Alternatives to Breed Specific Legislation

October 17th, 2008
Dogs on walk

Caroline Zambrano investigates the possibility of dog licensing to replace and the alternatives to breed specific legislation.

In the past decade, many states in Australia have passed Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) with varied restrictions relating to the breeds nationally banned from importation: the American Pit Bull Terrier or Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro.

The laws, which were passed to reduce the number of dog attacks, may help victims of such attacks feel more secure when stepping out into the street. However, animal behaviour and veterinary experts say they have a false sense of security as international studies show the legislation is clearly not working and therefore doing little to protect the public.

While experts are taking the “ban the deed, not the breed” approach, state governments are doing the opposite. In May 2005, former NSW premier Bob Carr announced in Parliament that the government would introduce legislation to ban restricted breeds.

Dogs Life found out from animal experts in Australia and overseas why this legislation will not work if passed and discussed alternative and more effective ways to reduce dog attacks, such as licensing dog owners.

Endangered Dog Breeds Association (EDBA) President Linda Watson told Dogs Life the legislation targeting breeds is “unfair and irrational”. According to Watson, “Every animal should have a fair chance. It is the owner who needs to be controlled. State governments and councils should be educating people on responsible ownership and councils should be enforcing existing legislation rather than inventing more.”

The EDBA, which started in 2001 and now has more than 200 members, opposes any dog control laws aimed at the rights of all responsible dog owners, said Watson.

International studies proving BSL failed

The only registered specialist in animal behaviour in Australia, veterinarian Dr Kersti Seksel, said the introduction of legislation restricting dogs on the basis of appearance or breed rather than behaviour will not result in any real dog attack-harm reduction.

Also president of the Animal Companion Animal Council (ACAC), Seksel submitted a government commissioned report to the NSW Department of Local Government in 2002 to provide an independent review of the issues relating to the control of dangerous dogs in NSW, the performance of BSL in overseas jurisdictions and any implications for the provisions of the NSW Companion Animals Act 1998. (This report is available online by the Department of Local Government on, titled “Companion Animals Report to the NSW Department of Local Government on Breed Specific Legislation Issues Relating to Control of Dangerous Dogs”.)

Seksel said overseas experience has shown that BSL fails to reduce the number of dog attacks and dog bites, therefore doing little to protect the public. She said UK data on dog attacks and dog bites pre and post implementation of BSL shows no difference in the incidence of dog bites, with 73 per cent of all bites requiring medical attention occurring both before and after implementation of the legislation.

The UK study found dangerous breeds contributed to only a small proportion of the injuries and more than half the patients in both study groups were bitten by their own dogs or dogs that were well-known to them.

In the majority of dog attacks, the breed of the animal responsible is not able to be accurately determined due to the variation in physical characteristics.

“Over 40 per cent of dogs in Australia are crossbreeds and therefore do not demonstrate consistent breed type to any particular breed,” said Seksel. As accurate breed identification proves difficult, she suggested assessing a dog by behaviour (temperament assessment) rather than by appearance to determine whether an individual animal be subject to restrictions.

Interestingly, Dr Seksel worked as an animal behaviourist in the US and had the opportunity to examine about 20 American Pit Bull Terriers which had been bred for fighting. She said none of these animals showed aggression towards humans. If expressed, aggression was directed toward other dogs.

Breed alone is a poor indicator of whether or not an animal is going to be aggressive towards humans, so “eliminating the breed is not the solution”, she stressed. Rather, the solution lies in educating dog owners and, more importantly, the general community, she added.

American canine expert advises licence for all dogs

Another idea to help in the fight against dog attacks comes from an American author and educational psychologist specialising in canine behaviour. Craig Mixon spoke to Dogs Life about a four-tier system of licensing, which he addresses in detail on his website, created to educate the public about barking dogs and the relationship between barking and biting.

Mixon argues the relationship between dog attacks and barking results from a phenomenon called “shaping”. Over time, some dogs go from barking, to barking more intensely, to barking in a threatening manner. He said allowing dogs to bark or vocally threaten the general public greatly increases the chances the animal will eventually bite someone.

“Beyond a doubt, the decision of those in authority to ignore threatening barkers contributes greatly to the epidemic of dog bites,” he said. Mixons idea involves four types of dog owner licensing. First, dog owners should be required to take an education class before applying for a dog-related licence, regardless of the level of certification they seek, to learn about selecting the right dog, training their dog, canine development and other issues. Mixon said the US Centre for Disease Control has recommended dog owner education programs as a means of dealing with the nations epidemic of dog bites.

The fourth and highest level of licensing is the Off-Lead Licence, which would permit the holders to publicly walk their dogs off-leash. The third level of licensing is the On-Lead Public Licence, which would allow a person to take their dog walking in public but only with the lead attached.

The second level of licensing is a Minimal Licence, which would permit the holder to have the dog on private property and in the car, but when in public, would be permitted to walk the dog only on the lead and only in situations where there are no living creatures nearby. For instance, the owner could not walk his dog on a well-travelled sidewalk.

The first level of licensing is the High Security Licence, which would be given to people who want to keep a dog with an established history of vicious behaviour. The holder of this licence would be forbidden from taking his dog out in public and be required to pass a city inspection of his property to ensure his dog is properly confined in a humane and escape-proof enclosure and that warning signs are prominently posted.

New Zealand runs dog licence test

Waitakere City Council in New Zealand offers a Dog Owners Licence test to dog owners but as an incentive to reduce the dog registration fees, not dog attacks. However, council officials believe the test encourages dog owners to be more responsible. New Zealand also bans the four breeds from importation or breeding. All existing dogs of the four breeds within New Zealand must be desexed and muzzled, among other restrictions.

Isabel Williams from the councils Animal Welfare Services said they have no evidence to prove that the Dog Owners Licence (DOL) test has reduced bites/attacks in their area since it began running 15 years ago, but it does encourage responsible dog ownership. The test has been running for about 15 years and involves answering 20 multiple choice questions all based on the New Zealand Dog Owner Manual written by Tom Didovich. Answering at least 75 per cent of the questions correctly entitles the dog owner to receive a reduction in their dog registration.

“From experience, we find the test does encourage dog owners to be responsible. On gaining the licence they sign a declaration stating that each year they will register their dog on time, control their dog at all times and care for it in the proper manner,” Williams said. She emphasised that the key to all dog issues is education. Waitakere City Council runs an education program that involves officers going into schools and the community and giving talks on responsible dog ownership.

Dog lovers rescue banned breeds

Dog lovers like Bonnie Norton of Victoria believes every dog deserves a fair chance. Norton is an EDBA member and also Secretary of the American Pit Bull Terrier Club of Australia Inc, which has 600 members from all over Australia and New Zealand who love the breed. In fact, Nortons bumper sticker on her car states, “All creatures great and small, accept the American Pit Bull Terrier.”

Up to 15,000 dogs have been killed by councils around the country because they are Pit Bulls and many of them are not even Pit Bulls, she claims. “Its so wrong to kill them. These dogs have done nothing,” she said.

Norton has had Pit Bulls since the late 1970s and has bred a few litters and also shown them. She was attracted to the breed because of “their love of humans”. However, she stopped breeding because she said it was too hard to find responsible owners. In fact, she found one of the pups she sold wandering in the streets and kept him when she could not contact the owners.

“The Pit Bull is not a dog for everyone. It needs owners who are disciplined and dedicated to training their dog,” she said.

Norton has received hundreds of calls from BSL victims, including people whose dogs were falsely identified as a Pit Bull and destroyed without a fair trial. Then there are others who risk getting caught by authorities just to help an animal in need.

In Queensland, Helen* rescued a Pit Bull from a lifetime of fighting. Jake had spent the first six years of his life chained to a rusted car body. His owner was convicted and all his other Pit Bulls were destroyed.

“When I first met Jake, he was thin and had an open wound on his head. This ugly, smelly, horrible dog put his head on my lap and snuggled. And that was it,” said Helen. Jake came to live with her on Australia Day in 2000 only until a permanent home was to be found. However, he quickly won everybodys heart and lived with Helen until he died a few months ago from dilated cardiomyopathy. Jake enjoyed playing with the neighbours children who came by regularly and loved to sleep with Helens 13-year-old nephew inside the bed.

“Jake was an extraordinary dog,” said Helen. “He came to a place with no violence. He chose to stay an ordinary dog.”

Helen always lived with the fear that one day Jake would be taken by authorities and put to sleep. She was actively protesting the Pit Bull ban before the Queensland government banned the breeds, but when Jake came into her life, she had to support quietly through the EDBA.

“I was frightened I would cost my dog his life,” she said.

Fighting for the breed in court

While some dog owners rescue restricted breeds from being euthanased, others fight for their beloved breeds in court. Dogs Life contacted Cathie Dettmar, a Bull Terrier breeder in Germany, who, together with her husband, has been struggling with the “BSL chaos” for many years.

Germany has a nationwide import ban on the Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and Bull Terrier, plus crosses of those breeds. To own a dog in Germany, Dettmar said one must licence the dog and pay a dog tax. Many cities have the Fighting Dog Tax for people who own a breed on that citys restricted breed list and this tax can be as high as 800 to 1200 Euros for the first dog and higher for additional ones.

In 2001, the Dettmars opened a lawsuit with the support of the German Kennel Club, the FCI, the Bull Terrier Clubs of America, UK, Sweden, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands and Canada, the former CEO of the American Kennel Club, plus hundreds of private pet owners and breeders.

Dettmar said the Bull Terrier was added to the Federal Breed List in Germany several months after the initial law was put into power, not because it is dangerous or known as a breed high on the list of bite statistics, but because “it is a member of the FCI Group III (Terrier Group) and is in body and character the same as the American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.”

The Dettmars have 10 official studies that prove none of the breeds in question acts any differently in situations to any other breed of dog, with two of the studies focusing only on the Bull Terriers temperament, socialising skills and problem-solving methods, all videotaped without the presence of humans.

“Our lawyer is one of the top in Germany for fighting federal laws and has never lost a case,” said Dettmar. “He said with the amount of evidence we have, there is a good probability the High Court will throw out the entire breed list. We think that once this happens, we can send the evidence to other countries now in the midst of the BSL struggle to help them try to repeal the laws.”

Government officials unsure of BSL

Representing a state that has the most severe laws regarding banned breeds, Queensland Senator Andrew Bartlett spoke to Dogs Life about where he stands on the BSL issue.

Senator Bartlett has a strong record on animal rights and introduced a Private Members Bill (National Animal Welfare Bill 2003) to establish Australias first national and enforceable animal welfare standards. He is also former president of Animal Liberation Victoria.

A once proud owner of a Rottweiler, Bartlett said he does not have a hard and fast view on BSL but understands that “blanket condemnation of particular breeds does not give a fair picture. I agree the way an owner treats a dog is far more likely to influence that dogs behaviour than the breed of the dog”, he said. “However, there does seem to be some evidence that certain breeds are more likely to attack children and adult humans, and that can’t be ignored.”

Dog trainer suggests licence to own special breeds

John Richardson began DogTech International Pty Ltd and has been training dogs for more than 30 years. He agrees that the issue of dog aggression cannot be resolved by BSL. He suggests implementing a licence for people who own special breeds the powerful small dogs as well as the powerful large dogs.

At the point of applying for a licence for a special breed, a potential owner would have to consider whether they have the right lifestyle and the possible consequences of owning such a dog. The person would then take a knowledge test on care and handling, followed by a practical test on basic training with a canine club or training organisation. After successfully completing these stages, the person could then purchase a dog from a regulated breeder. The dog would be temperament tested for the first three years of its life and be awarded a coloured tag depending on its aggression level.

Richardson believes responsible ownership is the key to preventing dog aggression. He agrees the Pit Bull breed has a strong bite to hold, but other dogs, like the Cattle Dog, can do equal damage, so he wonders where the government will stop with BSL.

Having specialised in aggression for the past decade, Richardson said the source of aggression is a combination of the natural instinct in any dog and the way it has been guided by its human carers in its upbringing. Through his seminars and workshops, he also trains people to avoid dog bites. He said people expect all dogs to be “pattable” but an inappropriate approach by a stranger can trigger an aggressive reaction from some dogs that are not easy-going in character.

“The public needs to be better educated about approaching strange dogs,” Richardson advised.

UK data on dog attacks and dog bites pre and post implementation of BSL shows no difference in the incidence of dog bites, with 73 percent of all bites requiring medical attention occurring both before and after implementation of the legislation.

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