Arguments for and Against Breed Specific Laws

The dog bite epidemic is of great concern to humanitarians, the government, the insurance industry, and canine professionals, among others. In addition, the nearly constant reports of pit bulls killing and maiming children are of special interest to the public in general. The issue is whether to ban certain dogs, restrict them, take a different approach, or do nothing at all. There are four main points of view regarding what should be done, discussed in this section.

Argument in favor of doing nothing at all because there supposedly is no problem

Some say, “Do nothing at all.” Some feel that banning a breed is like human racial discrimination. They feel that dogs attack people who deserve it for one reason or another. They feel that the statistics compiled on dog attacks are inaccurate and that the press has created the false impression that there is a dog bite problem in the USA. There is no such problem, they say.

Argument against breed-specific laws, but conceding that other corrective measures must be taken

A large group of organizations and experts believes, “do nothing to the dogs, but educate dog owners, children and the elderly, enact strong criminal laws prohibiting dangerous behavior on the part of dog owners, and gather more information about the problem.”

A respected group of canine professionals took this position in the authoritative paper entitled, A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention. They advocated dealing with the epidemic by instituting a combination of animal control ordinances and educational efforts, as well as more accurate reporting of dog attacks. They opposed breed bans on the grounds that any dog could be a bad dog, that it is too difficult to identify breeds like pit bulls, and that people with bad intentions will turn harmless breeds into killer breeds to stay one step ahead of the law.

Other organizations that exist specifically to oppose breed bans and, in particular, pit bull bans, also promote stiff criminal laws against people who abuse dogs or habitually violate animal control laws. See, for example, the “Three Strikes You’re Out” proposal by Animal Farm Foundation, Inc., an organization devoted “to restore the image of the American Pit Bull Terrier, and to protect him from discrimination and cruelty” (the quote is from their home page).

The following points are often contended by those who oppose breed bans:

  • The USA generally does not favor the restriction and punishment of the masses based on the actions of a few.
  • Focusing legislation on dogs that are “vicious” distracts attention from the real problem, which is irresponsible owners.
  • These very breeds as a whole have proven their stability and good canine citizenry by becoming search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs working inside hospitals, herding dogs, and family companions for years.
  • Banning one so-called dangerous breed will merely hasten the upswing in popularity of some other breed that will be used for vicious attacks on people and other animals.
  • There is no valid reason to deprive animal lovers of their well-behaved pets.
  • The reports and statistics are flawed. Among other things, a dog bite victim is usually unable to identify the breed of dog that bit him or her. Therefore, victims will name the type of dog that currently is on people’s minds as being the dangerous dog.
  • There are better and fairer ways to protect the public. See, for example, the five-point program advanced by the Animal Farm Foundation.

One of the best survey-type articles about breed bans argues that it is illogical. (See, Malcolm Gladwell, “Troublemakers – What pit bulls can teach us about profiling,” The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2006.) Mr. Gladwell states:

“The strongest connection [i.e., “characteristic” or “sign”] of all, though, is between the trait of dog viciousness and certain kinds of dog owners. In about a quarter of fatal dog bite cases, the dog owners were previously involved in illegal fighting. The dogs that bite people are, in many cases, socially isolated because their owners are socially isolated, and they are vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog. The junk-yard German shepherd — which looks as if it would rip your throat out — and the German shepherd guide dog are the same breed. But they are not the same dog, because they have owners with different intentions.”

The list of organizations and a partial list of experts who oppose breed-specific laws is provided at Expert Opinion on Breed Specific Legislation at the website of Animal Farm Foundation.

Argument in support of breed restrictions as opposed to bans

Many authorities say, “teach people dog safety, regulate by passing tougher civil and criminal laws, and restrict by keeping certain breeds away from the wrong people, places, and situations.”

This group agrees with the “community approach” but would go further, eliminating the “one bite rule,” requiring insurance as a condition for ownership of certain types of dogs, toughening the dog control laws, criminalizing the failure to stop a dog attack in progress, and keeping dangerous dogs away from the wrong people, places, and situations.

It is now abundantly clear that the bigger, more powerful breeds have no purpose or place in crowded urban settings. In states like California, however, it is illegal for cities to regulate dogs in any manner that is specific as to breed. In other words, no city is allowed to make Presa Canarios, Rottweilers, or pit bulls “against the law.” In fact, cities are not allowed to regulate those dogs in any way whatsoever, unless the regulation applies to all dogs. (See California’s prohibition against laws based on breed.)

You might wonder why it is illegal to own a goat or a chicken in a crowded city, but perfectly fine to own a man-eating dog! It makes absolutely no sense. In fact, the laws that make breed-specific legislation illegal are not only illogical but also hypocritical. The ban against breed-specific legislation can hurt dog owners by making it seem legal to own any kind of dog they want, in any setting. Society seems to say to prospective dog owners, “go ahead and get any dog you want.” However, if something happens because that dog was inappropriate, then society may put the dog owner in jail — possibly for life. The prosecution of Knoller and Noel for the horrific mauling of Diane Whipple was a breed-specific prosecution. Quite correctly, the prosecutors showed that the breed of dog that killed Whipple was dangerous and totally inappropriate for a crowded apartment building in a crowded city. However, is it fair to keep cities from regulating the kinds of breeds that people keep, and yet allow prosecutors to throw the book at people who keep giant, cattle-herding dogs like Presa Canarios in their apartments? If breed-specific prosecutions are legal — and they certainly should be! — then breed-specific regulations should also be legal.

At some point, the laws against breed-specific legislation should be repealed or at least revised, so that the bigger, more powerful dogs can, like goats and chickens and a host of entirely benign animals, be banned from or restricted in a reasonable manner. This does not necessarily mean that existing dogs need to be killed, or even that the dangerous breeds need to be entirely eradicated. The new laws should do any or all of the things set forth in Preventing Dog Bites: Keep Certain High-Risk Dogs Away From the Wrong People, Places and Situations.

Argument in support of breed bans

There is a large and growing group that says, “Ban pit bulls and their closely related breeds.” This group of advocates is diverse and respected, and it even includes Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). They see the pit bull as overly dangerous and overly abused by mankind. The danger of pit bulls and Rottweilers is well established, in that they account for 75% of all reported canine-inflicted human deaths in the past two decades. It is undisputed that pit bulls in particular are the most abused dog in the USA; created for the specific purpose of violence, the dogs are treated cruelly to make them as dangerous as possible and are routinely abandoned when they are not vicious enough for their evil masters.

The case for banning pit bulls has grown more convincing as each year goes by. In 2017, the USA death count from pit bulls was 29 direct deaths plus 9 additional deaths in which a pit bull attack was a contributing cause of death (for example, a man fought off a pit bull attack and died of a heart attack just minutes later). Unlike the breeders of Doberman Pinschers during the 1970s, the proponents of pit bulls have taken no steps to improve the dogs, preferring to spread misinformation about them and about the mutilations and killings that they cause. An article by Colleen Lynn in the Orlando Sentinel convincingly argued that “Banning pit bulls saves lives and protects the innocent.”

There are three articles that present very well the argument in support of breed bans. The first is by an attorney who won the famous Denver breed ban case. The City of Denver passed a breed ban against pit bulls which the State of Colorado attempted to overturn. The State lost in court because the City produced evidence that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs. The story of that case, and a review of that evidence, is contained in Nelson K. One City’s Experience – Why Pit Bulls Are More Dangerous and Breed-Specific Legislation is Justified. Muni Lawyer, July/August 2005, Vol. 46, No. 4.

The second is an article that considered the problem from a humane standpoint. The following rationale for banning pit bulls appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 8, 2005. It was written by Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the author of “Making Kind Choices” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005).

Controlling an animal as deadly as a weapon
— Ingrid Newkirk
Most people have no idea that at many animal shelters across the country, any pit bull that comes through the front door doesn’t go out the back door alive. From California to New York, many shelters have enacted policies requiring the automatic destruction of the huge and ever-growing number of “pits” they encounter. This news shocks and outrages the compassionate dog-lover.
Here’s another shocker: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the very organization that is trying to get you to denounce the killing of chickens for the table, foxes for fur or frogs for dissection, supports the shelters’ pit-bull policy, albeit with reluctance. We further encourage a ban on breeding pit bulls.
The pit bull’s ancestor, the Staffordshire terrier, is a human concoction, bred in my native England, I’m ashamed to say, as a weapon. These dogs were designed specifically to fight other animals and kill them, for sport. Hence the barrel chest, the thick hammer-like head, the strong jaws, the perseverance and the stamina. Pits can take down a bull weighing in at over a thousand pounds, so a human being a tenth of that weight can easily be seriously hurt or killed.
Pit bulls are perhaps the most abused dogs on the planet. These days, they are kept for protection by almost every drug dealer and pimp in every major city and beyond. You can drive into any depressed area and see them being used as cheap burglar alarms, wearing heavy logging chains around their necks (they easily break regular collars and harnesses), attached to a stake or metal drum or rundown doghouse without a floor and with holes in the roof. Bored juveniles sic them on cats, neighbors’ small dogs and even children.
In the PETA office, we have a file drawer chock-full of accounts of attacks in which these ill-treated dogs with names like “Murder” and “Homicide” have torn the faces and fingers off infants and even police officers trying to serve warrants. Before I co-founded PETA, I served as the chief of animal-disease control and director of the animal shelter in the District of Columbia for many years. Over and over again, I waded into ugly situations and pulled pit bulls from people who beat and starved them, or chained them to metal drums as “guard” dogs, or trained them to attack people and other animals. It is this abuse, and the tragedy that comes from it, that motivates me.
Those who argue against a breeding ban and the shelter euthanasia policy for pit bulls are naive, as shown by the horrifying death of Nicholas Faibish, the San Francisco 12-year-old who was mauled by his family’s pit bulls.
Tales like this abound. I have scars on my leg and arm from my own encounter with a pit. Many are loving and will kiss on sight, but many are unpredictable. An unpredictable Chihuahua is one thing, an unpredictable pit another.
People who genuinely care about dogs won’t be affected by a ban on pit- bull breeding. They can go to the shelter and save one of the countless other breeds and lovable mutts sitting on death row. We can only stop killing pits if we stop creating new ones. Legislators, please take note.

The third is an article that presented the issue from the standpoint of “actuarial risk,” meaning the risk of serious harm posed by pit bulls in general. The editor of Animals 24-7 (, Merritt Clifton, argued that for a number of reasons those who care about dogs need to take action against the continued breeding of pit bulls. See Bring breeders of high-risk dogs to heel, Merritt Clifton, Animal People, Jan-Feb 2004. This article is another convincing analysis of the need to enact breed-specific laws that will effectively deal with the broad range of risks posed by pit bulls and their owners.

In June 2013, Chrysler agreed to recall 2.7 million Jeeps because in 14 years there have been at least 37 Jeep accidents that caused at least 51 deaths. Compare those numbers with deaths caused by pit bulls: in 7 years (half the number of years), pit bulls have killed 151 Americans (three times as many as those killed in Jeeps). There are those who believe that it is at least as important to fix the pit bull problem as it is to fix the Jeep problem.

Now, suppose a state enacted a law that prohibited Chrysler from recalling the Jeeps. We would decry such a law, but that is exactly what California and some other jurisdictions did when they prohibited breed-specific laws aimed at pit bulls (i.e., requiring that they be muzzled in public, or banning them entirely). To those who would point out that Jeeps have not been banned, the answer is that they were not banned because they can be fixed — and so can pit bulls, which also can and should be “fixed” (i.e., neutered).

As journalist Merritt Clifton pointed out in the article cited above, “It is time to stop pretending that all dogs are created equal, and instead take the lead in seeking legislation which recognizes that some breeds are in fact enormously more dangerous than others–just as legislation recognizes that a puma or African lion or even a 20-pound bobcat must be regulated differently from a ten-pound tabby. This is what would be most fair to all dogs and all people who keep dogs.”

Attorney Kenneth Phillips’ journey from opposing breed bans to advocating the complete elimination of pit bulls

In January 2018, I created a video called “Do Not Adopt a Pit Bull” which was styled as a Super Bowl commercial. It started out with what seemed like a football crowd going wild over a “score” of 29-0, but quickly revealed that 29 was the number of Americans killed by pit bulls in 2017. It then pointed out that this breed killed the most children and family members, and concluded by warning, “Do Not Adopt a Pit Bull.”

The video went viral in January 2018 and was seen over 8 million times. It was viewed not just on social media but also on TV news broadcasts. It became newsworthy because a huge number of pit bull lovers protested it. They said it was unfair even though it accurately reported that this dog is the number one killer of people, children, and family members.

The pit bull lobby’s protest over “Do Not Adopt a Pit Bull” illustrates why I changed my mind about breed-specific laws. Since the 1990’s, my law practice has been entirely devoted to representing the families of people killed by dogs, and people who are disabled or disfigured because of a dog attack. I have seen with my own eyes that among dogs, pit bulls maul and kill the greatest number of people, cause the greatest amount of damage, and destroy the greatest number of other people’s pets. I know these things because as a trial attorney, I am required to present evidence to win my cases, including police reports, animal control records, medical information, autopsy findings, and the actual testimony of dog owners, witnesses, victims, police, animal control officers, doctors, animal behaviorists, and other experts. I have extensively questioned pit bull owners, seen the wounds, and looked into the faces of the dead.

For the past 20 years, I trusted that pit bull lovers would do what the Doberman and Rottweiler fanciers did, which was to breed the violence out of their dogs. I counted on the pit bull community to do the right thing to protect the breed as well as their own families, friends and neighbors. After all, it would be in their own best interests to do so. Therefore, trusting that the owners of these dogs would eventually solve the problem, I advocated against breed-specific laws aimed at pit bull owners and the dogs themselves. I supported restrictions on who could own pit bulls and how they had to be maintained (meaning how they should be treated and what precautions to take around them).

Instead of doing the right thing, however, the pit bull crowd did exactly the opposite. They failed to take any measures to breed the violence out of the dog, bred literally millions of unwanted pit bulls per year which had to be euthanized at public expense, and maintained a campaign of misinformation about the breed which falsely proclaimed that the animal is safe around people, a “nanny dog” for children, and good with other animals. Each of those claims was the opposite of the truth. Among dogs, the pit bull is the number one killer of humans, the number one killer of children, the number one killer of pets, and the number one killer of its owners, its owners’ children, and its owners’ parents. When it attacks, it usually attacks the people around it, not burglars.

Rather than choose to protect our communities, make the breed acceptably safe, and confirm that a free and ethical people can be trusted to make the right decisions without the necessity of restrictive new laws, the pit bull lobby has done absolutely nothing to correct the pit bull problem but has made the problem bigger and worse every year.

It is not the case that every pit bull is vicious, of course, but that every one of them presents an intolerable risk of a person or pet’s death, disfigurement or disability. Intolerable risk is why we have all but banned tobacco smoking even though only a small percentage of people die from it. Intolerable risk is why we banned the public from owning machine guns even though murdering someone with one of them would be the fault of the doer and not the machine gun itself. Intolerable risk is why products are recalled even when just a few children or adults are killed by them.

When I began writing Dog Bite Law 20 years ago, I took the position that breed specific laws were unreasonable, but the deceit and intransigence of the pit bull community in the USA, combined with the huge and annually rising number of dead and maimed Americans and cruelly slaughtered pets, has convinced me that the only solution to this horrific problem is to completely eliminate pit bulls — to stop adopting them, stop breeding them, and make the breed extinct.

At the very least, restrictions must be placed on who can own a pit bull, how it must be maintained (i.e., muzzled, neutered and properly cared for), and the amount of damage that any one dog can do before it is confiscated and euthanized. If necessary, let people keep their pit bulls but outlaw further breeding of them. Let people keep pit bulls in their homes and walk them in public but never without muzzles. All pit bulls must be microchipped so we can identify and euthanize the vicious ones. No pit bulls should be adopted out of shelters; humanely euthanize them because for the most part they are unwanted and too many have proved to be vicious. People who violate animal control laws must be prevented from owning pit bulls forever.

Additionally, courts and animal control departments which declare particular dogs to be vicious must be charged with euthanizing them instead of the current practice of sending them to other cities where they are likely to continue inflicting damage, or to private rescue groups that are free to adopt-out the dogs to unsuspecting families.

We cannot allow a shrill minority of misinformed or deceitful dog owners to prevent the enactment of long-overdue laws that will protect Americans from the unacceptable risks presented by pit bulls. For this reason, I ask all Americans to support restrictions on pit bulls now.

Additional resources

Additional information about pit bulls and breeds bans can be found at Daxtons Friends and Dogs Bite. Join in the ongoing discussion and get the latest news about dog attacks at the Dog Bite Law Group on Facebook.