Dogs deserve better than breed-specific bans

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