Last summer, Best Friends and our members and friends in Massachusetts helped the Massachusetts SPCA pass a statewide bill preempting the passage of local breed-discriminatory laws – laws that ban or place special restrictions on certain breeds of dogs and their mixes based on the discredited theory that all members of certain breeds are inherently dangerous regardless of the behavior of the individual dog.
The passage of the preemptive statute was a big win for the animals. The first positive ripple effect of its passage hit the news on November 12 with the announcement by the Lowell, Massachusetts, city solicitor that sections of that city’s Responsible Pit Bull Ownership Ordinance will no longer be enforceable because they were based on the breed or assumed breed of a dog according to appearance rather than behavior. The city’s prior existing dangerous dog ordinance is based on the behavior of individual dogs of whatever breed or size and is enforceable.
The current canine targets of breed-discriminatory legislation tend to be pit-bull-terrier-type breeds – pit bulls, Rottweilers, Cane Corsos, mastiffs and their mixes – but that wasn’t always the case. In the late 1800s, blood hounds were the stuff of nightmares. After World War I, there was a movement to ban German shepherds who were described as “vicious wolf dogs.” Their reputation was saved by Rin Tin Tin, who coincidentally also saved Warner Bros. Pictures from the brink of bankruptcy. At that time, the pit bull terrier was America’s dog, having served valiantly in World War I. The breed was valued for a stable and faithful nature. The Little Rascals’ dog, Petey, was a pit bull from a famous breeding line. Following World War II, the Doberman was the devil dog of choice — a reputation that lasted up to the ’80s. If you’re old enough, you may remember a James Garner movie titled “They Only Kill Their Masters,” referencing some Dobies in the film. And then the evil-eye breed discrimination turned toward pit-bull-type dogs, where it has remained due mainly to fear mongering and media sensationalism.
The truth of the matter is that there is as much variation of behavior within a breed as there is between different breeds. Pit bulls raised as social family pets routinely outperform golden retrievers in behavior comparisons. Cumulative data from the American Temperament Test Society gives pit pulls an 86.8 percent pass rate versus 85.2 percent for goldens. However, when a golden retriever flips its lid and seriously bites someone, it isn’t front page news, whereas pit bull bites are usually in the headlines.
Breed-discriminatory laws have resulted in the needless killing of tens of thousands of family pets for no other reason than their appearance. Effective dangerous dog laws should focus on behavior and responsible ownership, not on fictitious assumptions based on breed or appearance.
Best Friends pit bull initiatives, led by Ledy VanKavage, Best Friends chief legislative analyst and current chair of the American Bar Association Animal Law Committee, have had tremendous success in both altering the public’s understanding of pit-bull-terrier-type dog breeds and, most importantly, in leading and supporting legislative campaigns to roll back or preempt breed-discriminatory laws that land animals in shelters due to bans or onerous requirements on the owners of pit-bull-type dogs, again not based on behavior but on appearance. This year, Ledy and her team have positively impacted the lives of over 380,000 dogs through legislative action or proactive engagement with communities considering such laws and by helping them to develop more effective public-safety ordinances based on dog behavior and owner responsibility rather than breed.
A final note on Massachusetts: Despite the success at the state level, the city of Boston can exempt itself from that decision based on the principle of home rule. The mayor there is pushing to maintain a city law that puts unnecessary burdens on the owners of pit-bull-terrier-type dogs. If you live in Boston, please let your city councilors know that you support Massachusetts’ new, progressive law.