Aggression in dogs is related to breed and therefore legislation needs to be breed specific. Discuss.
The above question asks for a discussion of legislation based on the presumption that there is an established link between dog breed and the expression of aggressive behaviour. Any conclusions predicated on this hypothesis will reach valid conclusions only if the presumption itself is valid, and that therefore will be the focus of this essay. As the question is too broad to be considered here as a whole, the evidence pertaining only to the most commonly cited breed will be fully examined. Consideration of alternatives breed-specific legislation and the relative merits of each will be considered when reaching a conclusion.
Dog bite related injuries and fatalities are a worldwide public health concern; in the USA alone it is estimated that over 4 million people a year are injured by dog bites (Langley, 2009). According to DEFRA in 2008/9 5,000 hospital admissions in England and Wales were as a result of dog bite related injuries and cost the National Health Service over £3million annually (Defra, 2011). However, the actual number of dog bite related fatalities is minimal, with an average of 15 p.a. in USA and 1 to 2 p.a. in Canada (Raghavan, 2008). Yet these minority incidents have received disproportionate media coverage, in response countries across the globe have been prompted to introduce dog legislation to tackle the perception of there being a problem with so-called ‘dangerous breeds’ (Svatberg, 2006).
Generally two types of legislation prevail: breed-specific legislation (BSL), which aims to ban, restrict or impose conditions of ownership of certain breeds that are perceived to pose the greatest risk (Patronek et al, 2010), and non-breed specific legislation which is aimed at promoting responsible pet ownership (Rosado et al, 2007). In the UK prohibited dogs are not determined by breed but by ‘type’, which allows for restricting variations of the following types: pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro (Defra, 2011). In BSL worldwide these breeds recur over and over again, but most common of all is the pit bull terrier. This essay will examine the efficacy of BSL in relation to the pit bull terrier.
The prevalence of the pit bull terrier type in BSL raises a complexity of issues, none more so than the fact that accurate breed identification is so problematic (Cornelissen et al, 2010). For example, in the USA the term ‘pit bull’ does not just mean the American Pit Bull Terrier but also includes all bull and terrier type breeds (Collier, 2006). Furthermore, the criteria to include them as ‘fighting breeds’ is no longer accurate because their contemporary, breed-typical behaviour is so different from their origins (Rosado et al, 2007).
Given the misrepresentation of the breed in dog bite statistics it draws into question the validity of studies by Sacks et al (1996) and Sacks et al (2000) that claimed to identify the pit bull as America’s most dangerous dog (Collier, 2006). Sacks claimed that between 1979 and 1998 there were 238 dog bite related fatalities of which 66 were attributed to pit bull types, making them the highest breed responsible at 28% (Sacks et al, 2000). However, a 2002 examination of USA dog biting statistics found that between 1965-2001 actual pit bull types were only attributable to 6.7% dog bite related fatalities (Delise, 2002).
A study by Voith (2010) reinforces the potential inaccuracy of breed identification in bite statistics. Voith sought to assess the accuracy of breed identification by experienced animal shelter staff against DNA analysis. The study demonstrated that out of 20 dogs staff could not accurately identify dog breed mixes, with only a 25% correlation between visual identification and DNA. The paper concluded that BSL was not justified and warranted review.
A paper by Collier (2006) examining the efficacy of BSL in Australia revealed that over a 20 year period, of the 19 human fatalities resulting from dog bites none were attributable to the pit bull, yet in 1991 the Australian Dangerous Dog Act was introduced and outlawed the breed. To further reinforce the ineffectiveness of the legislation Collier looked at 547 reported non-fatal dog attacks between 2001-2003 and found that pit bulls were responsible for just 4% of attacks, whereas the category most responsible at 33% were cross-breeds. Collier concluded that Australian legislation had not acted against the breeds that most commonly bite, but rather sought to eliminate specific breeds from society.
Rosado et al (2007) drew a similar conclusion in the examination of the Spanish Dangerous Dog Act. The paper found that because prior to the introduction of BSL there were so few dog biting incidents attributable to dangerous breeds that there was little to reduce in the first instance, therefore, the legislation was fundamentally flawed. Moreover, the paper stated that the BSL in Spain had proven ineffective in reducing the number of dog attacks (fatal and non-fatal) and that it simply offered a false sense of security because by targeting only ‘dangerous breeds’ it sets up a problem of under inclusiveness. What the study actually found was that German Shepherd dogs were the most prolific biters but that they were also the most prevalent breed in the canine population. But as Duffy et al (2008) stated, “…the total number of dogs of a given breed in the local community is seldom known, so the degree to which that breed is over-represented among reported dog bites is usually undetermined.”
A study in Netherlands similarly found there was no justification for the inclusion of the pit bull in the country’s BSL and, more significantly, that BSL had not reduced the number of dog bites in the country (Cornelissen et al, 2010). The researchers found that from a survey of 1078 respondents that there were 86 different breeds of dogs implicated in biting incidents, of which 764 dogs were of a specific breed, 212 mongrels and 102 unknown. The researchers stated, “We found that all dogs can bite…Removing the most common biters would also imply removing the most common breeds; for example, we found that the Jack Russell terrier was responsible for approximately 10% of bites…”. The pit bull was not cited as a common biter and this paper eventually contributed toward the repeal of the BSL in The Netherlands.
A paper by Patronek et al (2010) posed that there was no published evidence to substantiate the claims that BSL is a success at protecting the public, but that there was published evidence that demonstrates that BSL is not efficacious. As an example of the disparity between the perception of ‘dangerous dogs’ and the published evidence, the paper cited a German study that compared the behaviours of 415 dogs representing banned breeds with the behaviour of 70 Golden Retrievers. What the study found was that there were no significant differences between the two groups, which adds weight to Collier’s (2006) belief that BSL has been based on a perception of risk rather than actual risk.
Klassen et al (1996) drew a similar conclusion about the UK Dangerous Dog Act. The paper stated that it was a failure because it had not reduced or prevented injury from dog bites and had failed to address the most implicated breeds. Instead they claimed that the legislation had singled out certain breeds without evidence to support the decision.
For Rosado et al (2007) the primary critique of BSL was its emphasis on inclusiveness that inevitably led to the assumption that all ‘dangerous breeds’ are aggressive. Both Klassen et al (1996) and Collier (2006) concur that greater emphasis should be placed on individual dogs rather than specific breeds. Cornelissen et al (2010) and Patronek et al (2010) posed that a dog’s tendency to bite or show aggressive behaviour was dependent on a number of factors including: genetics/hereditary, early experience, socialisation and training, behavioural and medical health and victim’s behaviour all play a role. Bradshaw (2011) placed particular significance on the effect that early experiences and early socialisation can have on a puppy between 3 and 11 weeks of age and how a deprivation in socialisation and/or negative experience(s) can imprint on and affect a dog for life.
Bites studies it seems are often responsible for justifying the formulation of BSL, yet the nature of the studies make them inherently flawed. This essay has already explored the essential problem of breed identification, but there are more areas for concern. Firstly, because most bites studies are based on retrospective data, obtaining accurate and reliable information about the attack is problematic (Cornelissen et al, 2010). In addition, bites from larger breeds are more likely to inflict more damage and therefore necessitate medical intervention. Therefore, bites by larger breeds are more likely to get reported than bites by smaller breeds (Shuler et al, 2008). Whilst BSL remains popular because, according to Patronek et al (2010), there is an ‘erroneous belief in its efficacy’, The Netherlands is not alone in having repealed BSL; Italy has also repealed their law.
The Dogo Argentine was considered a dangerous breed in Italian BSL. Diverio et al (2008) sought to investigate the prevalence of aggression in the breed and surveyed 22% of the registered breed population in Italy. The study found that predation towards small animals, inter-dog aggression and territorial aggressions were the most commonly reported behaviours. Perhaps of even greater significance the paper revealed the fact that the breed had never been recorded as having bitten a human in Italy. As a consequence, the researchers concluded that Italian legislation was of no utility in preventing Dogo Argentine bites to humans.
In 1966 Lorenz defined aggression in dogs as a single behavioural trait. Contemporary behaviourists now place importance on the context in which the aggressive behaviour has been exhibited because aggression in one situation is not necessarily likely to recur in other contexts (Serpell et al, 1995). Therefore, understanding the motivation behind the act of aggression is paramount in understanding how best to reduce injury and fatalities from dogs.
Lockwood (1995) explained that biting is a key characteristic of canine predatory behaviour. It can appear in a variety of contexts including defence of territory, be pain or fear elicited, protection of social pack members and so on. In the study by Diverio et al (2008) up to 15 different classifications for expression of aggressive behaviour could be found, which reinforces why it is so important to understand ‘dog language’ (Cornelissen et al, 2010). Although, Cornelissen et al (2010) believed that education alone was not enough and that owners needed to be made aware of the potential damage their dog can cause and be held responsible for their dog’s behaviour. Sacks et al (2000) recommended educating owners to better understand breed profiles and the significance of sex and reproductive status in minimising risks of attacks as well as teaching the importance of socialising and training a dog. Whilst Collier (2006) stated, “…a more defensible and promising approach may be to declare dangerous individual dogs that have caused problems.”
It is this paper’s belief that there exists a substantive lack of evidence to support breed specific legislation. This conclusion has been reached following the examination of the research undertaken in America, Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands and the UK. Perhaps the most promising hope for a way forward in the UK comes in the guise of a coalition formed by twenty organisations, including the RSPCA. The coalition are calling for six key areas to be addressed:
consolidation of legislation, review of breed specific legislation, legislation that covers all places including private property, all dogs be permanently identified, better funding streams to improve ‘policing’ and improved education and engagement with dog owners.
Perhaps the most crucial element of all of this is that, “…legislation must focus on the owner’s actions or omissions rather than the type of dog” (Epetitions, 2011). Until such time that individual owners are sufficiently held accountable for the behaviour of their dogs there will be little headway made in the reduction of bite incidents. Victim behaviour undoubtedly plays a role too, as O’Sullivan et al (2008) state, ‘many bite victims cannot recognise subtle warning signs shown in a dog’s behaviour’. However, the responsibility for the canine population extends further: it is also the duty of law enforcers, breeders and animal welfare organisations to ensure that the canine population is understood, responsibly bred and suitably socialised, trained and controlled. BSL will never be an effective tool against dog bites, as it is too simplistic approach to a complex and ever evolving problem.
In sum, there is no evidence to suggest that aggression in dogs is breed specific. Research to date has been retrospective studies on hospital admission records for dog bites, i.e. records of bites that have required medical intervention. Therefore, this does not reveal the complete picture of just how prevalent dog bites are in any given community, or whether one breed is a more prolific biter than another, not to mention the questionable validity of the data in the first instance. Furthermore, there currently exist little, if any, evidence to justify BSL, as it has done little to prevent or reduce dog bite injuries in so many of the countries where it exists.
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