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Breed-specific dog laws are ineffective, discriminatory

In August, the White House issued a statement against breed discrimination. The statement issued was an adoption of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's community-based approach to prevent dog bites: Research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are ineffective and a waste of public resources.

In 2000, the CDC looked at 20 years of data about dog bites and human fatalities in the U.S. They found that fatal attacks represent a very small proportion of dog bite injuries to people, and that it's impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds.

The CDC noted that the types of people who exploit dogs aren't deterred by breed regulations. Dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they're intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive. For all those reasons, the CDC officially recommends against breed-specific legislation, which they call inappropriate.

The American Bar Association issued a resolution in 2012 urging all governmental agencies to adopt comprehensive breed-neutral, dangerous dog and reckless owner laws that ensure due process protections for owners, encourage responsible pet ownership and focus on the behavior of both dog owners and dogs, and to repeal any breed discriminatory or breed specific provisions.

Breed-discriminatory laws are often proposed and passed by local governments in response to well-publicized, sensationalized, media-biased and emotional dog bite incidents in the community, and are best described as "panic policymaking." These breed-specific measures distinguish dogs of one or more specific breeds, along with dogs presumed to be mixes of those breeds, as inherently dangerous because of the dog's physical appearance. Breed discriminatory legislation often vaguely defines the targeted breed. At issue in Jackson County, and Medford specifically, is legislating what appears to be a pit bull-type dog. A "type" is not a breed.

Pit bull-types are often categorized as dogs with short fur and a boxy head. There are over 20 breeds of dogs that fit this description, including the American bulldog, boxer, American Staffordshire terrier, bull terrier, bull mastiff, American pit bull terrier, dogo Argentino, Staffordshire bull terrier, dogue de Bordeaux, presa canario, cane corso and others.

The National Canine Research Council has documented several instances where dogs involved in fatal attacks were labeled as pit bulls, even though the dogs showed no resemblance to any pit bull-type breed. In the end, neither breed nor appearance is relevant to the story. Instead, journalists should research what environment caused the attack. Was the dog abused, neglected, trained or socialized?

Media sensationalized biased reports of dog attacks of an alleged "dangerous breed" are always reported by major news organizations, while attacks perpetrated by "safe" breeds are often only picked up by one or two local media sources. This type of biased reporting misleads the public and does not increase public safety or awareness.

Often, drug dealers obtain pit bull-type dogs to use as guards. These dogs often are abused, trained as fighters and encouraged to attack anyone coming onto the property. It is the owner and the environment that these dogs are subjected to that creates their aggression. The same dog raised in a family home exhibits different behaviors then that of the drug dealer/fighter dog. Even most of Michael Vick's abused pits were rehabilitated and adopted out to families, one even being trained as a therapy dog.

There are several published studies reflecting the ineffectiveness of breed-discriminatory laws. These studies are consistent with a 2009 article discussing the effect of the Denve, breed-discriminatory law. Twenty years after the ban was enacted, the director of Denver Animal Control admitted that he is unable to say with any certainty whether it has made Denver any safer. Labrador retrievers are the most likely dog to bite in the Denver metropolitan area.

Alternative public safety measures would target reckless owners and aggressive dogs based on behavior, regardless of breed. The focus should be on public education and stiff fines for irresponsible dog owners, and prohibiting ownership for drug dealers and animal abusers. For example, a person who commits two or more egregious animal control violations in a 24-month period can be declared a problem pet owner and forced to surrender all of his or her animals.

Breed does not cause aggression. Aggression is a behavior, and behavior exists in reaction to an environmental stimuli. It would make more sense to train animal control officers to identify aggressive behavioral traits in an animal, and not discriminate based on appearance, which is nebulous and inconsistent. Let's move beyond the myth of breed stereotype and ineffective legislation.

Lisa A. Frost of Ashland is executive committee attorney member of the animal law section of the Oregon State Bar and the owner/guardian of two pit bull mixes.