Student criticizes pit bull media coverage

July 13, 2006, volume 36, no. 6
By Marianne Meadahl

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If you are an American pit bull terrier living in Coquitlam, the law says you'll need to wear your muzzle in public. Cross over into Port Coquitlam and you can be muzzle-free.

An SFU study of breed-specific legislation — invoked by about half the Lower Mainland's municipalities - suggests it is not an effective response, raising both constitutional and practical issues, and even leading to a false sense of security that all other dogs are safe.

Breed-specific legislation bans or restricts the ownership of certain breeds of dogs. In Lower Mainland communities where the law is in place, that includes pit bulls.

SFU criminology graduate student Niki Huitson, who conducted the study for her master's thesis, says more comprehensive legislative options should be considered, while greater public awareness of dogs such as pit bulls is needed.

“It's not the legislation that will ultimately reduce bites,” says Huitson, noting that only 16 per cent of all dog owners in the City of Vancouver have registered their dogs. “It's responsible ownership.”

Statistics show there is typically one fatal dog bite a year in Canada. The only recorded pit-bull fatality in Canada was in 1995, by an American Staffordshire terrier.

Huitson, who owns three American pit bull terriers, studied media coverage of dog-bite references and incidents over a six-month period.

Only three articles out of 31 pertained to a pit bull biting a human.

Seven articles revisited old cases and four referred to the ‘pit bull' qualities of a person. Some media reports of pit bull attacks appeared later with clarifications about the dog being a different breed.

Huitson suggests that increased media attention on dog attacks has led to a near panic about dog-bites and, in particular, the “demonization” of the pit-bull. The dog is currently banned in Ontario.

“Overall, the media has created a negative image of the pit bull,” says Huitson, noting a lack of scientific research showing that any breed is inherently more aggressive than any other.

“They're often lumped together with Rottweilers, although historically known for dog fighting, pit bulls have evolved through responsible breeding and ownership to be loyal, family pets."

Huitson's thesis supervisors included SFU criminologists Neil Boyd and Gail Anderson and, as external examiner, former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell. Huitson also conducted interviews with a series of experts, including representatives from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Vancouver SPCA, the RCMP, dog breeders and others.

While many felt there should be laws, most agreed that designating certain breeds as dangerous would not solve the problem, and that promoting responsible ownership was a necessary part of addressing dog-bite concerns.

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