Yesterday, I wrote a post about three cities with breed bans that are failing. Breed bans tend to fail because of the difficulties of them being enforced -- often due to problems with breed identification, the expense of dealing with lawsuits associated with unfair enforcement, and because the laws themselves are both under-inclusive and over-inclusive.
By under-inclusive I mean that breed bans only deal with a small percentage of the dogs that have aggressive behavior in a community because many of the dogs are of non-targeted breeds, and by over-inclusive I mean that the laws cover more dogs than are really problems because the majority of the dogs of whatever breeds are targeted are not aggressive and not problems. This wastes animal control resources by using them on non-problem dogs. Given that no city I've ever seen has money to burn on excess animal control officers, it end up being a waste of taxpayer money and of limited resources focusing on non-problem dogs.
So if Breed-specific laws aren't the answer -- what is?
The following recommendation assumes that cities already have the basic leash laws and cruelty/neglect laws and are doing a good job of enforcing those. Honestly, I believe that about 75% of all problems of dogs biting people who are not members of their own family could be solved just with good enforcement of these two basic laws. Keep groups of random strays from wandering around and prevent animals from being cruelly abused. Those are the first two steps. If you are a city that is looking for a solution, and you don't have those two pieces right and aren't enforcing them, stop reading now and go take care of the basics.
Let me pause for a second here to talk about dangerous dog laws in general. I know that it is common for people to note that in the grand scheme of things, dogs are not a huge risk factor in neighborhoods. That's true. There are an estimated 75 million dogs in the US and 99% of them will not cause any more harm than a nip or a scrape in their entire lifetime. And the threat of fatal dog attacks is statistically almost non-existent -- with only about 25 dog attack fatalities every year in the US. This makes dogs infinitely safer than most common household things like stairs, ladders, bathtubs, swimming pools and electricity.
But the number of owned dogs increasing in this country, and there is still a need for people to do just do basic training with their dog and some people who get dogs with the intent to do harm, there is still a risk of injury with dogs and there is enough cause for concern that basic steps should be taken to help prevent as many incidents from happening as possible. So having no laws isn't a viable answer either -- but the laws should account for the statistical reality that the VAST majority of dogs are not problems, and will not be problems in their lifetime.
But the best laws -- the ones that most easily and fairlyenforced and that make the best use of animal control resources -- are designed to target the very small pecentatge of dogs in a community that represent real problems -- and that these dogs come in a variety of shapes and breeds.
Given the information above, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that the best laws focus all of your law-enforcement resources on the tiny percentage of dogs that are potential problems by focusing on the actual behavior of the dogs. If the dog shows aggressive behavior, focus resources on the dog. If it doesn't, don't waste animal control resources on it.
Seems pretty simple.
Several cities in our community have adopted variations on an ordinance that I think is quite good and should fit the needs of most communities. In this dangerous dog ordinance, there are two different designations for dogs:
Vicious -- the dog has aggressively bitten another person or animal. There is a room for interpretation on it from the authorities so that they note that all bites or attacks are created equal to a truly vicious attack. In truly vicious attacks, animals are usually euthanized, but in most of the bite incidences, the animal is declared vicious and the dog must then wear a muzzle, the dog owner must alter the dog, licensing, there are certain kenneling requirements and they must get additional insurance. I think most people find this to be fair because the dog isn't necessarily instantly put down for minor bites, but does get restrained. However, the criticism of doing this alone is that it is only a reactive ordinance - enforced only after a bite has taken place. Thus, we have the second designation:
Potentially dangerous - This is a dog, that based on its behavior would cause a reasonable person to think that if the dog got loose, it would attack. This isn't barking, this is aggressive behavior. The point of this is, if you have a neighbor's dog that you think is pulling on it's chain all day, growling, lunging, etc and you walk up to it and it really snarls it teeth -- and you feel like if that dog got free from it's chain, you would get attacked, you can call animal control on the dog - they evaluate the dog, and if they too declare the dog potentially dangerous, they can require the same insurance requirements, licensing and kenneling requirements as a "vicious" dog. There is a great appeals process built in to protect dog owners from a spiteful neighbor and there is also a clause that allows them to go through training classes, and after a year, if they've fixed the dog of its aggressive behavior, then the designation can be lifted. I like that we've now provided an incentive for the owner to do the right thing and train their dog. This portion provides the "proactive" portion of the ordinance so we don't have to "just wait" for a dog to bite.
I find that the law with these two designations has the right amount of inclusiveness. It's not over-inclusive -- because dogs that do not behave aggressively are not targeted, thus, their owners are left alone and animal control resources are not wasted on non-aggressive dogs. And it's not under-inclusive, because any aggressive dog is captured in it, regardless of what the dog's breed is (it also avoids pesky breed identification issues).
For the life of me, I have no idea why so many cities would continue to insist on passing a broken ordinance like BSL, that is ineffective, unfair, impossible to enforce and wastes valuable animal control resources, when it is so easy to do a behavior-based ordinance that only focuses on problem dogs. It just makes so much sense...I have no idea why some cities are resitant to it.
There is one other law that conceptually I like, although I'm not sure I've ever seen an example drafted that I love. The laws are usually called "reckless owner laws" - -and I think are conceptually great. We all know that the aggressive behavior in dogs ties back to neglegence on the part of the owners -- and if we just take the dog away from that owner, if they are allowed to get another dog, then the problem is not solved.
The idea behind reckless owner laws are people who are found to violate animal control ordinances a set number of times (let's say 3) in a certain amount of time (let's say, 2 years), then they are not permitted to own any more pets for a set amount of time (Let's say, 5 years).
This makes a whole lot of sense. And I love the idea conceptually. I've looked through the animal control numbers for a LOT of cities, and it doesn't take much looking to notice that a lot of the same addresses come up over, and over, and over. Again, it's a small part of the population causing a huge part of the problem.
What I don't love is the set number of animal control violations -- because let's face it, not all animal control violations are equal. Someone letting their license elapse is not the same as having their dog roaming at large, which is not the same as having the dog bite someone or for animal cruelty. If you do the set number of violations, someone who let all three of their dogs' licenses expire ends up being a wreckless owner, where someone who owns one dog, that gets out twice and bites someone each time may only have two violations and not be a reckless owner.
While this may be a little too complicated to work in a real-life scenerio, let me throw out an idea that I've never seen done, but I think makes sense. Skewer me if you want. But I think that "reckless owner" laws should be done on a points-type system where, once someone gets 20 "points" in two years, they are no longer allowed to own pets for 5 years. Each type of violation gets a set number of points. Forgetting to license - 1 point. Dog roaming at large but not really causing a problem - 3 points. Dog roaming at large and acting aggressively - 10 points. Dog biting someone off the owner's property - 15 points. Major animal cruelty violation - 20 points. And combination that gets you to 20 points ends your right to own pets.
I'm not saying the idea is perfect, or that the point values are necessarily right, but I at least like the idea of separating out major violations from very minor ones that aren't huge public safety risks. The goal here should be to improve public safety, not just punish a dog owner for their dog getting through an open gate.
So that's it. Four easy steps of laws with proper enforcement:
1) Leash law
2) Cruelty/neglect law
3) Behavior-based dangerous dog law
4) A reckless owner law that hits owners who are habitually problem owners
This will solve the vast majority of all of our problems, and focus all of our limited animal control resources solely on animals and owners that have shown themselves to be a problem and spends no resources on animals (and owners) that are not problems. This all seems really simple to me and I have no idea why so many cities seem insistent on passing over inclusing and under-inclusive legislation. This isn't that hard....let's not make it more complicated than it needs to be.