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What is Breed-Specific Legislation?



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Breed specific legislation (BSL) is an attempt by legislators to reduce dog bites by targeting specific types of dogs.


Often, BSL is implemented as a reaction to one or two recent and highly publicized serious attacks in the area.  Politicians feel that they must be seen to be doing something to protect public safety.  The media jumps on board very quickly and often points out additional incidents involving similar breeds (or dogs that might be that breed), at the same time blatantly ignoring or minimizing attacks by other breeds.


In some cases, the politicians truly believe that there is something "different" about a certain breed or two, but in most cases, the targeting of certain types of dogs is purely designed to appease a misinformed and frightened public without having to put time, effort, and money into solving the problem of dog bites by all breeds.


BSL can range from something as mild as a higher licence fee for specific breeds to an all-out ban, including mandatory destruction of any prohibited dog found within the boundaries of the legislating jurisdiction.


Some restrictions that various versions of BSL impose are:

  • muzzling and leashing in public
  • muzzling and leashing in cars
  • extra-short leash lengths
  • automatic dangerous or vicious dog designation, without any bite history
  • banning from city parks and beaches where other breeds are allowed
  • banning from leash-free parks where other breeds are allowed
  • banning completely from jurisdiction (although sometimes existing dogs are allowed to stay)
  • special (i.e., more expensive) licensing and jurisdiction-wide registry
  • special tags identifying the dog as a restricted dog
  • mandatory microchipping and photograph
  • mandatory insurance (often one million dollars) for each individual dog on the premises
  • mandatory signage indicating the presence of the dog on the owner's property
  • mandatory secure enclosures (in some cases, mandatory chaining)
  • mandatory spay/neuter (to eventually eliminate the breed entirely)
  • higher fines and/or jail time if a restricted breed bites or menaces
  • fines and/or jail time for any infraction of any provision regarding restricted breeds
  • age limit for walking the dog in public
  • persons with criminal records not allowed to own a restricted breed
  • ability of law enforcement to stop owners on the street just to check the dog's status
  • ability of law enforcement to seize dogs without proof of wrongdoing
  • ability of law enforcement to enter an owner's home, with or without a warrant, to investigate and/or seize a dog


Because it is impossible to scientifically or legally identify what breed or breeds an individual dog may contain, BSL legislation often places the responsibility for disproving the breed-specific charges onto the shoulders of the owner.  Since many of these laws contain phrases such as "predominantly conforming to the breed standards" or "having substantially similar physical characteristics", the owner is left with the unenviable task of proving that his dog does not "look like" one of the targeted breeds.  If he is unable to do so convincingly, the usual result is the destruction of the dog, as well as fines and/or jail time for the owner.


BSL has been proven to be ineffective, unenforceable, expensive, and unconstitutional.


BSL fails on a number of levels:


It is not scientifically or legally possible to identify a dog's breed or combination of breeds visually or through DNA.  Therefore, it is not possible for an owner to know for sure what breed they have if it is not a purebred, registered dog.  It is not possible for law enforcement to be consistent and accurate in their accusations related to breed and it is not possible for any judicial decisions to be predictable and consistent.


In the group of dogs generally classified as "pit bulls", the variance in physical characteristics is extreme.  Dogs may range from 25 pounds to 150 pounds, may be any colour, and may have significantly differing body types and shapes.


There are at least 24 purebred breeds of dogs that fall into the category of having "substantially similar physical characteristics" to the breeds generally classified as "pit bulls".  Mixed breed dogs can be even more confusing.


BSL catches (and kills) many dogs that are not a threat for two reasons.  First, by identifying an entire group of dogs as "dangerous" when only a tiny portion of those dogs have been or will ever be involved in a biting incident, many friendly family pets will be confiscated.  Second, many dogs that do not belong to the targeted group of breeds may also be confiscated under the mistaken assumption that they do belong to that group.


BSL fails to identify and deal with many dogs that are a real danger to the public, but which don't happen to look like the targeted breeds.  Rather than approaching the issue as a general "dangerous dog" problem in need of an all-encompassing solution, BSL legislators spend all of their time, effort, and money focusing on one specific group of dogs, including many dogs that are not dangerous, while missing out on the much larger portion of the general dog population that are actually menacing or biting.


BSL targets specific types of dogs without providing scientific, statistical, or legal proof that this type of invasive legislation is necessary to protect public safety.  It creates a public hysteria that, in turn, becomes physically dangerous to owners of these breeds.

"Slippery Slope"
The success of BSL must logically produce more breed banning, as one breed disappears from the area and another takes its place in the bite statistics (assuming that the first breed was even near the top to begin with).  Germany started with individual states banning various breeds of dogs and ended with the federal government banning or severely restricting a large list of breeds and placing significant restrictions on any dog over a certain weight.  Italy started by banning “pit bulls” and ended by restricting the freedom and ownership of 93 different breeds.
Reverse Onus

In many cases of BSL, if a dog is identified as a targeted breed, the owner must prove that the dog is not of that breed and does not contain any of that breed. Approximately 5 million of the estimated 6 million dogs in Canada are not purebred, registered dogs. It is therefore impossible to prove, via pedigree documents, the breed of the dog. It is therefore impossible to disprove the breed of the dog. Not only is the owner considered guilty until proven innocent (against the accepted principles of fundamental justice), but it is not possible for the owner to prove his innocence.

Lack of Due Process

"Due process" is actually a U.S. legal concept, but the lack of it may be considered a violation of the "principles of fundamental justice" from Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights.


The Supreme Court of Ohio (which had some of the worst breed-specific legislation in the United States) has determined that Ohio’s dangerous dog legislation is unconstitutional because it denies the owner of the dog the basic right to challenge IN COURT a designation of “dangerous dog” by a dog warden.  In the case of BSL, the designation is that the dog is a restricted breed and, therefore, the dog is dangerous.


In Ontario cities, an owner can challenge the first designation (i.e., my dog is not that breed), but if he loses, he cannot challenge the second designation because it is assumed that the breed is inherently dangerous.  Therefore, the owner has been denied the right to prove that his unique individual dog is NOT dangerous.  In the case of the owner who is honest and registers his dog using the correct breed identification, he is automatically denied the opportunity to prove that his unique individual dog is NOT dangerous.


This is called lack of due process

Cost to the Taxpayer

Enforcement is difficult at best and often impossible.  Many cities that have implemented BSL have had to create teams of Animal Control officers dedicated exclusively to policing the breed-specific portions of the legislation.  Numerous jurisdictions have repealed their BSL for cost reasons alone.


When BSL is implemented, because the legislation is often vague and discriminatory, court challenges increase dramatically.  From the original officers involved, to all of the court personnel, to the experts that must be called in to testify regarding behaviour, genetics, and breed identification, the costs, not only to the city, but also to unfairly targeted owners, are astronomical.


When dogs are targeted because of breed, they are often confiscated immediately upon being identified.  Because it would be illegal to kill the dog if the owner challenges the charges, these dogs must be kept in kennels, buildings that are often hidden and secured so that the owners don't know where the dogs are.  In many cases, special facilities have had to be built solely to house dogs of the targeted breeds.


With a massive increase in abandoned dogs of the targeted breeds also comes a massive decrease in the adoptability of those same dogs, thus resulting in “death rows”.  The mandatory destruction of these unadoptable dogs, in addition to the disposal of the bodies, adds to the cost of breed specific legislation.


Updated September 26, 2007


This website is not affiliated with any organization.  The opinions expressed on this page and on this website are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of any organization for which the author may work or volunteer.

Back to Previous Page © Copyright 2008 Steve Barker