Local laws banning specific breeds of dogs have come under the microscope in two Southwest Missouri cities, with Sarcoxie deciding to eliminate its ban on pit bull terriers and Rottweilers and Carthage leaning against changing its pit bull ban.
The two cities are among those that have enacted ordinances in recent decades to ban specific breeds of dogs, typically pit bulls or pit bull mixes, within their city limits. Other cities, including Joplin, have ordinances that deal with dangerous or vicious dogs, but they do not target specific breeds.
In Sarcoxie, the Board of Aldermen decided it was impossible to enforce the city's ordinance banning pit bulls and Rottweilers, so board members believed there was no use having the ordinance on the books, Mayor Don Triplett said.
“We were having occasions where people were sneaking (the dogs) into town and hiding them,” Triplett said. “We couldn’t enforce it. ... We were not going to be knocking on everyone’s doors and making inspections of dogs. We decided it would be better and more effective if we focused on dangerous behaviors of animals.”
In Carthage, the public safety committee will review its existing pit bull ban after several residents opposed it at a January meeting, said James Harrison, the committee's chairman and a member of the Carthage City Council.
Carthage resident Christian O’Neill, 31, was among those who spoke out against the city's ban. He doesn't own a pit bull, but he believes the breed has gotten a bad reputation.
"Over the years, bad people raised pit bulls to be aggressive and mean, and that’s been what is shown to people who haven't been around them," he said.
O’Neill said Carthage already has ordinances on the books related to dangerous animals and dogs that bite, and he believes those are adequate without banning any specific breed.
"Both of those are all we need to handle issues with dogs, either terrible owners or dogs that happen to go rogue," he said.
Against a ban
A variety of expert groups — including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior — do not support breed-specific legislation. Most support legislation or programs that deal with dangerous dogs and owners rather than specific breeds.
The American Veterinary Medical Association says breed-specific ordinances are difficult to enforce because they “focus on dogs with a certain appearance or physical characteristic instead of an actual breed.”
“‘Pit bulls’ are the most frequent targets of breed-specific legislation despite being a general type rather than a breed,” the group says on its website. “Other breeds also are sometimes banned, including Rottweilers, Dobermans and boxers. However, it is extremely difficult to determine a dog’s breed or breed mix simply by looking at it."
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that breed-specific legislation is ineffective and can lead to a false sense of community safety.
"The importance of the reduction of dog bites is critical," the group says on its website. "However, the AVSAB’s view is that matching pet dogs to appropriate households, adequate early socialization and appropriate training, and owner and community education are most effective in preventing dog bites. Therefore, the AVSAB does support appropriate legislation regarding dangerous dogs, provided that it is education-based and not breed-specific."
Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argued as early as the 1990s that breed-specific legislation was not the solution to preventing dog bites. Its recommendations instead: educating the public, specifically dog owners, about how to care for dogs; improving community-level animal control; and promptly reporting dog bites.
"Targeting a specific breed may be unproductive; a more effective approach may be to target chronically irresponsible dog owners," the CDC wrote in a 1997 study.
But Carthage leaders want to take their time reviewing the issue.
Harrison said the public safety committee likely will delay any action until the end of the state legislative session in May to see what lawmakers do with proposed legislation that would prohibit cities from banning specific breeds of dogs.
Rep. Ron Hicks, a Republican from St. Charles County, and other lawmakers have proposed such bills over the past few years, although they've failed to gain enough traction to pass both the House and Senate. This year, Hicks' House Bill 2244 would prohibit cities from banning specific breeds of dogs; it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 30.
Even then, Harrison said he’s not sure he’s ready to remove Carthage's ban from the books.
“I’ve had citizens say don’t repeal it, it’s there for a reason,” he said. “I’ve had citizens say we shouldn’t specifically target certain breeds. It’s been about 50-50. I understand the concern about breed-specific bans, but the pit bull and other larger dogs, they cause more damage when they bite.”