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6 Unintended Consequences of Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL)

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When people think of Breed-Specific Legislation they think of pit bulls. However, many BSLs have included American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers, Rottweilers, American Bulldogs,Mastiffs, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, German Shepherds,Doberman Pinschers and any other mix or dogs who look similar to these breeds. In some instances breed bans have also prohibited dogs of a certain weight or stature. 

Although BSL may appear, on the outside, to be protecting public safety, many BSL opponents including: The American Medical Veterinary Association(AVMA), The American Kennel Club, The Westminster Kennel ClubThe National Centers for Disease Controlamong othersargue that BSL is not effective for many reasons. Below are 6 reasons, backed by research, why Breed Specific Legislation does more harm than good:

Along with this, the American Veterinary Medical Association has noted that there has been no evidence collected to date which clearly shows that one particular breed is more likely to harm someone than another. It is because of this they argue, that when it comes to identifying dogs which could potentially pose a threat to others, clues should be drawn from the dogs individual behavior as opposed to appearance.

1. Accurately identifying breeds is extremely difficult

In case study after case study, people inaccurately identify breeds. In fact, in a recent report from Dr. Victoria Boith in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Scienceshowed that adoption agencies 87.5% of the time inaccurately identify breeds who pass through their organization. With statistics like this and the rise of mixed breeds, many professional organizations and researchers have deemed visual identification of dogs as ineffective. They argue that if a person is unable to accurately identify a breed, how are they able to label them as dangerous? 

It is also important to note that the term ‘pit-bull’ does not classify a particular breed, but rather a group of dogs that the media or society considers to be a pit bull. This means that it can change from place to place and person to person, making it an ineffective way to categorize potentially dangerous dogs. In fact most kennel clubs around the world do not recognize pit-bulls as a specific breed.

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2. Humans are to blame for dangerous dogs
A study by the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC)found that 84% of dogs that harmed individuals were the result of negligent ownership. These dogs were mistreated, were tethered or confined, or were allowed to play with children without adult supervision. The report also stated that 78% of the dogs in these instances were trained to guard, fight, make their human handler appear more ‘tough’, or were subjected to inhumane breeding. In this case it is not fair, they argue, to compare these dogs those owned by responsible people. The study found that most dogs which are kept in a loving, residential environment were not likely to be harmful to others. Breed-Specific Legislation in this case punishes even those who have properly trained and take good care of their dogs.

3. Dogs go into hiding to avoid detection
Since loving owners do not want to give away pets that may be identified under the breed-ban, they ‘hide’ them. Although this may seem like an effective method to avoid detection, it often leads to the dogs being subjected to less than ideal circumstances. Some of these harmful consequences include: restricted outdoor exercise, limited veterinarian care and not being properly licensed or microchipped. In this case BSL is deemed as ineffective as the health consequences experienced by these dogs, far outweigh the likelihood that they will be a threat or harmful towards an individual.

4. Rebels will just switch to another non-outlawed breed
People who are committed to owning dogs for dangerous purposes, like dog-fighting and other criminal activities, will work around the breed-ban by just switching to a non-outlawed breed. After all, it’s not the breed, it’s the provided environment and training (or lack thereof) that makes any dog potentially dangerous. Bull-Terriers are considered part of the BSL in some states.

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5. Some of these dogs play an important role in the community
Many dogs who fall under the BSL have both throughout history and in current times played an important role in their community. These dogs have acted as therapy dogs, assistance dogs, search and rescue dogs, police dogs, or drug detection dogs. In this case, removing these dogs from their beneficial community roles, poses far more consequences than benefits. Along with this it will also create difficulties for those with disabilities, who want to travel with their ‘breed-banned’ service dog, as since each state has their own regulations, service dog teams may restricted from certain areas all together.

6. BSL creates a shift away from proper enforcement and is extremely costly
Enforcing dog license and leash laws, animal-fighting laws, promoting spaying and neutering and other similar regulations, is important to public safety, regardless of the breed. When BSL is in place, limited resources are used to focus only on banned breeds, as opposed to regulating all pets and animals as a whole. BSL is also extremely costly and requires a large portion of tax payers dollars.

It is clear to see that BSL is not only difficult to implement, but is also ineffective in increasing public safety. Those concerned about the potential threat of dogs to humans, should focus on community education as a way of reducing these concerns. Like we have learned countless times throughout history with humans, appearance should not be used as a prerequisite of determining behavior, but rather be judged on a case to case basis.

To learn more, check out these links:

Whatever your opinion of “pit bulls” no one can deny their image has been tarnished, especially in recent years. From unscrupulous owners, to poorly researched media, the dogs that we call pit bulls have received less than fair treatment. Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) is an attempt to ban specific breeds deemed likely to be dangerous or harmful. However, time and time again it’s been proven to be less than accurate, expensive to enforce and unfair to responsible owners.

More Than Fancy Words

As a dog trainer, I put a lot of effort into reframing key principles of animal learning for clients, avoiding the use of technical jargon. They’re looking for help with their dogs, not a lecture on applied behavior analysis or Pavlovian conditioning. Some are naturally curious, self-selecting to further learning; but most are happy to have concerns resolved without the heavy science discussion. I respect that their time is finite, so I need to be effective and efficient in my communication and skills, while ensuring I’m using best practices based in evidence. It’s not lost on me that I’m only able to do this having acquired a comprehensive education concentrated in known scientific principles, not in spite of it. This learning, for me, is an ethical and professional obligation – a pursuit that is ongoing, official directive or not. I hope for the sake of dogs and their owners that the law eventually requires testing in scientific literacy and related professional competency. That some don’t share that view should be troubling to consumers.

While I wouldn’t expect the average dog owner to be fluent or even decidedly interested in the science of animal learning and behavior, I do expect that of professional dog trainers. Yes, clients sometimes hold misconceptions – so long as adherence to them isn’t compromising the dog’s welfare or their own safety, that’s okay – and who can blame them? It’s a brutal chore for the dog owning public to navigate the sea of misinformation available out there. This is the unfortunate consequence of an unregulated industry, where no formal education or licensing is required to become a dog trainer – an industry densely populated with self-professed “canine behavior experts,” who not only lack education in valid animal learning, they are still relying on (and disseminating) outdated constructs of dominance hierarchies to define the behavior of dogs. If that isn’t preposterous enough, there are animal welfare groups, TV producers, and even some veterinarians endorsing some of these folks. Many are still promulgating the idea that it’s all just a matter of opinion. That it’s merely philosophical. It is not. The data has been in for too long, and there is far too much of it to plausibly deny.

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I do my best to accept that without professional sanctions, people won’t always find their way to the current science to inform their work with dogs. Many have never even heard of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (“AVSAB”), let alone read their position statement on the use of aversives in dog training – a position logically shaped by the mountain of evidence amassed in this field through peer-reviewed studies. For some it’s a choice to ignore the science; and so long as there’s no professional mandate, they’ll continue unapologetically to collect money for exploiting pain and fear in dogs and are unaccountable for any damage they cause. It’s stunningly reckless, but calling attention to it is considered taboo simply because the science is currently ahead of the law.

What other industry demands professional courtesy be extended to those perpetuating long debunked pseudo science? No reputable trainer who has stayed current on valid developments in the field is still talking about “pack leadership” or “energy”; and they certainly aren’t employing prong, choke, and shock collars. If you’re a dog owner looking for a professional trainer, the likelihood you end up with one of these folks is still sadly very high. As transparency isn’t required, you may not even know what they are doing to your dog. There’s no consumer protection.

Imagine an unregulated medical field, where the practice of individual doctors needn’t be informed by the current science, and your gallbladder needs to be removed. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the surgeon who stays up to date with scientific advancements and performs a laparoscopic procedure: a few tiny incisions, a micro camera, and a monitor. It’s low-risk for side effects, minimally invasive, and can even be done on an outpatient basis. If you aren’t so lucky, you might get a traditionalist or that person’s apprentice (who needs med school if you can just attend a few seminars and shadow a doc?) who will excise the old fashioned way: the surgery is significantly more invasive, requiring deep incision from stem to sternum, higher risk of bleeding and infection, a recovery period nearly four times longer, the placement of drains to rid your body of pus and fluids, and a higher mortality rate.

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Or imagine an unregulated legal profession, and you’ve found yourself in need of an attorney. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the practitioner who attended law school and passed the state bar exam. If not so lucky, you’ll get an avid viewer of Law & Order or Matlock. Sounds silly, but that’s the reality unique to dog training. You need a license to practice professionally as a plumber or a hairdresser and everything in between; but anyone can be a dog trainer and charge consumers real money to treat serious behavior issues, many using outdated methods known to actually increase fear and aggression in dogs. There is zero oversight and no qualifications necessary, and there are plenty of people in this industry hoping it stays that way.

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A recent blog being circulated via social media bemoaning the increasingly academic nature of dog training started with the telling of a conversation between the author and a training colleague who asked what operant conditioning is. His response to her explanation was, “Why can’t you just train the damn dog?” This question became a mantra throughout, the author insisting it really didn’t matter if these professional dog trainers knew the “fancy words” or what they meant (just to “feel legitimate in conversations with other trainers”), so long as they got results. In fact, the pressure to learn it was deemed offensive because that meant losing valuable time. This author is not alone. The suggestion that science is unnecessary in dog training isn’t new, but the implied integrity in the dismissal of it is, and it’s popping up a lot lately. Surely, that’s not the optimal direction for this already disastrous industry to trend.

Willful ignorance may be a prevalent reality, but it’s hardly a virtue. Tolerating the subjugation of the very act of learning so that some can continue to ply their trade in tradition or stumble along blindly without so much as a hint of intellectual curiosity is a magnificent failure of professional standards. It’s not outrageous enough that dog trainers aren’t required to accurately understand how dogs learn and what drives behavior, scientific illiteracy in this field is now to be repackaged as noble? I’m under no delusions that this problem is specific to practitioners in any one camp, either. It’s a critical industry fail that spans philosophical divides. While it’s currently legal to profit in practice uneducated, shouldn’t we at least draw the line at the glorification of that? At what point is professional courtesy to all simply perpetuating violations against dogs and their owners as industry standard?

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Because the act of learning and staying current in important developments in your field isn’t for the sake of sounding smart; it’s purpose is in understanding what you are doing. It’s about professional ethics, forming quality standards of care, and personal integrity. It’s been two decades that we’ve had the actual experts in the behavioral sciences practically spoon feeding dog professionals the necessary understanding and technology to work credibly and humanely with man’s best friend. It’s been available to anyone interested in learning it. Consumers are catching on, in spite of attempts by so many in the industry to obfuscate it, as are veterinary professionals and quite a number of animal welfare advocates. For dog trainers, the imminent reality is this:

If you need operant conditioning explained to you, you probably shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you don’t know the difference between operant and classical conditioning, you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you don’t understand the simultaneous relationship between operant and classical conditioning – that dogs are making important, innately persuasive associations impacting their quality of life as they learn behaviors – you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you don’t understand that operant and classical conditioning aren’t manmade constructs, but are naturally occurring phenomena we manipulate and long ago assigned language (language you should have in your vernacular as a dog training professional), you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
If you haven’t read the AVSAB position statement on the use of aversives in dog training; or, if after running your methodology up the flagpole with said position statement you find yourself in opposition to those guidelines, you shouldn’t be charging people money to train their dogs.
Finally, if your primary concern about the dog training industry is that it has become “too academic,” you might consider finding a career for which you have an intellectual appetite. These aren’t inanimate objects we are talking about; they are living, thinking, sentient animals – animals that live in the homes and communities of people. If accurately understanding them as a species or learning how your interactions with them impact their behavior and their welfare is of such little interest to you, please stop charging people money to train their dogs.

Your reaction to knowing there is valid science to inform your work shouldn’t be one of disregard. It shouldn’t cause you to feel that your livelihood is threatened or to dig your heels in stubbornly in protest. It’s good news! As with any professional industry, staying current in it – not denying or dismissing it – lends to your professional credibility. There is nothing admirable or beneficial about willful ignorance. Hasn’t the time for it to be professionally tolerated in dog training just about run its course?

By Lisa Skavienski | June 6th, 2016

About the Author: Lisa Skavienski

Lisa Skavienski, CTC, is a graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers. Lisa lives in Rochester, NY, with her partner, Kevin, and their bevy of dogs, most of whom are stubby. Lisa is involved in the rescue community in her area with a primary focus on community outreach; and she is committed to making the world a better place for dogs and their humans through reward-based training.

Pit Bull Awareness

Do We Still Need Pit Bull “Awareness”?

The answer to that question is very simple: Yes. In my biased opinion, we do. For those immersed in all things pit bull, this likely seems obvious. For others, who may not be actively involved, whether personally or professionally, in their day-to-day lives, with pit bulls, it may seem that we’ve come so far we can rest on our laurels, think it will never touch us (as I naively did) or think that we are doing more damage than good. And it’s easy to see how someone might come to those conclusions- pit bulls HAVE become more mainstream, many of us are safe from discrimination and quite honestly, not all advocacy is equal.
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First, we have to address the fact that visual identification is still pretty much the standard for determining which dogs fall under the pit bull umbrella and which don’t.

I live in Pennsylvania, where Breed Specific Legislation does not exist, but insurance discrimination does and homeowners associations and landlords have the right to deny someone housing based on their dog’s breed or type.

My bias says there’s much more work to do and though we have come very, very far and many have done great work well before I joined the party, we are by no means done. And unless you’ve got a viable alternative to the words “pit bull”, and can make it stick, there’s not much point in saying that we need to get rid of the label. I’m not a big fan of the word “mutt”, which technically describes pit bulls and millions of other dogs, but has long also been used as a derogatory term used to describe a person of mixed racial descent. I prefer the term “mixed breed” and would love to see that used as a primary label for shelter dogs, but that doesn’t change the fact visual identification may still be used by homeowners associations, landlords , insurance companies, animal control agencies, law enforcement and, indeed, entire municipalities and not everyone can just pick up and go or has the resources or knowledge to be able to fight it.
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So, back to my original question: Do we still need pit bull awareness? Yes, we do. We need people to know that our dogs are, in fact, dogs. That they learn the same way as other breeds and that the media sensationalism we see is just that- sensationalism. At YPBY, we focus on learning, on training and on behavior. We don’t talk much about BSL, prejudice, bias, hate, misunderstanding and all of the other stuff that can come with pit bull territory. And that’s not because we don’t think it doesn’t exist or that it’s not important, it’s just not our field of expertise. But, some anti-pit bull sentiment existing in one’s own quiet community can cause one’s eyes to be forced wide open. You learn fast how to best protect your dog. You learn what the laws are, you learn what people think of your dog that they haven’t even met. You learn that the fight isn’t over when someone says “I believe all pit bulls are born killers” standing at a microphone in front of a crowded room. You learn that the pit you feel in your stomach is pure fear.

We’ve not made a big deal out of Pit Bull Awareness Month or Pit Bull Awareness Day for a couple of years. In part because there are organizations that focus on issues like BSL that do it better. In part because it feels a bit like a Hallmark holiday, another made up thing to get people to Buy Stuff. And I don’t say that to dismiss the efforts of my colleagues, I say it because it’s my bias, my opinion and my feeling. None of that makes it true.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Recently, I have read some things that I’ve found a bit upsetting, and have been trying to remind myself that this mission we are on is a marathon and not a sprint. Here, I am talking specifically about our mission regarding making reward-based training the norm. We are making headway, though, as a “movement”, and individually as trainers, and I see evidence of that daily, from the client who tells me he kicked his dog in frustration and really doesn’t want to be “that person”, to the one who knows what she is doing isn’t working. I hold on to those moments of recognition in which someone realizes they want to be better and do better and sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes, though, the other stuff seems louder and more insurmountable. There’s a lot of throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks, a lot of “experts”, a lot of defensiveness- it’s basically the Wild West for dogs out there. And by out there, I mean the internet. We all turn to the internet for answers and it’s a fantastic resource. The problem is there’s no one fact-checking a lot of stuff and so people fall prey to false information, critical thinking falls to the wayside and myths persevere. Here’s a few examples:

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– A post in a Facebook group aimed at sharing information amongst reward-based trainers and members of the public interested in learning about the methods used, wherein someone stated that they wanted to punish their dog for countersurfing. Uninterested in learning how to teach the dog to do something else, or manage the situation (or perhaps simply looking for an opportunity for a fight. Because, internet.), this individual erupted into name-calling. I had left this group before and promptly did so again. I try to limit my exposure to ugly.

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– A picture that went around and around and around of a baby kissing a dog wearing bunny ears, where the dog was clearly uncomfortable. I was about to write an entire blog post on that one, but, thankfully, Eileen Anderson took care of that for me and did so beautifully.

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With your puppy facing you, sit on the floor and hold it using both hands just behind the front legs. Now, hold it away at arm’s length and look directly into its eyes. If the dog struggles, make a growling sound and hold it with a strong grip until it stops.
Again, sitting on the floor, cradle the puppy with one hand under its head and the other supporting its back. The dog will be on its back with its feet in the air and its belly exposed to you — a position of submission. If the dog struggles, use the same animal growls you used in step 1, making certain not let go until the dog stops struggling and relaxes

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Wait. What? Are we still living in the 70’s? Have we learned nothing? Growling in a puppy’s face? With a strong grip? Forcing a puppy into submission? Sometimes, I really want to yell “Stop the Ride!” because the lack of knowledge, the holding on to old ideas for dear life and the wanton manner in which all of this gets spread is absolutely crazy-making. In her book, The Other End of the Leash, which I loved, though I don’t agree with all of it, Patricia McConnell notes that the main author of How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend from The Monks of New Skete, which inspired millions to perform alpha rollovers deeply regretted giving this advice. Progress.

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And yet…there really is hope. Because the comments on that post in the Facebook group were by and large thoughtful responses to a common problem, there are people like Eileen who deconstruct something in a respectful and well-thought out way and PetMD did retract the piece. And I meet clients like the one I mentioned above and this website has hundreds of thousands of views and our articles have a ton of shares. So do lots of others like it. There is mounting evidence that people are beginning to get it. Dogs have needs- emotional needs, mental needs, behavioral needs, physical needs and we are the ones who can meet them and force is not the way to do it. Left to their own devices, dogs will countersurf, they may bite that child (and it won’t be out of nowhere), they may take over your household (but it won’t be because they think they are alpha, it’ll be because you didn’t teach them what you want them to do *instead* of that other, more natural, thing like scavenging for scraps wherever they can find them, even if that means hopping up onto your beloved granite countertops) and they will certainly not have their needs met, not the least of which is a feeling of safety.

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Dogs are not props. They aren’t robots. They are a domesticated species that we take responsibility for when we bring them into our homes. Because of this, they are reliant on us. We would serve them well to remember this. And if you find yourself frustrated and behaving in ways that you don’t like in response to your dog, take a deep breath, call a professional, tap into those critical thinking skills (it really is a skill!), get over the idea of the sprint and commit to the marathon. Your dog does not have deep-seated resentments or plans for a massive takeover. He’s not laying awake at night plotting how he can make your life miserable. I promise. Become mindful of your own behavior and how it impacts your dog.

The Killer Dog Myth

By the 1980s, the companion history of the pit bull was forgotten, and the myth of the dangerous fighting dog took hold. It is uncertain exactly why this decade saw the pit bull suddenly rise to a new, less pleasant sort of fame, but many trace the entire trend to a single, ultra-sensationalistic Sports Illustrated cover article.

Whatever the reasons for the sudden infamy, the unwanted publicity not only caused problems for the vast majority of well-behaved pits, but actually encouraged unscrupulous individuals to deliberately purchase and breed pit bulls and similar looking dogs for nefarious purposes.

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