Puppy Mills and Pit Bulls––is legislation the right approach?

In my state of Oregon there are two pieces of dog-related legislation currently being considered. HB 2470 is supposed to address puppy mills, HB 2852 is ostensibly aimed at increasing public safety from “dangerous dogs”.

These goals are hard to disagree with, but the details of both bills are such as to cause concern in people who know and love dogs.

HB 2470, the “Puppy Mill” Bill

The first, for example, contains a so-called “lemon law” provision giving puppy buyers legal recourse against sellers if:

Section 5 (1) (b) Within two years after the customer acquires the dog, a veterinarian states in writing that the dog has, or that the dog died as a result of, a congenital or hereditary defect adversely affecting the health of the dog or requiring hospitalization or nonelective surgical procedures.

The buyer is entitled to reimbursement for vet expenses up to 100% (or in some cases 150%) of the purchase price of the dog) in combination with returning the dog for a full refund, exchanging the dog for another, or keeping the dog.

This sounds fair and workable at first glance, but the greatest problems of illness and unsoundness come from dogs bred by backyard breeders (“Hey, my female Lab is in heat, your male looks good, let’s introduce them and sell some puppies!”) and from actual puppy mills that mass-produce dogs for profit. Neither of these is likely to pay up willingly (puppy mills sell to pet stores through nation-wide brokers, so there is some doubt about even identifying the breeder of a specific puppy). Then the dog owner has to go to court for the $350?

Reputable breeders work hard to eliminate the known genetic flaws from their breed and from the puppies they produce; often, they also have buyers sign a contract in which the buyer promises to contact the breeder at any time if unable to keep it. The breeder wants to be consulted on suitable re-homing, and to be the home of last resort if no suitable home can be found. Good breeders love their dogs; they want to keep them out of shelters and bad homes. Breed enthusiasts operate rescue programs for their breed, for the same reasons.

If a dedicated breeder has done due diligence in genetic choice of a breeding pair, had all the tests done, monitored the dogs for heritable defects, and still at age one year a puppy develops a genetic fault, shall we hold that person as liable as some for-profit breeder who has done none of those things?

My observation has been that the only way to make money from breeding dogs is to go the backyard breeder/puppy mill route: low overhead, no varying of breeding stock but using the animals at hand, dogs kept in low-rent conditions (the way dogs are housed and kept at puppy mills would make a stone weep), minimal vet care, and sell everything you breed without testing, socialization, screening buyers, or making guarantees.

HB 2852: Your dog may be labelled a “dangerous dog”

The second bill, HB 2852, is in large part what’s known as “Breed-Specific Legislation”. The Feb, 24, 2009 version actually forbade future ownership of pit bulls and lookalikes, with big fines and euthanasia as penalties, and required special permits and insurance for current owners. The revision, after great outcry, requires owners to carry $1 million in mandatory liability insurance coverage (“failure to prove compliance with order punishable by maximum fine of $720 per day”).

And other provisions would have drastic consequences for all dog breeds by broadening definitions of “dangerous dogs” which are subject to court-ordered restrictions, insurance requirements, and even euthanasia. As far as I can tell the bill still contains a provision under which “menacing” a person, off your property, for “no good reason”, can result in classification as “dangerous” and result in court-ordered insurance and enclosure requirements or even euthanasia. What constitutes “menacing”? A growl, a lunge?

This bill is opposed by the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association; they oppose all breed-specific legislation, I am told.

In brief, the objections to Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) are:

• vagueness of identifying the breeds subject to the law
• increasing the “outlaw” cachet of some breeds which are already being abused by dogfighters, criminals, and garden-variety macho dog owners who acquire them as ego accessories
• using scarce public resources against a single breed rather than supporting the public education which is the most important element for increasing public safety with regard to dogs, as well as for reducing abuse of dogs

Vagueness of identifying the breeds subject to the law

Vagueness helps accomplish the real aim of BSL, which is to eradicate certain breeds. This bill defines “pit bull” as

(b) ‘Pit bull’ means a dog that:

(A) Is registered or otherwise listed as an American pit bull
terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or American Staffordshire
terrier with a dog breed club or league, dog fanciers
association, breed registry or similar organization; or

(B) Has appearance and physical characteristics that
substantially conform to the breed standards of the United Kennel
Club for an American pit bull terrier or of the American Kennel
Club for a Staffordshire bull terrier or American Staffordshire
terrier, as those standards existed on January 1, 2009.
[Section 1 (b), HB 2852]

This means that shelters will euthanize any dogs that could possibly be seen as “bullish” whether they look pure-bred or are mixes. They’ll be unadoptable and potentially a legal liability. Present owners of dogs that are pit bulls, or resemble them, will be in a quandary: get expensive insurance, risk huge liability if any incident occurs (your dog accidentally knocks over a child, or bites a person teasing him), or get rid of their dogs. Some estimate that at least a dozen different recognized dog breeds could fall into the loose definition, which will be applied in individual cases by someone with no special knowledge (a judge, a policeman, your neighbor).

In the city and county of Denver, where pit bulls have been illegal since 1989, Denver’s Division of Animal Control impounded 689 pit-bull-looking dogs in 2003. “All we can do is say what they look like,” said the Director of the Division. Since enforcement got serious in 2005, 1,667 dogs have been euthanized because they appeared pit bull-like.

Increasing “outlaw” cachet and macho accessorizing

What else needs to be said about this?

Re-directing public resources and attention

It’s easy to pass feel-good legislation, much harder to do what is necessary to truly address a problem. As far as dog safety goes, the problem is not the breed but the owner. And also those breeders who produce dogs without regard for temperament or overall health (including truly evil people who breed dogs, and abuse dogs, in order to make vicious creatures).

Both of the bills described above would be expensive to enforce. When Joan’s boxer mix is impounded, she sues the county: Prove he’s a pit bull! And the “puppy mill bill”, HB 2470, sets out specific rules for how dogs are kept by individuals that breed or sell a certain number of puppies per year; that’s great, but it is meaningless without enforcement. In this economic climate, the idea of adding county staff to investigate or inspect dog breeders is laughable.

Singling out specific breeds

Pit bulls do have very strong jaws, and were bred for fighting, but also for lack of aggression to humans, since in a fighting bout, humans in the ring separate the two dogs by hand. In addition, recent decades of breeding for stable companion dogs has created pit bulls that are gentle companions. The methods of those who train dogs today for fighting are savage, including starvation combined with feeding them small live animals, beating, and electrical shocks. Would this be necessary, if the average “bullish” dog were by nature an eager fighter and savage killer?
About half of the 51 brutalized dogs seized from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels have been evaluated and placed in permanent or foster homes; some have achieved Canine Good Citizen certification and a few are working as therapy dogs. The other half were judged too dog-aggressive for adoption, and sent to a special facility where most are now judged quite safe for staff and visitors to mingle with. Some of the 51 had been used as fighters, others––less eager to fight––as “bait dogs” for the others to “practice” on. Yet of them all only one was judged irredeemable and euthanized. [For details, see long Sports Illustrated article, one-page version here, and also a Washington Post article .]
Outlawing specific breeds such as pit bulls [American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers or American Staffordshires] or Presa Canarios would have little effect on numbers of dog bites—dog bite statistics are not very exact. The intent of breed bans is generally to reduce the number of serious and fatal dog attacks; the powerful jaws and tenacity of pit bulls, PresaCanarios, Rottweilers, and a few other breeds seem very threatening. Yet the American Animal Hospital Association has this to say on the issue:

A study performed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the CDC, and the Humane Society of the United States, analyzed dog bite statistics from the last 20 years and found that the statistics don’t show that any breeds are inherently more dangerous than others. The study showed that the most popular large breed dogs at any one time were consistently on the list of breeds that bit fatally. There were a high number of fatal bites from Doberman pinschers in the 1970s, for example, because Dobermans were very popular at that time and there were more Dobermans around, and because Dobermans’size makes their bites more dangerous. The number of fatal bites from pit bulls rose in the 1980s for the same reason, and the number of bites from rottweilers in the 1990s. The study also noted that there are no reliable statistics for nonfatal dog bites, so there is no way to know how often smaller breeds are biting.

Whatever the breed, the role of the owner in choosing, training, supervising, and caring for the dog is in my opinion the main reason that such attacks happen. Unscrupulous or ignorant breeders, who do not screen for temperament and health problems, and do not exercise care in placing puppies, are the second greatest cause.

I would love to see some of this bill’s provisions enacted and enforced everywhere: a limit of (in the current version) 25 intact sexually mature dogs per premise––personally I think that is too many but it is a start––and rules about care, housing, exercise, and health. As long as the rules are enforced fairly, and defined with regard to the varying circumstances of breeders, it improves the care of the dogs. An example of taking into account the varying circumstances of breeders: the bill requires that anyone with 10 or more sexually intact dogs over 4 months of age must provide each dog with an enclosure meeting certain requirements. One can imagine, especially with smaller dogs, someone who might have 10 dogs that do not even have individual enclosures, but are in the house and outside in a single large run or big fenced property; the bill seems to require that the breeder be able to point to some individual kennel for each of the ten dogs.

In the next post I’ll make some suggestions for a better approach to these issues, something that we dog owners can do ourselves.

For now, if you live in Oregon, please contact your legislators about these bills. At the National Animal Interest Alliance site you can send an email to your legislator about the Puppy Mill Bill, HB 2470; they also offer more information and suggested points to mention. To oppose the Pit Bull/Dangerous Dog legislation, cite HB 2852; there’s a state form here to identify your district’s legislators and get their email addresses. This page also gives contact information for your US Senators and Congressional Representative.

For readers who live elsewhere, the NAIA site has legislative alerts for national legislation as well as in each state. Sign up for alerts; see legislation in your state (don’t click on the map, go down farther and click on the link for your state). The AKC also has a legislative-watch page. Scanning these pages shows just how active the efforts are across the country, to enact restrictive and breed-specific legislation about dogs.

Letters to local newspapers setting out the actual provisions and consequences of proposed legislation are another way to oppose these bills. If legislators feel that their constituents are fooled by the beneficial titles (“Anti-Puppy Mill” or “Control Dangerous Dogs”) they don’t dare vote against them or support amendments.

One thought on “Puppy Mills and Pit Bulls––is legislation the right approach?

  1. It is highly unlikely that the legislation will have the desired effect – that is to reduce injuries caused by dogs.
    Banning PBTs to stop dog attacks has the same effect as banning Arabs to prevent terrorism. No change to the outcome, but plenty of people get upset along the way.

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