Public safety is enhanced when dogs are targeted by behaviour not appearance

The title is part of a statement from Katie Barnett, an animal law attorney and the attorney for Kristi Bond, the owner of Lucy, a dog which was said by animal control in the area where she lives to be a pit bull type or have the appearance of a pit bull dog. Bond lives in Leawood Kansas City, Missouri. She’s been fighting the local authorities over Lucy. They have a law which states that citizens in Leawood cannot own a dog which looks like a pit bull. The problem is the law was drafted way too loosely. It allows animal control and the judge or the police to use their discretion widely and decide if a dog is dangerous based on appearance only.

Kristi Bond, Lucy their dog and her daughter. They won their fight to keep Lucy.
Kristi Bond, Lucy their dog and her daughter. They won their fight to keep Lucy. Photo: Kristi Bond.

The Leawood law states that there is a ban on “any pit bull dog, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, or any animal having the appearance or characteristics of being predominantly of the breeds known as Pit Bull, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or American Pit Bull Terrier.”

Bond had to decide between living in Leawood or moving because she liked her neighbours, she liked the area and she loved her dog, Lucy. She was forced into fighting back when she was told that she had to get rid of Lucy. And she won.

On appeal from a previous hearing, the judge decided that the law was unconstitutional on the basis that it was too vague. It lacks precision and was unworkable as a consequence. That’s my interpretation. There are other flaws in this ordinance which I mention below.

You can’t, it was decided, ban dogs on vaguely worded appearance characteristics and decide that because of the dog’s appearance it is dangerous. In short, a ban on dogs should be based upon behavioural characteristics and not appearance.

Nathan Winograd in an email to me says that 50% of dogs labelled as pit bulls lack DNA breed signatures of breeds commonly classified as pit bulls. He also states that dogs targeted for breed discriminatory laws are not more likely to bite. And neither do they bite harder and such bans do not result in fewer dog bites or dog bite-related hospitalisations. Further, enforcement of this sort of ban is expensive and it apparently has no measurable impact on public safety.

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In addition, when there are breed specific bans in place good dogs die in shelters. This is because incorrect judgements about a dog’s potential danger to society made on appearance results in dogs with the ‘wrong appearance’ according to the law ending up in shelters where they are euthanised.

There are other jurisdictions perhaps at city, county or state level in the USA which probably have similar laws about banning dogs that stereotypically look like pit bulls and therefore are stereotypically dangerous. These laws would probably be found to be unconstitutional as well if they were challenged. In the Leawood case the unconstitutional nature of this local ordinance would not have been examined in court by a judge if Kristi Bond had not taken it that far.

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The looseness of the wording of this ordinance is emphasised in many ways one of which is that a dog regarded as dangerous based on appearance in one metropolitan area would not be assessed in the same way in another metropolitan area. This apparently happens quite a lot according to Shannon Wells, Lawrence Humane Society’s Executive Director.

In the court case which found in favour of Kristi Bond, many experts gave evidence and they all testified that it is difficult to determine a dog’s breed by their general appearance. Further, subjective visual breed identification is unreliable. Also, you can’t say that any particular breed of dog is inherently aggressive or dangerous. In other words, you can’t assign aggressiveness to a breed. And thirdly, when you have breed specific ordinances i.e. local laws, it does not promote the stated purpose of protecting the safety and welfare of the community.

It is hoped that this sort of unworkable law is examined by other jurisdictions and that they reflect on whether their version is acceptable and/or constitutional.

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