stories such as yours will become a thing of the past, Adrienne. There are so many professionals defending Rotties and other breeds, and calling for an end to BSL that it will be hard for governments to pass such laws anymore. How can they dispute veterinarians, animal control professionals and lawyers? Thanks for the visit, comment and vote.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

        As an owner of rotties, I really hope there will be changes for the best.Two years ago I was offered a job and in that city Rotts were not allowed so we had to move within the outskirts of the city and no landlord was willing to rent to us because they were biased about the breed. I remember one lady closing the phone on me when she asked the breed. We ended up moving in a home 45 minutes away from my job:( Voted up

      • Bob Bamberg profile image
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        Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hello, habee, nice to have you stop by. I think Grendel would be capable of inflicting more damage than a cruise missile! Thanks for commenting, voting and sharing. Regards, Bob

      • habee profile image

        Holle Abee 4 years ago from Georgia

        I don't support BSL. I agree with you - no dog is born "bad." I'm sure if I taught him to be mean/aggressive, my 180-pound Dane, Grendel, could inflict more damage than a pit. Grendel has massive jaws and a wide head. Luckily, he's a big, sweet, goofy clown.

        I hope everyone reads this hub! Voted up and shared.

      • Bob Bamberg profile image
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        Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Ah, noble Fennec, but the fox doth bask in fabled glory! Coyotes ... now that's a different story. They could use an advocate. Thanks for taking the time to read, vote and comment. Regards, Bob

      • Writer Fox profile image

        Writer Fox 4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

        Very well written article. I hope you write one demanding equality for foxes. Voted up!

      • Bob Bamberg profile image
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        Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi CraftytotheCore, nice to meet you. Your sentiments are right in line with what I hear on the street. I owned a feed and grain store until a couple of years ago and leashed pets were always invited in. It was interesting to see the responses when a pit bull was in the store. A fair number of people avoided the dog, but most would ask if they could pet him, and a lot of stories would get swapped. You're loyal to the breed, and the breed deserves it...you get an attagirl. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

      • CraftytotheCore profile image

        CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

        I've been bitten by three dogs in my life and not one of them was a pit bull. Not one of them was even on the top 10 most dangerous dogs. I've owned 4 of the top ten most "dangerous dogs" and they have all been cuddly and sweet.

        (Now having said that, I do know of people who have been bitten by pit bulls, but all dogs have the potential to bite!)

        My pit bull saved our life. He has a keen sense of smell and detected the van was overheating before we broke down on the highway. Because of him we were able to get out safely and call for help.

        My insurance company does not punish homeowners with breed specific policies. If they did, I'd be looking for a new insurance company!

        I think years ago there was a similar ban on rottweilers or Dobermans. Now it's pit bulls. BEFORE I rescued my pit, I went to animal control in my town and asked if they were legal here. The last thing I would ever do is put my dog in danger of being taken away because of not doing my research. My pit was 7 months old when I got him and the animal control officer said he will grow up with my children.....there was no concern at all! If there had been, I probably would have moved.

      • Bob Bamberg profile image
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        Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hello, Heather, nice to meet you, too. It's encouraging that 16 states have prohibited their cities and towns from enacting BSL, but there's still a long way to go...and that's just in the United States.

        From where I sit, it seems that politicians have always considered shelter personnel (the front line of the anti-BSL movement) as "well intentioned folks who hearts are in the right place."

        But, they can't marginalize the professional individuals and organizations that have joined the movement, and I think that's causing the tide to change. Thanks for commenting. Regards, Bob.

      • Bob Bamberg profile image
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        Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hello, Mel, nice to meet you, thanks for stopping by. As a letter carrier, I suspect you've probably been intimidated by other breeds of dogs, as well.

        You're right in your assertion that dog owners are the problem, not the dogs. That message used to pretty much fall on deaf ears, but that's changing. Some heavy hitters have stepped up to the plate to defend pit bulls and other maligned breeds, and the impact of that has become tangible.

        My late dad was a letter carrier who retired in 1960 after 35 years delivering mail in Boston's famed Back Bay section. He encouraged me to join the Postal Service when I got out of the Air Force in 1968, but of course, I had other plans. I should have listened to him. I'd be retired with a nice pension now!

        Thanks, again, for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob.

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

        I am a letter carrier, and I won't lie and tell you I've never had problems with "Pit Bulls," but I've also run into surprisingly sweet ones. Dog owners are the problem, not the dogs, and aggressive people are often drawn to certain "macho" breeds, which they quickly turn into devil dogs through abuse and neglect. The law should focus more on animal abuse and neglect rather than on breed-specific issues. Great hub!

      • profile image

        Heather A. Buskard 4 years ago

        I pray for the day whemand compassion prevail. For me that means means the end of BSL and instead the protection of PitBulls.

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