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America Against Breed Specific Legislation

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Dangerous Dog Ordinances - Very good read!

If Not BSL, Then What?
by Jennifer Thomas

Your community has a problem with dog attacks/bites, but some people keep saying breed-specific legislation is not the answer. You've read about the problems with BSL, but you're still feeling pretty skeptical, since recent attacks have been committed by dogs of only a few breeds - breeds that the media and the public are telling you are naturally dangerous. People are clamoring for action. What do you do? What options do you have?

First, keep in mind that dog attacks are not as simple as it might seem in the media. Karen Delise, in her book Fatal Dog Attacks, notes "The media covers the human aspect of these tragedies and will occasionally report superficial information about the dog. Prior and current law enforcement investigations focus primarily, if not solely, on the physical evidence that determines the responsibility of the dog(s)." Such information is relatively useless in determining how or why a dog attack occurred - knowledge that is extremely valuable when attempting to reduce the occurance of dog attacks. In order to come up with sensible solutions, we need to have a better understanding of the problem.

As an important first step toward reducing dog attacks/bites, you need to evaluate your current dangerous dog laws. How effective are they?

Put a stop to leash law violations. These violations seem to be a significant enabler for vicious dog attacks. In areas without leash laws, animal control officers are powerless to catch loose dogs until they hurt someone. In areas with leash laws, the laws are usually weakly enforced and carry only minor penalties for offending owners. Many dog attacks reported in the news are committed by a loose dog or dogs running off their property. Loose dogs can also form packs, and multiple dogs running in a pack are even more dangerous than a single dog. Something needs to be done to stop dogs from roaming.

Strengthening (or enacting) leash laws is an excellent place to start when addressing the issue of dog attacks. Remember, it's not the dog's fault it's loose - it's the owner's fault. Owners are responsible for containing their dogs.

Higher penalties for owners who violate the leash law will dissuade more people from slacking on their duties to contain their dog. Enforcing the leash laws is very important, but often animal control agencies are underfunded and do not have enough employees. In many media-reported cases of dog attacks, the dogs have been loose several times before - but authorities do not respond until an attack occurs.

Increased funding for animal control agencies will allow them to add more officers to the payroll, thereby making it easier for them to act on loose dog calls. Remember, these agencies are already dealing with animal seizures, animal abuse, court cases, vicious dog bite calls, dog fighting rings, and more. Catching stray dogs is not a priority for overloaded officers.

Strengthen and enforce penalties for dangerous owners and their dogs. In many municipalities, consequences for an owner of a dangerous dog are too light. In an instance of a dog attack in Illinois that killed a child, the dog's owner was not charged with anything. Here in Austin, the owner of a loose dog that attacked to school children did not face any charges because the dog was killed by a parent during the attack. National animal related organizations like NACA, HSUS, the ASPCA, and the AVMA enthusiastically support the strengthening and enforcement of non-breed-specific dangerous dog laws.

NACA states, in their policy statement regarding dangerous dogs, "Agencies should encourage enactment and stringent enforcement of dangerous/vicious dog laws. When applicable, agencies should not hesitate to prosecute owners for murder, manslaughter, or similar violations resulting from their animal's actions, and their owner lack of responsibility. Laws should clearly define 'dangerous' or 'vicious', and provide for established penalties. Penalties may include fines, imprisonment, and/or the relinquishing of total privileges to pet ownership. If a dangerous/vicious animal is allowed to be kept, laws should specify methods of secure confinement and control. A dangerous/vicious animal when kept outside should be confined in an escape-proof enclosure which is locked and secured on all six sides. Signs should be posted at property entrances and be visible from the nearest sidewalk or street. The licensing record could include a notation which will immediately identify an animal which has been deemed dangerous or vicious."

How do your dangerous dog laws compare? What kind of penalties do owners of vicious dogs face? Could the laws be stronger?

Crack down on dog fighting. This is another issue where lax laws and minimal funding often comes into play. Fighting dogs used to be consistently bred to be human friendly, but today, indiscriminate breeders and vicious individuals have transformed many of these dogs into human-aggressive creatures. Dog fighting today persists underground, and the dogs often suffer in horrible conditions and die gruesome, brutal deaths. Law enforcement officers and animal control departments struggle to break into these dog fighting rings, but the effort requires a lot of money, time, and manpower. When they are underfunded, the effort to stop dog fighting takes longer and is less successful. Additionally, many locales have disgustingly lax laws that allow dog fighters to get off the hook with light sentences and fines that are easily paid by winning dog fighters. There are also loopholes in various state laws that permit dog fight observers to get away free or with minimal punishment, and some states allow people to own dogs that will be used for fighting. How does your state deal with dog fighting? (.pdf)

The HSUS has started a campaign, Animal Fighting: The Final Round, to raise awareness about dog fighting, educate the public, and assist animal control departments and police officers in their efforts to eradicate dog fighting.

Strengthen animal abuse laws. Dogs can become aggressive as a result of cruelty/abuse, neglect, or improper care. Dogs need more than the basic food, water, and shelter stipulations that most communities have. A dog that is left alone in a backyard without socialization or mental stimulation can become unruly, destructive, and possibly aggressive. Chaining/tethering dogs is not only inhumane, it also fosters aggression. Chained dogs account for 25% of all fatal dog attacks. Many communities now have laws limiting the length of time a dog may be kept on a tether, what kinds of tethers are acceptable, what length/weight of tether is acceptable, etc. Physical abuse received from a person can make a dog distrustful of human beings and prone to attack out of fear. Communities need strong anti-abuse laws to put a stop to the owner-imposed neglect and pain that prompts some dogs to bite/attack humans.

Prevent criminals from owning dogs. The following people should not be allowed to own dogs: drug dealers, human or animal abusers, anyone convicted of a violent offense (assault, rape, robbery, etc.), and gang members. I could probably come up with more. These particular individuals have proven themselves unconcerned with the health and well-being of others. They can not be trusted to raise a dog with a concern for public safety. I don't feel that such a law needs to apply to individuals who may have committed a non-violent crime.

Regulate breeders. Although there is heated debate as to how best to do this, there is little denying the need for regulations regarding breeding. Backyard breeders and puppy mills produce mass quantities of puppies that are genetically compromised, both behaviorally and health-wise. They breed for money, without concern for good temperament or public safety. Often, their treatment of their breeding dogs and puppies borders on inhumane. Additionally, pet overpopulation puts a financial strain on animal control agencies and shelters.

What approaches can be made to combat dog attacks without needing additional laws?

Fund public spay/neuter initiatives. These programs are important, especially low-cost ones. Unneutered dogs, particularly males, are far more likely to attack a human than either neutered males or spayed females. Unneutered male dogs also tend to escape and wander more than neutered males. Low-cost spay/neuter programs reach out to citizens who may be unable to afford the regular cost of these surgeries. Do you already have a spay/neuter program in effect? Try making more funds available to the program and educating the public about the need to spay/neuter their pets.

Educate about dog behavior. A breakdown in communications between dog and human can have serious consequences for both parties. In particular, young children should be taught in school how to avoid dog bites. Almost half of all dog bite victims in the U.S. are young children. The HSUS offers information on how to "Stay Dog Bite Free!"

Encourage responsible dog ownership. There's more to keeping a dog than a food bowl and a dog house. Dogs are pack animals and they love to be with their "pack", their human family. They need attention and affection to be mentally well-adjusted individuals. They need proper socialization and training to ensure that they will become a good canine citizen. They also need exercise and mental stimulation, which can be provided through complex dog sports like agility, or even just a simple game of "fetch". Supporting dog sports and events in your area also shows owners that dogs are more than just lawn furniture. It may get some dogs out of backyards and into homes as more valuable family members.

Provide low-cost obedience training classes and behavior help hotlines for dog owners. Many owners struggle with their dog's behavior problems but don't know where to turn for help, or can't afford a regular training class. By assisting them with their troubles, you will not only reduce the liklihood of dog bites/attacks - you will prevent relinquishment of pets to the animal shelters because of misbehavior issues.

You don't need to enact breed-specific legislation to make your city a safer place to live.

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