Full Title Name:  Overview of Breed Specific Legislation

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Anna Jones Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2017 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center 0 Country of Origin:  United States

A breed ban, also known as breed specific legislation or “BSL” are all names for an ordinance that restricts ownership or possession of certain identified breeds of dogs. The ban describes physical characteristics of prohibited breeds, or it may list specific breeds that are prohibited, or a combination of both. This type of law will typically provide a test to follow once a dog is identified as “banned” or qualifying under the ordinance. Part of this procedure then includes a visual identification test to ensure the prohibition is accurate. Historically, BSL has restricted or regulated ownership of breeds like Rottweilers and Dobermans but modern BSL has one focus – pit bulls.

BSL erupted in popularity in the 1980’s in response to dog attacks on community members. These attacks were sensationalized by the media and used to spread fear. As such, pit bulls were labeled aggressive, powerful and often attacking unprovoked. Local governments calmed the fears of the public by passing legislation banning all pit bulls. A banned dog being found within city limits would seized and often euthanized. In one form or another, BSL is still present in many U.S. cities and counties. 2016 data estimates a total of 36 states have adopted breed specific legislation. This includes 1052 United States cities, 38 counties and 292 military bases which impose breed specific laws.

These laws remain despite some state governments taking an opposing view to BSL by passing laws prohibiting legislative discrimination based on breed. For example, in 2004, the Colorado state legislature amended state law to prohibit municipalities from regulating dangerous dogs by breed. Despite this, the long standing BSL in Denver was allowed to remain under a “home rule” exemption that essentially leaves regulating animals within the powers of the city. Similarly, many other states with anti-BSL on the books have municipalities with ordinances that still ban or restrict dangerous dog breeds. 

Supporters of BSL argue that restrictions like these are necessary to shield the public from vicious dog attacks. Opponents of BSL claim that the laws are vague and apply too broadly by punishing dogs for “bad breeds” as opposed to bad acts. One way BSL critics have voiced concern is through litigation. Constitutional challenges are frequently brought in attempt to combat BSL. Typical arguments claim that an ordinance banning pit bulls violates an owner’s right to 1) due process, 2) equal protection, and 3) laws free from vagueness. Other litigants have claimed that seizure and destruction of a banned dog constitutes an improper taking of their property. All of these challenges have yet to be ruled as a successful strike against BSL in a court of law.

A local government’s general police power, and authority to regulate animals both wild and domestic overcomes constitutional challenges and any state preemption to BSL. Under this reasoning, along with a commitment to public safety, municipalities are within their responsibilities when they regulate dogs. Despite the perceptions against them and the BSL outlawing them, pit bulls are still found within many communities. The breed has grown in popularity and can be found occupying the position of companion, family pet, service or working dog. A city police department in Tukwila, Washington even recently welcomed their first pit bull K-9 officer. Society’s view on pit bulls are changing, as are the perceptions that certain breed characteristics signal danger.


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