Op-Ed: MSPCA Offers Counterpoint on Pit Bulls

"MSPCA-Cape Cod views all dogs as individuals rather than..."
Mary Sarah Fairweather of MSPCA-Centerville with a "bully" friend. MSPCA photo.

Years ago, the state legislature, working with animal behavior experts, the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts, animal protection groups, and others, passed a law that requires cities and towns to enact animal control laws that focus on all dogs, regardless of breed, and to end the flawed, costly, ineffective approach that focuses only on certain types of dogs in an effort to prevent dog bites.

Going backwards – and searching for a magic litmus test based on looks – to determine whether a dog will bite is not a solution, nor humane.

We urge the Cape and other communities to instead focus on proven methods to reduce dog bites, such as strengthening animal control programs and enforcement.   

Policies based on breed identification are unsupported by science and research. There is a verified inability to correctly identify breeds, a failure to make further inquiry into the use and nature of the ownership of the animals in question, and a failure to understand that the breed of the dog is not an accurate predictor of a dog’s behavior.

Research confirms that there is a “wide disparity between DNA [which correctly identifies the breed or breeds] and visual identification of the predominant breeds comprising a dog.” (V. Voith et al., Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability). This inability to correctly identify the breeds at issue raises concern as to the justification and ability to implement laws and restrictions on dogs.

Further, there is no scientific evidence that breed-specific legislation has decreased the incidence of dog bites in any community, including in Massachusetts. For example, when Boston passed restrictions on certain breeds many years ago, data obtained from Mass. Department of Public Health demonstrated that the dog bite rate had not been reduced since the ordinance passed.

Additionally, any raw numbers relating to dog bites are faulty without knowing the number of dogs in the any given jurisdiction (a reason to support animal control is to ensure that they have the ability to ensure those who don’t license their dogs come into compliance).

A variety of factors may affect a dog’s tendency toward aggression; these include heredity, early experience, socialization and training, sex and reproductive status. For example, intact males constitute 80 percent of all dogs presented to veterinary behaviorists for what formerly has been described as dominance aggression, are involved in 70 to 76 percent of reported dog bite incidents, and are 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs.

The MSPCA-Cape Cod offers a low cost sterilization program for all dogs. . Chaining and tethering also appear to be risk factors for biting and programs that target tethering have proven effective in reducing bite rates.

Animal control laws need to both be strong and be able to be enforced and address factors that are shown to actually influence whether a dog will bite. The state has improved its animal control laws in 2012 and a task force formed with the passage of the 2014 “PAWS Act” provides further recommendations to strengthen the laws to enable Animal Control Officers (ACOs) to address dangerous dogs and prevent incidents - and of course, the behavior of people who live with them. One thing we all can do is support our city and town animal control programs and make sure they are sufficiently funded. All too often, this line item is one of the first victims of budget cuts. Concerned residents can also help by supporting a recently-filed Massachusetts bill containing recommendations from the task force mentioned above, House Docket 2206 and Senate Docket 949, An Act to Protect Animal Welfare and Safety in Cities and Towns. This bill contains a section, among many other animal welfare provisions, that would remove the provision that first violations of animal control laws be automatically dismissed.

In addition to the local organizations listed above, nationally, the American Bar Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, National Animal Control Association, The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals all oppose breed discriminatory laws because they fail to protect the public.

The MSPCA-Cape Cod views all dogs as individuals rather than categorizing them into breeds. We do not rely on breed stereotypes or assumptions to keep ourselves and our community safe from dog bites. A dog’s profile, including its individual medical and behavioral history, are far more important. 

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