For those of us who love dogs, the cases of Lennox in Ireland and Bear and Kooda in Victoria are heart-breaking. The relentlessly pursued death of dogs who were loved and who committed no other crime than looking as they did is so monstrously unfair and so inhumane that commentators all over the world are threshing around looking for explanations. Inherent in this sense of injustice is the existence of so much evidence that BSL is an ineffective tool for promoting public safety and that the demonization of Pit Bulls is both unfair and inhumane.
In this post I’d like to suggest that we are barking up the wrong tree with the strategies we are using to opposing BSL. I suggest that we need to look more closely at both the public reaction to Lennox’s death and the public’s reaction to fatal dog attacks in order to better oppose and change deeply flawed and inhumane legislation.
Breed specific legislation in Victoria
Breed Specific Legislation was first proclaimed in Victoria in 2005 prohibiting the import of four breeds of dog:
The Dogo Argentino, the Japanese Tosa, the Fila Brasileiro, the Perro de Presa Canario (or Presa Canario) and the American Pit Bull Terrier (or Pit Bull Terrier). Of these, the Pit Bull Terrier and the Dogo are the only breeds currently known to exist in Australia.
This legislation also banned the breeding and selling of Pit Bulls and other restricted breeds, although there is little evidence that there were any of the other breeds in Australia. This restriction also applies to dogs in Victorian shelters and pounds, with any dog identified as a restricted breed unable to be rehomed (which means that regardless of a dog’s temperament it will be killed).
This was not the first time a breed of dog had faced a ban in Australia and not the first time the experts disagreed with legislation.
During the mid 1920s the Graziers Federal Council of Australia and other parties claimed that the “ Alsatian Dog “ represented a threat, that the dog was vicious, it had wolf blood in its veins, it was a sheep killer and if crossed with the dingo it would be dangerous. Despite professional advice which repudiated these claims, the Federal Government passed an import ban on the 24th July 1928 which was imposed on 2nd May 1929. This ban although initially for 5 years was not eased until 1972 and not repealed until 5th March 1974.
After four year old Ayen Chol was killed by a dog (characterised as a Pit Bull, but probably a large cross breed) in August of 2011, Victoria’s State Government responded to public outcry and rushed through legislation which made it an offense for an owner to keep a restricted breed dog which not comply with the following conditions:
- Dog was in Victoria prior to 1 September 2010 and
- Dog was registered prior to 30 September 2011.
Under this legislation councils have the right to seize and destroy unregistered, restricted breed dogs. The new legislation identifies a restricted breed of dog as a dog which looks like a restricted breed of dog, “A dog that meets the description of a dog in this Part is an American Pit Bull Terrier”. If you think that sounds like a tautology you are right.
A dog doesn’t have to be a Pit Bull Terrier to be considered a restricted breed. It’s only necessary for someone to think a dog looks like a Pit Bull Terrier and a Council can seize the dog. It is important to note that although there is some confusion in the legislation between the categories of dangerous dogs and restricted breeds, the fate of a restricted breed of dog is based not on its actions, (as it would be for a dangerous dog) but solely on its appearance.
The notable exception in the list of large animal welfare agencies opposed to BSL is the Lost Dogs Home, one of the biggest and wealthiest pounds in Australia, operating “super pounds” in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. The Lost Dog’s Home CEO Graeme Smith has enthusiastically endorsed the Victorian State Government’s Restricted Breed Legislation, ”I’m saying categorically that I fully support the government’s position and I’m one of the few that’s doing so,” and infamously been quoted as saying, “If it looks like a Pit Bull, it is a Pit Bull.
In fact Pit Bulls are not ducks, and there is sufficient research to show that it is actually very difficult to identify breeds through visual identification. The US organisation Maddie’s Fund financed a study into breed identification by shelter staff, specifically looking at the ability to identify Pit Bull type dogs. The study of four shelters and 120 dogs found that, “Of those 120 dogs, 55 were identified as “pit bulls” by shelter staff, but only 25 were identified as pit bulls by DNA analysis.” [http://www.maddiesfund.org/Documents/Resource%20Library/Incorrect%20Breed%20Identification%20Study%20Poster.pdf]
Yesterday the sad and ambiguous fate of Lennox in Northern Ireland under Belfast City Council’s breed BSL and closer to home the deaths of Bear and Kooda, seized under Victorian BSL has refocused attention on BSL locally and nationally. None of the three dogs were, in fact, Pit Bulls, and none of them were dangerous dogs, but because they were visually identified as restricted breeds they lost their lives. This might not be such a tragedy if the legislation which killed these, and many other dogs, actually protected humans from dog bites. In fact, this is not the case.
There is considerable evidence that as a public safety approach BSL is ineffective.
“Statistics provided by Monash University’s Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit show the number of hospital admissions because of dog-related injuries – not just bites – almost doubled from 451 in 2000-01 to 717 last year. This is despite the introduction of breed-specific legislation a decade ago.”,
This is supported by the research. For example, in 2001 the American Veterinary Association Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions “reported it had found no statistical, biological or behavioural evidence that any breed of dog was more vicious or more dangerous than others.”
A piece of research conducted in Germany, following legislation in Lower Saxony in 2000, which brought 14 breeds of dog under BSL, tested 415 dogs. The paper concludes that: “The results show no indication of dangerousness in specific breeds. Justification for specific breed lists in the legislation was not shown.”
A review paper by Linda Watson in Australia concludes that, “Breed specific legislation has not been shown to reduce the incidence of dog bites in any part of the world despite a twenty-year history.” [Does breed specific legislation reduce dog aggression on humans and other animals? A review paper]
In August 2012, the Australian Veterinary Association released a policy paper Dangerous Dogs – a Sensible Solution, which proposes a framework to manage dangerous or potentially dangerous dogs,
“Policy responses to dog bites have increasingly turned to banning or controlling particular breeds of dogs (breed-specific legislation or BSL). Under pressure from the media, governments have established regulatory responses that give the community a false sense of security, allowing them to believe that they are safer from aggressive dogs. However, because these measures do not actually solve the underlying problems, similar dog bite incidents continue.”
Clearly, the evidence-base shows that BSL is an ineffective response to concerns for public safety.
Dog attack fatalities
Fatal dog attacks are extremely rare. In the US, in 2010, the National Canine Research Council (NCRC) investigated 33 incidents of human deaths caused by dogs (that is the total number of dog fatalities in 2010). Putting this in context, the US has a population of approximately 308 million people and around 78 million dogs. And to put the efficacy of BSL in context, in 22 of those attacks it was not possible to assign definite breed identification to the dog involved. Of the 11 to which a breed definition could be reasonably assigned, 8 different breeds of dog were identified.
In 21 of the cases investigated the biggest common factor was not the breed of dog, but the way the dog was kept, the NCRC characterising these dogs as resident dogs as opposed to family dogs.
Resident dogs are those isolated by the owner from regular, positive human interactions. Owners often keep resident dogs isolated on chains or in junk-yards, or allow their dogs to roam unattended. Owners of resident dogs often fail to provide basic humane care for their dogs, resulting in animals that suffer from malnutrition or chronic disease or illness.
You are more likely to be killed by horse or donkey (77 deaths since 2000) or cows or bulls (33 deaths since 2000). In fact there have been only 254 animal related deaths (including sharks, crocodiles, bees, kangaroos and dogs) since 2000.
In reality the risk of being killed or even seriously injured by a dog is very small in comparison to the risk of drowning (315 people a year), dying on the road (1291 per year) or if you’re a child, being run over (one child is run over in the driveway of their own home every week in Australia). In terms of public safety we’d save more children’s lives by banning 4WDs than by banning Pit Bulls.
Addendum August 2013. Tragically, a toddler died from an attack by a dog in the rural NSW town of Deniliquin. The dog has been identified as a Bullmastiff X. Predictably, even understandably, this terrible event has prompted calls for the banning of large breeds of dog, including an hysterical call for a “dog buyback” by shock journalist Miranda Devine. But as more information about this tragedy has filtered though into the media, it is clear that this attack was not caused by the breed of dog, but by a situation which included a dog with a high prey drive (used for pig hunting); not well socialized with children (generally kept chained outside) and owned by a third person (a resident, rather than a family dog. For a balanced view of the event Saving Pets blog Dog Attack Fatality NSW and are Miranda Devine’s Plan for Dog Management are worth reading.
The reason that patently poor and ineffective legislation is created and passed into law, has very little to do with the ability of that legislation to effectively address the issue it was enacted to solve, and a great deal to do with its ability to act as a promotional tool for government. Good policy, which leads to good legislation, requires time, research and extensive consultation. Legislation which is rushed into being with none of those prerequisites has a purpose beyond providing a framework for regulation.
In his book “Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster” Lee Clarke calls emergency plans for completely unmanageable disasters “fantasy plans”. He says of these improbably plans,
Under highly uncertain conditions rational planning becomes more difficult. Concomitant visions of the future will likely be distorted by inadequate or corrupt data, and by the poor conceptual scheme brought to bear on those data.
Planning then becomes a sign that organizations hang on themselves, advertising their competence and forethought, announcing to all who would listen, “We know what this problem is and we know how to solve it. “Trust us.” Thus do organizations try to control the uncontrollable. (p4)
The same can be said of legislation which is created to fulfill no other need than to assuage community outrage and ensure the public is aware that their government is dealing with an issue. In a society constructed on the rule of law, we have a touchingly misplaced confidence that complex social issues can be legislated out of existence (“there oughta be a law about it”). The more intractable the issue the less likely it is that legislation can solve it, but legislation is a relatively low-cost redress by Governments unable or unwilling to address society’s wicked problems.
In the case of the current restricted breed legislation the Victorian Government enacted it, not to keep the public safe from fatal dog attacks, ( because statistically they are already safe from a fatal dog attack), but because it recognised public outrage and used legislation to answer it. While I have no doubt that politicians were deeply affected by the Ayen Chol tragedy, equally I have no doubt that they had any belief that their legislation was going to achieve any significant public safety gains. However it was sufficiently draconian, public and resourced ($100,000 for a “dob in a dangerous dog” hotline which received 122 calls in the first day of operation) to reassure the community that the government was “doing something”. What it wasn’t doing was protecting the public from dogs; and what it really wasn’t doing was protecting dogs from the public.
However, once you recognize that the point of this legislation is to assuage fear and public unrest, it becomes a easier to unpack what is actually going on, and perhaps provide a way forward for opponents of BSL. And it’s at this point that things get both more interesting and more complicated.
Opponents of BSL assume that if they can simply muster enough facts, provide enough research, demonstrate sufficiently that Pits are no more dangerous than any other dog, that logic will prevail. They believe that if they can bring enough evidence to bear on the issue (and overwhelmingly, nationally and internationally, the evidence shows that BSL doesn’t work), then the public and by extension their governments will throw up their hands, recognise the primacy of truth and change their minds. And if you believe that will happen you are probably Dr Spock.
BSL has very little to with logic and a very great deal to do with emotion. If you’d like to understand this statement better let’s turn to Peter Sandman, an expert in crisis communication. (You can listen to Peter Sandman explain his position on YouTube: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhPWYlqd7qg) Sandman’s work is highly recommended by the way).
Essentially Sandman argues that risk perception, that is, the public’s understanding of the potential danger of something in the environment (the hazard) is not necessarily based on an objective understanding of risk, but on an emotional equation which is created by the relationship between hazard and outrage (an emotional reaction to the hazard).
In fact, Sandman argues, people feel unsafe because they are outraged; not, which would seem intuitively more right, that they are outraged because they feel unsafe. This is an important insight, because it tells us something about why our reactions to hazards which are statistically unlikely (shark attacks, dog attacks, crocodile attacks) are so great, when our reaction to children being run over in drive ways is all but non-existent. We are not outraged by the road hazard because, all evidence to the contrary, we feel safe. Dog attacks, however, for reasons we’ll look at next, outrage us, and thus we feel unsafe.
As a way of illustrating the idea of outrage as risk perception, think about a three year old who is scared because she believes there are monsters under her bed. How do you stop that child being afraid of monsters? In the “give them enough facts” approach we’d present some evidence from biologists explaining why there are no monsters. Or maybe we’d provide statistics to show that no child has ever been eaten by a (non-human) monster. It won’t take very long to come to the conclusion that the terrified three year old isn’t going to stop screaming no matter how many statistics you throw at them.
Most parents will instinctively use a symbolic solution which acknowledges the child’s fear and uses a solution which, while it will satisfy the child, makes no empirical sense – because there are no monsters. So you might say to this child, “you’ll be safe as long as the light is on because monsters don’t like light”, or “here is your special hero teddy who will protect you”.
I am arguing that that the restricted breeds legislation which killed Lennnox and Bear and Kooda was government’s symbolic response to the public’s equivalent of waking up at night screaming at monsters. Its intent wasn’t public safety but public confidence, and it that sense it worked pretty well. By recognising community fear and responding to it in a symbolic fashion, the Government managed community outrage very successfully. The legislation is the message.
“If we look at what the Minister for Agriculture, Peter Walsh had to say about the legislation:“We believe that what we did in the circumstances that followed the death of Ayen Chol was appropriate,” Walsh says. ”My view would be there has been overwhelming support for what we’ve done with the restricted-breed dogs.
‘This is about making sure people are safe in their community, particularly children, and we don’t want to see another death because people are not registering their dogs appropriately, housing them appropriately, having them on a leash and a muzzle in a public place appropriately and this is what this is about and let’s not lose sight of that.”
Walsh appeals to our fears for the more vulnerable in our community, particularly children and talks about “making sure people are safe in their community”. He doesn’t want to “see another death because people are not registering their dogs appropriately …”. In fact the link between dog registration and fatal dog attacks is sufficiently tenuous to be non-existent, but the message to the community is that everything is numbered and recorded and therefore under control.
That fatal dog attacks are so rare that this legislation is not going to have any effect on their occurrence is irrelevant. If no more people die of dog attacks in Victoria during this government’s term, which is highly probable, then the government can claim that their legislation was responsible. If there is a fatal dog we attack can expect even more punitive legislation to meet renewed outrage. Governments are nothing if not slaves to fixed ideas.
From this point this post is going to move beyond an evidence base into opinion and conjecture. While there is considerably fascinating research about the human-dog interaction and the domestication of the dog, in this section I am suggestion a more metaphorical, perhaps poetic relationship than the biologist and ethnologists might be comfortable in describing.
I am arguing that in order to understand public outrage at dog attacks and potentially develop some more effective strategies to change public opinion about BSL (in order to change government opinion), we need to understand the root of this outrage.
As has been detailed, fatal dog attacks are very rare in Australia (remember 27 cases since 2000), but tragedies such as that of Ayen Chol generate enormous outrage. Clearly some of this outrage is generated because the majority of victims of fatal dog attacks are children, and as a society we are committed to protecting children. However, the status of the victim is only a small part of the storm of protest following a fatal dog attack. Many, many more children die every year at the hand of their parents (on average 27 children per year in Australia) without concomitant public outrage or repressive legislation. I believe there is a stronger explanation of this outrage if we consider the status of the killer and not the victim, that is, the dog.
Dogs have a very long history with humans, perhaps as long as 35,000 years. For most of that time they were hunting companions and protectors. It is difficult to believe that cute, friendly puppies didn’t end up sharing food and beds with humans. By about 15,000 years ago the remains of small dogs were found in human settlements. While it is probable that smaller dogs were being bred to hunt vermin around human habitations, it is clear that domestication was well underway, with humans beginning the process of manipulating the canine genome, a process only possible with animals living closely with them.
So for an astoundingly long period of human history we have lived cheek by jowl or possibly paw by tail with dogs. They have been our colleagues in hunting and war, protectors of our lives and property and household friends. And as humans became increasingly able to manipulate dog genetics, dogs became our children. Lap dogs are bred small, with flattish faces and big eyes facing forward in order to trigger the same emotional, hormonal response in humans that babies do.
Konrad Lorenz argued in 1949 that infantile features triggered nurturing responses in adults and that this was an evolutionary adaptation which helped ensure that adults cared for their children, ultimately securing the survival of the species. As evidence, Lorenz noted that humans react more positively to animals that resemble infants—with big eyes, big heads, shortened noses, etc.—than to animals that do not.
That is, humans prefer animals which exhibit pedomorphosis. Pedomorphosis is the retention of child-like characteristics—such as big heads or large eyes—into adulthood. The widely perceived cuteness of domesticated animals, such as dogs and cats, may be due to the fact that humans selectively breed their pets for infant-like characteristics, including non-aggressive behavior and child-like appearance.
Experiments, such as the silver fox domestication project  have shown that by selecting for friendliness in foxes, the resulting generations of foxes started exhibiting characteristics of domestic dogs, such as drooping ears, raised tails and mottled coats. Scientists have suggested that these changes are due to a decrease in adrenaline, making these foxes less reactive (low flight or fight response).
So for tens of thousands of years humans have been breeding dogs in their own image. The implicit contract is the provision of shelter, food, companionship and protection for the dogs, in return for a repudiation of their wild selves. In modern Australia about 40% of households own one or more dogs, around 3.4 million dogs in 2009. So in about 9 million Australian households there is a dog, still fulfilling that implicit contract.
Increasingly that household dog is seen as a member of the family, another child or even a substitute child. Tens of thousands of years of domestication have taken that original Middle Eastern wolf and given it access to resources far beyond anything available to its wild ancestors. The dog in modern households is loved, indulged (we spend more on pet food than we do on foreign aid), cosseted and cuddled. Our dogs live in our houses, on our couches, in our beds; they are confidents, companions, friends and family. Many dog owners and many dogs have forgotten that although the dog genome is very plastic, dogs are still, in their most secret hearts and neurochemicals, predators.
When a dog breaches that most ancient of contracts and for whatever reason (the research suggests because humans haven’t held up their side of the deal), treats humans as prey, we are outraged. Outraged by that most primitive of betrayals: that of a guest in our home turning on us: by our children turning on each other, or by a child turning on its parents. The most base of betrayals, someone who has eaten our bread and salt turning a blade to our necks.
Of course this outrage is illogical and unreasonable but it is also terrified. We look with suspicion on the fat, old Labrador asleep by the door; at the excitable young Collie bouncing in the yard; at the giant Dane under the tree; at our new puppy and old dog and everything in between. We no longer feel safe with our most ancient and persistent of companions, for if it can turn on the hand that feeds it, then the abyss has most certainly opened and anything is possible.
If we are to be able to continue living with dogs in the face of outrage the most psychologically satisfying response is to blame “the other”. In Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” she characterised the feminine as “the other”. She argues that masculinity defines itself in terms of that which it is not; so that the feminine becomes the shadow self; in possession of those qualities which the masculine denies. The concept of “the other” can be recognised in other human interactions; the enemy in war who is willing to commit those atrocities we won’t admit on our own side, for example. We use “the other” as a locus for those actions, behaviours, thoughts and ideas which we wish to deny.
I’m arguing that in outrage, Pit Bulls (in this iteration, other dogs, in other times have borne the same burden) are the shadow dog, the canine “other”. If we can demonize the Pit Bull as being the outsider, not the guest at our table, but the wild intruder into our habitation, then we don’t need to fear our own dogs, or our neighbour’s dogs. These shadow dogs are the mysterious, the dangerous, the fearsome and savage, “other” and because they are the other, we are relieved of the need to consider justice and humanity in their management. The Pit Bull becomes that ancient thing of terror, the predator who prowls outside the circle of light which defines our human habitations. The construct of the shadow dog allows us to sleep peacefully at night, without fear of the dog napping on our couch.
Clearly this is not a rational response to dog attacks, but its very irrationality explains why BSL legislation is supported by so many people who are otherwise dog lovers. Comments pages are full of people saying things like:
Reading this story breaks my heart. Enough is enough – when will these dogs and the owners of these dogs be dealt with appropriately? I love animals however this is beyond a joke… how many people have to lose their life? how many more people will be injured and how many other animals will be injured/lose their lives due to the vicious pit bull terriers before something is done to stop this.
The Pit Bull is that other dog; the dog with the locking jaws, unpredictable aggression, unflinching savagery; the one which turns on its owner, on children, other dogs and pets without hesitation. The Pit is that other kind of dog who is, in all things, not like our dog.
Now it might seem that a logical response to this is to explain to people that any breed of dog is capable of aggression given the right (or wrong) circumstances. We can show the public statistics which support this very proposition and opponents of BSL have spent a lot of time doing this, patiently researching the evidence and making it available in many different ways. Another approach has been to demonstrate the virtues of Pit Bulls; to demonstrate them cuddling kittens, comforting children and the elderly; playing with other dogs; heroic in vintage photos, resplendent in film and television and pitiful in their persecution.
Clearly both of these approaches are sensible and informative; equally clearly they do not stop the outrage, because if you can convince people that Pits are dogs like any other, then once again they must look with dread upon their own dog. Even if you can rehabilitate the shadow dog as one of our own, the outrage will not go away. Convincing people you are right does not stop them being outraged, and in fact increases the outrage. Facts do not stop us being afraid of monsters.
Barking up the right tree?
BSL is a product of our uneasy relationship with our animal nature and the animals that surround us and live with us. We embrace the dogs in our midst if they are willing to mimic humanity. We admire their intelligence and beauty and affection because they are in the category of animals we do not eat, (although we admire them less when they express their animal natures; anyone who’s dog comes home having rolled in a dead thing will understand this). Those animals we do eat are not entitled to attributes of intelligence, personality, individuality or family which is why we are so much more outraged when dogs remind us that we are as they, meat. We are much less upset when sharks, or bears, or crocodiles express their natures; they are not “of us” and their predation while horrifying, is not unexpected.
Where there is outrage, in order to create a better outcome than the wholesale slaughter of dogs, we need to find a symbolic answer which is emotionally satisfying, as well as being ethical, humane and just. One place to find this answer is in the international outcry over the fate of Lennox, the dog who died because he looked like a Pit Bull. Given the story of one dog and one family; people could experience empathy with the fate of a harmless dog and the grief of a distraught family. Their outrage was focused not on a category of dogs, but on the uncaring and dishonest Belfast City Council. I wonder though, whether the same outcry would have eventuated if Lennox had really been a Pit Bull and not simply a dog who looked like one.
I think there is another connection we need to make here. BSL is enabled because we, as a society, are accustomed to the idea that companion animals will die in large numbers in our pounds anyway. We believe the myth of over-population and accept the deaths of hundreds of thousands of companion animals every year across the country. We are used to the category of the undifferentiated unwanted, and for the most part accept the numbers of deaths with equanimity. Therefore the inclusion of another category of dogs capable of being killed in large numbers doesn’t cause a ripple in our value universe. But if, as a society, we embrace the No Kill Movement, started by Nathan Winograd , then those categories of acceptable deaths are brought into question.
BSL itself is the shadow of No Kill. BSL does not value individual dogs, or their families, it assigns them to categories and then allows them to be killed, not as individual dogs, but as part of a category, that of “bad dogs”. Without wishing to evoke Godwin’s Law, there are many human parallels. I don’t believe that we can reform BSL within the current animal management framework because it is predicated on acceptable death. If the system can be changed so that the value of life is implicit in our management of animals; then our understanding of a transgression of the compact between humans and dogs will have to change. Our dogs will be themselves, and of worth and value in, and of, themselves.
We believe that animals have the inherent right to live, and to be treated with respect and dignity. No animal should be killed for any reason other than for dire and untreatable medical conditions. No animal should be treated as a disposable object.
Where there is an individual right to live, then BSL, which is about a collective right to die, can no longer function. So if we are to be able to answer outrage, I think we can find that answer within the No Kill Movement, which offers satisfyingly emotional and practical answers to issues of dog management. At its heart No Kill aims to reform animal management, to make it compassionate, ethical, about life and not death, about justice, fairness and change. No Kill says that all animals have intrinsic worth and all are worth saving. As a movement it is the antithesis of “the other” because it sees each life as valuable to itself. In the No Kill movement the shadow dog is no less worthy than any other dog of living.
 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions, 2001. A community approach to dog bite prevention. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 218, 1732-1746.
 Clark, L. (1999) Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press