Adopting sound laws and policies pertaining to pets and pet ownership plays an important role in achieving no-kill in our nation’s animal shelters. On the flip side, laws and policies that are breed restrictive pose a tremendous threat to the safety of both dogs and people. These laws — known as breed-specific legislation (BSL) — target certain dogs by breed or even just by appearance. In reality there is nothing specific about them. They judge many types of dogs, but one of the primary victims is also one of America’s most beloved dogs: the pit bull terrier.
This action kit outlines instructions on how to take action to help prevent dog breed-specific legislation in your community and instead offer more effective solutions to protect public safety.
Table of contents
- Steps for fighting breed-specific legislation in your community
- Why breed-specific legislation doesn’t work and what does
- Additional resources
- Success stories
Why should we fight dog breed-specific legislation?
Although breed-specific legislation is often an attempt to improve public safety, studies show that it does not accomplish that objective. Besides being ineffective, these laws are expensive and difficult to enforce and also interfere with people’s property rights.
How do these laws come into being? The impetus is typically overblown media attention paid to an unfortunate dog-bite incident. Local government officials and/or well-meaning people call for a ban on all dogs of the apparent breed involved in the incident, even if the dog involved is a mix of breeds. Such “panic policymaking,” driven by anger and fear, ignores the multitude of factors that can contribute to dog-bite incidents, such as a dog’s level of socialization and whether the dog has been sterilized.
Why should you fight breed-specific legislation in your community? Besides the fact that BSL wastes tax dollars and fails to protect people from dog bites, it can result in the deaths of thousands of wonderful family dogs who have never bothered anyone. If a breed ban is instituted in your community, law enforcement officials might be forced to take dogs away from their loving families and place them in already crowded animal shelters, where they will most likely be killed. Families can file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the ordinances, but that can be expensive.
Breed-specific legislation is not limited to outright breed bans. Some breed-specific laws are so restrictive that they make it virtually impossible to have a dog of the targeted breed. These types of BSL might require burdensome insurance policies for dog owners and stringent regulations dictating how dogs are handled and by whom — and whether they’re even allowed off their own property.
So there are plenty of good reasons to combat breed-specific legislation in your community, but this fight isn’t just about getting rid of BSL. It’s also about advocating for comprehensive breed-neutral laws that target truly dangerous dogs and reckless owners. Unlike BSL, breed-neutral laws are effective because they target the behavior of the individual dog. Laws that prohibit reckless or negligent people from owning pets get at the root of the problem: the behavior of the owner. Our communities deserve comprehensive dog laws that demand responsible dog ownership and hold reckless owners accountable when their poor decisions result in other dogs or people getting hurt.
Animal advocates just like you have successfully defeated breed-specific measures throughout the country. For example, in 2013, Best Friends Animal Society's pit bull terrier initiatives staff worked with energized and informed people in Watertown, Wisconsin, to overturn a proposed breed-specific measure against pit bull terriers. In 2014, state laws were passed in Utah and South Dakota prohibiting breed-specific laws and policies — through the efforts of one dedicated animal advocate in each state with help from Best Friends’ legislative experts.
Remember, politics is not a spectator sport. Get involved. Thank you for taking action for animals. Together, we can Save Them All.
Please read on to learn more about breed-specific legislation and find out how you can take proven, effective steps to combat it.
America’s dog: The pit bull terrier
The pit bull terrier was once known as “America’s dog.” In fact, even today pit bulls are among the most popular types of dog throughout the country. So if pit bull terriers are America’s dog, why does BSL primarily target them?
Unfortunately, their popularity hasn’t always protected them — most notably when the media sensationalizes a negative story involving pit bull terriers. This media bias started in 1987 when an issue of Sports Illustrated featured a photo of a snarling pit bull terrier on the cover and an article inside made a case against them.
The media quickly learned that provocative coverage of these dogs, no matter how exaggerated or even untrue, increased sales. And so America’s dog became the victim of a witch hunt fueled by growing media hype based on negative stereotypes. For more information, read The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression by Karen Delise.
Steps for fighting breed-specific legislation in your community
1. Learn more about the issues
Best Friends’ pit bull terrier initiatives contain lots of valuable information and resources to help you learn more about the issues involved in breed-specific legislation. You’ll also want to sign up to receive action alerts about state and local animal issues via Best Friends’ legislative action center.
In addition to these online resources, Best Friends’ legislative experts have many ways of supporting your efforts to overturn existing breed-specific laws or counter a proposed measure in your area. We can do the following:
- Help you assess the situation and craft an appropriate response
- Refer you to additional resources and help you connect with other potential advocates
- Create and share action alerts with Best Friends subscribers in your community
- Further highlight the issue and build advocacy momentum using Best Friends’ extensive social media network
To get this type of assistance, contact the pit bull terrier initiatives staff at email@example.com.
Our legislative experts can also help you contact government officials to oppose the measure or request a repeal and recommend proven public safety legislation in its place. Best Friends can provide information regarding effective policy measures and examples of enacted comprehensive breed-neutral laws that target reckless and problem pet owners.
Flaws of breed-specific legislation (BSL)
First of all, it’s often difficult to identify a dog’s breed simply by looking at the dog. (See “Visual identification of dog breeds” below.)
Second, while dogs of the same breed may look alike, their personality traits vary widely. The physical appearance of a dog does not provide any clue as to the dog's behavior. For example, knowing a dog has a short snout and long hair doesn’t give us any information about whether the dog is afraid of thunderstorms or gets along well with cats. In this interview, Dr. Kristopher Irizarry explains the genetic basis for why dogs don’t necessarily act alike even if they look alike.
Third, “breed-specific” is an accurate descriptor for these types of laws. These harmful measures are purely restrictive in nature. They place unnecessary and unfair hardships on people simply because they’ve chosen to adopt or have a certain type of pet. And they restrict dogs based solely on their appearance.
2. Tailor your arguments for your audience
As animal lovers, we want to save animals, so we view breed restrictions from a very specific perspective. Keep in mind, though, that not everyone (and certainly not a majority of government officials) shares that perspective. In fact, when arguing against breed restrictions, heartwarming stories about pets or even the human-animal bond usually carry little, if any, persuasive value.
While we view our pets as family, the legal system classifies dogs as property. So to be effective advocates, we must speak in terms that decision-makers understand, relate to, and find persuasive. That means using arguments focused on violation of personal property rights, fiscal accountability, and public safety. Emotional arguments about the plight of dogs affected by BSL should play a very small supporting role — or even none at all.
Try is using the economic consequences to local businesses as an advocacy tool. Politely relay your concerns to your community’s chamber of commerce or tourism council. Working closely with Best Friends, a veterinarian named Dr. Cheryl Good used a similar tactic to defeat breed-specific legislation that was being proposed in Dearborn, Michigan. Dr. Good testified at a hearing that if Dearborn adopted a breed-specific provision targeting pit bull terriers, she’d lose one-third of her clients and would have to move her practice out of Dearborn. Because she was the only vet in the community, this strategy worked like a charm, and the city council passed a comprehensive breed-neutral dangerous-dog law instead.
However, this approach might not be very effective if the BSL has been in place for a long time. The political climate is different in every area, so do some research to discern which tactics will work best.
3. Use effective language
The specific language that you use in your argument against BSL matters a great deal. You can undermine your own argument with the wrong language. The right language, on the other hand, can create a solid case that few reasonable people can argue against.
The following language tips come from Best Friends’ years of research and experience:
- Refer to the dogs as “pit bull terriers” rather than simply “pit bulls.” Many pit bull breeds actually are terriers, and adding that word softens the name and helps people relate to the dogs.
- When referring to the wider class of dogs (i.e., pit bulls and pit bull mixes), use “pit bull terrier-like dogs.”
- Emphasize the need for “comprehensive breed-neutral laws” that focus on “behavior not bias” and those that target “reckless owners.”
- Use positive language when talking about the dogs. For example, don’t say, “Pit bull terriers aren’t inherently dangerous.” People only hear “pit bull” and “inherently dangerous.” Instead, say something like this: “Pit bull terriers are wonderful family dogs who score higher on temperament testing than many other beloved breeds. All dogs can bite.”
- Focus your language on persuasive arguments addressing property rights, public safety, and fiscal impact, rather than heartfelt appeals to save the dogs.
Visual identification of dog breeds
According to Dr. Victoria Voith, visual identification of dog breed — even by professionals — is often wrong. In one study, Dr. Voith found that, in 87.5% of adopted dogs, breeds identified by DNA analyses were not the breeds stated by the adoption agencies. Animal shelter workers were right in guessing the heritage of a mixed-breed dog only 12.5% of the time.
Because of the inaccuracy of visual breed identification, Dr. Voith questions current public and private policies based on dog breeds. For more details, go to the National Canine Research Council website and read Dr. Voith’s study, called A Comparison of Visual and DNA Identifications of Breeds.
4. Harness the power of persuasive images
What animal lover doesn’t love looking at dog photos? When making image choices in your anti-BSL efforts, however, it’s important to keep your audience in mind. Images that work well in a fundraising campaign for your local animal shelter might not be persuasive to a legislator who’s indifferent to dogs or even not crazy about them. If you’re going to include photos in flyers or brochures that you create, you’ll want to choose images that everyone might find appealing.
Based on Best Friends’ research (or as otherwise noted), here are some suggestions for how to portray pit bull terriers in photos:
- In general: Dogs love to smile, but their teeth can scare the general public — in particular those who aren’t animal lovers. So don’t use images that prominently display a dog’s teeth, especially the dog’s canine (fang) teeth.
- With kitties: Use images showing pit bull terriers and feline friends.
- With specific people: Research indicates that who a dog is photographed with affects people’s perceptions of the dog. For more details, read Breed Stereotype and Effects of Handler Appearance on Perceptions of Pit Bulls.
- With age-appropriate children: The children in the photos should appear to be comfortably in control of the dog. Children need to be taller than the dog. Better still, the dog should be at rest.
- As family dogs: Depict dogs with adults who appear to be loving and responsible owners.
- As celebrity wannabes: Photograph local sports heroes or other celebrities with pit bull terriers.
- As service and therapy dogs: Images of pit bull terriers in these roles help dispel the myths about these dogs.
- Pit bull terriers as career dogs: People look favorably on dogs who appear to have a job, such as search and rescue, bomb detection, or law enforcement.
Steer clear of images that:
- Show the dogs’ upper teeth, no matter how happy the dog actually looks
- Feature the dogs with babies or very young children. These images not only make the children seem vulnerable, but they also send the message that it’s OK to leave children unattended with dogs.
- Show dogs at play with each other. Sometimes play looks like fighting to the general public.
About our research
In 2012, via Luntz Global, Best Friends conducted a focus group in Baltimore to gain insight into the general public’s feelings and attitudes about pit bull terriers. The purpose of this research was to inform our legislative response to an unfortunate court decision in Maryland. Our research findings were groundbreaking, not only helping the collaborative efforts that ultimately led to success in Maryland but also galvanizing our legislative efforts across the nation — leading to breed restrictions being outlawed in Nevada, South Dakota, and Utah.
5. Contact friendly organizations
In addition to Best Friends, there are a number of organizations that have resources to help you fight breed-specific legislation. Some of the recommended organizations:
- Animal Farm Foundation: animalfarmfoundation.org
- Bless the Bullys: blessthebullys.com
- National Canine Research Council: nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com
6. Contact your local officials
Calls, letters, and emails from voters greatly influence public officials’ decision-making process, so encourage as many supporters as possible to contact the relevant government officials. Nonprofits can lobby, too (but please visit the Bolder Advocacy website for more information).
Here are some specific actions you can take:
- Call your elected officials to respectfully voice your opposition to the existing law or proposed measure. Contact information is usually available on your community’s website. Otherwise, call the city or county clerk or the League of Women Voters to request contact information.
- Send your own personal letter or email opposing breed-specific legislation to the appropriate government officials, including council members, the mayor, the police chief, and the city attorney.
- Alert others about the need to contact officials, either via email, social media, or the old-fashioned way by distributing flyers. Include information about the law at issue along with the contact information for officials. Distribute flyers on the street and at local veterinarians’ offices, dog training and doggy daycare facilities, feed stores, pet supply stores, and groomers.
- Ask your local humane society to actively oppose breed-specific legislation.
- It’s extremely helpful if veterinarians speak out against breed-specific legislation at public meetings or by contacting local government officials. Their expertise understandably carries great weight with decision-makers.
- To help law enforcement understand the complexities of why dog bites happen (and why the blame shouldn’t be put on breed), send your local police chief and sheriff the link to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services publication The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters. You can also refer them to the five-video training series called Police & Dog Encounters: Tactical Strategies and Effective Tools to Keep Our Communities Safe and Humane.
- If your local government also has a city manager or county supervisor who makes policy recommendations, contact them as well. Remember to keep a respectful, polite tone at all times.
- Provide public officials, other advocates, and the general public with credible facts to inform them about the issues. (See “Why breed-specific legislation doesn’t work and what does”)
- It’s crucial to attend city council or county board meetings to testify in opposition to breed-specific legislation.
Politics is not a spectator sport, so be brave. Prepare yourself by obtaining upcoming meeting dates and agendas. Note that both dates and agendas are prone to change at the last minute, so be vigilant in rechecking and confirming information.
As meeting dates approach or the vote nears, post updates online via social media, purchase small ads in local newspapers, and distribute more flyers to encourage fellow residents to show support and attend. (For more details, see “Be polite, prepared, and professional.”)
7. Contact local media
Your local newspapers, television, and radio stations might be very interested in what you have to say. Start with sending letters describing the proposed legislation to the editors of local newspapers to spread the word about the issue, educate people, and garner support.
If you are interviewed by local media representatives, provide them with basic information first, but be ready to share specific talking points if asked. If a number of people are involved in your anti-BSL efforts, select one person as the media spokesperson and make sure that person is articulate and can speak accurately about the issue. You can also ask media representatives to contact Best Friends’ senior legislative attorney, Ledy VanKavage, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When interacting with the media, know what points you want to make and insert them into the discussion whenever you can. Emphasize the top three reasons that a community should reject BSL:
- BSL infringes on the fundamental property rights of good citizens. Legally, dogs are considered property, and BSL restricts ownership of certain breeds, thereby violating citizens’ property rights.
- BSL wastes valuable tax dollars because it’s ineffective and expensive to enforce.
- BSL fails to enhance public safety because studies show that it doesn’t reduce the number of dog bites. The focus of dangerous dog laws should be on the behavior of the dog and the dog’s owner, not the breed.
Be ready to elaborate on each of these points, as well as explain how breed bans force responsible owners with good dogs to choose between surrendering their best friend to a shelter or moving out of the community.
You can also tell interviewers that all of the following major organizations oppose breed-specific legislation:
- American Veterinary Medical Association: Read about the AVMA’s position.
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: Read about the AVSAB’s position.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Opponents love to misconstrue a 2003 CDC study, claiming it supports BSL. That’s false, so be prepared to counter with the facts and actual findings of the study. Review official statements about the study here.
- National Animal Care & Control Association: Read NACA's position (see page 25).
- The White House: In response to an online petition, the White House issued an official response against BSL.
And, of course, Best Friends Animal Society and many major animal protection organizations also oppose breed-specific legislation.
Also, be sure to emphasize to the media that ending breed-specific legislation is a national trend. (Note: These provisions are not necessarily outright bans against BSL.)
If you’re invited to an in-person interview, bring an ambassador pit bull terrier along if possible. Your ambassador dog should be well-behaved and able to handle the potentially heightened stress and excitement of the situation. Ambassador dogs should always look their best, too — no chains, spike collars, or the like. Instead, dress your ambassador pup in a colorful bandana, bowtie, silly frilly collar, or perhaps even a tutu. To learn from our favorite dog ambassador, Captain Cowpants, visit facebook.com/captaincowpants.
Finally, if the media needs additional background information on the topic of breed-specific legislation, Best Friends is happy to help. You can email Ledy Vankavage (email@example.com), Best Friends senior legislative attorney. Of course, any of the resources listed throughout this publication are also recommended reading.
8. Get social
The power of social media is undeniable. Never before has grassroots advocacy had such an effective tool, so please use it. Garner support by getting active on your favorite social media platform.
Consider starting a Facebook page or group, a listserv, or a website specifically to discuss breed-specific legislation in your community. You might also consider starting a blog or contributing to your community newspaper’s blog. Adding well-written, informed comments to relevant stories in the local online media is a great way to advocate for your cause.
Another good practice is to use Wikipedia as a platform. Go to your community’s Wikipedia page and edit it to disclose that your community has or is considering BSL. Doing so will alert other potential advocates and build your base while also warning dog lovers who might be thinking about moving to the community. Just don’t forget to update the page again after you’ve successfully defeated proposed BSL measures.
Online petition sites like change.org or care2.com also offer a viable means of advocacy. Proof of its efficacy: One advocate started an online petition on We the People, the White House’s petition platform, to urge that BSL be outlawed at the federal level. Even though BSL isn’t a federal issue, except with respect to the military, the petition resulted in an official White House response in opposition to BSL.
9. Be polite, prepared, and professional
We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to always use a polite and respectful tone. Keep in mind that community leaders can be quickly turned off by large numbers of angry calls, letters, and emails from people, especially if they are coming from individuals who don’t reside in the community. All of your public calls to action should encourage polite, respectful, informed discourse.
The following basic tips apply to speaking engagements:
- Dress and speak as you would for a job interview.
- Always keep your tone respectful and polite.
- Avoid emotional pleas about how wonderful pit bull terriers are or how great your own dog is. This strategy won’t be persuasive.
- Know the meeting protocols. Who will be allowed to speak? For how long? What is the process to sign up?
- Organize everyone willing to speak on the issue. Divide different points among advocates so that testimony isn’t repetitive.
- Get to the meeting early so that you can introduce yourself to the city council members before the meeting starts.
- Be brief in your comments.
- Be sure to talk about how much breed-specific legislation costs or will cost your community.
- Provide good alternatives to breed-specific legislation, including model ordinances and sound policies.
- As a way of showing decision-makers how difficult it is to correctly guess the breeds of mixed-breed dogs, ask your audience to Find the Pit Bull.
10. Be persistent (and say thank you)
If you lose round one and a breed-specific measure passes or is not repealed, don’t give up. Instead, dig in for the long haul and aim for a repeal. Take a deep breath and then:
- Re-examine all efforts to date to learn where adjustments might need to be made and how strategy might need to be altered. Best Friends is happy to assist in this endeavor.
- Intensify your efforts and outreach, including communications with officials. Remember, always be polite, professional, and respectful.
- Keep going to city council meetings and speaking out against BSL. Double your efforts to get supporters to attend meetings with you.
- Support animal-friendly candidates in future elections to help them win. If all else fails, run for public office yourself.
When you do win, be sure to thank your public officials as well as your fellow advocates. Email, write, or call folks directly to relay your gratitude. If possible, publish an ad in the local newspapers thanking your elected officials.
Why breed-specific legislation doesn’t work and what does
As we've emphasized, language matters. To help you craft the specifics of your message, here are a few basic reasons why breed-specific legislation doesn’t work as well as some more points discrediting it as bad public policy.
Use any of these points to support your case via personal letters, phone calls, letters to the editor, media interviews, or any other communication tools you use to combat breed-specific legislation in your community.
- Breed-specific laws infringe on fundamental property rights and have serious due process implications, often impinging on rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
- According to a 2014 national survey conducted by Luntz Global, 84% of Americans believe that federal, state, or local government should not tell people what breeds of dog they cannot own. To download a Best Friends flyer stating this fact, click here.
- Every dog is an individual and should be judged on behavior, not appearance.
- The American Temperament Test Society scores pit bull terriers higher than many other breeds that are not subject to breed-specific legislation.
- Breed-specific laws cause unintended, but unavoidable, hardship to responsible owners of friendly dogs who happen to fall within the regulated breed category.
- Breed-specific legislation often places families in the untenable position of having to choose between keeping their beloved animal companion and keeping their home. No responsible dog owner should have to make that choice.
- A dog’s breed often can’t be identified visually, even by professionals. More information regarding the problems of visual breed identification is available through the National Canine Research Council.
- Instead of enhancing public safety, breed-specific laws actually compromise public safety by requiring law enforcement officers to seize or restrict friendly pets instead of focusing on dogs whose behavior is truly dangerous.
- In the case of a breed ban, the police and animal services lose the public’s trust by seizing and killing innocent pets simply because of their appearance.
- In addition to being an ineffective way of protecting the public, breed-specific laws are a tremendous waste of tax dollars because they are expensive to enforce and maintain. That’s why a conservative think tank, the Platte Institute, calls them a mistake.
- When a breed-specific law is passed, the burden of proof is on the municipality to prove that a dog is of a certain breed. If the dog is not a registered purebred, the only way to do this with certainty is DNA testing. Municipal officials should know that DNA testing is expensive and will necessitate redirecting tax dollars away from other areas.
- Overall, the national trend is to outlaw breed-specific legislation.
- The American Bar Association passed a resolution calling for all state, territorial, and local legislative bodies and governmental agencies to enact good generic dangerous-dog/reckless-owner ordinances with due process protections for pet owners and to repeal any breed-specific laws.
- In the United Kingdom and Spain, studies of dog-bite rates before and after implementation of breed bans concluded that the breed-specific laws had no effect whatsoever on reducing dog bites.
- Italy revoked its breed restrictions, stating that the ban had no scientific justification.
- Organizations that oppose breed-specific legislation include the American Bar Association, the National Animal Care & Control Association, the United Kennel Club, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even the White House.
So if breed-specific legislation doesn’t work, what does? Keeping the focus on reckless owners, rather than punishing responsible owners and friendly, innocent dogs. To be truly safe and humane, communities need ordinances that hold people responsible for their actions and for the behavior of their pets, regardless of breed or appearance. An effective and humane ordinance might include regulations that do the following:
- Provide adequate due process provisions for dog owners through comprehensive breed-neutral dangerous-dog laws
- Restrict tethering because tethered dogs are much more likely to bite
- Prevent reckless or problem pet owners from having any dogs
- Enforce leash laws
- Encourage (but not mandate) residents to spay or neuter their pets, as intact pets are more likely to bite, and maybe even charge higher license fees for unaltered animals
Best Friends can provide copies of ordinances that address problem pet owners, dangerous dogs, dogs running at large, anti-tethering laws, licensing, and more. Our team can also provide information regarding the need for public education about spay/neuter, responsible dog ownership, and safe dog interactions. For more information, email Best Friends at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some more resources to consult when creating your case against breed-specific legislation:
- Consider buying a copy of the American Bar Association’s book The Lawyer’s Guide to Dangerous Dog Issues for your city attorney. The book recommends against breed-specific legislation.
- A December 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the most comprehensive study to date regarding dog-related fatalities, found that a multifaceted approach to dog-bite prevention is the most effective. Although multiple factors are involved in dog-related fatalities, most factors (isolation from positive family interaction, mismanagement by owners, abuse or neglect, dogs left alone with a child, etc.) are within the control of the dogs’ owners and are therefore preventable. Read the study abstract here.
- In a lawline.com session called Doggy Due Process: Why Breed Discrimination Doesn’t Work, Best Friends senior legislative attorney Ledy VanKavage and attorney Fred Kray discuss ways to legally combat breed-specific legislation and make sure cities enact comprehensive breed-neutral ordinances that protect people and pets. You can also learn about creative means of filing lawsuits to challenge breed-specific ordinances and policies.
- Best Friends has numerous helpful resources about pit bull terriers.
For more on how to become politically active for animals, Best Friends recommends the following books:
- Doing Democracy by Bill Moyer
- Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need by Julie Lewin
- Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky
Animal advocates just like you have successfully defeated and repealed BSL measures throughout the country. Here are some inspiring examples:
- Local government example: Stopping BSL in Watertown, Wisconsin: November 11, 2013
- State government example: Passage of House Bill 97 in Utah