When laws go to the dogs

Last week President Barack Obama furthered the cause of responsible pet keeping with two separate acts. In the first instance, the Obama family adopted Sunny, a 1-year-old Portuguese Water Dog; and honored her adoption with a donation to the Humane Society of the United States. In the second instance, the White House came out against breed-specific legislation.

Addressing an online petition signed by more than 30,000 Americans, Obama issued a statement that read in part: “We don’t support breed-specific legislation — research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources… . As an alternative to breed-specific policies, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends a community-based approach to prevent dog bites. And ultimately, we think that’s a much more promising way to build stronger communities of pets and pet owners.”

In light of the fact that Pine Bluff has its own backward-looking, knee jerk, breed specific laws, it’s right that we revisit the whole issue. First, it should be clarified that the vast majority of breed-specific laws focus on pit bull dogs and dogs of pit bull ancestry.

In a report for the city of San Diego, the American Bar Association characterized breed-specific laws thusly: “Breed-discriminatory laws occasionally are proposed and sometimes passed by local governments. These proposals usually come after a well-publicized and emotional dog bite incident within or near the local community and are best described as “panic policymaking. Because these laws are enacted out of emotion, lawmakers often fail to consider the effects of provisions that impact the property rights of responsible dog owners and can involve the seizing and destroying of property (family pets) simply because their dog is of the targeted breed, heritage, or appearance.

That perfectly describes our local situation: Panic-induced policy that’s bereft of factual substance. If we were to base such laws on the prevalence of attacks, Labrador Retrievers should be the biggest target. Of course, the occurrence of any dog bites severe enough to warrant treatment are statistically so rare that scientists writing for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association calculated that authorities would have to remove approximately 100,000 dogs of a targeted group from a community in order to prevent one serious bite.

Then there are more practical concerns, namely identification of dogs that might be banned or restricted under the legislation. According to a 2011 National Canine Research Council study, animal welfare officers and adoption agency personnel were unable to correctly identify the breed of “suspect” dogs 75 percent of the time. In other words, the people in charge of actually enforcing the breed-specific laws were wrong in their guesses three-fourths of the time.

Understanding this inability to visually discern what a “pit bull” is, the National Animal Control Association (NACA) — the nation’s largest professional organization for animal welfare officers — issued guidelines that disapprove of ordinances that classify dogs as dangerous solely because of their breed and appearance. Instead, NACA advocates for stringent enforcement of dangerous dog laws that classify dogs as dangerous based on a dog’s individual behavior.

The HSUS and NACA are hardly alone. The American Humane Association, American Kennel Club, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, American Veterinary Medical Association, Association of Pet Dog Trainers, Best Friends Animal Society… among others have all called for repeal of this type of legislation.

To be sure, these aren’t just fringe groups of militant animal rights activists. These are professional associations of people who have based their organizational policies on real evidence, hard science and genuine ethical standards.

We’re at a watershed moment in our local culture of animal welfare, For the first time in a generation the Animal Control Department is being professionalized, better equipped and given a proper facility. All that will be for naught if we continue to uphold breed-specific laws.