Watertown, Wisconsin: A Sociological Study in BSL Hysteria, Junk Science Misinformation, and Dogged Ignorance

Like the rest of the dog lobby, we’ve been watching the progression of Watertown, Wisconsin’s breed-specific law (BSL) proposal these past few months with a sense of head-shaking disbelief.   Indeed, Watertown might be perfect for a sociological study in groupthink and hysteria given how some aldermen seem to have gone out of their way to remain ignorant.  

Do they care that last week the White House and President Obama came out against BSL and breed bans citing its ineffectiveness?   The news only went global.   Do they care that the American Bar Association last year released a statement encouraging all state, territorial, and local legislative bodies and governmental agencies . . . to repeal breed discriminatory or breed specific provisions”?   Do they care that breed-specific legislation has failed worldwide?   No, Watertown does not seem to care.   I’d say the reason for their persisting ignorance is isolation, but with the Internet there is no such thing as isolation.

As we said in a prior post, we have for months now maintained that the Watertown Common Council has been listening to some pretty ignorant, if not downright untruthful sources (which was confirmed when a member of Watertowns Humane Society acknowledged the councils research source was a Facebook page!).   So once again,   lets look at just how ridiculous that source is. The Watertown Daily Times last week reported Watertown Alderman Fred Smith as having said that,

. . . the Watertown Safety and Welfare Committee has been working on drafting the ordinances changes for almost a year and they have heard over and over again it is not the breed. However, Smith said the process of breeding seeks to accentuate specific characteristics over time and he said pit bulls were bred for aggressiveness, tenacity, to fight and to kill.

Those characteristics are in their DNA. They do not surface to the same extent with every dog, but you do not overcome decades of breeding with training. They are dangerous dogs . . . I would submit to you, based upon everything we know, and many of those who came forward about the traumatic experiences they have had, Smith said. Pit bulls bite. All breeds bite, the difference is when you are bitten by most breeds you treat the bite at home or go to the emergency rooms. When pit bulls attack you go to the trauma center if you are not dead on the scene . . .We have a problem that cries out for public safety to be addressed. This ordinance seeks to do it . . . and we would be extremely well advised to pass it.

But research, that is, proper research, does not back up Smith’s claims.   For instance, a 2011 Spanish study found that breeds deemed dangerous in Spain were no more aggressive or likely to bite than the control group, and that in fact larger-breed dogs, like the ones Spain designated dangerous, were actually much less likely to exhibit aggression.  

Similarly, a German study found that no scientific basis for breed-specific legislation existed in Lower Saxony since “no significant difference was found” between aggression in Golden Retrievers in the control group and the “dangerous” breeds on the breed-specific lists.   Following the study, the breed-specific lists in Lower Saxony were withdrawn.

In fact, worldwide, BSL has been failed legislation.   Even cities like Hamilton, Ontario, and Winnipeg, Manitoba have had to acknowledge, although reluctantly, that their breed-specific bylaws have not lowered bite rates, and in Winnipeg’s case, have actually seen a rise in dog-bite rates.  

So yes Alderman Fred Smith, Watertown may “have a problem that cries out for public safety to be addressed,” but your ordinance proposal will not make your residents safer.   In fact, quite the opposite.   When Animal Control is forced to focus on banned breeds, it is to the exclusion of other dogs and other breeds who may be owned by irresponsible owners.   So no, your ordinance proposal will not make your community safer Mr. Smith; in fact, it will make it less safe.  

Additionally, for those who don’t know, including possibly Alderman Smith himself, Smith’s claims — that “pit bulls were bred for aggressiveness, tenacity, to fight and to kill,” that they are supposedly more dangerous than the average canine, and that they supposedly do more damage when they bite — are a hangover from several ignorant articles written in the late 1980s, most notably one by Time magazine that made ridiculously false claims like that “pit bulls” supposedly bite with a bite force of 1,800 pounds per square inch bite pressure, which is laughably false. (To put that in perspective, the Great White Shark bites with a bite force of around 1,000 pounds.)  

In 2005 Dr. Brady Barr in a show for National Geographic called “Dangerous Encounters” conducted bite-force tests for several kinds of animals.   Also included in the tests were three breeds of dog: the German Shepherd, the Rottweiler, and the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT). [And while the APBT is an actual breed, it is unclear if this is the breed to which the media and others are referring when they use the slang term “pit bull” to describe bites/attacks, though APBTs are almost always one of the breeds named when breed-specific legislation is passed.]   Of the three, the American Pit Bull Terrier had the least amount of bite force, which was found to be well below the average dog’s 320-pound bite pressure.

These sources, like Time magazine, that made these ridiculous claims are archaic and in fact Time, the same magazine that originally issued the article maligning “pit bulls,” just last week came out with a much more enlightened piece about the breed-specific legislation they helped create noting,  

In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at twenty years of data about dog bites and human fatalities in the United States. They found that fatal attacks represent a very small proportion of dog bite injuries to people and that its virtually impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds.

. . . the CDC suggests a community-based approach as an alternative, and more effective, method of preventing dog bites.

It looks like Time magazine wouldn’t back up Alderman Smith’s claims either, which is ironic given that Smith’s claims appear to have their origin from that almost 30-year old Time article.  

As I illustrated in a prior post about Watertown wherein I debunked Smith’s “pit bull” urban mythology, the skull and mandibles of so-called “pit bulls” are no different than any other canine.   Nor are they time bombs waiting to go off because of their fighting heritage.   The worst you can say about terriers — the group to which the American Pit Bull Terrier and other bulldog breeds belong — is that they may not be dog-friendly.    

So for instance, if American Pit Bull Terriers (APBTs) are supposedly more aggressive than your average canine, which they’re not, then the same can also be said of Jack Russell Terriers, Scottish Terriers, Cairn Terriers, and West Highland Terriers, to name a few.   Based on the Spanish study listed above, the aggression in the small dog breeds I just listed is actually likely to be more pronounced than that of an American Pit Bull Terrier and related breeds.   In fact, APBTs score 86.8% on their temperament tests (Bull Terriers, 91.1%, American Staffordshire Terriers, 84.5%, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, 90.7%).   This is comparable to Golden Retrievers who score 85.2%, which would seem to reinforce the findings of the German study listed above (atts.org).  

But let’s go back to the terrier group for a moment and look at temperament test scores for smaller-breed terriers.   For instance, Jack Russell Terriers have a pass rate of 84.1%, Cairn Terriers 74%, Scottish Terriers 63.6%, and West Highland Terriers, 88.7% (atts.org).   Again, these findings would seem to reinforce the findings of the Spanish study that found that smaller-breed dogs tend to be more aggressive.   Do not mistake me, I’m not calling for smaller breeds to be banned too.   On the contrary, I’m simply illustrating why and how Alderman Smith’s claims that “pit bulls” are more aggressive or more deadly are patently false.   Like I said, the worst thing you could say about the fighting heritage of American Pit Bull Terriers and related breeds is that they may be more dog-aggressive, but if you look at APBTs and other bulldog breeds’ temperament tests, you can see that the smaller-breed terriers have them beaten there too.  

And if Watertown’s BSL-leaning aldermen still won’t accept the studies and statistics listed and the logical arguments herein made, then as I also noted prior, if “pit bulls” were as deadly as Alderman Fred Smith claims, then there would be dead owners of “pit bulls” and their friends and family numbering in the millions.   But there aren’t.  

While the aldermen can certainly cite statistics that “pit bulls” are supposedly responsible for a majority of dog bite-related fatalities (DBRFs), all they’d really be illustrating is that the slang term “pit bull” can describe any number of actual dog breeds, their mixes, and lookalikes.   To put that another way, the CDC said of its own “pit bull” DBRFs and data compiling that,

. . .to the extent that attacks by 1 breed are more newsworthy than those by other breeds, our methods may have resulted in differential ascertainment of fatalities by breed. (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 838).

Meaning, their statistics are worthless because “pit bull” as a breed doesn’t even exist, though the media reports on so-called “pit bulls” as if they do, which is why the CDC itself only has a generalized category called “pit-bull type dog.”  

The CDC further added that,

. . .it is imperative to keep in mind that even if breed-specific bite rates could be accurately calculated, they do not factor in owner-related issues. For example, less responsible owners or owners who want to foster aggression in their dogs may be drawn differentially to certain breeds (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 839).

As such, when cities pass BSL, those irresponsible dog owners either ignore the law, or simply switch to irresponsibly owning other breeds.   Just ask Winnipeg.  

So what did the CDC conclude based on its own statistics?:

Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous . . . From a scientific point of view, we are unaware of any formal evaluation of the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation in preventing fatal or nonfatal dog bites. An alternative to breed-specific legislation is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000 Vet Med Today: Special Report 839-840).

Shall I recap then?   The White House, the President, the American Bar Association, research studies, bite statistics, and the CDC all agree or can illustrate that breed-specific legislation doesn’t keep communities safer, doesn’t reduce dog bites, and only serves to adversely affect law-abiding dog owners.   So I’d bet all of the above-cited evidence proving the ineffectiveness of BSL against Alderman Fred Smith’s Facebook page source any day.  

And if someone is Internet savvy enough to know how to do a vanity search for their own name (ahem, “Fred Smith Watertown Alderman”) then they should be Internet savvy enough to know how to do a web search for the efficacy, or not, of BSL.


To learn more about the failure of BSL, check out the National Canine Research Council’s research page or click through to the following:

Denver’s Breed-Specific Legislation: Brutal, Costly, and Ineffective
Miami-Dade County: No Positive Results


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