When Dogs Are Criminalized, Only Criminals Will Own Them

Kansas City has followed the lead of Denver and Ontario, Canada in instituting a ban on pit bulls. Any pit bulls found in the city will either be turned over to shelters outside the city or, more likely, euthanized.

Breed-specific prohibitions are a bad idea for a variety of reasons, but the most glaring is that the most common target of these laws – the “pit bull” – isn’t really a breed, but a generic name given to dogs with those features we’ve come to associated with aggression. The “pit bull” very generally refers to the American Staffordshire Terrier, but can include a number of breeds with similar features, including the most recent Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club and, more importantly, one of my dogs. (We were repeatedly warned when she was a puppy that she might be mistaken for a pit bull, but she’s the sweetest, most harmless dog I’ve ever known, unless you happen to be a rug or a pair of shoes).

What’s more, as the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, it’s not even clear that pit bulls deserve their reputation:

A Georgia-based group called the American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. “We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,” Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. “I’ve tested half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.”

Pit bulls do boast strong jaws that can lock into place. But many breeds can deliver a nasty bite when provoked. The attention directed at pit bulls seems more due to their trendiness, not to any unique aggressiveness in their genetics. The tough guy dog du jour was once the equally powerful Rottweiler.

Which means the problem is with the owners, not the dogs. Ban pit bulls, and the riffraff that uses them for nefarious purposes will move on to another breed.

The law in Kansas City, however, is particularly dumb. Apparently, the city has instituted an “amnesty period,” during which well-intentioned owners can turn their pups over for euthanizing without facing a fine.

To see the folly in this proposal, let’s consider two hypothetical put bull owners.

Owner A is a family who had the misfortune of picking a pit bull from the pet store, breeder, or pound. They’ve raised the dog as a pet, and it lives in a happy, loving home. It’s harmless.

Owner B is a drug dealer who bought a pit bull to protect his contraband. He has trained the dog to attack. The dog, obviously, is vicious and dangerous.

Which dog owner is more likely to follow the law, and take advantage of the amnesty period? Which dog is more likely to be turned over and euthanized?

Seems to me that Kansas City has created a scenario where all of the harmless pit bulls around town will be destroyed, leaving only the dangerous ones.

Which of course will (1) reinforce stereotypes about the breed, and (2) likely give police license to shoot on sight any dog remotely resembling a pit bull without much in the way of repercussions.