Can We Have a Discussion About BSL Without Seeing Red?

I am no fan of Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL), which is exactly what it sounds like — legislation that generally involves banning or severely limiting pet...

 |  Feb 7th 2012  |   29 Contributions


I am no fan of Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL), which is exactly what it sounds like — legislation that generally involves banning or severely limiting pet ownership of breeds that are commonly perceived as aggressive. I think these types of laws overly simplify a complex issue and do little to actually reduce the risk of dog attacks.

Instead of banning certain breeds, I would love to see an alternative program where responsible dog ownership and stewardship is rewarded with incentives such as public access privileges at hotels and other travel accommodations or discounted license registration fees for those who complete puppy class, manage their pups in public (by obeying leash laws and cleaning up after their dogs), and who complete classes like the Association of Pet Dog Trainers' C.L.A.S.S. program, regardless of their dogs breed.

I live with a Chow mix who would fall under nearly every BSL and homeowners' insurance ban in the U.S., but some of the BSL backlash concerns me. While I dont feel it is fair to judge a dogs temperament or likelihood to be a danger based solely on breed, I also think the tendency to undermine the importance of breed characteristics may actually increase the danger of dog bites in our communities.

Lets use the Pit Bull, the poster child of BSL discussions, as an example. On one side, you have proponents of legislation who claim all Pit Bulls are vicious attack dogs and will eventually snap and maim or kill a person or another dog. On the other side are Pit Bull devotees, who are understandably concerned about the fate and cultural perceptions of their beloved breed — but who sometimes go a little too far in stating that, without exception, Pit Bulls work well with all families, have no greater risk of displaying interdog aggressive behavior, will graciously tolerate being groped by small children, and will not display predatory aggression toward small animals.

Breed-specific legislation is too broad

Whos right?

Are they both wrong?

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. I know many Pit Bulls that are great with kids, and many that are not. Some are fantastic service dogs who work diligently to improve the daily lives of their disabled handlers, while some others would be overwhelmed and stressed by the same lifestyle. I know many Pit Bulls that are able to live successfully with small animals, and many that cannot. I know many Pit Bulls that have never been in a dog fight, and I know many Pit Bulls that have been in lots of them.

This holds true for all breeds. I looked at my records, and Pit Bulls and Pit mixes account for only 4 percent of my general businesses but comprise a full 17 percent of my dog reactivity cases. The tendency is to say that the owners of those Pit Bulls in my reactivity program are "bad," that they somehow abused their dog into reactivity or aggression. While many of these owners may have made some training mistakes, a good number of them did everything right. Many of them give their dogs great socialization, physical and mental exercise, medical care, and optimal nutrition. They are not bad people, nor are their dogs bad dogs.

There is no dog breed that will be right for every family. I suspect there are so many Labradors and Lab crosses in shelters because we are sold the image of them being the perfect family dog. But what if you have a family of couch potatoes with an energetic Lab who will retain puppylike behaviors and energy levels well into adulthood? This won't be the perfect pet for this particular family, who may be better off with an adult Greyhound or even a Pug. A low-energy household may find a mellow Lab that is the perfect fit, but Labs are not universally friendly, nor do they all come preprogrammed with off-leash reliability and a rock-solid retrieve.

Many Pit Bulls are awesome with children.

In almost any breed, you will find almost every doggy temperament — lazy to hyper, focused to uber-distracted, quick learners to not-so-quick learners, prey-driven to naps with squirrels. (Well, naps with squirrels may not apply to any individuals within some breeds or groups.) Despite this, its important that we pay attention to breed-specific tendencies.

While I agree with anti-BSL advocates, we must be careful not to go too far in the other direction and say that There are no dogs, only bad owners. My Chow mix is very Chowlike; she is very devoted to her people and very aloof with other humans. She tolerates but doesnt seek out or even enjoy playing with lots of new dogs, or dogs with poor social skills. Since she is well trained, I can use her in reactive dog consultations as a stimulus or exposure dog, but its all a trained behavior; I dont kid myself that shes just an exceptionally friendly Chow. She is aloof around strangers, and its not because she or I are bad — its just who she is.

Genetics don't tell the whole story, but they do tell a good portion of it. Genetic, as it refers to tendencies for specific behavioral traits, also doesnt mean set in stone or unmodifiable, but it will likely influence training goals and strategies for that particular dog.

The moral of the story: Not all Shelties bark, but many do. Not all Greyhounds must be leashed for a lifetime to be safe, but they should be. Not all Chows would hate being therapy dogs, but most would. Not all terriers like to chase and sometimes kill small animals, but probably more terriers than Pugs like to engage in this sort of behavior. I was going to say that not all Beagles like to bay or sniff everything in the environment, but that would just be an out-and-out lie.

Lets chat: If you are a breed devotee, how is your dog typical and atypical of its breed? If youve had many dogs of a particular breed, which ones fit the stereotypes, and which didnt?

Photos from the Dogster pages of Nala (top) and Bodie

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