Legal Restrictions on Pit Bulls and Other Breeds

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Whether or not certain breeds are inherently ferocious—many animal behaviorists and observers believe they are not—some breeds do account for a disproportionate number of serious injuries to people.

Cities across the country have responded by passing ordinances specifically prohibiting possession of pit bulls, rottweilers, and a few other breeds, or imposing strict requirements on their owners. For example, some cities require owners to buy liability insurance, keep their dogs behind six-foot-high fences, and muzzle the dogs whenever they're in public. (Not all cities are free to do this; in many states, local governments are forbidden, by state law, from adopting ordinances based on the breed of the dog.) Some cities have not banned the breeds, but require owners to pay large license fees for animals of certain breeds.

Legal Challenges to Breed-Specific Laws

Dog owners have challenged these ordinances in court, and a few have been thrown out by judges. The clear trend, however, is to uphold laws that impose special restrictions on certain breeds or ban them outright. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to disturb two decisions of state supreme courts, upholding ordinances that regulate the ownership of pit bulls. (State v. Anderson, 57 Ohio St. 3d 168, 566 N.E.2d 1224, cert. denied, 501 U.S. 1257, 111 S. Ct. 2904 (1991); Hearn v. City of Overland Park, 244 Kan. 638, 772 P.2d 758, cert. denied, 493 U.S. 976, 110 S. Ct. 500 (1989).)

These ordinances are attacked primarily on two grounds. First, opponents claim the laws are unconstitutionally vague because they don't define "pit bull" sufficiently. To be constitutional, a law must be specific enough to give dog owners fair warning about what kinds of dogs are illegal. One court ruled that a Lynn, Massachusetts, ordinance was unconstitutionally vague because it depended on "the subjective understanding of dog officers of the appearance of an ill-defined 'breed,' [and] leaves dog owners to guess at what conduct or dog 'look' is prohibited … [S]uch a law gives unleashed discretion to the dog officers charged with its enforcement … " (American Dog Owners Ass'n, Inc. v. City of Lynn, 404 Mass. 73, 533 N.E.2d 642 (1989).)

But most courts don't require much in the way of specifics. The Colorado Supreme Court, upholding a Denver ordinance regulating pit bulls, stated that the behaviorial and physical characteristics set out in the law were enough to put a dog owner on notice. The court stressed that a law passes constitutional muster if it gives dog owners some standard of conduct, even if it is imprecise. (Colorado Dog Fanciers, Inc. v. City and County of Denver, 820 P.2d 644 (Colo. 1991).) The Washington Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion. (American Dog Owners Association v. City of Yakima, 113 Wash. 2d 213 (1989).)

The second argument is that it is arbitrary to ban one kind of dog, so the laws violate the owners' constitutional due process rights. After all, pit bulls aren't the only dogs that injure people. Fatal dog attacks have been caused by, among other breeds, cocker spaniels and dachshunds. This argument has been largely unsuccessful. As the Colorado Supreme Court noted, it is generally recognized that when a legislature chooses to regulate a hazard, it is "not required to simultaneously regulate every similar hazard."

Should Some Breeds Be Banned?

Pit-bull-type dogs and rottweilers typically account for more than half of all fatal attacks on humans. ("Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998," by Sacks, Sinclair, Gilchrist, Golab and Lockwood, J. Am. Vet. Med. Ass'n., Vol. 217, No. 6 (Sept. 15, 2000).) Along with huskies and Malamutes, and breeds developed for guarding and police work, including German shepherds, mastiffs, akitas, chow chows, and Dobermans, they consistently show up on the list of most-likely-to-bite breeds. Why not ban them?

First of all, bans are hard to enforce. What exactly is a pit bull? There is no one pit-bull breed and no reliable way of identifying a dog as one of the pit-bull breeds. And because "pit bull" has become synonymous with "mean," any dog that bites someone and has a passing resemblance to a bulldog is likely to be labeled a pit bull.

They may also be ineffective at solving the underlying problem of too many dangerously aggressive dogs. When one breed is banned, people who want a macho dog just get a different breed. For example, after some cities banned pit bulls, rottweilers increased in popularity.

The most basic problem with breed-specific laws, however, is that they ignore the fact that dogs are individuals. Within any breed, there are sweet dogs and aggressive ones—and even within breeds that have been bred to notice low-level stimuli that other dogs might ignore (a trait that an owner can turn into aggressiveness), most of the individual dogs are not dangerous. Any dog's behavior is influenced by its breeding, its health, its socialization, and its environment.

Banning a breed is easy—but may give "a false sense of accomplishment," according to the report of a task force of the American Veterinary Medical Association. (A community approach to dog bite prevention, J. Am. Vet. Med. Ass'n, Vol. 218, No. 11 (2001).) The report advocates a far more rigorous and broad-based approach to preventing dog bites, including community education and organization, better reporting, and spaying and neutering programs (about three-quarters of reported dog bites are by intact males).

Pit bulls are the current villains of the dog world. Before they took center stage, German shepherds and Dobermans were characterized in the same way: vicious, unpredictable canine time-bombs. Pit bulls, in fact, were the epitome of the all-American dog in the early part of this century. Pete the Pup, in the old "Our Gang" movies, was a pit bull. Teddy Roosevelt had a pit bull in the White House. And on a World War I poster that used dogs to symbolize the various nations, America was a pit bull—stalwart, unafraid, but not belligerent.

More Reading

The Center for Insurance Policy and Research (CIPR) summarizes the history of breed-specific laws in the United States, why these laws became popular, and why they have recently fallen out of favor. If you have questions about the rules where you live, the website BSL Census maintains a updated list of state and local breed-specific laws across the country. You can also get information directly from your city and town, either online or by contacting the local police department or animal control office.

Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog, by Vicki Hearne (Harper Collins), is the story of a dog branded vicious and ordered destroyed by the State of Connecticut—and how the dog became the author's valued companion. The book is a philosophical discussion of dogs, people, and the laws that try to regulate the relationship between them. It's also full of insights into dog behavior and breed traits, gained from the author's many years as a trainer.

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