Dangerous dog legislation needed
RECENT articles in the Observer expressing concern over pit bulls and their involvement in attacks on humans have generated discussion on the matter of legislation.
One proposal is for management of the situation through breed-specific legislation which would declare certain breeds as dangerous and would ban them. Adoption of legislation targeting certain breeds which are alleged to be aggressive has taken place in many countries. However, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals points out that such legislation, while having a considerable feel-good factor, does not address the real problems behind attacks by aggressive dogs, while penalising well-behaved dogs and responsible owners. In some jurisdictions, despite the adoption of such laws, legislators have had to look at other issues related to ownership of animals, including better control of dogs by their owners and keeping dogs on a leash while in public.
A group of doctors, writing in the journal Pediatrics, after studying fatal dog attacks in the United States, note that dog bites are largely preventable and recommend public education on responsible dog ownership; including bite prevention, stronger animal control laws and better reporting on bites. They further state "breed-specific legislation does not address the issue that many breeds are involved and that most of the factors contributing to dog bites are related to the level of responsibility exercised by dog owners.[i]" There are also environmental factors which can influence dog-human aggression, such as puppies being separated from their mother and littermates too early, lack of socialisation, cruelty and abuse, and deliberate fostering of aggression by owners, among others.
Whatever the reason for aggressive behaviour, it is the responsibility of the owner of the dog to ensure that it does not pose a threat to the public. As for any hazard, prevention is the best approach. Aggressive dogs should be confined to their owners' premises, and leashed if off the premises. Dogs known to be aggressive should not be allowed to interact with humans without a muzzle. Such dogs should not be taken by surprise, eg woken suddenly from sleep, as the normal tendency is to defend itself by biting. Children should never be left unsupervised with dogs, and should be taught not to approach strange dogs. They should also be taught to be kind to animals; many bites result from provocation of long-suffering family pets.
Breed is no more a predictor of aggression in dogs than race is in humans. The majority of dogs of any breed are reasonably well behaved towards humans. If this were not so, attacks by dogs on humans would be far more common. Federsen-Peterson[ii] points out that the classification of dog breeds with respect to their relative danger to humans makes no sense, as, among other things, this does not consider the complex conditions in which aggression happens.
The concern over attacks by dogs is understandable, but as we seek to address this concern we should be sure that we are addressing cause rather than symptom. There should be laws on animal control with penalties for negligent owners. Responsible behaviour by owners should be encouraged through public education and should emphasise prevention of bites and attacks in order to protect the public as well as the animals.
Dr Barbara Carby serves the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at University of the West Indies, Mona, and is an animal lover and a certified dog trainer. in the US. firstname.lastname@example.org