Pit-bull bylaws: Should all breeds of dogs be muzzled in public?

True confession: When I was a child, I was afraid of dogs. All dogs, until one day my foster father brought home a beagle he named Sandy — yes, because the dog’s coat was the color of sand. From that day on, my fear of dogs began to subside somewhat — but never entirely. Sandy was a gentle dog, and I could go on and on here about her love for the outdoors and other attributes. But this is not an homage to Sandy, other than to say she helped me overcome my unreasonable fear of all dogs and replace it with respect — and a certain wariness of them.

I am very aware that any dog I encounter could attack me for any number of reasons. In Canada alone, there are more than 500,000 dog bites a year, according to a Montreal Gazette editorial about the city’s pit-bull bylaw, citing an article on the animallaw.ca site. In the United States, there are 4.5 million dog bites per year, the article says. Acts of aggression are not limited to breed-specific dogs. Any dog can attack a human, though I know the vast majority will never hurt anyone. Still, until I get to know a dog well, like I did with Sandy, I will always be cautious around all dogs, be they poodles or pit bulls or anything in between.

So, I have mixed feelings about Montreal’s controversial pit-bull bylaw, which as a Gazette news report says, “prevents people from buying or adopting pit-bull-type dogs not already in their possession, and requires existing owners to leash and muzzle them outdoors and buy a special $150 permit. They also must be supervised by someone 18 or older.”

The bylaw, which is being challenged in court by the SPCA, comes after the death of a woman in her backyard in Montreal last June following an attack by a neighbour’s dog some are saying was a pit bull — though, some are arguing the dog wasn’t a pit bull and that pit bulls are taking a bad rap in the case.

Still, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre remains undeterred by court challenges and criticism, and says his duty is to protect citizens.

He’s right about protecting citizens, of course — if pit-bull types of dogs do pose a threat to the general population. Note that media outlets such as the Gazette are qualifying “pit bulls” with the phrase “pit-bull types of dogs,” because no one seems to be sure which dogs are truly pit bulls and which aren’t. Which essentially makes the law somewhat unclear from the outset for many.

A quick look at the Wikipedia page on Pit Bulls helps to clear things up to a point by naming certain breeds, such as the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier — and then says the American Bulldog is sometimes included. But then it further muddies the waters with this: “The term pit bull is often used loosely to describe dogs with similar physical characteristics, and the morphological (physical) variation amongst “bully breed” dogs makes it difficult for anyone, even experts, to visually identify them as distinct from “non-pit bulls.” While mixed breed dogs are often labeled as “pit bulls” if they have certain physical characteristics such as a square shaped head or bulky body type, visual identification of mixed breed dogs is not recommended by the scholarly community.”

Right.

It is also worth noting here that in the section on “Dog attack risk,” Wikipedia says this: “Contrary to popular myth, pit bulls do not have “locking jaws.” There is no physiological “locking mechanism” in the jaw muscle and bone structure of pit bulls or other dogs. Pit bull-type dogs, like other terriers, hunting and bull-baiting breeds, can exhibit a bite, hold, and shake behavior and at times refuse to release.”

Hmm. I remember seeing Sandy bite, hold and shake things like sticks, and I imagined then and still do that she could have done the same with someone’s hand or arm or leg if she felt the need to do it. In fact, I am quite sure any dog could bite, hold and shake a human limb . . .

Which leads me to this: Why breed-specific legislation targeting so-called pit-bull types of dogs? Why not have the same legislation targeting all breeds of dogs, given the numbers of attacks by all sorts of dogs throughout the country? If Mayor Coderre truly feels he is acting to protect citizens from dog attacks, why stop at pit-bull types of dogs?

Yes, I am being somewhat facetious here, and am pointing to the mayor’s (and his council’s) knee-jerk reaction to the fatal dog attack last June — and perhaps his unreasonable fear of dogs. And to what I see as a certain sense of naiveté and hypocrisy.

The argument that pit-bull type dogs are more likely to suddenly attack humans for no apparent reason is without merit, according to a study discussed in the Wikipedia report and other places.

So, why is the Montreal mayor targeting them and not other types of dogs? Why is he picking on square-jawed dogs — and their owners?

Perhaps it is because other cities have breed-specific legislation legislation, and he is just following suit.

Again, I have mixed feelings about all of this: I’ll feel safer if I pass a muzzled pit-bull type of dog being walked by its owner, as I would if I cross paths with any sort of muzzled dog. But I will also feel sorry for the dogs wearing the muzzles, and wonder about the discrimination against them. To digress for a moment: Humans have long felt the right to discriminate against animals in myriad ways, so perhaps this is one of the reasons why the mayor and his supporters seem to have no qualms about imposing breed-specific legislation on pit-bull types of dogs.

What say you? Should all dogs be muzzled in public? Only pit-bull types of dogs? Or no dogs at all?

— Jillian

Photo credit: A selection of pit bull-type dogs, assembled from images from Wikimedia Commons. (Source: Wikipedia/Compiled by Oknazevad)

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