Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)

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Brief Summary of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)
Anna Jones (2017)

Breed Specific Legislation or “BSL” is a law that either bans or restricts ownership of certain dogs based on their appearance. This type of legislation is usually enacted by local municipal or county governments and operates under the presumption that certain physical characteristics make some breeds of dogs more dangerous than others. The law may ban a breed of dog completely or call for owners to adhere to regulations like licensing, muzzling and insurance, or something in between. BSL made its appearance in the late 1980’s, following increased media attention surrounding dog attacks on community members. Danger and a duty to public safety are core themes in breed specific legislation. In actions challenging such ordinances, courts have found that local governments are within their right in passing BSL, as a valid exercise of police power in support of community safety.

Laws like this have gathered both supporters and critics. Some call BSL a necessary regulation to protect against dangerous dogs, while other profess that there is no correlation between dog breed and presumptive dangerous. Shortly after the introduction of BSL, some state legislatures responded by choosing to preempt breed bans by passing anti-BSL ordinances and outlawing regulation based on breed. Although states like Colorado have in a sense overruled BSL with state law, some cities still maintain their anti-pit bull laws decades later. Denver is one example; the city has had widely enforced BSL on the books since 1989, despite the Colorado Legislature amending the law in disapproval of BSL in 2004. Denver’s BSL was allowed to stand under a “home rule” exemption that effectively deemed dog regulation a local municipal matter, rather than an issue for the state to take up.

As mentioned, BSL has been around in some form for over thirty years. It has led to dire consequences for thousands of pets and families across the United States. This has inevitably led to conflict, litigation, and protest from dog owners and breed advocates. Ordinances outlawing pit bulls have at times clashed with disability rights by discriminating against owners with service dogs of a certain breed. Despite long-standing BSL, pit bulls have remained a popular choice as family pets and loyal companions. They are also the dogs most commonly seen in shelters, as well as the least likely to be adopted. Their legal status remains at issue in subsequent the fall out of BSL in the form of barriers to housing, insurability, liability and social stigma. 


Overview of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)
Anna Jones (2017)

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.


Related articles

Web Center Articles: 

Overview of Breed-Specific Local Ordinances, Charlotte Walden, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2012) (includes reference to actual language of local laws). 

Summary of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL): Denver's Ban as a Case Study, Rebecca F. Wisch, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2008).

Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States, Linda S. Weiss, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2001).

Other Scholarly Articles:

The Post-Conviction Remedy for Pit Bulls: What Today’s Science Tells Us About Breed-Specific Legislation, Katie Barnett, 67 Syracuse L. Rev. 241 (2017).

Breed Specific Legislation: The Gap in Emergency Preparedness Provisions for Household PetsAmy Cattafi, 32 Seton Hall Legis. J. 351 (2008).

Pit Bull Bans and the Human Factors Affecting Canine Behavior, Jamey Medlin, 56 DePaul L. Rev. 1285 (2007).

Attacking the Dog-Bite Epidemic: Why Breed-Specific Legislation Won't Solve the Dangerous-Dog Dilemma, Safia Gray Hussain, 74 Fordham L. Rev. 2847 (April 2006).

Dog-Focused Law's Impact on Disability Rights: Ontario's Pit Bull Legislation as a Case in Point, Barbara Hanson, 12 Animal L. 217 (2005).

Investigation of Maquoketa's Pit Bull Ban Ordinance and Enforcement (Iowa), William P. Angrick II, Citizen's Aide/Ombudsman, released 12/21/2006 (pdf file 2.07 MB)

The Case Against Dog Breed Discrimination By Homeowners' Insurance Companies, Larry Cunningham, 11 Conn. Ins. L.J. 1 (2004).

Breed Specific Legislation: Unfair Prejudice and Ineffective Policy, Devin Burstein, 10 Animal L. 313 (2004).


Related cases

Table of  all BSL-related cases


Related laws


New! List of States that Prohibit Local Governments from Enacting BSL, Rebecca F. Wisch, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2017).

Pleadings for City and County of Denver v. State of Colorado, the case that challenged Denver's BSL ban on pit bulls (2004).

Final Rule to adopt enforceable accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (28 CFR Part 35). In response to commenters on the proposed rule, the Department stated that it ". . . does not believe that it is either appropriate or consistent with the ADA to defer to local laws that prohibit certain breeds of dogs based on local concerns that these breeds may have a history of unprovoked aggression or attacks." 

Related Links

Links at the Web Center:

Dog Bite/Dangerous Dogs Topic Intro

Laws Regulating Rescue and Foster Care Programs for Companion Animals Topic Intro 

External Links: - Breed-specific laws state-by-state. " is a national dog bite victims' group dedicated to reducing serious dog attacks. Through our work, we hope to protect both people and pets from future attacks." "Stop BSL seeks to halt discriminatory, ineffective, unsafe legislation; to educate the public about safe and humane treatment of dogs; to encourage responsible dog ownership; to make communities safer through education and non-breed-specific measures; and to enhance public communication and knowledge by providing a single point for access to news about breed-specific legislation and similar activities."

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