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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Failing Fido, from Maryland to Miami

Tuesday was a disappointing day for dogs on the east coast, as Maryland lawmakers and Miami-Dade County voters in Florida both missed an opportunity to correct policies discriminating against pit bull-type dogs and their families.

The Maryland General Assembly held a special session this week to consider casino gambling legislation, and also attempted to address the recent Court of Appeals decision that declares all pit bull-type dogs as “inherently dangerous.” The widely-criticized court ruling may have far-reaching and unintended consequences, as Maryland families are forced to face a painful and life-changing decision—move out of their homes or give up their beloved dogs. As a result of the decision, animal shelters braced for an influx of pit bull-type dogs, landlords sent warning notices to renters with dogs, condo associations considered changing their policies, and local governments scrambled to protect themselves from liability at city dog parks and other public spaces.

Pit_bull_sad_face_270x224The state Senate and House of Delegates passed different bills to turn the chaotic situation around and provide clarity to dog owners, landlords, property managers, and others, but they reached an impasse over their different approaches to the issue and did not pass a final bill before adjourning late Tuesday night. Because the legislature does not convene again until January 2013, impacts are sure to multiply over the next four months, putting thousands of Maryland families and their dogs at risk.

In Miami-Dade County, voters yesterday rejected a ballot measure seeking to repeal the county’s 23-year-old ban on pit bull-type dogs, by a vote of 63 to 37 percent. Florida state law prohibits municipalities from banning specific breeds, but Miami’s policy was grandfathered in. The issue came to light when Marlins pitcher Mark Buehrle and his wife Jamie could not live in Miami with their dog, Slater, and settled in neighboring Broward County instead. Miami-Dade’s county commissioners had the opportunity to repeal the outdated ban in February, but in a feckless act, they punted it to the voters for the primary election ballot instead.

Let’s hope that Maryland and Miami-Dade officials find the political will and fortitude to remedy these problems in the future, and move their communities forward for dog welfare and public safety. The current policies don’t work, because breed alone is not predictive of whether a dog may pose a danger. A dog’s propensity to bite is a product of several factors including early socialization, a dog’s living conditions and the owner’s behavior. For example, chained dogs and non-neutered dogs are much more likely to bite.

And who’s to decide whether a dog is a pit bull and therefore unwelcome with a cursory visual exam? According to a recent study by the Maddie’s Fund Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, which looked at a group of 120 dogs at four animal shelters, 55 of those dogs were identified as “pit bulls” by shelter staff, but only 25 were confirmed as pit bulls by DNA analysis. Additionally, the staff missed identifying 20 percent of the dogs who were pit bulls by DNA analysis, while only 8 percent of the “true” pit bulls were identified by all staff members. (Even DNA testing is not 100 percent reliable, but it underscores why breed-specific policy is unworkable.) The National Canine Research Council has a clearinghouse of resources demonstrating that breed labels assigned to dogs of unknown origin are usually inaccurate.

Many dogs merely resembling the pit bull-type look are swept up and punished by these policies, and they may lead to expensive court battles over whether a dog is or isn’t a pit bull. With as many as 75 percent of shelter dogs being mixed breeds, these are not anti-pit bull policies, but anti-dog policies. We can do better for dogs and public safety.

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