Sunday, November 1, 2009

Legislate by Deed, Not by Breed: Breed-specific legislation and policies pose challenges to dog owners

Published in Downeast Dog News

As the city of Denver reassesses its 20-year-old ban on Pit Bull-type breeds, and begins to question its longstanding official assumption that all dogs of that type are hazardous to people, it’s worth remembering that some dogs are strong and may require particular skills to handle them better. But any dog, even a toy chihuahua, has the potential to be dangerous.

The opposite also holds true—any dog has the potential to be harmless and friendly.

In fact, the heart of the American Kennel Club’s guideline is “Legislate by deed, not by breed.” Rather than restricting certain types of dogs, this approach suggests examining each dog’s behavior individually and responding appropriately. While this may sound like common sense to a responsible dog owner, when motivated by fear and misconception, policy making organizations such as city councils, insurance companies or landlords often turn to breed bans.

Maine law does not specify breeds and even goes so far as to prevent cities and towns from enacting breed bans. It “took months” to devise that legislation, according to Heather Jackson, a dog owner and insurance agent from Augusta, who helped work on the bill more than a decade ago.

Authorities are allowed to deem a dog “dangerous,” and even seek a court order to euthanize it, if it seriously injures or kills a person, but exempts dogs defending their owners’ property, including vehicles, and farm dogs defending livestock. (See sidebar on page 10.)

Apparently, the law has worked pretty well. “No one has really wanted to mess with it since,” said Jackson. And the complaints that have come in have largely been handled without new legislation. One small change to the law was proposed in the most recent legislative session. It would have allowed authorities to classify a dog as “dangerous,” and even euthanize it, if it attacked not just people but domestic animals. The bill died in committee.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape here,” said Ken Marden of Whitefield, a former AKC president, who acts as an advisor to the Federation of Maine Dog Clubs, an umbrella organization for many dog-related interest groups in the state. However, the public perception of dangerous breeds and dangerous dogs, and how it plays out beyond government regulation, is not in such good shape.

“It can be a real problem” for dog owners to get insurance, said David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University School of Law and editor-in-chief of, a Web site that catalogues animal-related laws from around the country. Often, insurers are concerned with breeds, and not whether a dog is trained to defend territory or to cuddle with a newborn.

Some towns around the country require additional coverage for people who have dogs that have been classified as dangerous or that are specific breeds. But that doesn’t mean insurance companies will offer coverage, or that people will be able to afford it if it is available.

And some insurance companies will cancel their policies rather than insure particular types of dogs. “You have people losing insurance just because they have a Pit [Bull],” Favre said.

The AKC Web site does offer links to insurance companies that are not breed-specific, and Jackson said that her insurance company, State Farm, will even offer umbrella liability coverage for dogs with certain bite histories, although owners should be prepared to pay extra for it. Some states have laws preventing insurance companies from canceling insurance for homeowners on the basis of the breed of their dog. Maine considered that in 2005, but it failed.

Sometimes, however, if a tenant can get insurance, that may not be enough. Carlton Winslow, vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association, said that landlords run into insurance problems, too.

“The insurance companies have gotten tougher” over the last 10 years, according to Winslow. They may restrict landlords from renting to tenants with dogs (or specific breeds of dogs) or tenants who smoke. Even apartments with working fireplaces are now harder and more expensive to insure for landlords.

And then there are the landlord’s own policies. Winslow, for example, rents to dog owners only at his single-family properties and not in multi-unit housing. “In a house, the tenant is pretty much responsible for everything,” he said. Multi-family buildings have common areas, and neighbors are placed closer to each other, so there’s more opportunity for problems.

Plus, “some people take great care of their pets and other people do not,” said Winslow, a former dog owner. And housing-fairness laws make it hard to make decisions on a case-by-case basis without risking legal threats.

Other businesses, of course, can’t get by if they restrict dogs too tightly. Robin Bennett, a Virginia-based consultant for off-leash dog daycares and dog daycare section chair of the Pet Care Services Association, which rates daycares and kennels nationwide, said that daycares and kennels have to be more discerning, but they are prepared to make the necessary distinctions, because they are animal professionals, unlike insurance employees and landlords.

“Sociability,” a term Bennett uses to describe how much a dog expresses interest in humans or other dogs, is something that dog professionals look for. Bennett suggests that owners and trainers be aware of dogs’ warning signals, such as growling, that may signal stress, which can escalate to something more serious. Mostly, look for a dog that will engage with others, and has manners when greeting other dogs. Like many dog pros, Bennett is not a “big proponent of breed bans.”

Screenings for kennels can be less rigorous than those for playgroups, simply because kennels where dogs don’t mix just have to be sure its staff can handle a dog. A playgroup, because dogs mix more freely, requires a more careful screening, according to Bennett. But even then, it’s rarely “good dog, bad dog,” she said; rather it’s “good moment, bad moment.”

Unfortunately, that’s not how many in the public perceive things, which is where lawmakers get caught up in the idea of breed bans. Favre said that there is no evidence to show that any of these kinds of laws, whether breed-specific or not, have actually reduced dog bites.

In fact, Denver’s dog-bite numbers “are not down,” despite the draconian law there, according to Marcy Setter, owner and founder of Understanda-Bull in Massachusetts, who added that most bites in Denver are from German Shepherds, which are not covered in the city’s breed ban.

All the research shows “it’s an owner issue, it’s not a breed issue,” Setter said. “No specific breed is any more dangerous than any other.” Citing an average of 21 dog-bite fatalities annually in the United States, Setter said that there are many other more serious causes of widespread injury, such as walking down the street, and driving. She also said that while parents of newborns often are sent home from the hospital with piles and piles of material detailing how to keep the baby safe, there is almost never any information on dog safety, whether there is a dog in the home or not.

And that may, in the end, be a key issue. “Without understanding basic canine behavior, people immediately think ‘these dogs are aggressive,’” Setter said.

Definition of a “Dangerous Dog” under Maine Law
“Dangerous dog,” under Maine Law, means a dog that bites an individual or a domesticated animal that is not trespassing on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises at the time of the bite, or a dog that causes a reasonable and prudent person who is not on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises and is acting in a reasonable and nonaggressive manner to fear imminent bodily injury by assaulting or threatening to assault that individual or individual’s domestic animal.

“Dangerous dog” does not include a dog certified by the state and used for law enforcement use. “Dangerous dog” does not include a dog that bites or threatens to assault an individual who is on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises if the dog has no prior history of assault and was provoked by the individual immediately prior to the bite or threatened assault.

For the purposes of this definition, “dog owner’s or keeper’s premises” means the residence or residences, including buildings and land and motor vehicles, belonging to the owner or keeper of the dog.