Why Breed Specific Legislation continues to fail dogs and people

Why Breed Specific Legislation continues to fail dogs and people

A blog by Dr Sam Gaines, our head of companion animals.

There's a common saying which states that 'you can't judge a book from its cover' meaning that you cannot know what something or someone is like by looking only at that person or thing's appearance.

BSL has killed thousands of dogs over 30 years

Nevertheless, since 1991, the UK Government's dangerous dog policy has been doing just that; using a dog's appearance to determine whether or not they have the potential to be dangerous. This approach has failed horribly to protect people from dog bites; there has been a 154% increase in people needing hospital treatment for dog bites in the past 20 years. Tragically BSL has resulted in the needless death of thousands of dogs over the past 30 years.

In the UK, Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA) applies a form of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) which makes it illegal to own four different types of dogs, including the pit bull terrier. Various forms of this legislation are applied worldwide and tend to be underpinned by two beliefs:

  • The breed has the potential to be dangerous because of its physical characteristics and functional history
  • The breed in question has a record of bite frequency that supports the view that the breed shows a high level of aggression towards people

When it comes to protecting public safety, both beliefs are fundamentally flawed and have resulted in serious harm for dogs.

All dogs have the potential to be dangerous

Each of the breeds targeted by BSL in the UK were traditionally selected for fighting. While dogs intended for fighting will have been bred and selected over generations for specific characteristics, there is no specific research to demonstrate that selection for fighting results in dogs that are more aggressive towards people than other dogs.

There's also much focus placed on the pitbull terrier with statements made about their supposed unique ability regarding the damage and severity they can inflict compared with other breeds of dog. Again, there's no robust scientific evidence to substantiate such claims.

Indeed, recent studies found no difference observed between legislated and non-legislated breeds in the medical treatment required following a bite, or in the severity of bite and the type of dog that bit.

We need to remember that there's no single breed or type of dog that is aggressive and no single breed or type that is safe; all dogs are individuals.

Breed does not predict aggressive behaviour or risk to public safety

Over recent years we have heard the UK Government roll out figures to try and illustrate the pit bull's record of bite frequency and the disproportionate number involved in incidents. But, these are based on incomplete and skewed data. Determining accurate statistics for dog bite incidents in the UK is virtually impossible as there's no data available on dog ownership levels and it's not mandatory to record dog bites.

Only 8% of dangerously out of control dog cases involved banned breeds

When we examine the literature, there's no robust scientific evidence to suggest that prohibited types are more likely to be involved in dog bite incidents or fatalities than any other breed or type of dog. In terms of legal cases, between 1992 and 2019, only 8% of dangerously out of control dog cases involved banned breeds.  Claims that these types of dogs pose heightened risk simply cannot be substantiated and it is both misleading and erroneous to suggest so.

When you start to look for scientific evidence to underpin BSL, it quickly becomes clear that it is lacking. What isn't lacking though is the number of people needing treatment for dog bites. Since 2016, which marked the 25th anniversary of BSL in the UK, hospital admissions have increased by nearly 20% from 7400 - 8775. In the past 20 years, from 1999 to 2019, hospital admissions have increased by 154% from 3454 - 8775.

A dog can be a 'prohibited type' without sharing any genetics with that breed

Not only is the UK Government's approach failing public safety, but it is also failing dogs and impacting upon many dogs whose behaviour poses no risk to public safety at all. This is because of the way in which a prohibited type of dog is identified. It does not rely on genetics, DNA or parentage; it is based pretty much on how the dog looks. 

In the case of pit bull terrier types, dogs are compared to the characteristics of a dog described by the American Dog Breeding Association standard. This standard is an amalgam of different thoughts and preferences, focussing on the dog's appearance and whether their physical form is fit for the function of a fighting dog.

There's no standardised minimum threshold or agreed number of characteristics that a dog must match to be found of type. Instead they are expected to approximately amount to, be near to, or have a substantial number of  characteristics of a dog as described by the standard.

It's not possible to rehome prohibited dogs to new owners

In practice, this means that a range of legal pure and cross breeds can be identified as illegal dogs if they look close enough to the standard. In applying the law, the welfare of many dogs has been unnecessarily compromised due to the requirement for seizing and kennelling as well as the conditions imposed on dogs who are allowed to be legally kept. Furthermore, thousands of prohibited dogs have been needlessly euthanased as it's not possible to rehome prohibited dogs to new owners.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence to support BSL, the increasing number of people being bitten and its inherent welfare and ethical issues, Defra appear unwavering in their belief that BSL is needed. Their recent Action Plan for Animal Welfare states that they 'will ensure that dangerous dogs legislation continues to provide effective public safety controls'. But in the same document, Defra also said:

From the overwhelming support and comfort provided by pets... High welfare standards have never been more important.

This is not the last word on animal welfare. The way we treat animals reflects our values and the kind of people we are. We will continue to raise the bar, and we intend to take the rest of the world with us.

The UK Government needs to commit to ending BSL now

Continuing with a breed-specific approach to protecting public safety casts serious doubt over the sincerity and meaningfulness of this statement. We are far from world-leading when it comes to public safety policies and their impact on dog welfare. If the UK Government truly wants to treat animals in a way that reflects our values and the types of people we are, then they must commit to ending BSL and, in the interim, protect the welfare of dogs affected by it.

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