Breed-Specific Legislation And Bite Injury Severity
The laws of some countries ban the keeping of or place restrictions on certain dog breeds who have been characterized as especially dangerous to humans. Ireland is one such country with breed-specific legislation. The Control of Dogs Act 1998 Regulations placed restrictions on 11 dog breeds including American Pit Bull Terriers, English Bull Terriers, and German Shepherds.
While these laws have good intentions, it is not certain that they do more good than harm. Studies charting hospitalizations from dog-inflicted injuries in Ireland have found that the number of hospitalizations has continued to rise in the 15 years after the current legislation was set in place. Additionally, research from other countries has found that targeting specific breeds in legislation is not a valid or effective strategy for reducing dog bites. Further research also suggests that legislated dogs are not more inherently aggressive than dogs from other breeds.
To add to this growing body of research concerning breed-specific legislation, this study examined survey results from 140 dog bite incidents from Ireland, with 100 of the incidents involving non-legislated breeds and 40 involving legislated breeds. The authors looked for differences in various factors associated with dog bites between those two groups. Additionally, the authors surveyed 17 dog-control officers throughout Ireland to determine their attitudes towards legislated vs. non-legislated breeds.
The authors did not find a significant difference between legislated and non-legislated dogs when it came to factors including age of the dog when the bite occurred, location of the bite on the body of the human, severity of the bite, level of medical care required following the bite, or whether or not the dog bit again in the future. Significant differences were found in the human’s perception of what triggered the dog to bite them: legislated dogs were perceived as more aggressive and less fearful. In fact, 94.1% of the incidents in which the human listed the dog being afraid as a trigger for the bite involved non-legislated breeds. This difference in perception may be attributable to the human’s biases against legislated breeds rather than actual differences in the behaviors exhibited by the dogs at the time of the incident.
Significant differences were also found for where the incident took place. 95% of the incidents that took place when the human guardian was present involved non-legislated dogs, and all (100%) of the incidents that took place at a business (such as at the veterinarian or groomer’s office) involved non-legislated dogs. The authors of the study hypothesize that this could be because guardians of legislated breed dogs may supervise their dogs more carefully compared to guardians of non-legislated dogs (again, because of the public image of these dogs as “dangerous”).
Finally, the authors found a significant difference in how likely the incident was to be reported to the police in that incidents involving legislated breeds were much more likely to be reported to the police. Of the incidents that were not reported to the police, most involved non-legislated dogs compared to legislated dogs (80% non-legislated, 20% legislated). This under-reporting of non-legislated breeds may preserve their stereotype of friendly while reinforcing the stereotype of legislated dogs as relatively more dangerous.
Of the officers surveyed, 59% reported feeling that breed-specific legislation is effective; 56% reported believing that legislated breeds are able to cause more severe injuries; and 19% believed legislated breeds to be more aggressive than non-legislated breeds. The results support the idea that legislated breeds have a negative reputation for aggressiveness despite their biting habits not differing from non-legislated dogs; in other words, the reputation is not be well-deserved.
Stereotypes about the relative harmfulness of legislated dogs and the relative harmlessness of non-legislated dogs may actually lead to more bites, since people may respond inappropriately to how a dog is actually behaving based on their biases about the breed of the dog. Breed-specific legislation may have further negative consequences, and further studies with larger sample sizes should be done to measure their effectiveness and the validity of the reasoning behind them. Advocates can encourage policy-makers to adopt alternatives which look at a multitude of risk factors and exhibited behaviors rather than breed.
DISCLAIMER: The percentages given in this study represent the percentage of non-legislated and legislated dogs within a specified subset, e.g. incidents that occurred when the guardian was present. Since the sample size of non-legislated dogs was greater than the sample size of legislated dogs, the proportion is a reflection of the study population.