Breed isn't top factor in dog bites
By Stephanie Shain
Guest Commentary

Denver's recent moves to eradicate "pit bull" dogs as pets is a mistake in trying to regulate dangerous dogs. The Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection organization, opposes bans placed on a specific breed because they are ineffective and difficult to enforce. Moreover, they fail to address the larger problems of abuse, aggression training or irresponsible dog ownership.

Many communities struggle with issues related to dangerous dogs. Some have responded by implementing breed-specific legislation, yet time and again such laws have failed to solve problems with dangerous dogs. Lawmakers who take the time to educate themselves and understand the issue quickly recognize that a truly effective law must address dangerous dogs regardless of breed.

Dogs are animals that live in groups by nature. Like humans, they need to know where they fit in. Genetic makeup, early and ongoing socialization and training, the treatment and housing of the animal, and a person's response to a display of aggression by a dog are all factors that determine whether a dog will bite. Dogs that are spayed or neutered are less likely to bite. Dogs kept chained for long periods of time are more likely to bite.

Consequently, animal-control laws that mandate spaying and neutering for adopted animals, ban chaining of dogs and promote responsible pet care will be more successful in decreasing dog bites than banning any particular breed. Additional strategies include education on how to prevent dog bites using a curriculum developed by the Human Society's youth education division that teaches children how to stay safe around dogs.

While breed is one factor that contributes to a dog's temperament, that alone cannot predict whether a dog may pose a danger to the community. A September 2000 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association details dog bite-related fatalities in the United States from 1979 through 1998.

According to the study - conducted by a group of veterinarians, medical doctors and psychology and public health experts - at least 25 different breeds or crossbreeds of dogs had been involved in fatalities. Breeds cited range from the oft-maligned pit bulls and rottweilers to St. Bernards.
The study's main conclusion was that breed-specific legislation doesn't work for several reasons, including the inherent problems in trying to determine a dog's breed, the fact that fatal attacks represent a very small portion of bite-related injuries, and that non-breed-specific legislation already exists and offers promise for prevention of dog bites.

Unfortunately, the "problem dog" at any given time is often the most popular breed among individuals who tend to be irresponsible, if not abusive, in the control and keeping of their animals. Two decades ago, it was the Doberman pinscher that was vilified, whereas pit bulls and rottweilers (the most recent breeds targeted) were of little concern in terms of danger towards humans.

Few people had heard of the Presa Canario breed until two of these dogs attacked and killed Diane Whipple in California in 2001. That breed is now being sought by individuals who desire the new "killer dog."

Simply put, if you ban one breed, individuals will just move on to another one. Banning a breed only speeds up the timetable.

If the goal is to offer communities better protection from dangerous dogs, there are far better ways to do it. They include comprehensive "dog bite" legislation, better consumer education and enforcement of responsible pet-keeping laws. Legislation aimed at holding dog owners responsible rather than punishing the dog is the most effective way to reduce the number of dog bites and attacks.

Well-enforced, non-breed-specific laws offer an effective and fair solution to the problem of dangerous dogs in all communities.

Stephanie Shain is director of outreach for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States.