Opinion: any dog within any breed category has the potential to be dangerous under a perfect storm of circumstances

Following the American Civil War, dogs that resembled the bloodhound were thought to be particularly dangerous to warrant being banned from certain jurisdictions. This corresponded with their depiction in popular culture at that time in the tracking of slaves, including representations such as in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Following a period of substantial change in the United States in the 1960s, a formal movement in the use of dogs for protection within homes in disadvantaged inner-city areas occurred with populations of German Shepherds and Dobermans skyrocketing in the earliest stages, followed by Rottweilers and what is commonly referred to as the pit bull in the following decades. Popular culture reinforced people’s perceptions of these breeds as being dangerous, such as depictions of the Rottweiler in the original Omen movie.

Despite being held as an icon of the United States decades previously and being referred to as America's Dog, the breeds commonly referred to as pit bulls began to attract the ire of the media. Time magazine published sensational pieces titled Time Bombs on Legs, with Sports Illustrated also publishing a cover of an American Pit Bull Terrier along with the heading Beware of this Dog. With readerships in the hundreds of millions, publications such as these which stoked fear through the creation of myths about these breeds had a considerable impact.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, callers to the show talk about dog attacks

In reality, the breeds that are thought of as being dangerous have changed across time. Some early research based on news reports began to show more human deaths as being the result of certain breeds, such as German Shepherds and Dobermans. However, these studies did not account for population sizes: with the explosion of their populations, they would invariably account for more than other breeds given there was more of them. This is even more obvious in the case of the pit bull. The number of breeds that can be referred to as being a pit bull can range from approximately four traditional breeds (e.g. American Pit Bull Terrier) to any mixed breed dog that just looks like what someone thinks is a pit bull.

Despite these studies stating that risks from specific breeds cannot be concluded from their studies, different counties began to introduce knee-jerk legislation targeting specific breeds (breed-specific legislation). The misuse of these types of studies by some politicians and journalists led to letters being published with these articles to discourage the misinterpretation about certain breeds being dangerous. A large body of research over decades, across countries and by different researchers has concluded that breed-specific legislation has not worked to protect the public and that this is the wrong approach to take.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke show, Shane Bergin from the UCD School of Education on the science of dogs and why they behave the way they do

These studies include research I have conducted examining dog-bite hospitalisations in Ireland. I found that the rate of hospitalisations due to very serious dog-bites has been rising and, consistent with other research, found that young children are at risk. The most thorough research of deaths due to dog bites has found that they are characterised by preventable factors under the control of the owner and/or the victim. These include; no able-bodied person to intervene, no familiar relationship of victims with dogs, owner failure to neuter dogs, compromised ability of victims to interact correctly with dogs, dogs kept isolated from regular positive human interactions, owners’ prior mismanagement of dogs, and owners’ history of abuse or neglect of dogs.

It is widely noted internationally that dog-bite fatalities have been as a result of bites from a wide range of dogs, including very small toy breed dogs. Recent research from France found no difference in dog bite severity or dog bite type when directly comparing legislated and non-legislated dog breeds. Research I have co-authored supports this finding. This corresponds with research studies reporting no differences in aggression between legislated breeds and those stereotyped as friendly. There is also the reality that even if the restricting of a dog breed would protect people (which it doesn’t), it is actually unenforceable without genetically testing each dog in the country, which is also not 100% accurate.

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There are very serious consequences from the introduction of breed-specific legislation, such as with the restrictions on certain dog breeds (including mixes) in Ireland. Money and time which should be directed to evidence-based dog control is diverted to the enforcement of targeting dog breeds. Other issues include; council housing bans; some dog pounds not accepting or rehoming restricted dog breeds (and mixes) impacting numbers euthanised, impacting owner insurance premiums, individuals using assistance or therapeutic listed dogs, and many others.

There is also the consequence around the message that there are safe and unsafe dog breeds, thereby discouraging responsible behaviour around all dogs. This has long been a concern of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe. This has the added consequence of making certain dog breeds more attractive to irresponsible owners. "Breed-specific legislation engenders a false and dangerous perception that breeds not included will not show aggression. To date, no scientific criteria have been identified by which it can be determined that a dog is dangerous by simply describing its racial or other physical parameters."

From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, listeners contribute to a discussion on dog breeding

There is an international trend away from breed-specific legislation, with some even enacting legislation outlawing its use. I believe and have long advocated that there is a need to get rid of restrictions targeting dog breeds in Ireland. Instead, there should be strict restrictions that can be placed on a dog and owner irrespective of what someone thinks a dog looks like.

Such restrictions would need to be able to be applied on both public and private property and would need to be stricter in terms of the addition of further measures, such as mandatory training and neutering. Free or reduced rate evidence-based dog training would also be needed to be provided in disadvantaged areas. These types of measures are known to work.

The reality is that a dog's behaviour, facilitated by an irresponsible or misinformed owner, can escalate over time, beginning with several early warning signs to potentially leading to a tragedy occurring. Reputable international organisations are strictly opposed to any legislation targeting dog breeds in any manner, in favour of targeting specific potentially dangerous dogs and their owners. There are many examples of statements and reviews from international organisations including the American Bar Association, American Kennel Club, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, American Veterinary Medical Association, Association of Pet Dog Trainers, Australian Kennel ClubAustralian Veterinary Association, British Veterinary Association, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, Humane Society of the United States, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – United Kingdom and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe.

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We all have the tendency to overestimate the differences between groups, when the differences within groups is what is really important. In other words, any dog within any breed category has the potential to be dangerous under a perfect storm of circumstances. Legislation should target known circumstances which can lead to a potentially dangerous dog and abandon the myth of the dangerous dog breed.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ