The international effort to gain a reprieve for Lennox, who was impounded and destroyed by the Belfast City Council, has ignited the effort to revamp laws dealing with so-called dangerous dogs.
The authorities couldn’t tie Lennox to any dangerous behavior before he was impounded. Just being taken for a pit bull was evidence enough to kill him.
This kind of law, known as breed-specific legislation or BSL, is a frequent response to the problem of dogs who endanger people and other animals. BSL bans keeping certain breeds of dog that people tie to violent behavior in a city, state, province, or in the case of the U.K.’s dangerous dog act, an entire country. Some of the dog breeds that have been banned are or have included American bulldog, Australian cattle dog, doberman pinscher, fox terrier, labrador retriever, pug and rottweiler according to Dog Politics. The list Dog Politics compiled includes 75 breeds.
The case of Lennox illustrates just how difficult it can be to decide a dog’s breed from just looking at him. Belfast City Council argued that Lennox was a pit-bull type dog, which is banned in the United Kingdom, while the family said he was not. In fact, research, including a study conducted by scientists at Maddie’s Fund, University of Florida and Michigan State University, shows that visual identification of dog breed is unreliable at best. Shelter staff identified 55 of 120 dogs as pit bulls, but DNA analysis confirmed that only 25 of the dogs actually were pit bulls. The staff missed some dogs who turned out to be pit bulls, as well. In all, the people identified only eight percent of the pit bulls by sight.
Such research lends support to the work of grass roots activists and expert dog trainers who argue that laws should focus on dog behavior rather than breed identity and that the responsibility for dog behavior should be placed on humans.
Victoria Stilwell, of Animal Planet’s It’s Me Or The Dog, and who tried to gain release for Lennox for export from the U.K. to the United States, strongly advocates for legislation that focuses on dog behavior and the humans who are responsible for the dogs. Stilwell played a role in the drafting and adoption of such a law in the U.S. state of Georgia.
Georgia’s Responsible Dog Ownership Law
The State Bar of Georgia provides a concise summary of the “Responsible Dog Ownership Law.” The law provides for two designations based on a hearing to consider a dog’s behavior: dangerous and vicious.
Dogs can be classified as dangerous if they bite but don’t cause serious injury, aggressively attack in a way that poses threat of serious injury to a person or if they kill a pet animal while off their owner’s property. They can be classified as vicious if they cause serious injury to a person or causes serious injury to a person who is fleeing potential attack.
Owners of dogs declared dangerous must register their dog every year, lock the dog in a secure enclosure on their property, post a warning at all entrances to the property. When a dangerous dog leaves the owner’s property, the dog must be on a leash (less than six feet) and be under control of a person who is capable of preventing engagement between the dog and another animal or person. If the human fails to comply with these and a few other requirements, the dog will be confiscated. Violation of the requirements or failure to surrender the dog is a misdemeanor.
Declaration that a dog is vicious results in similar requirement, although more stringent — including a muzzle along with the leash when leaving the owner’s property — and with violation classified as “high and aggravated misdemeanor.” In addition, a human may not own more than one vicious dog and must carry at least a $50,000 liability insurance policy. A dog declared vicious may not be left unattended with a minor. Ever. Also, vicious dogs can’t be sold or given to anyone.
A second offense of a dog owner under the Responsible Dog Owner Law will be considered a felony.
A dog who is found to have seriously injured a human for a second time shall be euthanized. The law also allows a judge to find that there is no adequate way to control a dog. In such cases, the judge may order euthanasia if the owner has been convicted of a crime related to the dog or if a local government has filed a request for euthanasia of the dog.
Ownership of a dog is defined to hold parents responsible for their children’s dogs and to place responsibility on whoever is in control of the dog at the time of the attack. That means humans can no longer claim the dog who hurt someone belongs to someone else to avoid responsibility.
Other Relevant CasesOther states and cities in the U.S. South still have breed bans, but some are beginning to reconsider them. KNWA reported that West Fork, Arkansas, decided 11 July not to ban pit bulls after a long controversy. The mayor of the Southern city said the council would rewrite the law to focus on owner responsibility.
Meanwhile, another accused dog is gaining international attention. Shadow, an Alaskan Malamute, has been found responsible for biting a woman in British Columbia, Canada. Shadow’s supporters argue that she didn’t bite the woman. Instead, they contend, the woman’s own dog bit her after she kicked Shadow in the head. Supporters have started a Facebook page and more than 9,000 people have signed a petition to advocate that Shadow be exonerated.
As in the case of Lennox, advocates have raised serious questions about the conditions of Shadow’s confinement, which has lasted 15 months so far. The events in Kelowna, B.C. have been covered by Global News.
The photo of the pit bull puppy was originally published by greenkozi on Flickr and is used here under a Creative Commons License.