Dogs deserve better than breed-specific bans

With its fenced dog parks, beautiful green spaces, and riverside trails, New Westminster is a pretty good place to be a dog. That is, unless you have the misfortunate to be born with a big head, stocky body and short coat. If you resemble one of the “pit bull” or mastiff breeds targeted under the city’s animal control bylaw, you face a very different kind of lifestyle.

April Fahr with her dog Chica
April Fahr with her dog Chica

With its fenced dog parks, beautiful green spaces, and riverside trails, New Westminster is a pretty good place to be a dog. That is, unless you have the misfortunate to be born with a big head, stocky body and short coat. If you resemble one of the “pit bull” or mastiff breeds targeted under the city’s animal control bylaw, you face a very different kind of lifestyle.

New Westminster is one of a handful of Lower Mainland municipalities that enforces breed-specific legislation (BSL). The bylaw lists three “pit bull” and five mastiff breeds that are considered “vicious dogs” and must be muzzled outside of their homes. Owners are required to take extra containment precautions on their property, and face increased fines if their dogs are impounded.

If you go by newspaper headlines, this might not seem outrageous – aren’t pit bulls inherently more dangerous? In a word, no. Despite the sensationalism, statistics simply don’t support the notion that any one breed is more aggressive, and BSL has never been shown to be successful.

99% of pit bulls are family pets
While dog fighting gets a lot of the press, pit bulls were family pets, farm dogs, and companions for the vast majority of their history. Their breed standards note their affectionate nature towards humans, and in the American Temperament Test, pit bull breeds have a pass rate higher than many common breeds like border collies, retrievers and boxers.

There are many poor owners out there, and some of them are drawn to “tough looking” dogs and a bad reputation. But they do not represent the majority of us. For the most part, we are normal people drawn to the breed for other reasons – their inquisitive and intelligent nature, their wash-and-wear coat, their cuddliness, and the fact that they are the most abused and surrendered breed in the shelter system, yet remain the most likely to rub up against the kennel bars, wildly licking your face.

Spotting a “pit bull”
“Pit bull” is not a breed, but a loose description of three breeds: the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier, and the American Staffordshire Terrier. And breed identifications are notoriously subjective – studies show that even trained shelter workers are wrong up to 87% of the time when they guess at a dog’s breed. Try for yourself at http://www.pitbullsontheweb.com/petbull/findpit.html.

Even DNA tests are still in their infancy – there simply isn’t that much genetic variation between breeds. So consider the logistics of trying to enforce a law based entirely on visual clues. (And then what do we do about mixes?)

Inefficient use of tax dollars
In Delta, one factor in overturning BSL was the amount of time spent investigating “pit bull” complaints that were no actual threat to community safety. New West has one of the best animal control teams in the region, and fairer bylaws would serve them better by freeing up their time to investigate actual aggression incidences and nuisance behaviours, addressing problems before they start.

Proven alternatives
There is no city with breed restrictions that can show a substantial drop in bite rates. But the City of Calgary can. Their approach looks at proven risk factors for aggression like spay/neuter, early socialization and training, past behavior and – most importantly – ownership. With many pit bulls in their midst, they currently have the lowest bite rate and highest licensing compliance rate on the continent.

The New Westminster bylaws already address a number of risk factors by charging higher licensing rates for intact dogs, and applying a “vicious dog” declaration for unprovoked aggressive behavior to other animals or humans. I encourage our city leaders to build on these evidence-based approaches to community safety, and take breed out of the equation. It’s an outdated and knee-jerk reaction to animal control. Our community, our animal control officers, and our dogs deserve better.

Please talk to city council candidates about breed specific legislation and better animal welfare laws in our city, and vote with this in mind on November 19. Then join me in the New Year as I hope to start a conversation with City Council and encourage them to take a leadership role alongside Delta, Vancouver, Port Moody, Surrey, Port Coquitlam and many other cities that have opted for more progressive dog legislation.

Further reading

April Fahr

April Fahr is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

12 comments

  1. Great article April! I would like to comment on one point though.

    You are quite right in saying;

    “Pit bull” is not a breed, but a loose description of three breeds: the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier, and the American Staffordshire Terrier. And breed identifications are notoriously subjective – studies show that even trained shelter workers are wrong up to 87% of the time when they guess at a dog’s breed.

    What people do not realize however is that it is unlikely that most dogs deemed "pitbull" (which are quite common in any town Canada) are genetically related to the three purebreds named. The three named purebreds are very rare. I live in Ontario and purebred registration numbers are readily available by the CKC *Canadian Kennel Club. There were roughly 30 registered American Staffordshire Terriers in the whole province of Ontario at the time the ban passed in 2005. All three breeds combined there were roughly 1000 dogs! This is not specifically the case in Ontario but across Canada. It is physically impossible that so few dogs could spawn one of the most popular mutts.. the short haired, blocky head, whippy tail, whatever the heck people want to call or label a "pitbull". The Labrador Retriever and Boxer are number 2 and 8 in popularity on the purebred list for Canada. American Stafforshire Terriers are nearly dead last.. no pun intended.

    The misconception is that all the short haired mutts labeled "pitbull" stem from the 3 purebreds most commonly named in BSL (breed specific legislation) or shape specific discrimination more accurately. This lulls people into thinking they are not affected by such legislation but in actual fact this sort of discrimination has everything to do with "looks" not behaviour and most tragically dogs are labelled by breeds that are merely a simpleton's guessing game. Games are fun but not when your life is at stake!

  2. Great article April! I used to think these types of dogs were scary, but I certainly don't anymore. Our next dog will be a short stocky wash n wear and I really hope that New West removes this pointless legislation. BSL doesn't do what its proponents want it to do. I'd also like to see a (your) campaign promote bite safety education. Far too many people get bitten because they can't interpret what the dog they are interacting with is saying non verbally. A friend of mine recently suggested that it wasn't fair to demand that people learn how to interact with dogs – and I agree – but those who choose to interact with dogs need to know how to do it. Again, nice balanced article!

    1. Aw, thanks! She's a very cool dog and we feel really lucky to have her. Her original home kept her as a yard dog/breeding stock, and for some unfathomable reason decorated her with full-colour, human-grade tattoos on the insides of her ears and on her belly. Ultimately she ended up at the SPCA with a dislocated hip after being hit by a car and not receiving vet care for a week.

      She was rescued through HugABull and came to us for foster care following hip surgery, and she never left. Now she has her certified Canine Good Neighbour designation, three levels of obedience, and she won a silver medal at a pet talent contest last summer!

      Jen, when you're ready for adopt, you should check out the HugABull adoptables page. But maybe stay away until then..it's addictive…!

  3. Lori, I love you! Great article and thank you for challenging the misconceptions that are out there.

    You can count on my support with your work in the new year with council. Please let me know how I can help!

    Brigette Mayer
    Calli Co. Pet Services http://www.callico.ca

  4. Jen, here's a bit of info on dog bite prevention. Unfortunately a couple of the links included in this article are no longer active http://www.dlcc.ca/prevent.html

    That's actually another problem with BSL. People (owners included) assume that because their dog's breed is not on the list of "vicious dogs" their dog won't bite. Dogs of all breeds can bite. Danger is not something that can be determined by looks. I don't understand why lawmakers don't get that.

  5. Absolutely agree with your position, April.I grew up with English Bull Terriers (my first loves), and now my partner and I have a shar-pei we adopted through TNT Shar Pei rescue. Like the so-called 'pit bull' breeds, Shar Peis can also be rather aggressive… Their 'look' hasn't garnered as bad a rap though because there are fewer of the dogs out there (or fewer owners who mistreat them, it seems). She is amazing with people (big and small!), but where we have troubles, is when other owners let their dogs run off leash (in non-off leash areas), come bounding towards her, and she gets frightened – which in turn, can result in aggression. We're working on it, but other dog owners need to realize that not every dog, wants to be your fur-baby's friend.

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