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15 August 2017

Breed specific legislation (BSL) is BS when it comes to dog bites: A case study in Ireland

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Nanci CreedonCertified Dog Behaviour Consultant (IAABC), director and dog behaviour tutor at Creedons College and graduate of Newcastle University Animal Behaviour and Welfare masters degree programme. 

Photo by Christopher Ayme on Unsplash

Ah, dog bites! Love dogs or hate them, everyone has an opinion, and dog bites are a highly emotive topic. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, when it comes to dog bites, and dog bite prevention, it is vitally important that we attempt to fully understand the characteristics of dog bites to maximise bite prevention.

While people may have an opinion on how to minimise dog bites, the buck usually stops with local governments to put legislation in place to protect the general public from the risk of dog bites. 

Here in Ireland, our government established a ‘restricted breed list’. The Control of Dogs Regulations 1998 impose the below rules in regard to the following breeds (and strains/cross-breeds): American pit bull terrier, English bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, Bull mastiff, Dobermann pinscher, German shepherd, Rhodesian ridgeback, Rottweiler, Japanese akita, Japanese tosa and Bandog. 

The rules state that these dogs (or strains and crosses) must:
  • Be kept on a short strong lead by a person over 16 years who is capable of controlling them.
  • Be muzzled whenever they are in a public place.
  • Wear a collar bearing the name and address of their owner at all times.

Breed specific legislation (BSL) is becoming more and more of a hot topic. Many claim that assuming one dog is more dangerous than another because of its breed (or appearing to look like a particular breed) is not the appropriate way to prevent bites, and there are numerous alternatives to BSL.

Image via Nanci Creedon

In Ireland, calls have been made to the Irish government to review and modify the legislation, with the latest call coming from Veterinary Ireland, the representative body for veterinary surgeons in Ireland. 

However, the government has regularly replied with a similar answer: while they are not claiming that restricted breeds are more likely to bite, if they do bite, the government suggests, these dogs are likely to do significantly more damage than other dogs.

Until now, this claim has not been supported, or discredited, by peer reviewed data.

In 2015, I conducted a widespread anonymous research survey, calling on victims of dog bites to participate in a voluntary survey about the details of the bite incident (at the time of the research we had not had a recorded dog bite fatality).

As the data was examined, we looked for any significant difference between dog bites by dogs on the restricted list and dog bites by non-restricted breeds. We found no difference in bites between dogs on or off the restricted list for the following categories: bite level (depth and type of bite), medical treatment, relationship with the victim, part of body bitten, or whether or not the dog went on to bite again. Our finding discredits the belief that if a dog from the restricted breed list bites, it would cause significantly more damage than other dogs.

The study did, however, find a significant difference between the two groups when it came to whether or not the dog had been reported for being aggressive prior to the bite incident, and whether or not the bite incident was reported to local authorities. In these instances, a dog on the restricted breed list was significantly more likely to be reported than a dog not on the restricted breed list.

This may be due to the public perceiving that a biting dog on the restricted breed list is a greater threat than a biting dog that is not on the restricted breed list, despite the study showing that there is no difference in the bites between the groups. 

This also suggests that the public perceive a biting dog who is not restricted to be of minimal threat to the general public, allowing that bite to possibly go unreported and allowing that dog to potentially go on to bite again. 

Since this study was conducted, Ireland had the first recorded fatality from a dog bite in June of 2017. The incident occurred on private property where legislation would not have put safety provisions in place, and regardless of the location, the dog breed involved in the incident was not one of the 12 restricted breeds.

This research supports the review of current legislation to develop appropriate dog bite prevention strategies to minimise the risk of further fatalities.

Creedon, N., & Ó’Súilleabháin, P.S. (2017). Dog bite injuries to humans and the use of breed-specific legislation: A comparison of bites from legislated and non-legislated dog breeds. Irish Veterinary Journal70:23

Image via Nanci Creedon

Nanci Creedon M.Sc
Graduate of Newcastle University (Animal Behaviour and Welfare) and University College Cork (Zoology)
Tutor at Creedons College
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