Montreal’s breed specific legislation is bad for dogs & bad for humans

BSL is more of a problem than a solution

Credit: 
via Wiki Commons

In Montreal, there is an ongoing will-they-won’t-they drama playing out concerning the city’s controversial decision to enact breed-specific legislation (BSL).

The ban remains under suspension and there has been no verdict reached concerning the City of Montreal’s appeal to lift it.

BSL is designed to target and, in this case, outlaw, particular breeds of dogs. In Montreal, this legislation targets pit bulls, but similar laws elsewhere in the world have targeted, and continue to target, other dog breeds, banning or severely restricting them.

I am saddened to see BSL being enacted and discussed in yet another city. If legislatures are serious about reducing the incidence of dog bites, then they should be talking about, first, targeting people who fail to appropriately socialize dogs, rather than dogs themselves, and, second, enacting research-informed programmes of education about dogs. 

Why does BSL trouble me? Well, I could draw upon the tragic situations it can engender.

For example, the case of Lennox, a beloved family companion living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, reached headlines around the world. Lennox was a dog resembling the build and look of a pit bull who was impounded in 2010 and eventually killed in 2012.

Whether or not he had attacked anyone was not a concern for the authorities. The decision to have him impounded and killed was made on the basis of his breed.

Though Montreal’s proposed laws are not identical to those which resulted in Lennox’s death, the likelihood of similar events transpiring is high.

Alternatively, I could point out that these laws rely upon questionable science.

Identifying the “breed” of a given dog – whether that is a dog impounded due to BSL or a dog who has attacked someone – is difficult, not least because breeds are delineated by custom rather than science. A dog who is half pit bull may look nothing like a typical member of the breed, while some dogs who display the traits typical of pit bulls may have very little pit bull ancestry. What’s more, there is no reason to believe that a given dog will display the temperament typical of his or her breed.

In any case, the choice to ban or restrict particular breeds is frequently made because of sensationalist journalism or particular tragic cases, and not because of good empirical data. All of this results in what has been called, by activists and academics, a kind of “canine racism”.

What I would rather point out, however, is that BSL simply doesn’t work. At least, this is the conclusion reached by numerous scientific examinations of its efficacy.

For example, consider the results of two recent studies published in The Veterinary Journal.

The first, published in 2010 by Jessica M.R. Cornelissen and Hans Hopster, was part of a series of studies funded by the Dutch government to examine BSL’s effectiveness. Findings concluded that although some breeds did seem to bite more than others, dogs of all breeds could bite, and breeds targeted by BSL weren’t always responsible for the most bites. This study – along with others in the series – led to the abandonment of BSL in the Netherlands.

The second, published in 2015 by Páraic Ó Súilleabháin, analysed the numbers of people hospitalised in Ireland due to dog bites from 1998 (when the country enacted BSL) to 2013. The study found that not only were instances of dog bites resulting in hospitalisation on the rise throughout the period in which Ireland had BSL, but that BSL could actually be contributing to this rise in the number of hospitalisations.

How could BSL lead to an increase of serious dog bites?

BSL has the effect of suggesting that dangerous dogs are limited to the breeds targeted. In fact, dogs of any breed can be dangerous when not treated with the respect they deserve. There are documented instances of serious injury and death due to attacks from even the most innocuous of small breeds. Sadly, this means that even if Montreal ultimately doesn’t enact BSL, the attention the issue has received may be enough for damage to be done.

To make matters worse, the stigma that BSL creates around certain breeds ends up attached to safe dogs and responsible owners. On the other hand, irresponsible owners, including those who want to have a dangerous dog, can simply acquire a dog of a different breed.

Once legislatures and the general public, especially children, understand that all dogs – like most animals – can be dangerous if treated inappropriately, we can move towards a society in which dogs and humans can have loving and respectful relationships with one another, with fear of neither attack nor legislation targeting peaceful animals.

Surely, this is what is best for all of us, dogs and humans.

Josh Milburn is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy and a member of Queen's Animal Defence.
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