2018 Breed Specific Legislation in the Netherlands: a critical review and suggestions

Blog post about the Breed Specific Legislation in The Netherlands to be put in place in January 2018: Praise, criticism and implications
Article by Canis bonus. July 2017. Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits and back links at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog’s behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Breed-Specific Legislation in The Netherlands

Breed Specific Legislation will come into effect in the Netherlands again from January 2018, after a nine-year absence. In the post below, I explain what the law is proposing to do, what reasoning went behind it, and what elements do and don’t make sense in my view.

The points raised by the law that I discuss later in the post are indicated in bold.

The proposed law

For now, only two measures have been stated:

1. Owners of the 21 breeds listed below concerned will need to follow a ‘course on raising a dog’ (opvoedcursus).

2. Local municipalities will be allowed to put up regulations applying only to the listed breeds (but will not necessarily do so), such as:

  • Compulsory muzzle
  • Compulsory short leash
  • Ban from certain public areas where many children play

The Government is also working on additional future measures (so nothing concrete on these points yet):

  • A breeding and import ban
  • A central dog bite incident register (any breeds)
  • A central anti-social behaviour register by dogs and/or owners (any breeds)

What breeds are on the list?

They define High Risk Dogs (HRD) breeds as: “Dogs who were originally bred for fighting […] These dogs can display aggression inflicting serious damage. They frequently bite people.” (Government source here)

The breeds are listed on the official Government page as follow:

  1. Akita
  2. American Bulldog
  3. American Pitbull Terrier
  4. American Staffordshire Terrier
  5. Boerboel
  6. Bull Mastiff
  7. Bull Terrier
  8. Cane Corso
  9. Dogo Argentino
  10. Dogo Canario
  11. Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  12. Rottweiler
  13. Tosa
  14. Fila Brasileiro
  15. Anatolian Shepherd
  16. South Russian Owcharka
  17. Caucasian Owcharka
  18. Pitbulls, bullies and variants: pocket, micro, extreme pocket, regular, xl, xxl, rednose, you name it
  19. Bully Kuta
  20. Alano
  21. Bandog

(For technical reasons, I cannot attach source links to the pictures in the gallery itself. For full photo credits, including back-links, check Illustration credits at the end of this post.)

HRD crosses and look-alikes are will also be considered HRD’s but dogs with a *pedigree will not (*a valid Raad van Beheer pedigree. RvB = Dutch Kennel Club).

The Government warns they may add more breeds to the list.

The second list: listed but not considered high-risk

The government created a secondary list with breeds that were originally bred for fighting that are deemed lower-risk by the government:

  1. Boxer
  2. Dobermann
  3. Dogue de Bordeaux
  4. English Bulldog
  5. Mastiff
  6. Shar-Pei
  7. Mastino Napoletano

The breeds on the exemption list need to have a valid pedigree.

Now let’s start looking at my concerns, in no particular order.

High-risk crosses?

In the dog-fighting world, dogs get crossed for maximum dangerosity, granted but…

  1. Do all HRD x HRD mixes stem from the dog-fighting world?
  2. What of a HRD x non-HRD hybrids? I know a Staffie-Labrador cross (he’s a working dog, actually). Are they considered HRD’s? What of Chipits (yes, that’s a thing: Chihuahua – Pitbull)?
  3. What of distant ancestry? DNA testing can reveal 1/16th HRD and 15/16th non-HRD. Is the dog still HRD?

I am concerned by the grey areas raised by this question. I am curious: does someone out there know the answer to a couple of these questions? Include your source and I’ll credit you and update the post.

High-risk look-alikes?

What of the purebred/pedigree-less lookalikes like old English Bulldogges (not on either list), or complete mutts that look like a HRD like my own dog (Podenco x Labrador x German Shepherd).

Viewed from a certain angle even my Lab/Podenco looks like a Staffie

I heard stories of large-skulled Labradors being confiscated by law enforcement as they looked like an HRD, and the police being reluctant to return the dog even though a passport and pedigree was produced (this was back in the old Dutch Breed-Specific Legislation days)

So, will a DNA test be part of the identification process this time?

And how do you do that exactly with a banddog or a Pitbull (they are not even a breed)?

Why these breeds and not others?

This Government page (in Dutch) explains why they picked the breeds they did and this NRC article it in layman’s terms (in Dutch).

In short, the reasons were:

  1. Originally bred for fighting skills
  2. Powerful, large, muscular
  3. Particularly dangerous biting style
  4. Often involved in serious attacks on people.

Dangerous biting style

The elements they took into account were:

a. Ability to sustain a hold-bite with unimpeded breathing 

Powerful jaw = more stable bite hold

High-risk dogs on the list have powerful jaws, no argument.

With unimpeded breathing?

This point sounds an awful lot like the lock-jaw super-power urban myth. Does someone out there know specifically what aspect of morphology would help what specific HRD breed to keep breathing whilst holding whilst other breeds cannot?

Steadfast bite as a psychological trait

Sustained bite ability is 10% morphology 90% psychology in my view. (Some) dogs with Bull ancestry can have behavioural tendencies for hold-biting. THAT is the concern, not some anatomical feature.

It boils down to the same (a dog who easily lets go vs. a dog who does not let go) but it’s still an important distinction or you’ll even be sticking English Bulldogs on the first HRD list next.

b. Tendency to aim for vulnerable body parts (e.g. throat) 

They do NOT aim for the throat in human attacks, unless trained specifically to do so

What I see when analysing the horrendous incidents involving HRD’s is impulsive aggression: opportunistic bites to the nearest body parts like the face for children and the hands, arms and thighs for adults.

They ALSO bite vital body parts in dogs, but not exclusively so

When it comes to attacking other dogs, the bites also, but not only, target the abdomen, femoral and neck regions, and can include shaking.

The bite locations also appears opportunistic in these frenzied dog-dog incident: the victim-dog is bitten with great force (no doubt about the intend to harm), but all over (not with the surgical precision implied by the ‘going for the throat’ statement).

What makes it pathological is that the attacker bites the vulnerable parts at all. Behaviourally healthy dogs tend to resolve their conflicts ritually, with a lot of show and dance but no bites to vital body parts.

Another worry in the types of aggression we see in these frenzied moments is the uninhibited use of force. My own dog (Lab size) has impressive jaws. He could inflict serious damage if he chose to. But he has a soft bite and stays cool. He caught a duck by the neck once. In my panic, I naively asked him to let go. And he did! He wasn’t worked up. He’d just had something in his mouth. The bird left unscathed! Now picture a typical Jack Russell in my dog’s place. He would have torn the duck to pieces.

The role of adrenaline

This opportunistic and unrestrained biting style may in part be due to the frenzied aspect of these attacks. That can be (at least partly) genetically driven. This frenzy (i.e. the dog is having a sort of adrenaline fit), also blinds the attacker from their victim’s appeasing signals – which you often hear about these incidents. They are ‘seeing red’.

And now back to the million dollar question. Is your standard Staffie or Rottweiler much more likely to show this type of aggression than your standard Golden Retriever? How many Staffies could easily turn into adrenaline monsters? 1% or 99% of them? From my daily practice, I know many of them who wouldn’t react even if highly provoked. Are my good guys the minority?

For a detailed look at how much the adrenaline frenzy might weigh in on High Risk Breeds, read my article on Pitbulls.

c. Hard bite pressure, making it much harder to pry the jaws open

Psychology vs. morphology

Again, we are dealing with psychology as well as morphology.

I am not sure the bite pressure is solely due to their wide skull and strong muscles. I am sure a St Bernard could put up a good fight if you tried to pry HIS jaws open, but probably not as good as a dog whose ancestors were bred for single-mindedly clamping down onto a furious bull’s nose, regardless of their surroundings.

Genetics are probabilistic, not deterministic

Not every Lab has an extremely soft mouth and not every Bully has an extremely hard hold bite.

Among the responsibly raised HRD’s, how many do have the frenzy-all out aggression problem? 1% or 99% of them? I honestly do not know. With any dogs I am wary of arousal, but I can say that some of the softest-natured dogs I’ve met were Staffies. To people at least. I do notice that we need to socialise them extremely carefully, and to be particularly careful around the 18 month mark.

Irresponsible ownership: fight training, abuse, neglect, neglectful confinement and lack of socialisation

Lastly: can we separate irresponsible ownership from biting styles? I don’t believe we can.

Most serious incidents I’ve read involved a status dog being kept in neglectful conditions, or a recently adopted dog of unknown origins.

In the circles where the dog is objectified as a status dog, he may be involved in casual or even professional fights, and thus trained like an athlete to have a quick, powerful and tenacious bite. These dogs undergo hours of training every day and are provoked and starved and beaten up.

Exempt breeds: muddy administrative exceptions

HRD breeds are exempt if they have a pedigree (so Staffies, Argentinos, etc.) and pedigreed dogs on the pre-exempted list (e.g. English bulldogs, Boxers) are all exempt. So no matter the breed, if your dog has a pedigree, he’s exempted.

The reasoning is unclear to me. If the 21 breeds are inherent dangerous, does the pedigree make them safer? I could in theory breed a few generations of pedigreed Staffies for fighting traits. Perhaps the pedigree clause is an attempt to legitimate responsible owners? But this is still going to affect hordes of responsible owners of unpedigreed dogs.

My beloved old dog, Rodgie, an English Bulldog/Fox terrier cross

Here is another point of confusion case: what if you have an unpedigreed dog whose breed appears on the second list (e.g. English bulldog or a Boxer)? Is he then a HRD in the eyes of the law? And what of a cross between, say, an English Bulldog and a Fox terrier. Believe me, these crosses happen. I had one. Would my old dog have been considered deemed an HRD?

Exempt breeds: lower risk?

It struck me that the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Dogue de Bordeaux were not appeared on the first list. Breeds on the second list (like the Neapolitan) were deemed lower-risk because (as reported by the Hondenbescherming here):

a. The aggression would have been ‘bred out of them’ (by Kennel Clubs and breeders)

How did they establish that, say, Argentinian mastiffs, had lower aggressive tendencies? What was/were the variable, sample population, sample size, comparison population, control variables, etc. Without this information, any statement on aggression is just a judgement call.

I know this information is near-impossible to get and I know we can’t wait for impossible-to-get data to do something about serious bite incidents. But some first-versus-second-list choices feel arbitrary to me, invalidating the whole affair.

b. They would be involved in fewer incidents

There is 1 Neapolitano to every gazillion Staffies, so you’d expect more incidents with Staffies. That doesn’t mean Staffies are more prone to aggression than Neapolitanos.

I would love to see the numbers behind this statement. We have precious little standardized bite severity per breed data, so what was this Neapolitano vs. Staffie dangerosity distinction based on? See my discussion on likelihood.

The case for the English Bulldog is more easily made as they have become couch potatoes, but I find the Neapolitano and the Shar Pei odd choices. From what I see in practice, I do not believe for a second that the propensity for dog-dog aggression has been ‘bred out of the Shar pei’ for example.

Where are the German Shepherds?

Temperamentally, as a group, German Shepherds are more bite-prone than, say, Staffies. (Again, as a group), German Shepherds (particulary working line ones) they tend to be sensitive to fast movement, mouthy, easily frustrated and easily spooked. Not a great genetic combination for a relatively large dog. So why didn’t they make the list?

I imagine the Shepherd’s bite style was (relatively) less problematic: they (tend to) flash bite-retreat instead of hold-biting. But I know what sight scares me the most between an off-lead German Shepherd bounding up to me and the same situation with a Pit bull. I personally would be more concerned about the Shepherd in terms of likelihood of aggression, from professional experience.

The Sheps being such a popular breed, imagine the uproar if we added them to the list – as, ironically, they had in at least one German state that I know of. Imagine the gazillion very sociable shepherds who’d be restricted and stigmatised by law because of their breed’s tendency for neuroticism.

By the way, German Shepherds were listed as potential additions to the list, inspired by the fact that they are restricted in other BSL countries (see RDA report). So watch this space.

Knowledge used to draw the list

According to this Government document, they sought the advice of 5 national and international experts to put the list together. The High-Risk Dogs being a devilishly complicated tale of behaviour genetics, epidemiology and criminology, I am anxious to know what experts were consulted. If you know, please share it with us and leave a comment.

According to the same document, they based their decisions on the following list of references. I am underwhelmed by the quality of the sources here: look at the ratio of valid research references vs. popular science vs. opinion piece.

  • Avner, J R, Baker, M D (1991). Dog bites in urban children. Pedriatrics, 88 (1),55- 58
  • Beasly, J.T. (2015). Misunderstood Nanny Dogs? North Charlesto: CreateSpace
  • Billmire, D.A. (25 augustus 2016). Opinion: There is no need for pitbulls
  • Coppinger, R, Coppinger, L (2001), Dogs, a new understanding of canine origin, behavior and evolution, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
  • Harding, S (2014), Unleashed: the phenomena of status and weapon dogs, Bristol: Policy Press
  • Jessup, D (1995) The working Pit Bull, Neptune City: T.f.h. publications
  • Kaye, A E, Belz, J M, Kirschner, R E (2009). Pediatric Dog Bite Injuries: A 5-Year Review of the Experience at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. PRS Journal, 551-558
  • Loewe, C L, Diaz, F D, Bechinsky, J (2007). Pitbull mauling deaths in Detroit. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 28 (4), 356-360
  • O’Brien, D C, Andre, T B, Robinson, A D, Squires, L D, Tollefson, T T (2014). Dog bites of the head and neck: an evaluation of a common pediatric trauma and associated treatment. American Journal of Otolaryngology – head and neck medicine and surgery, 36 (1), 32-38

Each of the valid papers came from bite treatment data from hospitals, with obvious breed identification limitations.

Where are the papers showing an inverse correlation between size and likelihood to attack (you can find a few here). Where are the papers showing the ineffectiveness of Breed Specific Legislation in reducing serious incidents? Regardless of the literature, having toyed with BSL from 1993 to 2008 (see Regeling Agressieve Dieren) and failed to reduce bite incidents, shouldn’t the Netherlands know better?

The original report: focus on the owner

If you look at this report from the RDA (a large panel of experts advising the government on the dog bite problem), the risk factors they identify are: owner first, breed second, context third (as in at the time of the bite, degree of provocation of the victim, etc.).

Source: Hondenbeten aan de Kaak gesteld. Aanbiedingsbrief of the RDA (Feb 2017)

This diagram shows the dog’s breed as a sub-point in the second risk factor, along with the character of the invididual dog. Why aren’t the measures focusing on all breeds? Or problem dogs – as identified pre-bite by neighbours, etc. raising concerns in a central database, and early intervention. Why does the current law proposal have such a focus on these 21 breeds?

Are dogs on the HRD higher-risk?

The risk calculation

To assess risk, you look at:

  1. Potential for injury: A furious Staffie will cause more damage than a furious Cocker Spaniel (but don’t underestimate the Cockers either), no argument.
  2. Likelihood of aggression: This point is A LOT more contentious. It is a mix of the dog’s state of mind at the time, the dog’s upbringing and the dog’s temperament. I discuss this prickly issue in details here.

Likelihood and genetic predisposition

As far as a genetic predisposition for aggression (i.e. point 2. likelihood) is concerned, I refer you to the points I made in the discussions on bite types:

  • Adrenaline hypersensitivity: Terriers were bred for responding quickly and fearlessly to fast movements and high-pitched sounds. Think of how a Jack Russell would treat a rat if  you want to picture the sort of mental state I am talking about.
  • Steadfastness: Dogs with bulldog ancestry may not let go easily.

Likelihood at bite records: minor bites

You can also estimate the likelihood of aggression by looking at bite records. What you need to know is there is no one standard way for first responders like family doctors, ER personnel or law enforcement to record the breed (or even the species in some cases) involved in a bite incident. When they do record the breed, this is often mis-identified. So our bite – breed records are very shoddy indeed. Bearing that in mind…

Let’s look at some bite epidemiology numbers from the Netherlands (Dutch Ministry of Finance’s advisory report, 2008). Note that these numbers have been corrected for the size of the breed’s population to avoid popular breeds becoming unduly incriminated.

Let’s start with minor bites. The researchers surveyed about 900 people who’ d been bitten by dogs (including benign bites that required no medical attention), then recorded the breeds involved and calculated a ‘bite index’ per breed. A bite index of one is how much individuals of an average breed would be implicated in bite incidents. An index much lower than one, like for the boxer (0.4), indicates a breed whose individual representatives bite much less than the average breed. Now take a look at the top of our list: 1. Weimarners (with a whopping 6.1), 2. Airedale terrier and 3. Bull terrier.

Table 6 of ‘hondenbeten in perspectief’ report, 2008

Before you scream for a ban on Weimerarner, remember to take these results with a pinch of salt as every study of this type gives you a different top 10. This points to very shoddy data and tells us that we still do not have a universal list of the top 10 ‘bitiest’ breeds. It is interesting to note that, out of our list of 21 HRD dogs, only 3 appear in this table: 1. Bull terrier (4th), 2. Rottweiler (5th), and 3. AmStaff (6th).

Likelihood and bite records: bites resulting in a criminal case

The same report analysed the data for a pilot project in Rotterdam in the early 2000’s (2000-2006) which recorded the breed in dogs involved in dog bite criminal cases.

Table 6 of ‘hondenbeten in perspectief’ report, 2008

This table is interesting in that it clearly shows Pitbull clearly stands out (technically, the Pitbull is many breeds put together, but let’s not split hair) with, respectively, 26 dog on person attacks and 13 dog on dog. This is closely followed by the Am Staff, then the Malinois, and back to a bunch of HRD breeds. 7 out of the 10 recognizable breeds are on the current HRD list.

Interestingly, look at the Staffie: 2 times, for biting a dog and not a person. This is what I see in my daily practice (a potential predisposition by some for dog-dog aggression but an incredible tolerance to humans). Again, we can’t draw many conclusions from such small numbers, particularly from police records (imagine the number of UNreported dog-dog incidents by all sorts of breeds, for starters), but it is interesting nonetheless.

What’s going on? Here we seem to have our criminal element influencing the data again. When you look at the types of breeds involved, most are status breeds, breeds popular in ‘hot’ neighbourhoods. Note also, 58% of the people whose dog ended up impounded to assess its potential danger to society, had a criminal record. I don’t know what the Dutch national average is for criminal record but I imagine it’s MUCH lower than that. There we have this critical variable again: problem owner – problem dog.

Likelihood and bite records: lethal bites

Let’s now look at lethal bite incidents (from police records, from the same report). There have been 29 between 1982 and 2006. Every year, 0 to 2 such incidents took place. As you know, data on the dog’s breed after such incidents can be hard to track so it was only possible to look closely at 14 of these 29 incidents.

Pitbull Terriers and Rottweilers were top of the list of dogs who inflicted fatal injuries to a person, with 3 victims each (over the course of 25 years). They are the only two breeds from the current HRD list. The other dogs each made 1 victim each. Staffies are nowhere to be seen but this may be due to identification issues. A Mastino napoletano does feature on the list, as do one St Bernard, one Malinois and one Jack Russell Terrier.

Table 2 of ‘hondenbeten in perspectief’ report, 2008

Again, we must be careful not to draw conclusions from this, before we go and add Bouviers and Malinois on the list. Fatal dog attacks are extremely rare (0.04 of non natural deaths in the Netherlands, same as lightning basically).

So the question of frequency is tough to answer, but when you look at the big picture and compare different studies you tend to end up with the larger breeds bite less often than the smaller ones. Look at this recent literature review by the National Canine Research Council to give you an idea of the big picture.

Now let me refer you back to the core question: how many individual HRDs have these predispositions to a concerning degree? 1% or 99% of them?

Bottom line on the likelihood question

The data is all over the place and we will never have accurate numerical records of an individual breed’s propensity for serious bite incidents. What we do know is that:

  1. HRD’s don’t rank that high in tendency to inflict bites (to people);
  2. HRD’s (particularly Pitbull breeds) are, together with shepherds, leading perpetrators in lethal attacks. But lethal attacks are thankfully extremely rare (although I appreciate that an average of 1x per year is 1 too many)
  3. HRD’s in general appear much more often than non HRD breeds in criminal cases (where someone submitted a complaint about the dog)
  4. Owners of impounded HRD dogs are much more likely than the average Dutch citizen to have a criminal record

The key factor: responsible ownership

Putting genetics aside for a moment, let’s look at the environment that could predispose a dog to severe aggression incidents:

  • People who use these breeds as dogs and encourage them to act intimidatingly.
  • People who purposefully fail to socialise their dog.
  • People who not only provoke, but highly train their dogs for aggression to other dogs (dog fights) and/or people (protection, revenge, status)
  • People who keep their dogs in neglectful and often abusive conditions. People who keep lots of bully dogs and barely feed and care for them. Who beat them up or worse when they underperform. This is sadly very prevalent in the dog-fighting underworld.
  • People who are unlikely to ensure their dogs are safety secured on a leash, behind a SECURE door or fence. Many horrendous attacks reported in the press involved a dog who’d escaped from his property into its victim’s gardenr by jumping over several fences.

Dogs who stacks up the size, genetics AND irresponsible owners odds are undeniably high-risk.

The crux is: how dangerous are dogs when raised by responsible owners? You’ve guessed it, we don’t know. There is no decent data.

Special local measures by municipalities

The local municipalities will have free range to enact local Breed-Specific measures (e.g. compulsory muzzles and leashes, or a complete ban from certain areas). This clause is causing anxiety among owners of HRD’s. They might be slapped with arbitrary restrictions at the whim of their local council from one day to the next. Should every HRD – no matter how sociable – be muzzle-trained already just in case the local council decides to pull the trigger?

Serious bite incidents involving children often involve dogs who either escaped their own property or the child’s own family dog (after the child was left unsupervised with the pet…). These were not incidents were Bullies were left to roam in children-heavy areas. What difference would a ban from local parks make for these incidents? Or leash or muzzle laws? .

A focus on containment measures, and this only for dogs who are giving their neighbours concerns (so not necessarily HRD) might be more effective and wouldn’t victimise countless sociable dogs. I am thinking of high, secure fences and so-called air-lock systems (think 2 front doors instead of one).

So what’s my take?

To me, the focus on breeds is like banning all kitchen knives because some are used as weapons. I appreciate you don’t want to wait until the first stab victim until you do something about someone, but not every kitchen knife is a weapon-in-waiting.

My position on the proposal is mixed: problems with status dogs are spilling into daily life at an alarming rate. Something needs to give. I hope the proposed change is a first step in the right direction. The text deserves praise in that it tries to focus on responsible ownership.

My bone is 1. the seemingly arbitrary choice of some breeds; 2. passing the buck to local municipalities for security measures, causing much uncertainty all around; and 3. the compulsory course that is supposed to change hearts and minds but that is as-yet undefined (I have written a whole post about my detailed concerns).

Bottom line: we are stigmatising 100 responsible owners to get to 1 irresponsible one, who, by the way, doesn’t stick to the existing laws so probably won’t obey the law change either.

Here are my alternative suggestions:

  1. A sort of ‘driver’s licence’ before anyone gets any dog. Anyone deemed high-risk during this process (e.g. objectifying the dog, documented risk-taking behaviour or a criminal record) would be denied their application.
  2. A ban on having a dog that is actually followed up on, and not ignored as it is today when the owner who had a dog confiscated can go get his next dog the day after.
  3. The fight-dog world crippled by a concerted police and governmental effort. Tied as it appears to be to the drugs and gambling world, I realise how naive my wish is.
  4. Animal welfare offences (abuse and neglect) being punished harshly, pushing these two risk factors a little further down the equation.
  5. Breaks in dog etiquette being treated as endangerment (they are): this includes, but is not limited to, allowing loose dogs to approach leashed dogs.
  6. Clear and enforced confinement laws (e.g. minimum fence heights, leash, muzzle) for individual dogs of concern. Concerns can be raised anonymously by members of the local community into the central database that is being worked on right now.

Between now and 2018, the best you can do is continue to be a great embassador for your breed and try to keep cool despite the rising pressure.

References

Additional bibliography

Illustrations

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