We don't like the way your dog looks!

One of the reasons I was so disturbed by news reports about the "pit bull" (apparently a pit bull mix) that fatally mauled an 11-month old child is that the incident will most likely fuel another push for a pit bull ban (Breed Specific Legislation) in this area. That's because human beings have only a limited capacity to endure reading horror stories about mauled children, and if there are, say, a half a dozen such stories a year, if each story is widely circulated, then a cumulative effect is created, and the reaction tends to be along the lines of "how much more of this must we as a society endure?" The ugly fact is, these stories are very hard to read; it makes me sick to read about a child being mauled to death. Add to this the fact that in many instances there are gruesome pictures of little girls who survived "pit bull" attacks, pictures showing awful disfigurement, details of the years of plastic surgery which will be needed, and all of these pictures and stories will remain online forever, and little wonder that people say, "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!" Never mind that banning a breed will no more prevent child maulings than banning a type of gun will prevent its misuse.

And how do you ban a breed, anyway? It sounds easy, but for the sake of argument, exactly what would you ban? What is a breed? It would be easy enough to write a law prohibiting the possession of the following three breeds:

American Pit Bull Terrier

American Staffordshire Terrier

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

And it would be easy enough to simply define them as any pure-bred, registered, pedigreed dog belonging to the above breeds. Obviously, a "breed" is not a species, but a dog bred and registered as a particular breed. So banning them is easy. Right?

Here's the problem with that: the people who own pure-bred, pedigreed, registered pit bulls -- and the pure-bred pedigreed dogs they own -- are for the most part not the ones causing the problems you read about in these articles. They are the responsible classes (the ones who do their paperwork properly) and of course it would be easy to take away their dogs and kill them. But it would not solve the problem of un-pedigreed, unregistered, and unregisterable dogs, which are only called "pit bulls" because they look enough like the pure-bred dogs that the people who own them can say they are, and when they breed them they can pass them off as "pit bulls" and get a few bucks. (Never mind that a pedigreed pit bull can easily cost over $1000.00; paperless "pit bulls" are commonly sold for $50.00 to $100.00, or even given away as canine junk.)

So obviously, if you're of a mind to ban "pit bulls," it would be ludicrously ineffective to stop with the pedigreed dogs.

Is anyone beginning to see the logical problem here?

That's right; from a serious canine breeding perspective, the "junk pit bulls" I just described are basically mutts. They cannot be shown in the ring, no serious breeder would breed them, they are of unknown lineage, and there's no guarantee they're even pit bulls.

So if you ban them, precisely what are you banning? That's right; pit bull lookalikes.

So, despite the fact that the pit bull ban rests on a genetic argument (if a highly questionable one), you would be banning dogs not based on genetics at all, but on an appearance. Fascinating.

The law would be banning all of the dogs pictured here, because they look like pit bulls. Opportuntities for mischief abound, because such a law invites arbitrary enforcement. (If a white guy wearing Brooks Brothers attire and a black guy wearing a T-shirt and sweat pants were each seen walking a Dogue De Bordeau, which one would be more likely to have his dog confiscated as a "pit bull"?)

Little wonder that courts have been striking some of these laws down. In Florida last month, a judge ruled the law was so vague as to be unenforceable:

A court ruled Miami-Dade's 20 year ban on pit bulls was too vague in defining "pit bull" and unfairly let animal control officers basically guess whether a dog is a pit bull. This lawsuit pertained to a dog named Apollo specifically, and opens the door to a broader lawsuit against the ban.

Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation (MCABSL) and Animal Law Coalition applaud a court ruling that the Miami Dade County Pit Bull ban is too vague, and the county cannot enforce the finding by animal control that a dog is a pit bull that must be euthanized or removed from the county.

The ruling came in a case challenging the finding by Miami Dade County Animal Control that a family pet named Apollo was a "pit bull" that must be removed from the county or euthanized.

The county bans all dogs that "substantially conform" to American Kennel Club standards for American Staffordshire Terriers or Staffordshire Bull Terriers or United Kennel Club standards for American Pit Bull Terriers.

To determine if a dog substantially conforms to these standards, animal control uses a chart that lists 15 body parts such as "head", "neck", "lips", "chest", "eyes", "tail", "hind legs", etc. The officer places a check mark to indicate whether each characteristic conforms or not to a pit bull. If 3 or more characteristics are checked "conform", the dog is declared a pit bull.

Depending on the mood of the officer, a boxer could be declared a pit bull.

I would also argue that the law is unconstitutional for failing to spell out to a reasonable person exactly what conduct is prohibited. If I go out and adopt a puppy of unknown ancestry, how am I to know what it will look like when it grows up? If "looking like a pit bull" is against the law, then how am I supposed to know when and under what circumstances I am guilty?

Interestingly, if you were to breed a standard English bulldog with a Jack Russell Terrier, you'd have a litter of mutts. Yet it's more than likely that most of the litter would look so much like pit bulls that even breed experts would be hard pressed to tell the difference. So, would they be pit bulls? Not by any rational or normal standard. But under the law, they would.

If we analgize to drug prohibition, this isn't like laws banning drugs (which can spell out the chemical compounds to be prohibited). It would be like laws banning all substances which looked like marijuana (or look like heroin), without regard to whether they have dangerous or psychoactive properties.

But let's for the sake of argument suppose that all dogs which look like pit bulls are banned, and eventually hunted down and destroyed as they do in China. Does anyone think that the people whose dogs are causing the problem won't go out and find another breed -- like the Rottweiler, Doberman, German Shepherd, or Rhodesian Ridgeback (if the latter isn't already banned for looking "pitbullish")? What then? Simply declare all dogs which "look like" those breeds illegal, until eventually no one will be allowed to own any dog capable of defending his home.

I suspect a lot of people would think that would make for a much safer society.

("If we could save just one child....")

posted by Eric on 04.27.09 at 02:23 PM










Comments

If I were of a mind to ban dangerous dogs (and I'm not) I would ban large dogs of any kind. Dogs large enough and strong enough to injure a child, say over 40 pounds. There's no ambiguity with this appraoch. Does the dog wiegh more than 40 pounds? Yes, banned. No, not banned.

My dog is also one of the breeds that people fear and do record a number of maulings each year: Siberian Husky.

She's also 70 pounds.

Lovernios   ·  April 27, 2009 5:15 PM

Well, if you want to ban all dogs large enough to injure a child, you're gonna have to go smaller than that.

When I was a kid, I got bit by a 10 pound dachshund. That hurt.

Oh, and ban cats and birds while your at it.

Oh, and kids. Because those little critters can put a serious hurt on kids.

This can't end well.

brian   ·  April 27, 2009 6:15 PM

Courts may strike down law banning pit pulls, but there not much that you can do about insurance companies. I have been told several times by insurance agents that if they become aware that there are pit bulls living at my rental properties, they will cancel my liability insurance.

chocolatier   ·  April 27, 2009 6:48 PM

I knew a woman whose entire lower lip was torn off by her friend's Dachsund. It took the usual plastic surgery and grafting to reattach it, and she was badly scarred. No one is keeping score with Dachsunds, though, and being smaller dogs, they're very unlikely to kill.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 27, 2009 7:02 PM

Yeah, those 10-pound dachshunds are bad news, I remember this one time I saw this story about one that totally tore this kid's throat out.

No wait, that didn't happen. Because, like any animal with teeth, they can cause pain, but they're not historically bred with a selective preference toward bone-crushing jaw strength.

But whatever, I'm the reactionary here.

apotheosis   ·  April 27, 2009 11:25 PM

Pit bulls were bred to be dog aggressive, not person aggressive.

Dobermans were bred for personal protection.

Rottweilers were bred for security.

And every dog of those breeds that I've met or owned had one thing in common:

They were all mooshes. I don't know what's more dangerous - a 100 pound Rott at your throat, or in your lap.

There are no bad dogs. Only bad masters.

brian   ·  April 28, 2009 12:56 AM

There are no bad dogs. Only bad masters.

Undoubtably. I've been around a wide variety of breeds, large and small, those characterized as "aggressive" and those more generally characterized as "wuss." And their behavior, regardless of their size, has more to do with the master than the dog itself.

But there's a fundamental question of difference in capability to cause harm that applies. For example, you have a vastly larger "margin for error" with the aforementioned dachshund than you do with (again, for example) a pit bull.

A weinerdog raised to be a slavering, bloodthirsty holy terror might put a puncture wound in an ankle, on a good day, and that's about the extent of the threat.

Whereas something with the capabilities of a pit might be the most docile, good-natured little sugarpuff you ever did see, 99.99999% of the time, and still do something irrevocably final with that .00001% chance on a bad day.

Should they be banned? No. Eric posted very good reasons why it would be unfeasible, and punish good owners unreasonably. But I do think said owners should be held criminally liable for their dog's acts, with punishments commensurate with those that would attach had they committed the act themselves.

apotheosis   ·  April 28, 2009 1:22 AM

Actually, if you try to pass off powdered wall board as an illegal drug you can be charged as if you were selling the real thing. Cops hate to be conned.

In fact there have been convictions (some since reversed) where an informant passed off powdered wall board as an illegal drug saying that the defendants sold it to him.

M. Simon   ·  April 28, 2009 8:36 AM

...???!?

apotheosis   ·  April 28, 2009 9:38 AM

Actually, I don't think it is reactionary to say that pit bulls were "historically bred with a selective preference toward bone-crushing jaw strength" -- any more than it would be reactionary to say that Dobermans or Rottweilers were bred to be guard dogs, Wolf hounds were bred to go after wolves, or Fox hounds were bred to go after foxes.

Any of those dogs could kill a one year old infant with ease.

Dogs kill around 15 people per year.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 28, 2009 10:58 AM

My grown children all have dogs and one Thanksgiving, some of them brought their dogs with them. There was a female boxer (a breed rescue) and a male English bulldog belonging to one son, and an older female mutt belonging to a daughter.

There was also an 8 month old infant (from the family with the mutt.)

The bulldog was just generally a mess... an 80 lb loving and lovable mess and, by all appearances, dumber than a rock. The boxer, having obviously been bred numerous times before adoption, "mothered" the bulldog, trying her best to keep him out of trouble. But she was also very protective of him.

The bulldog tried to show his love for the older mutt (equal in size to the boxer) and she didn't like that. The boxer came to the bulldogs defense and it could have got ugly if the boys hadn't been supervising the dogs closely. The baby was indoors when this happened and the dogs were kept apart after that.

At one point, the boxer and the bulldog happened to be in the house while the baby was "loose" and I was immediately worried and started to pick her up, but then noticed that the boxer was protecting the baby, positioning herself between the baby and the bulldog. Whether she was trying to protect the baby from harm or the bulldog (realizing he would suffer if the baby was even accidentally harmed by affection from the bulldog), I don't know.

However, my nerves could only stand about 15 minutes of this and the dogs went outside. And I still think we were all stupid to let the situation occur. Perhaps the boxer was the only one present with any sense.

I want to point out that the bulldog never made an aggressive move (other than trying to hump the mutt, but that wasn't intended to harm her) toward anybody - it's just that he's big and clumsy and doesn't know it.

My point is that adults have a huge responsibility where children and dogs are concerned. Both can be unpredictable. A child who is allowed to tease a dog -- no matter the dog's breed, size, training, or disposition is being put in danger.

Same baby, a year and half later with the other daughter's German Shepherd -- a very well-trained dog, but still a dog and who would expect him to resist a game of chase with the kid? However innocent it might look that's teasing the dog and we had to teach the child not to tempt the dog to chase her. (Easier said than done, btw.)

Though I know that any animal can "go crazy" I have a hard time believing the stories of attacks where there were no signs of danger before. People weren't paying attention, either to the child or the dog. Possibly, no probably, both.


Donna B.   ·  April 28, 2009 3:03 PM

Hemp is illegal precisely because it resembles marijuana. We lose out on the many benefits of industrial hemp thanks to the War on (some) Drugs.

I believe that dog owners are often found liable for harm done by their dogs, which seems reasonable to me. Also, if a dog seriously injures or kills a human of any age, it should probably be put down (unless the "victim" was attacking the owner or some other similar situation).

Bolie Williams IV   ·  April 29, 2009 6:26 PM

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