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Stop Breed-Specific Legislation in Tennessee

Excerpts from "A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention" by the AVMA

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These excerpts are from a report by the American Veterinary Medical Association's Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions. The report was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Volume 218, No. 11, June 1, 2001, and is the same. The full report can be found on the AVMA web-site via the link below. Members of the Task Force, their credentials, and the organizations they represent are located on the first page of the full report. Bold emphasis found below is mine.

http://www.avma.org/pubhlth/dogbite/dogbite.pdf

Which dogs bite?

An often-asked question is what breed or breeds of dogs are most "dangerous"? This inquiry can be prompted by a serious attack by a specific dog, or it may be the result of media-driven portrayals of a specific breed as "dangerous." Although this is a common concern, singling out 1 or 2 breeds for control can result in a false sense of accomplishment. Doing so ignores the true scope of the problem and will not result in a responsible approach to protecting a community's citizens.

Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite. Invariably the numbers will show that dogs from popular large breeds are a problem. This should be expected, because big dogs can physically do more damage if they do bite, and any popular breed has more individuals that could bite. Dogs from small breeds also bite and are capable of causing severe injury. There are several reasons why it is not possible to calculate a bite rate for a breed or to compare rates between breeds. First, the breed of the biting dog may not be accurately recorded, and mixed-breed dogs are commonly described as if they were purebreds. Second, the actual number of bites that occur in a community is not known, especially if they did not result in serious injury. Third, the number of dogs of a particular breed or combination of breeds in a community is not known, because it is rare for all dogs in a community to be licensed, and existing licensing data is then incomplete. Breed data likely vary between communities, states, or regions, and can even vary between neighborhoods within a community.

Preventive Measures - Breed or type bans

Concerns about "dangerous" dogs have caused many local governments to consider supplementing existing animal control laws with ordinances directed toward control of specific breeds or types of dogs. Members of the Task Force believe such ordinances are inappropriate and ineffective.

Statistics on fatalities and injuries caused by dogs cannot be responsibly used to document the "dangerousness" of a particular breed, relative to other breeds, for several reasons. First, a dog's tendency to bite depends on at least 5 interacting factors: heredity, early experience, later socialization and training, health (medical and behavioral), and victim behavior. Second, there is no reliable way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed in the canine population at any given time (eg, 10 attacks by Doberman Pinschers relative to a total population of 10 dogs implies a different risk than 10 attacks by Labrador Retrievers relative to a population of 1,000 dogs). Third, statistics may be skewed, because often they do not consider multiple incidents caused by a single animal. Fourth, breed is often identified by individuals who are not familiar with breed characteristics and who commonly identify dogs of mixed ancestry as if they were purebreds. Fifth, the popularity of breeds changes over time, making comparison of breed-specific bite rates unreliable.

Breed-specific ordinances imply that there is an objective method of determining the breed of a particular dog, when in fact, there is not at this time. Owners of mixed-breed dogs or dogs that have not been registered with a national kennel club have no way of knowing whether their dog is one of the types identified and whether they are required to comply with a breed-specific ordinance. In addition, law enforcement personnel typically have no scientific means for determining a dog's breed that can withstand the rigors of legal challenge, nor do they have a foolproof method for deciding whether owners are in compliance or in violation of laws. Such laws assume that all dogs of a certain breed are likely to bite, instead of acknowledging that most dogs are not a problem. These laws often fail to take normal dog behavior into account and may not assign appropriate responsibilities to owners.

Some municipalities have attempted to address notice and enforcement problems created by unregistered and mixed-breed dogs by including in the ordinance a description of the breed at which the ordinance is directed. Unfortunately, such descriptions are usually vague, rely on subjective visual observation, and result in many more dogs than those of the intended breed being subject to the restrictions of the ordinance.

Animal control legislation has traditionally been considered a constitutionally legitimate exercise of local government power to protect public safety and welfare. Breed-specific ordinances, however, raise constitutional questions concerning dog owners' fourteenth amendment rights of due process and equal protection. When a specific breed of dog is selected for control, 2 constitutional questions are raised: first, because all types of dogs may inflict injury to people and property, ordinances addressing only 1 breed of dog appear to be underinclusive and, therefore, violate owners' equal protection rights; and second, because identification of a dog's breed with the certainty necessary to impose sanctions on the dog's owner is impossible, such ordinances have been considered unconstitutionally vague and, therefore, to violate due process.

Identification and regulation of "dangerous" dogs

Certain dogs may be identified within a community as being "dangerous," usually as the result of a serious injury or threat. That classification, because it carries with it serious implications, should be well defined by law (Appendix 4). Any such definition should include an exclusion for justifiable actions of dogs. Procedures should be outlined that take into account the potential public health threat, are reasonable to enforce, and convey the seriousness of the situation to the owner. Although animal control officers or their statuary counterparts are responsible for collecting information, a judge or justice will hear evidence from animal control officers and the dog's owner to determine whether the dog fits established criteria for "dangerousness." In some municipalities, a hearing panel comprising a cross section of private citizens hears alleged "dangerous" dog evidence and has been given the authority to declare a dog "dangerous" if deemed appropriate. Any declaration by hearing panel, judge, or justice is subject to judicial review.

A judge, justice, or hearing panel may promulgate orders directing an animal control officer to seize and hold an alleged "dangerous" dog pending judicial review. If a dog is determined to be "dangerous" by a judge, justice, or hearing panel, the owner of that dog is usually required to register the dog with the appropriate health department or animal control facility. The judicial process may also require the owner to follow other rigid requirements, including but not limited to permanent identification of offending dogs, training and assessment of dogs and owners, and having offending dogs spayed or neutered.

Because the judicial branch is such an integral part of any enforcement action, the judiciary must assist during formation of "dangerous" dog laws. If the judiciary is involved, its members will be aware of the process that must be followed to declare a dog "dangerous." In addition, they will be aware of steps that have already been completed and the options available when a particular case reaches the courts.