Potentially dangerous dogs: do breed-specific bans actually work?

Potentially dangerous dogs: do breed-specific bans actually work?

CREATED Feb 2, 2012

Several communities across the country are banning certain breeds, including pit bulls. Do such bans make communities safer?

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Bring up the topic of pit bulls and public safety in our community, and you're sure to spark a passionate debate from all sides especially after 9 On Your Side's recent report on The Truth About Pit Bulls and whether they're dangerous. The intense debate prompted some KGUN 9 viewers to call for a pit bull ban, while others argued passionately in defense of their pets.

In Arizona, any dog breed is fair game and legal to own.  But that is not true in many other places.  An estimated 300 cities across the country have banned certain breeds, including the pit bull or any dog that resembles the pit.  9 On Your Side wants to know, do those bans work?

Don Bauermeister, Assistant City Attorney in Council Bluffs, Iowa was quick to speak with KGUN 9 about how their pit bull ban came about in 2004 and the affect that it has had on the community. He says that it's the most controversial law the city has ever passed.

"It seemed to be almost on a weekly basis and a few times a month, the pace of serious pit bull attacks in our community was out of control" said Bauermeister. After the ban was passed, no new pit bulls were allowed in Council Bluffs and by now they're nearly non existent.

He studied other bans, like the one in Denver passed in 1989. It reads, "The mere possession of pit bulls poses a significant threat to the health, welfare and safety of Denver citizens".   One of the problems that comes up when proposing a ban on pit bulls is that it's less of a breed and more of a type of dog, with no specific widely accepted test to prove a dog's identity as a pit bull.  Further,  many dogs that look like pits really are pit mixes and crossbreeds.  The Denver law gets around all that by defining a pit bull as any dog that is an American Pit bull Terrier, Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier or any dog displaying the majority of the physical traits of these breeds as established by American and United Kennel Club standards. Today, owning one of these dogs in Denver is illegal.

What happened in Denver was upsetting to Raymond Serrao. He now lives near Casa Grande but used to live near Denver with his dog, Ilio who was a Patterdale Terrier/Labrador mix. Serrao showed KGUN 9 photos of Ilio who resembled a pit bull.

"Do you think they would've taken your dog?" asked Reporter Tammy Vo. 

"Possibly" said Serrao. His problem with banning breeds is misidentification. He believes, bad pit bulls shouldn't have to pay for bad owners and points to an article from the National Canine Research Council, a group against banning breeds. It writes, "Denver has not seen any appreciable difference in the number or severity of dog bite related injuries compared to cities without breed bans."
"Everywhere that bans have been done, it has either had no discernible difference or has made things worse as far a bites go" added Serrao.  The group Pit n' Proud of Tucson agrees.

"As you know, Pit n' Proud is strongly opposed to Breed Specific Legislation and policies.  Quite frankly, they're ineffective and punish innocent people and pets.  BSL is usually enacted as a knee-jerk reaction to a highly publicized severe dog bite or fatality.  BSL is an attempt to pacify the public, but does not address the real factors behind dog bites and attacks," said Rachel Molyneux of Pit n' Proud.

Those are some opinions. What are the actual facts?

To find out, KGUN 9 contacted five cities that banned pit bulls, at random, to find out whether the bans have increased public safety.  Kansas City now requires pits to be spayed or neutered. The idea, says animal control, that "it would reduce pit bull aggression". Since the ordinance in 2004, dog bites and pit bull attacks went up then down.

Garfield Heights, Ohio banned pit bulls in 2007. Since the ban, dog bites, in general have gone up.

South Milwaukee banned pit bulls in 1989. Since then, dog attacks went down by a third and then went back up.

Denver city officials tell KGUN that they don't have statistics going back to 1989 when the ban began, but Doug Kelley from Denver's Environmental Health office said:  "City Council passed the ban in 1989 to protect public safety and there hasn’t been a death or severe mauling by a Pit Bull since the ordinance was enacted. However, we recognize some other cities have since taken alternative approaches to implementing a breed ban that have also been effective at protecting public safety."

"Does this kind of legislation work?" Vo asked Bauermeister.

"There's no question it has worked," he answered, adding that overall dog bites have gone down in Council Bluffs since the ban and provided data indicating that pit attacks are nearly non existent. He insists, it isn't about which dogs bite, it's about which ones cause the most damage.

"Any dog can bite. Any dog can have a bad day. So, for 99 percent of this dogs life it's a good family dog but one day if it snaps, the damage is so severe. That is the justification," said Bauermeister.

Countries like the United Kingdom and parts of Canada have banned the pit bull but others like Italy and the Netherlands recently reversed their bans saying that they had no scientific basis and didn't really drop dog bites.

What about in Tucson? Plenty of pit owners have been vocal on KGUN 9's Facebook page, opposing these laws. But others are pushing for city council to ban the bulls here. Could it ever happen?

Not if it were totally up to Councilman Steve Kozachik.   "I have a problem with breed specific legislation," Kozachik told KGUN9 News.  "To take a broad brush and say this breed, we're going to get rid of it, is an overstretch." He believes that citations can force dog owners to be more responsible.

Tucson does have a law that says if a dog is declared vicious, its owner must take action. That action can include: confining or muzzling the dog, getting it spayed or neutered, posting signs and carrying liability insurance. But Kozachik says, this has never happened because the process is so tedious.

The landmark 2000 dog bite study by the Centers for Disease Control also pointed toward regulation of human behavior, not breed specific bans, as the appropriate answer.   The authors wrote, "Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues."  

That study also found that pit bull type dogs, followed by Rottweilers, were responsible for more than half of fatal attacks on humans during the time period immediately preceding the study.  But it also noted that the types of breeds responsible for such attacks tends to vary over time.  For instance, in the mid to late seventies, German Shepherds, not pit bulls, were responsible for the largest number of fatal attacks on people.

But it's not just city governments that pit bull fans have to worry about.  KGUN9 News discovered that an increasing number of apartments and home owners' associations in Tucson are are banning certain breeds, including the pit bull.

The debate no doubt will rage on, as it has been all week on KGUN9's Facebook page even before this story was published.   But the bottom line so far seems to be that the evidence on whether breed specific legislation does what it's supposed to do -- reduce dog bites and increase public safety - is inconclusive at best, at least for now.

What do you think, do breed bans work in increasing public safety? You can comment on this article or on our Facebook page.