Rethinking the Regulation of Dog Breeds

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Municipalities must reexamine existing pet ordinances as a new state law takes effect.

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A recently enacted law in the state of Washington sets a bold new standard for any county or city that restricts specific dog breeds. The state now mandates that if any dog—no matter the breed—passes a canine good behavior test, local jurisdictions must exempt that dog from any breed-based regulation or ban.

The state law took effect on January 1, 2020 and has served as a catalyst for municipalities to consider whether regulations targeting specific dog breeds are in the best interest of public safety and fairness. Local governments throughout Washington have responded to the new law either by amending existing breed-based restrictions to create a good behavior exemption, or by abolishing breed regulations altogether.

Breed-specific legislation refers to laws, ordinances, and regulations that impose restrictions or bans on dogs of specific breeds. In the United States and in other countries, some governments completely ban residents from owning specific breeds of dogs. Others allow ownership but impose conditions such as requiring dogs of certain breeds to wear a muzzle in public at all times.

These regulations often target breeds such as American Pit Bull Terriers, Doberman Pinschers, and German Shepherds, as well as any mixed breed dog whose lineage includes a banned breed. And since enforcing a breed-specific regulation often requires animal control officers to identify a dog’s breed visually—rather than through genetic testing or breeding documents—these laws regularly ensnare dogs that simply resemble a banned breed.

In total, more than 75 breeds are restricted or banned somewhere in the United States. In fact, over 700 jurisdictions in the United States have some form of breed-specific legislation, and federal law also prohibits several dog breeds from living on military bases.

Proponents of breed-specific legislation argue that certain dog breeds are inherently dangerous and that public safety improves when such dogs are not allowed in a community. Dog breed regulations are often enacted in jurisdictions after a dog bite incident receives extensive media coverage, prompting calls for government action against the breed of dog involved.

But opponents of breed-specific legislation maintain that breed bans cause significant negative impacts on good dogs and good people, with no measurable benefit to public safety. The American Kennel Club argues that breed laws are “like racial profiling” and that all they do is “punish responsible dog owners without holding owners of truly dangerous dogs accountable.” Owners of banned breeds often “must choose between relocating to a different town or getting rid of their dog,” increasing the number of dogs surrendered to and eventually euthanized by overcrowded animal shelters.

Instead of focusing on a dog’s breed, the American Kennel Club argues that “addressing the issue of irresponsible ownership is a much more effective method of animal control.” A recent study of fatal dog attacks in the United States found that breed was not a statistically significant factor in dog bite cases. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) opposes breed bans and states that “no convincing data indicates this strategy has succeeded anywhere to date.”

Instead, research has identified several owner-related risk factors that do contribute to dog aggression. These include dogs that are not neutered or spayed, have been isolated from positive human contact, or belong to owners with prior incidents of dog mismanagement, neglect, or abuse. When even one of these risk factors is present, fatal dog attacks are more likely to occur regardless of breed. When more than one risk factor is present, the likelihood of dog aggression further increases.

Organizations like the ASPCA and the American Kennel Club advocate public safety laws promoting responsible dog ownership—such as enhanced animal cruelty and fighting laws, licensing laws with a surcharge for unaltered pets, and low-cost spay and neuter programs. These groups favor regulations that “clearly define dangerous behavior in all breeds” and “establish a fair process” to determine whether a particular dog is dangerous.

In response to growing opposition to breed-specific legislation, the Washington state legislature passed House Bill 1026 last year, mandating that any local ordinance imposing breed-based requirements must include an exemption for dogs that pass the American Kennel Club “canine good citizen test” or an equivalent dog behavior test. The state law is similar to a previously existing regulation in the city of Omaha, Nebraska, which includes an exemption for well-behaved dogs in its breed-specific legislation. These types of regulations may not completely satisfy advocates on either side of the debate over dog-related risks, but they do reflect a balance between the authority of local governments and the individual rights of responsible dog owners.