Lennox Case Shows How Breed-Specific Laws Aren’t Just a U.S. Problem

Responsible pet ownership, not breed-specific legislation, is the best approach to protecting the public. Read why this is a global issue.

pit-bull-bsl
Dogs deemed to be of the pit bull type face breed-specific laws worldwide.

My dog is getting older and doesn’t play as much anymore. She’s still happy and affectionate and if she even thinks you might be headed her way to offer a belly rub, she’ll roll over faster than you can flip a coin.

She howls when she hears an ambulance and hides under my chair during thunderstorms. She’s a little overweight and we’re working on that with portion control, fewer treats and more exercise. Despite her sometimes silly ways, I could not imagine my house without her.

I’m not expecting visitors today, but the doorbell rings. I open it to find someone identifying himself as the local dog enforcement official as he arches his neck to see into my house. He catches a glimpse of my dog and says he has to measure her. He looks at her face, takes a few measurements and slips a lead over her neck. He tells me my dog is considered a dangerous breed and will be confiscated. He walks out the door with my dog, whom I am told I will never see again.

This didn’t happen to me, but a similar shock happened to the family of Lennox, a mixed-breed therapy dog in Northern Ireland. He never acted aggressively or attacked anyone. His only crime was his physical appearance, which made him another victim of breed-specific laws.

What Is Breed-Specific Legislation?

Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is any law or regulation that limits, prevents or bans a dog or dog ownership based on its breed. A certain breed is considered dangerous by a governing body, and the related laws they enact seek the following of dogs that fit the breed description: increased registration fees, insurance policies for liability (if the owner can even find an insurer), and the confiscation or death of the dog. Myths have also fueled the reasons for legislation.

Lennox was seized because he looked like a pit bull, a breed considered dangerous by the government, even though he wasn’t actually a pit bull. Many dogs can look like pit bulls and get lumped together as inherently dangerous, even though the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have reported their own findings that no dog is born inherently dangerous or vicious.

Check out this collection of dogs and see if you can spot the pit bull. It took me about 10 clicks to find the pit bull. If it’s that hard for me to tell them apart, how can governments feel confident every shelter worker or city employee can accurately identify one?

Unfortunately for Lennox, his family lost their two-year legal battle and he was euthanized on July 11 despite pleas from around the world for mercy. Many individuals, rescues, trainers and behaviorists offered to re-home Lennox outside Northern Ireland to a sanctuary or safe haven in the United States, but all offers fell on deaf ears.

One of the many things that makes his case so appalling is the family was not allowed to see him or retrieve his collar, and they had to learn of his death through the media. Victoria Stilwell is one animal professional who offered an alternative but was ignored. Listen to her radio interview with a Belfast employee following the dog’s death.

How It Affects Dog Owners

For decades laws have been enacted and repealed depending on the dog breed. Years ago the Dobermans and Rottweilers were declared dangerous and said to experience a type of brain swelling that made them attack at random. That theory and many others have been applied to pit bulls or any type of dog that looks like one.

In the past, different states and cities have enacted these laws and rounded up all the dogs they could find that looked like pit bulls and euthanized them, one of them being New Mexico (1984). Changes in other states lifted breed-specific bans, while others, such as Maryland, passed new legislation against pit bulls. Enforcement is pending in Maryland, and dog owners are scared of losing their family pets.

Breeds such as chows, German shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans have all had their turn in the BSL hot seat, but the pit bull negativity seems to be lingering. The media has to share some of the responsibility here too; many times I have seen reports of pit bull attacks where the dog is later discovered to be a different breed.

Good stories are hard to find, but they are there. Pit bulls are therapy dogs, save their owner’s lives and are devoted family pets to a countless number of households. Here are just a few of them:

  • Lilly — An 8-year-old pit bull pulled her collapsed owner off of railroad tracks and took the hit of the approaching train.
  • Zoey — A young pit bull mix offers therapy to her veteran owner for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Lilly — Another pit bull named Lilly, only a year old, went to get help for her collapsed owner.
  • Kilo — A 12-year-old pit bull lunged at a home intruder and took the bullet intended for the owner in the process.

Yes, there are also countless stories about pit bull bites and attacks, yet they do not support euthanizing the breed as a whole or dogs who resemble pit bulls. Even pit bull owners can make incorrect assumptions that their dogs are dangerous, as reported in this case when a toddler lost a finger. The family initially thought their pet pit bull was at fault, but later discovered the child had lost her finger when she put her hand in a tank with a piranha the family also kept as a pet. Luckily the dog was found innocent, but not all breeds are so lucky.

Rescues, Adoptions & DNA Tests

Rescues such as Chako Pit Bull Rescue seek to rescue and re-home pit bull types while promoting training and responsible pet ownership. Shelters offer the breed for adoption where legal limits allow them to be owned. Many people would love to adopt or rescue a pit bull, but sometimes the obstacles are too great.

Andrew Holtz, of HoltzReport, tells me about a recent issue with adopting a pit bull mix from a shelter:

We found one that looked like she might be a good pet, but she is a pit bull mix. When I asked our insurance agent about our coverage, she said Travelers Insurance would refuse to renew our homeowners’ policy if we got a pit bull, Rottweiler, Stafford terrier or Doberman. She said finding someone to cover any one of those breeds would be difficult and more expensive. We have had to cross these breeds off our list.

Our neighbors have had Rottweilers for many years. We’ve never had a serious problem with them. It’s the bichon frise that used to live next door that was always more aggressive, often charging into our yard whenever we came out with our dog. In our experience, the attitudes about dog breeds have more to do with perception than reality.

Linda Caradine, executive director of Other Mothers Animal Rescue, explains that rescues like hers often take in pit bull dogs and mixes even though they know they will be hard to place:

We say yes when we can, but we always know it will be an uphill battle getting these little guys into homes. Most of our clients have not had any direct negative experience with these breeds. But everyone had heard the horror stories on the news and about entire towns that ban them. I believe the simple truth is this: They are physically powerful and can potentially kill a person. But because they also possess some of the best [canine] traits (loyalty, intelligence and, yes, the very same physique I just mentioned), they are much more likely to pull you out of your burning house, stand guard over your children or fearlessly place themselves between you and an attacker. They will literally give their lives for their families.

I’m not particularly pro-pitbull. I think just about all breeds have the desire to play this role for you. The difference is that the pit bull has the smarts and the physicality to actually do it. I hear the stories first-hand all the time, but they are almost never considered newsworthy.

Chef David Edelstein of California offers his experience of first meeting a pit bull, which turned into three adoptions:

After spending a very intensive half-year with these dogs and being involved with many others through rescue, our local dog park and training/acclimating, I can testify that these dogs, though very high in energy, are just like every other dog of every other breed. They have personal quirks, they have fears, they have strong attributes, they sleep, they poop, and they run… just like every other dog.

I will gladly go toe-to-toe with any believer of the public stigma that pit bulls are inherently more dangerous than other breeds. All dogs can get into fights. All dogs can be toy- or food-aggressive. All dogs can be abused and fought to the point of becoming violent and dangerous. All dogs can be family members, companions, therapists and guardians. The issue with pit bulls and all dogs is not the dogs themselves, but rather, the humans on the other end of the leash.

Cathy Alinovi, DVM, of Hoofstock Veterinary Service in Indiana, tells me she uses a DNA test to help her clients keep their mixed-breed dogs mistaken for a banned breed:

Several of the local towns have rules against people owning pit bulls. I have had several clients who do the DNA blood test (Wisdom panel) to demonstrate their dog is a mixed breed dog that is being stereotyped for having a block head. I’ve had only one in 10 tests actually come back and say the dog was a Staffordshire terrier descendant. The other nine were able to keep their dogs.

Most pit bull types are really mixed breed dogs with big jowls! This is one way to show that to people. I do recommend using the more expensive Wisdom panel as it is based on many more dog breeds than many other tests out there.

This is just a small sample of replies I received in regards to BSL, and it would be impossible to include them all here. The sheer number of happy owners of these “dangerous” dogs is much higher than people think, but happy stories don’t always make the news.

What’s the Solution?

Unfortunately, with the Lennox case we learn that these bans and anti-breed laws exist not just in the United States but in other countries as well, giving the issue a global perspective. The dangerous dog breed law in Northern Ireland is slated for review and possible repeal, but it may be a while before that happens. Dog owners in the United States wait to learn the fate of their dogs while countless others put increased pressure on their countries’ governments to change the laws.

Holding owners responsible for their dogs and punishing a dog for his actions instead of his face is an approach many governments are taking. The goal isn’t to remove laws against dangerous dogs but to understand that every dog — even of the same breed — is different based on temperament, training and socialization. The horrific part of some of these laws around the world is that they don’t seek to train, socialize or reform the dog even though the dog has never harmed anyone. In places such as Northern Ireland, it’s a death sentence.

People are speaking out, and a world full of dog owners are right there supporting them in their quest for change. People are organizing boycotts, signing petitions and demanding the law be revised to judge a dog based on his actions and not his face. The “End BSL — Deed Not Breed” posters can be seen in windows and doors, and people are sharing this message through social media outlets.

Videos like this one are created and shared to help remove the negative associations with pit bull breeds and breed mixes. Trainers and behaviorists such as Victoria Stilwell are speaking out against BSL to raise awareness and education. The ASPCA and the AKC work to change remaining BSL laws from specific breeds to penalize any breed of dog committing a dangerous act and irresponsible dog owners.

Get involved with petitions, talk to your legislators and be a responsible pet owner. Together we can make a difference in the ways laws are made and get governments to start looking at the right end of the leash.

For quick summaries on this issue, this article by professor Andrea Defusco-Sullivan gives an overview of BSL and this video explains more about the breed currently in the BSL hot seat.

Photo: gr8dnes/Flickr

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