When I was born my parents owned a not quite one-year-old German Shepherd puppy named King (this was a popular name for such dogs when I was growing up). He was very sweet and rarely left my side. I, being a newborn, was oblivious to his attention. My mother, however, who was a young first-time mom, viewed King’s attention to me with trepidation. In spite of my father’s protestations, King was given to another family.
She would admit years later that she was afraid he would eat me.
While her fears may seem laughable now, they were not uncommon with German Shepherds at the time. They were once viewed as one of the most dangerous and aggressive animals, a reputation earned due to selective breeding and their penchant for being good attack dogs. Even today, they are most synonymous with police K9 units.
Yet, as King showed, they are really just very loyal and protective.
In the decades since, many dogs have earned equally fearful reputations. Many are large, muscular, and like most animals, capable of aggressive behavior. When a horrific incident occurs, such as a child being mauled or killed by a dog, public outrage, often fueled by media attention, leads to understandably emotional demands for something to be done. All too often the target ends up being the dog.
It is not uncommon for (usually) local or state government officials to create laws to curtail situations that can lead to animal attacks. Leash laws, licensing requirements, and bans on organized dog fights exist to help keep a balance between public safety and pet ownership. Sometimes, however, these laws have gone further and targeted specific animals or, in the case of dogs, specific breeds.
In the early 1980s, after a spate of rather aggressive and sometimes fatal attacks, many cities and towns across the country created breed specific legislation which targeted the dogs involved in the attacks. The most often targeted were (often erroneously classified) Pit Bull Terriers, a breed that, like the German Shepherd, has been much maligned due to selective breeding. They are often bred and trained to be more aggressive in order to be used in organized fights.
They are also one of the most loyal and protective dogs, often referred to as the “nanny dog” due to their gentleness with children.
Studies have shown that attacks are not due to specific breeds of dogs but, in fact, to circumstances such as previous abuse. Dogs not properly trained, leashed, or left unsupervised around young children are not the result of nature, but the result of owner irresponsibility. Furthermore, media attention that focuses on specific breeds creates panic. When I was young, it was a German Shepherd attack that would make the local papers. Today, it’s the pit bull that makes the evening news. We never hear about the Golden Retriever or the Labrador mix bite that sent a child to a hospital.
Nevertheless, breed specific legislation persists.
The Center for Disease Control issued a report in 2000 showing that BSL is misguided due to the near impossibility of quantifying dog bites and attacks data by breed, as well as being unable to link the behavior to a specific characteristic. The American Humane Association has pointed out the futility of such laws and how they harm the pets and their families. As more groups are speaking out against BSL, government officials are beginning to take notice.
Some states are beginning to see the error of their ways.
To date, 17 states have laws on the books that specifically ban BSL, including my home state of California. Currently the states of Maryland, Vermont, South Dakota, Missouri, Utah and Washington state are considering legislation which would ban BSL. The change of heart is due to better advocacy, education and more than one lawsuit by an outraged pet owner.
The CDC, along with many other organizations — including the American Bar Association — have suggested alternative ways to address safety concerns and protect the rights of dog owners to have the kind of dog they wish. They recommend “a community-based approach to prevent dog bites” which focuses on owner responsibility and the understanding that any dog can become aggressive regardless of environment. Education, enforcement of existing ordinances and proper training of pets go much further than targeting specific breeds.
It would also help to remember that in spite of our tendency to treat our four legged friends as “fur people,” they are still animals and they will always have a tendency to act like one.
Photo by Chris Robinson via Wikimedia Commons