I am not an expert in dogs, but I am a dog owner and have had dogs in my life for a really long time. I was first introduced to stigma around dog breeds when a Staffordshire Bull Terrier came into my life. She was a lovely, sweet dog with a beautiful temperament who we rescued when she was five years old. She was also subjected to a lot of iffy looks, and people sometimes shouted at me when I let her off the lead. Staffordshire Bull Terriers are big muscular dogs with wide jaws, they can look a little scary. But does that mean they should be treated differently to other dogs?
The experience got me wondering about other dogs who are treated differently purely because of how they look – dogs that are regulated by breed specific legislation.
In the UK, this is the Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA) which was enacted in 1991. Under the UK law there are four breeds of dogs that are prohibited: the Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino, and the Fila Brasileiro. In the UK the legislation means that it is illegal to sell a banned dog, abandon a banned dog, give away a banned dog, or breed from a banned dog.
The decision on whether your dog is one of the banned breeds depends on how it looks and can be assessed by a Dog Legislation Officer. There is an index of exempted dogs for dogs of a banned breed which are considered by the courts to not be dangerous, but the dog and owner will be subject to restrictions for the length of the dog’s life. Once a dog is registered as exempt, the owner gets a certificate for its lifetime, but must ensure the dog is neutered, microchipped, kept on a lead and muzzled at all times when in public, and kept in a secure place so it cannot escape. The owner must also be over the age of 16, take out insurance against the dog injuring other people, show the Certificate of Exemption when asked by a police officer or council dog warden, either at the time or within 5 days, and let the Index for Exempted Dogs know of any change in address, or if the dog dies.
This legislation was introduced over 30 years ago, and at the time the UK was one of the first countries to enact such legislation – today 51 countries have some form of breed specific legislation.
However, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is widely criticised by people and organisations with expertise in animal behaviour and an interest in animal welfare. There are numerous reasons for this criticism, the biggest is that there is no evidence that the breeds that are legislated against pose a greater risk to humans than other breeds, or that breed-specific legislation works to reduce the number of dog bites or dog-related fatalities.
The first important thing to consider is how dogs are identified as banned types. This is done entirely based on appearance. And in the case of Pit Bulls, the more common of the four banned breeds, it is especially complicated. The UK Kennel Club doesn’t actually recognise the Pit Bull as a breed. Generally speaking, when we talk about Pit Bulls, we mean an American Pit Bull Terrier, but broadly it’s more of a type of dog than a specific breed. The definition of this type of dog also varies from country to country, which means in parts of America a Staffordshire Bull Terrier is considered a type of Pit Bull, whereas in the UK the Pit Bull definition does not include Staffordshire Bull Terriers.
The UK law follows the description of an American Pit Bull type of the 1976 American Dog Breeding Association standard and is based entirely on appearance – not genetics or parentage. That means you can have a puppy that is considered illegal, but it’s mother or father are considered legal. It also means you can have a dog seized, assessed and returned to you just based on how it looks. An RSPCA report on the DDA points out that some cross-breeds can look particularly similar to Pit Bull Terriers – for example Labradors crossed with Staffordshire Bull Terriers.
The variety of breeds that could be caught up in this legislation should give a hint as to the lack of evidence suggesting these dogs pose a greater risk – yet, there have been a small number of studies that look at specific breeds and their behaviour compared to other breeds.
The argument is often that Pit Bulls are specifically bred for fighting and are therefore more aggressive – but the evidence just doesn’t back this up. Yes, they were once bred for dog fights – but dog fighting has been illegal in the UK for over 200 years. The dogs that were bred for dog fighting were selected for their aggression towards other dogs, rather than towards humans; in fact, aggression towards humans was considered an unattractive quality, not least because people who were using a dog for dog fighting wanted to be able to handle without putting themselves at personal risk.
A study in 2008 looking at 30 breeds using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire concluded:
Breeds with the greatest percentage of dogs exhibiting serious aggression (bites or bite attempts) toward humans included Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers (toward strangers and owners); Australian Cattle Dogs (toward strangers); and American Cocker Spaniels and Beagles (toward owners). More than 20% of Akitas, Jack Russell Terriers and Pit Bull Terriers were reported as displaying serious aggression toward unfamiliar dogs.
One of the problems with breed-specific legislation is that it can encourage people to think that all other dogs are “safe”, and this is often applied particularly to small dogs like the Jack Russel Terrier or Dachshunds. Sure, large strong dogs with aggression are more likely to cause some serious harm to a person or other animal if they attack, but small dogs can still cause an awful lot of damage. It’s important that we recognise that all dogs, even the friendliest of dogs, can cause harm and can in certain circumstances bite even someone they are closely attached to.
Another study in 2008 considered 415 dogs from 14 breeds including Pit Bulls and American American Staffordshire Bull Terriers and found:
Ninety-five percent of the animals reacted appropriately in the test situation. Five percent displayed excessive aggressive signaling or aggressive behavior in inappropriate situations. These displays were associated with unusual movements and the dogs’ apparent apprehension.” They found “No significant difference in behavior between breeds was detected.
This study had looked exclusively at the dog breeds banned in Lower Saxony at the time, so in the same area a later study used Golden Retrievers as a control group to study those same breeds. It concluded:
Comparing the results of golden retrievers and breeds affected by the legislation, no significant difference was found.
The breed specific legislation in Lower Saxony was removed due to these studies.
But this is just considering whether there is evidence for breed-specific aggression – what about whether certain breeds are responsible for more bites, or more severe bites?
This is much harder to study – particularly in the UK. We have no idea how many dogs of certain breeds exist within the UK, because we don’t have to register our dogs on any sort of legal register. It’s also hard to identify which dogs caused bites, partly because working out the breed of a dog from appearance alone is difficult, but also because people often mislabel their own dogs. Dog bites don’t have to be reported. so we tend to only get data on those requiring hospitalisation, which obviously skews any attempt at analysis.
When considering media reports of dog bites, things get even more complicated. A 2015 study looking at breed identification commented that “media coverage of dog bite-related injuries has been shown to be more extensive and to report the suspected breed more frequently when witnesses report a pit bull or guard-line breed as involved,” explaining that:
a study of all dog bite-related fatalities that occurred during the 10-year period 2000–2009 reported that 90% of the dogs involved were described in at least one media account with a single breed descriptor, potentially implying that the dog was purebred. However, approximately 46% of the dogs in the US are mixed breed dogs, and it seemed unlikely to the authors that purebred dogs would be disproportionately represented among the dogs involved in these incidents,
But we do have some data. According to the RSPCA report :
In the UK, an initial assessment of the DDA five years after it was enacted, found that there had been no significant reduction in dog bites. Increases in dog bites continue to occur [and] Between March 2005 and February 2015, in England, the number of hospital admissions due to dog bites increased 76 percent from 4,110 to 7,227. There is no robust scientific evidence to suggest that prohibited breeds are a significant factor in this increase.
Studies that have looked at clinical cases of dog bites have found a variety of breeds to be more commonly associated with dog bites. One looking at dog bites in children found that:
Comparing the number of registrations of each breed to the frequency of the bites, a significantly greater frequency of bites was found for German shepherds (29% of the dogs but 52% of the bites; chi-square, 11.485; p <0.001)
And a study at a clinic in Spain found that:
Two breeds, the English cocker spaniel and the Catalan sheepdog, presented a particularly high risk for aggression in the studied population
A study in the Netherlands where dogs are registered and breed-specific information is recorded unsurprisingly found that the dogs most likely to be involved in dog bites were also the most commonly-owned breeds. It is prevalence that correlates, not type. Breed-specific legislation was removed in the Netherlands based on this data.
The vast majority of dog bites don’t cause fatalities. According to the RSPCA:
Between 1989 and 2017, 48 people died in dog-related incidents. Of the 62 dogs involved, 53 were dog breeds not on the prohibited list.
There’s no evidence that the four breeds banned under the DDA are particularly aggressive and no evidence that breed specific legislation reduces dog bites, or even that banned breeds are responsible for the majority of fatalities.
Breed-specific legislation harms
What about the harm of breed specific legislation? The RSPCA is particularly concerned about the welfare of animals who are considered illegal, even if they are registered as exempt. The primary worry is that many dogs are misguidedly destroyed before assessment – they tell one case study of a woman who had been informed by her vet that her two dogs and their 13 puppies might be considered illegal and so in a panic she got all 15 dogs euthanised. Understandably many years later she is still distraught at what happened and is grieving for her dogs.
Even if the dogs are assessed and considered safe to own and placed on the index of exempted dogs, they are subject to rules that can be quite distressing – particularly for dogs who find the muzzle they must wear when walking in public painful and distressing. For larger dogs, the muzzles are often larger and firmer in a way that can cause damage to the dog’s skin, even if they fit well. The RSPCA report uses a case study of a dog who is described as “so well behaved and had good character references from her trainer” but the muzzle she wears causes her pain:
The muzzle causes rubs even though it is covered in fleece and the right size. These take a long time to heal as she has to wear the muzzle daily and for long periods of time.
Muzzles can be a useful tool for responsible dog owners when managing the risk associated with their dogs – I myself use one for one of my dogs – but requiring a dog be muzzled at all times when out in public can cause distress to dogs whose risk can be managed with reduced or no muzzling.
One of the biggest issues with breed-specific legislation is the issues with rehoming abandoned or surrendered dogs. Currently it is only legal to be registered as a new owner of an existing exempted dog if the previous keeper is dead or seriously ill. This means dogs picked up by animal welfare organisations cannot be rehomed and must be destroyed. It’s also illegal to give away a prohibited breed so people whose circumstances change cannot give up their dog and must get it destroyed.
But what’s the alternative to breed specific legislation?
In the UK it’s already illegal for your dog to be dangerously out of control. A responsible dog owner should be paying good attention to their dog and their surroundings when walking them in public – understanding the dog’s ability to be recalled if they are let off-lead, or ensuring they are kept on lead if they cannot be recalled or pose any sort of threat.
Muzzles can and should be used for dogs who might pose a risk to people or other dogs. One of my dogs is quite an anxious small dog, so I choose to walk her in less populated locations and at quieter times, and direct her away from people and dogs. If I can’t avoid other people or dogs, she wears a good fitting muzzle. I never let her off-lead in public; instead we have a long retractable lead so she can run around without the risk of her running off. We’re working on socialisation and training to help her with her anxiety.
This isn’t just about being responsible, it is a legal requirement that your dog should not be dangerously out of control and if they are found to be dangerously out of control both the dog and the owner can be subject to legal consequences which can include euthanasia of the dog and imprisonment of the owner.
The RSPCA has other recommendations. Firstly, they believe education is important. Studies have shown that the majority of dog bites are related to the behaviour of the human. Sometimes the human doesn’t know how to behave around dogs – we need education on how to interact safely with dogs, particularly for children.
Section 1 [the breed-specific bit] of the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) should be repealed and the financial resources freed from this used to ensure effective measures, application and enforcement of Section 3 of the DDA [that a dog should never be dangerously out of control] and the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, and to support relevant education programmes for children.
The RSPCA also recommends that all dog bites should be recorded, so that we can do more studies into evidence-based prevention methods with a good level of data. If Section 1 isn’t repealed, they think there should be a process in place to minimise seizure of dogs who are likely to be subsequently assessed and exempted, to both reduce the costs associated and also to minimise distress for the dog and its owners. The RSCPA also think there should be a greater ability for ownership to be transferred to a new owner for exempted dogs, so that fewer dogs deemed not to be a particular danger are destroyed.
Ultimately, I think the current Dangerous Dogs Act is not fit for purpose, and is far from evidence based. I support the calls to repeal it entirely. But I also think we need more education on dog ownership and behaviour around dogs. All dogs can be a danger and it is the responsibility of the owner to take responsibility for managing that risk with their dog, for the sake of both the dog and of the other animals and humans the dog encounters.