Those arguing against banning selective breeds, and that comprises many animal welfare associations including the RSPCA, say a more effective and humane approach is to implement a system of education and training of dogs enforced by policing with fines and jail for irresponsible owners. They say a dog should be deemed irredeemably dangerous on the basis of its temperament not the way it looks.
”Because I am six foot two and a half, and have freckles, it’s like banning every six foot two-plus, freckled person because 10 of them did something wrong over a period of five years,” says Brad Griggs, from the National Dog Trainers Federation.
”It is the equivalent of racism.”
Griggs is concerned that a ban would push owners of pit bulls away.
”If these people are likely to have these dogs seized or be discriminated against, it’s hardly going to bring them into the dog training community fold, and encourage them to train their dogs and raise them properly,” he says.
Griggs says that, internationally, educated dog trainers don’t have a bias against the breed. Genetics are only part of the picture. ”Genetics are the potential a dog has to live into,” he says, arguing that nurture, as opposed to nature, is extremely important.
”All dogs should be heavily socialised and habituated and that is the key point. The majority of dogs that have these issues to attack like this have had a poor critical socialisation period, up to about 16 or 20 weeks of age.”
Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) spokeswoman Kersti Seksel says, “It’s understandable that people are now calling for the banning of some breeds, however all the good evidence available shows that this doesn’t work.”
“Unfortunately, we believe the banning and over-regulation of dogs in our communities could be part of the problem as this leads to poor socialisation and increased risk of attacks.”
The AVA is instead calling for the government to increase funding for education and socialisation programs for dogs, their owners and young children. Its statistics show that the most likely victims of dog attacks are children aged under 10, usually by their own dogs at their homes.
“We’re never going to be able to prevent every incident, but a really good way to help prevent bites and attack is through socialisation of puppies with people and other dogs at a young age, and teaching our children how to be safe around animals.”
In 2001, an American Veterinary Medical Association taskforce investigating canine aggression reported it had found no statistical, biological or behavioural evidence that any breed of dog was more vicious or more dangerous than others.
Statistics provided by Monash University's Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit show the number of hospital admissions because of dog-related injuries - not just bites - almost doubled from 451 in 2000-01 to 717 last year. This is despite the introduction of breed-specific legislation a decade ago. There were 5180 reported injuries over the past 10 years.
The Victorian government dedicates more than 800 words and uses 41 images to define the breed standard for the restricted American pit bull terrier. The problem? There is no such breed. Experts say that ''pit bull'' is actually a generic term for a type of dog, much like ''hound'' or ''terrier''. ''I don't know that anyone can categorically say what a pit bull is because there is no genetic profile,'' said Dr Susan Maastricht, Victorian president of the Australian Veterinary Association.
''What we have now in our legislation is a standard, but in fact it's a standard for a type of dog.'' The American Kennel Club, the leading pure-bred dog authority in the US, said the term ''pit bull'' comes from the early 19th century, when bulldog-terrier crosses were used for bull baiting and dog fighting. The three breeds that emerged are the bull terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier. All three are considered pit bull-type dogs.
''There is a lot of similarity, which means, from a veterinary point of view, it is difficult to differentiate from the two in a meaningful way,'' Dr Maastricht said. Allie Jalbert, manager of animal shelters at RSPCA Victoria, has similar problems. ''It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine what breed a dog is simply by appearance,'' she said.
Not even all branches of government can agree on that point. Last year a Queensland court ruled that for the purposes of restricted breed legislation, the Staffie and the American pit bull are the same breed.
One owner told The Age her dog, which she rescued from a shelter 18 months ago, had been registered as a Staffordshire bull terrier but could meet some of the visual guidelines and she feared it could be declared a restricted breed.
"He's an absolute gorgeous dog and very sweet," she says. "The breed-specific legislation makes you feel very nervous and worried that someone could potentially take my dog off me or class him as a dangerous dog even though he has never menaced anyone or anything.
"The council rangers aren't breed-identification experts by a long shot and they're the ones deciding the fates of these amazing dogs."
Linda Watson, who is doing a PhD degree on ”dog-bite injury and the effect of regulation”, said the term ”pit bull” had become a generic one, to include dogs such as Staffordshire terriers, English bull terriers, bulldogs, even boxers.
The term pit bull had come to mean ”any small- to middle-sized, short-haired, muscular dog”, she said, which was most misleading and most unfair. ”I don’t believe any breed is dangerous,” she said. ”It is how the dog is treated and the circumstances in which it finds itself in when it may happen to bite.”
”Knee-jerk reactions by governments do not tend to create good public policy. We do not need any more laws or restrictions that are doomed to failure from the onset. We need a strategy based on the best research evidence that we have to hand.
Breed bans simply do not address other recurrent patterns associated with dog attacks such as irresponsible or uneducated dog ownership.
Measures taken need to address human ownership practices, as dogs of many breeds and crosses feature in dog attacks. No single, or even group of breeds, have been shown to account for the majority of dog attacks in Australia.”
This system used in the Canadian city of Calgary is being held up as a successful way to effectively reduce dog attacks.
Bill Bruce, Calgary's director of animal and bylaw services, oversees the program. "If you come to Calgary you rarely see a dog roaming loose in the street, you don't see a lot of aggressive dogs, you don't see dogs left tied up outside a bar while someone goes in for hours on end, and you don't see dogs in open-back pick-up trucks. You don't see a lot of animal issues a lot of other people are facing because it's taken us 25 years to get to this point."
Bruce says the city investigated breed-specific legislation but found it didn't work. "As we've learnt from our study, if [irresponsible owners] have pit bulls and we ban them, then they'll get German shepherds or they'll get mastiffs or they'll get rottweilers, any number of dogs they can create a monster out of," Bruce says.
The city then decided to create a culture of responsible pet ownership. Bruce believes it is the owner who must be trained to recognise early signs of aggression and to properly handle their pets.
He says cases of dog aggression had dropped from more than 2000 in 1985 to 300 last year, of which 102 were bites, most of which were minor. He concedes bite numbers last year almost doubled from 2009's figure of 58, but he attributes this to a public awareness campaign run by the city about reporting incidents that occur within the home.