The pursuit of freedom for responsible dog owners

Americans cherish freedom. As a society, we agree that it’s wrong to discriminate based on how someone looks, their racial heritage or their religious beliefs. What about the rights of responsible dog owners? An emerging legal trend now protects dog owners right to own, care for and love whatever breed of dog they choose.

“Numerous communities across the country have repealed antiquated laws that discriminate against certain breeds or types of dogs,” says Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney for Best Friends Animal Society. “These laws not only interfere with the property rights of responsible dog owners, but they are incredibly expensive to enforce and fail to enhance public safety. We want safe communities for people and pets. The focus should be on the behavior of the owner and the behavior of the dog. Studies show that breed is not a factor in bites which is the number one reason legislators rush to create these antiquated laws. In America, responsible dog owners should be allowed to own whatever breed of dog they choose, it’s that simple.”

Just as years of social progress and education elevated public awareness of human discrimination in the 1960s, change is occurring today in animal control legislation. A growing number of communities are now repealing breed-discriminatory laws (BDL). They’re replacing old laws with new legislation that address the behavior of individual dogs, and that hold owners accountable for pets’ behavior.

“We all want safe and humane communities and we’re starting to do better,” VanKavage says. Even the American Bar Association passed a resolution calling for the repeal of all breed discriminatory or specific laws.

Valerie Schey, a city councilwoman in South Bend, Indiana, agrees. Last year, South Bend repealed its breed discriminatory law. Instead of verbiage about specific breeds, South Bend’s new law incorporates wording aimed at reckless pet owners. Other cities are also adopting more owner-focused laws. For example, the city of Skokie, Illinois’ animal control ordinance cracks down on problem pet owners and specifies that “an owner … who fails to exercise proper care and control of the owner’s animal which results in the animal behaving in a dangerous manner …” is in violation of the law.

When animal control laws are revised to eliminate breed-discriminatory language, the effect is often immediately visible.

Before the revised law went into effect in Schey’s community, the municipal animal shelter, faced with the legal constraints on adopting out certain breeds, instead euthanized those breeds and any animals that appeared to be mixes of banned breeds. Not long after South Bend changed the law, the shelter took in a pregnant pit bull terrier mix. Under the old ordinance she would have been killed.

“Our euthanasia rates for pit bull-terrier like dogs were at nearly 100 percent because the belief was that we could not legally adopt out a pit bull terrier,” says Matt Harmon, director of the City of South Bend Animal Care & Control.

Instead, the shelter was able to transfer the pregnant mom to a local rescue group, Pet Refuge. Two weeks later, the mother delivered a litter of healthy pups, all of whom have found loving homes. One of them is Harper.

Arielle Schmitt and Jennifer Weber adopted Harper, and now the energetic pup spends her days playing with her canine sister in the dog park. She spends her evenings cuddled up on the lap of one of her new pet parents. “Harper has completed our family,” Schmitt says.

Repealing the breed-discriminatory law has not caused any loss of safety in South Bend. “While the majority of the community was very supportive and pleased with the new ordinance, some people had deep concerns about public safety,” Schey says. “The concern, of course, was that there would be an increase in the number of dog bites. That has not happened.”

“A growing number of communities are revising their outdated breed discriminatory provisions and are enacting breed neutral comprehensive dangerous dog and reckless owner laws that provide due process protections for pet owners.” VanKavage says. “Community leaders who are unsure how to begin reworking old animal control laws, can reach out to Best Friends for guidance. We have information on a number of good public safety ordinances that can serve as a model for any community. South Bend’s is one such example”

The city of South Bend will soon celebrate the first anniversary of its revised law, Schey says. The guest of honor will be “Hambone,” a pit mix who’s a beneficiary of the new law.

“We’ve made great strides in lowering our euthanasia rate in South Bend over the past three years,” Schey says. “Repealing breed-specific legislation and providing legislative support for the practice of trap-neuter-return of community cats has had a tremendous life-saving impact.”

To learn more about how comprehensive breed neutral laws that protect people and pets visit www.bestfriends.org/initiatives.


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