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Study targets dog laws & education

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Contact: Niki Huitson, 778.808.3207; nrh@sfu.ca
              Marianne Meadahl/Julie Ovenell-Carter, pamr, 604.291.4323



July 19, 2006
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 of Lower Mainland’s municipalities – suggests it is not an effective response to curbing dog attacks, raises both constitutional and practical issues, and can lead 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 conducted the study for her master’s thesis. She conducted extensive interviews with representatives from such groups as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Vancouver SPCA, the RCMP, as well as dog breeders. 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.

Huitson 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, also studied media coverage of dog bite references over a six-month period, and found only three of 31 articles pertained to a pit bull biting a person. She 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 banned in Ontario.

Huitson says there is a lack of scientific research showing that any breed is inherently more aggressive than any other. “Pit bulls are 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.

Digital photo available of Huitson and her dog, Blaze of Glory.