Overview of “Breed Specific” Laws

Simply put, a “breed specific” law, regulation, case, prosecution or anything else is one that is based on the breed of a particular dog, as opposed to the conduct of the specific dog. For example, a law that states, “All pit bulls shall be muzzled when upon public property” is breed specific.

In many countries throughout the world, attempts to bring down the number of dog bites have included measures taken to reduce the number of dogs considered to be dangerous. As discussed at length in Vicious Dogs, a dog can be considered dangerous because of its actions, its breed or its owner. Certain breeds of dog have been associated statistically, judicially and politically with an unacceptable level of risk of harm to human beings, but it also must be noted that the data, court decisions and legislative pronouncements are inconclusive and controversial. (See Vicious Dogs for details.)

In the USA, great amount of negative attention has been directed to pit bull type dogs and Rottweilers. “Pit bull type dogs” is a term that is used to describe dogs that have been bred for fighting and killing other animals, and includes dogs of various sizes and appearances, but which have a number of common characteristics such as exaggerated jaw muscles, heavy necks and shoulders, and large physical mass. It should be noted that experts have disagreed as to whether these dogs have been primarily bred for killing, or whether such common characteristics actually exist. Despite disagreement over how the dogs have been bred, however, it appears perfectly clear that pit bulls cause the most serious injuries and the most human deaths.

  • Between January 1, 2013, and May 12, 2013 (the date this is written), there have been 13 canine homicides in the USA, and 12 of them have been by pit bulls. (See “News” on the home page of dogbitelaw.com, as well as the site’s News Archive.)
  • A review of 82 dog bite cases at a level 1 trauma center where the breed of dog was identified concludes that attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs. Bini, John K. MD; Cohn, Stephen M. MD; Acosta, Shirley M. RN, BSN; McFarland, Marilyn J. RN, MS; Muir, Mark T. MD; Michalek, Joel E. PhD; for the TRISAT Clinical Trials Group, Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs, Annals of Surgery (April 2011, Vol. 253, Issue 4, pp. 791ā€“797).
  • A 3-year study of fatal dog attacks upon humans in 2006, 2007 and 2008 established that pit bulls were the killers 59% of the time. DogsBite.org, Report: U.S. Dog Bite, Fatalities January 2006 to December 2008 (2009).

There is compelling evidence, moreover, that the pit bull problem is becoming worse exponentially. Merritt Clifton’s 30-year study of dog attacks establishes that 65% of the pit bull attacks resulting in someone being killed or maimed during the past 30 years have occurred in the past 10 years. Clifton, Merritt, 30-Year Summary: Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada, September 1982 to December 26, 2011.

In the first 6 months of 2013, the USA saw 17 fatal dog attacks, and 16 were caused by pit bulls. It appears clear that the pit bull and similar “gripping” dogs or “high risk” dogs are too dangerous to be tolerated further. In the State of Maryland, the pit bull is considered to be vicious as a matter of law. Many communities have banned the breed or ordered all members of the breed to be spayed or neutered. The armed forces and public housing forbid the presence of these animals, many insurance companies will not insure them, and many landlords will not accept tenants who own them. But these measures have not ended the violence: a pit bull kills an innocent child or senior citizen every two weeks. Pit bulls not only kill people but also inflict, on a daily basis, the most horrific and costly bodily injuries on people and kill other people’s pets. An article by Colleen Lynn in the Orlando Sentinel convincingly argues that “Banning pit bulls saves lives and protects the innocent.”

Pit bulls are known to attack people in a random, sudden and unpredictable manner. For example, they engage in home invasions. On June 24, 2013, for example, pit bulls got into a residence in Absecon, New Jersey, and killed the dog that was living there. (Read the story about Louis and Linda Nell and their dog.) Recently, a jury rendered a $2.2 million verdict against an animal control department and the owner of pit bulls that attacked a woman inside her home. Sue Gorman suffered bites to her arms, face, neck, chest and nose during the 2007 attack and was briefly hospitalized. The animal control department failed to respond to numerous prior complaints about the same dogs. The case is yet another in a series of wake-up calls to cities and counties: you must increase the funding of your animal control agencies, and the officers must be far more diligent in ridding communities of vicious dogs. (Read about the case, and read more about the liability of animal control departments.)

Pit bulls are often trained to attack people. See video of the pit bull attack on a TV news reporter, which resulted in the arrest of the owner, who “sicced” the dog on the reporter because the owner did not want to be interviewed.

Another type of dog has also received special, negative treatment, namely the wolf-dog hybrid (also called a wolf hybrid or wolfdog). This is a canid hybrid resulting from the mating of a wolf and a dog. It is widely believed that wolfdogs are highly dangerous as a breed. For example, the Humane Society of the United States says that “


rossbreeding wolves with domesticated dogs produces animals with the same wild instincts of the wolf. They are extremely unpredictable as pets, especially around children.” (Wolf and Wolf-Dog Hybrid Incidents Demonstrate the Need for Exotic Pet Bans, July 21, 2006.) According to the National Wolfdog Alliance, 40 U.S. states effectively forbid the ownership, breeding and importation of wolfdogs, with most others imposing some form of regulation upon ownership. (For more about wolfdogs, see wolf-dog hybrid at Answers.com. For the laws pertaining to wolfdog, see National Wolfdog Alliance, Current State Regulations as they Pertain to Wolves and Wolfdogs.)

A list of breed specific jurisdictions within the United States can be found at Rott-N-Chatter. Other countries have their own lists of dangerous breeds. Here are several examples:

Germany. The dogs regarded as most dangerous in Germany are the American Pit Bull, English Bull terrier, and American Staffordshire Terrier; regarded as less dangerous are other Bull terriers, the Mastiff, Bull mastiff, and Rhodesian Ridgeback. In a study from 1992 to 1996 that involved 245 German cities, cross breeds caused the most bites (2376), followed by German shepherds (1956), Pit Bulls (320), Dobermans (223) and Bull terriers (169). K. Seksel, Report to the NSW Department of Local Government on Breed Specific Legislations Issues Relating To Control of Dangerous Dogs, 7-8 (2002).

Japan: In Japan, the Shiba, Akita and Toza are regarded as the most dangerous. There are no breed bans in Japan. Ibid.

United Kingdom. Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has special requirements for four types of dog: the Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, and Fila Braziliero. These dogs must be registered, muzzled in public and neutered. The penalty for violating the Act originally was seizure and destruction of the dog, but there was much public outrage. The effectiveness of the Act also was questioned; a study by the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Department of Accident and Emergency, concluded that the number of dog bites was unaffected. B. Heady and P. Krause, “Health Benefits and Potential Public Savings Due to Pets: Australian and German Survey Results,” cited in Australian Social Monitor, Vol.2, No.2, May 1999. In 1997 the government amended the Act by removing the mandatory death sentence for any unregistered dog deemed to be a dangerous breed and gave courts discretion as to the penalty. For the text of the law, see Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, United Kingdom, The Control of Dogs. For an analysis and critique of the law, see Neil, Alex, Proposed Control of Dogs (Scotland) Bill.

New Zealand. In New Zealand, the Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, and Fila Braziliero are classed as menacing dogs, meaning they have to be muzzled in public and neutered. Under the Dog Control Act, dogs that attack people or domestic animals may be seized or destroyed to stop an attack. Any verified attack can result in the dog owner receiving infringement notices that carry a maximum fine of $3000. For an attack causing serious injury to a person, an owner faces a maximum three-year prison term or a $20,000 fine. The dog is destroyed unless circumstances do not justify it.

The association of dog bites, canine inflicted human fatalities, and breeds has lead to the controversial and growing practice of breed bans in some jurisdictions and industries. (See generally, Lockwood R. Humane concerns about dangerous dog laws. University of Dayton Law Review 1988;13:267-77.) For example, in some places it is illegal to import, breed, or sell pit bull terriers. Further, they must be registered, kept muzzled and on a lead when in public places, and, in order to ensure the type dies out, they must also be neutered. In some places, pit bull owners are required to carry canine liability insurance in some minimum amount, such as $50,000.00. Rott-n-Chatter.com has a current list of cities and countries with such laws. Dogsbite.org has published an informative article entitled Breed Specific Legislation FAQ which is intended to “empower advocates and city officials who support breed-specific laws. The FAQ drills down into the effectiveness of these ordinances, which breeds are involved and the three most common types of ordinances. The FAQ provides examples for each ordinance type, jurisdictions that achieved strong results and highlights the public support for pit bull ban ordinances by reviewing two recent election results.”

In the United States, most breed bans have been upheld. 80 A.L.R.4th 70 (1991) [American Law Reports ALR4th, Volume 80 (1991) Current through the September, 1998, Supplement Annotation] “Validity and Construction of Statute, Ordinance, or Regulation Applying to Specific Dog Breeds, Such As ‘Pit Bulls’ or ‘Pit Bull Terriers’,” by Russell G. Donaldson, J. D. Court cases generally acknowledge that dogs are dangerous because they are used to create danger, not necessarily because they are inherently dangerous. When the dog is a pit bull, however, the rulings are inconsistent. (See below, Breed Specific Court Rulings.)

In the State of Maryland, the highest court ruled as a matter of law that pit bulls are inherently dangerous. The court’s decision was based on a thorough review of all of the evidence and on consideration of arguments presented by a wide array of experts and organizations. See Tracey v. Solesky, — A.3d —-, 2012 WL 1432263 (Md.,2012).

Another approach to dog bite prevention is a law containing regulations that are breed specific. The following ordinance was in effect in Santa Monica, California, before the state prohibited breed-based laws (see below for the reference to section 31683 of the California Food and Agriculture Code):

4.04.410 Vicious dogs.

(a) No person owning or harboring any pit bull or any other dog subject to this Section pursuant to subdivision (b) shall within the limits of the City allow or permit such dog, whether licensed or not, to be upon the public streets, public sidewalks, public parks, or any other public place within the City, or upon any private property which is not fully enclosed by fence or other barrier, except when muzzled and held under leash by an able bodied person.

(b) This Section shall apply to any dog for which the Animal Control Officer has issued, based upon the vicious or predatory nature of the dog, a written notice to the person owning or harboring such dog to keep the dog muzzled and leashed in accordance with this Section.

(c) For purposes of this Section, “pit bull” means any pit bull terrier of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or American Pit Bull Terrier breed of dog or any mixed breed of dog which contains as an element of its breeding the breed of Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or American Pit Bull Terrier as to be identified as partially of the breed of Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or American Pit Bull Terrier. (Former section 4.04.410 of the Santa Monica Municipal Code.)

In the editorial, It’s Time for the Pit Bull “Recall” Too, Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, the author of this site, pointed out that in June 2013, Chrysler agreed to recall 2.7 million Jeeps because in 14 years there were at least 37 Jeep accidents that caused at least 51 deaths. He compares those numbers with deaths caused by pit bulls: in 7 years (half the number of years), pit bulls killed 151 Americans (three times as many as those killed in Jeeps). Phillips asserted that there are those who believe it is at least as important to fix the pit bull problem as it is to fix the Jeep problem.

Another approach is to enact laws that regulate dogs that exceed a specific size or weight. This type of regulation is permitted by the federal government. 42 U.S.C. section 1437zā€“3 (Pet ownership in public housing) makes it legal to prohibit animals in public housing, on the basis of their size and weight.

One problem with laws directed at pit bulls has been the definition of “pit bull”:

“What exactly is a pit bull? Defining it has proved to be a formidable legal hurdle because the pit bull is not a specific breed. Rather, it is a kind of dog, a generic catchall like hound or retriever. The breeds most commonly referred to as pit bulls are the American Staffordshire terrier, which is the term used by the American Kennel Club, and the American pit bull terrier, the term used by the United Kennel Club. The men who match pit bulls in fights today do not bother with such formalities; they refer to their animals as bulldogs — a nickname which should not confuse pit bulls with the pug-faced and bowlegged English bulldog, a distant relative, or the bullterrier, another relation whose bloodline was softened long ago by crossbreeding with the English Terrier. Pit bulls come in almost any color; their ears may be cropped or uncropped; their noses either red or black; and their height and weight merely proportionate — with the weight parameters ranging from under 20 pounds to upwards of 100. Their muzzles are wedgelike, their jaws powerful and their heads blocky. A pit bull’s coat will be short and glossy, shimmering over a compact frame tightly bound in muscle.” E.M. Swift, “The Pit Bull: Friend and Killer. Is the Pit Bull a Fine Animal, As Its Admirers Claim, Or Is It a Vicious Dog, Unfit For Society?” Sports Illustrated, 07-27-1987, pp 72.)

The website page entitled “Find the Pitbull” presents photographs of 25 dogs, out of which 16 are pit bull type dogs or other fighting dogs. Although the intention of the author of that page is to convince readers that pit bulls are just like other dogs, in fact the comparison makes a different and more important point, namely that the aggressive breeds all resemble each other, and that there are a number of external physical traits that should warn a person that a dog of that breed has been bred to kill. However, this observation leads to another issue, namely just how many breeds should be targeted if we are to target any. Look again at the variety of breeds that are banned or restricted in Germany, Japan and The Netherlands, and recall the confusion in the media when it was learned that the dogs that killed Diane Whipple in San Francisco were Presa Canarios — clearly among the most dangerous of all dogs in the world, but almost totally unknown in the USA. One writer has expressed the problem this way:

“The primary difficulty in determining which breeds are most dangerous has to do with the floating numerator (i.e., numerator floating without its denominator). It is important that we know not only the percentage of bites from a given breed but also the total number of that breed in the general canine population and the amount of time the dog spends around humans. Such denominator data are unavailable.” (James R. Blackman, M.D., J Am Board Fam Pract 11(2):167-169, 1998.)

Banning certain breeds leaves open the possibility that a determined person can obtain an equally dangerous dog that is not on the list of those that have been banned. It is for this reason that legal authorities and experts in canine aggression generally appear to be opposed to breed bans. See., i.e., Safia Gray Hussain, “Attacking the Dog-bite Epidemic: Why Breed-Specific Legislation Won’t Solve the Dangerous-dog Dilemma,” 74 Fordham L. Rev. 2847 (April 2006), citing Mr. Phillips’ comments in this website 24 times. The Lockwood article cited earlier suggests that, because the problem dog breeds change over the course of time, targeting a specific breed may be unproductive; a more effective approach may be to target chronically irresponsible dog owners. One of the foremost researchers in the area of canine aggression, Dr. Lockwood has stated:

“A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog. It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions — the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation.” (Malcolm Gladwell, “Troublemakers – What pit bulls can teach us about profiling,” The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2006.)

For these and other reasons, 19 American states have passed laws that forbid the banning of breeds. For example, the California Legislature has made it illegal for California cities and counties to pass laws based on breed. Section 31683 of the California Food and Agriculture Code provides:

31683. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to prevent a city or county from adopting or enforcing its own program for the control of potentially dangerous or vicious dogs that may incorporate all, part, or none of this chapter, or that may punish a violation of this chapter as a misdemeanor or may impose a more restrictive program to control potentially dangerous or vicious dogs, provided that no program shall regulate these dogs in a manner that is specific as to breed.

Such laws may contain legal loopholes or be contradicted by others that permit a degree of breed-banning. For example, Section 31683, quoted above, exists side-by-side with Section 122330 of the California Health and Safety Code, which says: “Though no specific breed of dog is inherently dangerous or vicious, the growing pet overpopulation and lack of regulation of animal breeding practices necessitates a repeal of the ban on breed-specific solutions and a more immediate alternative to existing laws.” (Sec. 122330, subd. (b) (2005).) Compounding the confusion, Section 122331 of the same code says: “Cities and counties may enact dog breed-specific ordinances pertaining only to mandatory spay or neuter programs and breeding requirements, provided that no specific dog breed, or mixed dog breed, shall be declared potentially dangerous or vicious under those ordinances.” The intent of these laws is to permit cities and counties within California to regulate breeds by requiring members of the breed to be spayed or neutered. Critics have argued that these contradictions will open the door to a wide range of problems for the owners of these breeds (see, for example, D. Capp, “SB 861 – Why Is It Bad?”.)

Thirteen states have rejected laws that forbid the banning of breeds.

To solve the dog bite epidemic, Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips and many other experts have suggested that a wide-ranging approach is necessary, as outlined in Preventing Dog Bites.