Ironically, the authors of the study had hoped to prevent the discrimination they feared was taking root at the time, says co-author Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division. “The folks involved in the study had concerns that people were considering breed bans,” she recalls. Golab goes on to note that they also had concerns about the study itself, among them, that the breeds involved in fatal attacks change over time. The study didn’t address breed popularity, a factor that could cause breeds to appear more often in bite statistics simply because there are so many of them. Another concern was that the study authors were looking at fatalities rather than bites, which are impossible to track. This meant they were unable to definitively assess any specific breed’s inclination to bite.
Reliance on media accounts and questionable breed identification were also areas of concern. The ability to tell a bear from a deer may be a useful human survival tool, but newer studies show it hasn’t helped when it comes to breeds; people often can’t tell a Foxhound from a Doberman. Eyewitness reports were — and still are — “pretty spotty,” Golab says; in one instance, “a Boxer was identified as a Pit Bull–type dog.” Often, identification occurred after the dog had been euthanized, making it even more speculative.
Though the final report did not conclude that any breeds are more likely than others to bite, it did call out Pit Bull–types and Rottweilers as being involved in more than half of the fatal attacks. Golab and her colleagues warned against using the flawed data to enact bans; the alternative to breed laws, they wrote in the report, “is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior.” At that point, the CDC abandoned its efforts to link breeds and aggression, acknowledging that it’s impossible to track the numbers.
Golab says that breed discrimination existed before the study, and has gradually become more prevalent over the years. “It certainly doesn’t help adoption rates when owners are penalized for choosing a dog of a particular breed, whether the penalty is a higher insurance rate or a flat-out refusal to insure. [Restricted breeds] can easily end up on the least-desirable list for adoption.” Or, if owners can’t obtain affordable — or any — insurance because of the breed they own, they often relinquish the dog; euthanasia is a common result. Foreclosure only adds to the problem, as people struggle to find alternative housing that will allow them to bring pets with them at all, let alone a dog of a “blacklisted” breed.
Bradley, whose research provided her with material for her first book, Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous, continues to track CDC bite statistics. The number of dog bites has held steady over 15 years, she says. Even so, she doubts such information will change people’s minds if they are already convinced there’s a dog-bite epidemic, or that certain breeds are more likely to bite.
“We are innately credulous if we don’t have prior knowledge of something,” she says. “The default response is to believe what we are told,” or have heard repeated time and again. Bradley feels that breed discrimination, like other forms of bias, won’t end without large societal changes.
As the recession wears on, pet policies will continue to restrict housing options for people and pets in crisis. In addition to planning ahead for a move, Goldfarb suggests homeowners do the legwork to find an insurance company that doesn’t profile, and renters look for an individual homeowner or smaller company, which may be open to changing their policy or making an exception. They are both ways “to encourage breed-neutral policies.”