The BS in BSL…








Breed-Specific Legislation is problematic for the simple reason that the notion of ‘breed’ is itself questionable, and if the very essence of the idea has no legitimacy, then any legislation based on it must be hopelessly flawed.

Breed-Specific Legislation has no basis, either in a scientific or social context. It is rooted in preconception  and ignorance concerning the relationship between breed and behaviour, and since ‘breed’ is not a scientific classification, we only have the opinions of a relatively ignorant majority to refer to.

“Politicians, prosecutors, attorneys, newspaper reporters, TV and radio station personalities, breeders, trainers, animal control officers, veterinarians, shelter workers, dog fighters, street thugs, and just about anyone able to speak has an opinion or personal theory about the strength and temperament of the American Pit Bull Terrier. These opinions and theories are based on a dizzying mixture of personal experience, media-induced images, rumours, myths, speculation, fear mongering, and personal or political agendas.” ~ Karen Delise, Pit Bull Placebo

This is partly due to a lack of understanding of ethology (the scientific study of animal behaviour), statistics and their validity, integrity and reliability of media reporting, ability of the public to identify breeds or to recognise signals given by aggressive dogs, and the contribution of human factors to animal attacks on humans.

In combination, these elements all add up to such a significant misinterpretation of the events and the decisions made to combat the poorly-defined problem, that it is no surprise that Breed-Specific Legislation gets the solutions dead wrong.

In fact, in several places where BSL was introduced it has now been repealed (Holland) or is under review because the incidence of dog bites has not reduced and in most cases has increased.[i] Why? It simply does not, and cannot, work, because the problem is not the dog; the problem is the types of owners who buy certain ‘breeds’ and the manner in which they train, keep and treat them. Focusing on the breed of the dog merely misidentifies the root cause, which is human behaviour.

Here are just a few reasons behind the futility of BSL:

  1. There is no credible evidence that any particular breed of dog is more prone to biting. Controlled studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association have shown that pit bull type dogs are no more inherently dangerous than any other breed of dog.
  2. Breed identification is a subjective and unreliable guessing game. A Matrix Canine Research Institute survey of over 600 people ranging from animal experts to the general population found that only 2% of people surveyed were able to correctly identify an American Pit Bull Terrier without also incorrectly identifying a different breed as an APBT (in fact, none of the animal control personnel or veterinarians surveyed were able to correctly delineate the various breeds).
  3. BSL takes dogs out of the hands of law-abiding citizens and drives them underground into the hands of more nefarious owners.
  4. Any breed can become dangerous when they’re raised to be aggressive (whether intentionally or unintentionally)
  5. Focusing primarily on the breed of dog at fault often results in the neglect of human and environmental factors that contribute to dog bites.[ii]


The fallacy of dog breeds

“For the truth is, there is no such thing in nature as an animal breed. All distinctions in animal taxonomy below the species level are relative, transient, and ephemeral. Zoology does not even deal with “breeds” –  it admits only subspecies and variations within a species and argues endlessly about those. When zoologists are often scarcely even able to say for certain which populations constitute species (as is emphatically the case within genus Canis where the domestic dog resides along with his wolf cousins), how then shall it be possible to distinguish something like a “purebred” dog breed?”~ J.Jeffrey Bragg

“What comprises a breed is not a unique set of genes, neatly packaged with clear boundaries that identify what is and what is not a member of the breed. AKC (Kennel Club) registration is not especially meaningful for defining the attributes of [a dog breed. …What distinguishes one breed from another is the relative allele frequencies of the aggregate set of genes that serve as blueprints for the breeds of dogs.” ~ Dr. James E. Seltzer

In the paper, “Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability” by Victoria L. Voith, Rosalie Trevejo, Seana Dowling-Guyer, Colette Chadik, Amy Marder, Vanessa Johnson, Kristopher Irizarry, the following statements and conclusions were drawn concerning breeds:

“Crosses of purebred dogs (particularly beyond the first generation) can result in unique combinations and a collage of features. In fact, the pictures of Scott and Fuller’s dogs looked more like breeds other than their immediate ancestors. Many current breeds were derived by crossing existing breeds or by selecting for morphological variations within a breed until a “new” breed was established. It actually shouldn’t be surprising that visual identification of mixed breeds does not always agree with DNA based breed identification”

“A recent genetic study in dogs determined that very few regions of the canine genome encode morphological traits associated with breed-defining physical traits. Dogs have on the order of 20,000 to 25,000 genes and fewer than 1% of the dog’s genes control the external morphological features associated with specific breeds of dogs, such as ear shape and size, whether the ears are floppy, length of the legs, length of the coat, coat colour and shape of the head and length of muzzle. A dog could genetically be 50% a German Shepherd Dog and lack the genomic regions responsible for the German Shepherd Dog size, coat colour, muzzle length and ear properties.”

Their conclusion:

“The disparities between visual and DNA identification of the breed composition of dogs and the low agreement among people who identify dogs raise questions concerning the accuracy of databases which supply demographic data on dog breeds, as well as the justification and ability to implement laws and private restrictions pertaining to dogs based on breed composition.”

A ‘breed’ is a socially-derived mental construct, not a scientific taxonomy. All breeds are arguably ‘mutts’ – some have lineages and histories and special names, but this is meaningless nonsense in scientific terms. The idea is the result of regarding human perception as scientific certainty.

Breed identification DNA tests are a sure-fire way to make money for those who sell them, including veterinarians who are paid for product endorsement.

Do they work? CAN they work?

No. In fact, the results are consistent: a pure-breed dog comes back as being a vague combination of three or four breeds.

Breed DNA tests are not too different from Astrology, Numerology and Tarot Card reading: If you give a vague enough answer, believers will rationalize whatever result you give them, reinforcing the preconception.

DNA-based breed identification tests suggest physical features and possible temperament traits, but they definitely don’t tell you what an individual dog’s behaviour is going to be like. As any animal or human behaviourist, psychologist, biologist, or anthropologist will tell you, a living creature’s behaviour is the result of a combination of genetics and environment.

Flawed interpretations of research

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), commissioned a number of studies during the 1980s and 1990s to determine the scope and nature of the problem of dog bites in the United States.

In the twenty-year period of the CDC studies, the breed responsible for the most number of bites has changed. From 1979-1980, Great Danes caused the most number of fatalities with three deaths for the time period. However, four breeds were tied with two deaths each: Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Huskies, and Malamutes. In 1981, Pit Bulls took over as the breed with the most number of fatal bites. Pit Bulls remained in that position until 1993 when Rottweilers began causing approximately ten fatal bites per two-year reporting period. The last available reporting period, 1997-1998, shows that Rottweilers caused ten fatal bites per two-year period, while Pit Bulls caused six, and Saint Bernards caused three. During the 20-year study, 90 deaths were excluded because the breed was “unavailable.”

The oft touted and well-known studies have been quoted, misquoted, cited, misread, and misunderstood on a regular basis by politicians, attorneys, the media and others looking for a sound-byte or quick solution to a complex problem.

The CDC study, if read in its entirety, explains in detail the inherent problems in attempting to calculate breed involvement in fatal attacks. The CDC further explained that a major flaw in their study was the inability to factor in total breed populations relative to breed related fatalities. The CDC concluded that fatal attacks are so rare as to be statistically insignificant in addressing canine aggression.

Experts asked to comment on cases of dog attacks during the 1960s and early 1970s almost unanimously agreed the problem rests with owners failing to control their dogs, children attempting to interact with dogs unfamiliar to them, and the use and procurement of large dogs for guard/attack dog functions.

But by the 1980s the events contributing to a dog bite virtually disappear from newspaper reports. Dogs were now reported as biting without provocation and even some of the “experts,” relying on media accounts for their information on dog attacks, began to erroneously blame specific breeds.

One repeatedly finds in media accounts of dog attacks: inaccurate breed identifications, seriously flawed accounts of circumstances surrounding the attack and vital and relevant details concerning both human and canine conditions regularly excluded. Yet, all previous “scientific” studies on fatal dog attacks have used newspaper reports as either their sole source of reference or as an integral part of the study. [iii]

Effects of BSL

What does happen under breed-specific legislation?

  1. Innocent people continue to be threatened, bitten, traumatized, disfigured, and killed – by non-targeted breeds and types of dogs.
  2. Innocent dogs are killed because they look a certain way.
  3. Millions are wasted and animal control resources stretched thin in order to kill dogs and not save people.
  4. Abusive and irresponsible owners carry on with “business as usual.”
  5. Good owners and their families are outcasts (if they keep their targeted dog) or devastated (if they give up their targeted dog).
  6. Reason, science, and expertise gets ignored or, even worse, scoffed at.
  7. Nobody learns anything about the real reasons why dogs bite and attack, safety around dogs, or responsible dog ownership.[iv]

“Not until false claims, both of anatomical and behavioural issues, are cast aside, not until breed identification issues are addressed, and not until the circumstances that contributed to dog attacks are examined can aggression be addressed in a way which may provide viable solutions and offer preventive measures to decrease the number of attacks on humans. Solutions to canine aggression are doomed to fail if they are based on “facts” not founded on evidence or on unproven claims of canine anatomy or behaviour. Unfortunately, much of the information presented about Pit bulls falls under the category of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience can best be described as information presented as fact, with the appearance of a scientific basis, which, however, is found upon examination to have no evidence supporting such claims.” ~ Karen Delise, Pit Bull Placebo

In the end, who suffers when breed-specific legislation passes?

  • People who live next to non-targeted breeds that are being dangerously mismanaged by irresponsible owners
  • People who have been bitten or attacked by non-targeted breeds
  • People who don’t realize that any dog can inflict serious injury or kill
  • Children, parents, the elderly, adults, and dog owners of all breeds
  • In other words, everyone

One of the problems associated with BSL is that of identification as Janice Bradley says in ‘The relevance of breed in selecting a companion dog’, a USA National Canine Research Council report:

“…since, even among purebreds, breed is an unreliable predictor of behaviour, and since most of the behaviours associated with specific breeds are only tangentially related to desirable and undesirable qualities in pet dogs, the practice of relying on breed identification as a primary guide in either pet-dog selection or dangerous-dog designation should be abandoned. As casual attributions of breed ancestry to mixed-breed dogs are inherently misleading, dog professionals should create new schema for referring to this population. The focus of predicting behaviour should shift to the particular dog’s personality as developing from the interaction of genes and environment and to dogs as multifaceted individuals, bearing in mind that the guardian’s choices about how to live with a canine companion are likely to shape the dog’s behaviour. Public policy decisions should focus on the actual behaviour of both the individual dog and the human guardian.”

In addition, the faulty identification is invariably compounded by flawed accounts of the events and exclusion of important information relevant to the specific case:

“One repeatedly finds in media accounts of dog attacks: inaccurate breed

identifications, seriously flawed accounts of circumstances surrounding the attack and vital and relevant details concerning both human and canine conditions regularly excluded. Yet, all previous “scientific” studies on fatal dog attacks have used newspaper reports as either their sole source of reference or as an integral part of the study. Therefore, it is vital for both the scientific community and the public to recognize that the media is under no obligation to provide balanced, comprehensive or accurate data on severe/fatal dog attacks, nor does it.” ~ Karen Delise, Pit Bull Placebo

“Bear in mind, all previous “statistical” studies on fatal dog attacks (Winkler, Pinckney, and the CDC) have relied on newspaper articles for breed identification. The frequency of media-reported errors in breed identification is so great (and biased) as to render all numbers on breeds obtained from media sources invalid.”  ~ Karen Delise, Pit Bull Placebo

BSL can be compared to gender profiling or racial profiling. Simply because a dog appears to be a dog on the restricted list it is treated as one.

Dogs are not the problem and BSL does not recognize this. People are the problem  and until we find a way to punish people for their neglectful actions which allow dogs to bite and terrorize the public we will never stop the problem.

Breed-Neutral Legislation

A breed-neutral approach should include the following, according to the American SPCA:

  • Enhanced enforcement of dog license laws, with adequate fees to augment animal control budgets and surcharges on ownership of unaltered dogs to help fund low-cost pet sterilization programs in the communities in which the fees are collected.
  • Laws that mandate the sterilization of shelter animals, ideally before adoption, and make low-cost sterilization services widely available.
  • Enhanced enforcement of leash/dog-at-large laws, with adequate penalties to ensure that the laws are taken seriously and to augment animal control funding.
  • Dangerous dog laws that are breed-neutral and focus on the behaviour of the individual guardian and dog (taking care to ensure that common puppy behaviours such as jumping up, rough play and nipping are not deemed evidence of dangerousness). Graduated penalties should include mandated sterilization and microchipping (or other permanent identification) of dogs deemed dangerous, and options for mandating muzzling, confinement, adult supervision, training and owner education. In aggravated circumstances—such as where the dog seriously injures or kills a person, or a qualified behaviourist who has personally evaluated the dog determines that the dog poses a substantial risk of such behaviour—euthanasia may be justified.
  • Laws that hold dog guardians financially accountable for a failure to adhere to animal control laws, as well as civilly and criminally liable for unjustified injuries or damage caused by their dogs.
  • Laws that prohibit chaining or tethering (taking care also to prohibit unreasonable confinement once a dog is removed from a chain), coupled with enhanced enforcement of animal cruelty and animal fighting laws. [v]

“However, for every Pit bull that attacks someone, there are tens of thousands of his brethren that tolerate all the conditions humans place them in, from loving homes to horrific conditions of abuse, without ever biting or attacking. There are no highly publicized reports or scientific journal articles on the behaviours of these dogs. The tolerance of Pit bulls in extremely abusive situations is almost never reported or given recognition by the scientific community or the public. Only a few of these long-suffering dogs can be found as a footnote in a report on a completely unrelated matter or in newspaper articles or reports of dog fighting and cruelty investigations. Yet, the behaviours of these dogs are the behaviours which define the breed – the hundreds of thousands of dogs that reside in homes with small children and elderly persons, from doting owners to distracted owners, from abusive owners to demented owners.” ~ Karen Delise, Pit Bull Placebo

In conclusion: we must focus on the dog guardian, not the dog; on the behaviour of people, who must be fully accountable for their dogs’ behaviour, and we must educate the public concerning basic prerequisites of animal welfare and public safety.


Derek du Toit

Download the full pdf version: BSLBS

[iii] Pit Bull Placebo, Karen Delise