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.

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

(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.

 

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

And let’s make it even more complicated. What of unpedigreed dog with ancestry in the second list (e.g. English bulldog or Boxer)? Take my Rodgie, an English bulldog/Fox terrier cross. Was he a HRD in the eyes of the law?

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).

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

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

So, will a DNA test be part of the identification process this time? What degree of admixture is considered a mix of the listed breeds? My own dog’s DNA tests only go back to the nearest 12.5% ancestor (great-great-grandparents).

And how do you DNA test a banddog or a Pitbull. These are not distinct breeds. These names reflect the ultimate mix of physical and temperament traits suitable for protection/fighting.

Why these breeds and not others?

This Government page (in Dutch) explains why they picked the breeds they did. This NRC article covers the question 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.

I review these below one by one.

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 like an urban myth but might have a grain of truth to it. 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? I have known German Shepherds to inflict a sustained hold-bite, and police shepherds have to know how to do this on command. These dogs lack the bully facial features. What am I missing?

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.

When it comes down to it, 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 declaring the world’s biggest couch potatoes to be High Risk dogs next (English Bulldogs).

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. So this is the product of frenzy, rather than aiming for vital body parts. This is a moot point, as an uninhibited attack is pathological, not species-typical: a healthy dog will put up a show but not inflict damage. )

They can aim for vital body parts in dog attacks

When it comes to attacking other dogs, some of the incidents have the hallmarks of predatory aggression: with bites that are strategically aimed at vital parts like the throat, abdomen, and femoral region. These incidents often report bite-holding and then shaking. And other incidents look like frenzied aggression: not aiming for specific body parts, but damaging the victim-dog all over. In these incidents the attacking dog hyperfocuses on his victim, then runs up to him and attacks ‘efficiently’.

The biggest worry is the uninhibited use of force. My own dog (Lab size) has impressive jaws. He could inflict serious damage if he put his mind to it. But he has a soft bite and stays cool. He caught a duck by the neck once. Not sure what to do, I asked him to let go. And he did! Because he wasn’t in a frenzy. The bird left unscathed! Now picture a typical Jack Russell or terrier in my dog’s place. Chance is it would have torn the duck to pieces.

The role of neurotransmitters

An attack with unrestrained bites on the nearest body parts of the victim is the product of a state of frenzy, we’ve established that. And frenzy, like any other emotional state, is by modulated by an underlying neuro-hormonal state. A hyper-sensitivity at the biological level is absolutely conceivable, making certain (not all) members of certain breeds predisposed to (not bound to) to the problem. Predisposed to:

  1. Reach this state of frenzy more easily (with less provocation)
  2. Stay in this state of frenzy longer
  3. Reach higher peaks of intensity in that state

This is a central point as many people – myself included until recently – swore by the blank slate argument. “There’s no bad dogs, only bad owners.” You know the gist.

An attack that is driven by this frenzied state would have the following features, features that you can recognize in many press clippings concerning severe bite incidents:

  1. The provocation was minimal (like a child’s cry or a dog running)
  2. The dog was  blind to their victim’s appeasing signals,
  3. The bites were uninhibited and damaging
  4. The dog is unresponsive to even extreme attempts to get him off the victim

In other words, the dog is ‘seeing red’.

So what hormones/neurotransmitters are involved? Here are some of the ones we suspect:

ADRENALINE: In human terms, adrenaline has been (partly) involved in impulsive aggression, a type of aggression that looks an awful lot like these dog attacks in the press. Adrenaline also explains that the attacker is not perceiving its environment, and just hyperfocuses on its victim. And that the attacker is seemingly oblivious to pain during a fit.

DOPAMINE: Dopamine too has been implicated in impulsive aggression (e.g., in humans, Oades et al, 2008). And yes, certain lines of dogs have been bred for ‘vechtlust’ or ‘gameness’, a desire to fight. ‘Healthy’ aggression is reactive, defensive, in extremis. A dog with gameness experiences a dopamine rush out of a fight. He/she pro-actively seeks opportunities because it feels good. So the slightest excuse is enough to trigger an all-out attack.

Note that ‘terrier gameness’ can have a different definition: it is used as a synonym for resilience and endurance.

SEROTONIN: Serotoninergic dysfunction has also been implicated in humans aggression (Bevilacqua and Goldman, 2013). Interestingly, it is also involved in canine ‘impulsive disinhibited aggression’ (Peremans et al, 2002), which may be the types of attacks we’ve been seeing.

Bear in mind the above is an oversimplification, and these are but a handful of the possible biological factors predisposing to aggression.

Predisposition vs. certainty

Nature vs. Nurture: Let’s kill this question straight away. It’s not either/or, it’s and/and. ‘It’s all about the owners’ is a naive claim. Some dogs can be biologically predisposed to these problems, absolutely, particularly lines that have been bred for sustained and frenzied attacks on other dogs. Let a ‘game dog’ sire (that’s what dogs who genetically fit for being fightdogs are called) breed with a game dog dame, and raise their offsprings with all the love in the world, you could still have a ticking time bomb and you’re going to have to be extremely careful in their interactions with other dogs come social maturity (1.5-2 years old) – for some, even earlier.

Sure the problem won’t be as pronounced as dogs who also were raised in terrible conditions of neglect and abuse, as fight dogs are – Nurture.

And now the million dollar question. Right, so some breeds can be predisposed to this type of aggression. But what are the percentages of affected, predisposed dogs? Are we saying 2% of Staffies are are high risk of developing the problem, or 99%? And what are the percentage differences beween dogs from family breeders vs. game breeders?

From my daily practice (most are pedigreed pet dogs. so there is a huge self-selected sample there), most are ridiculously tolerant to humans. I am talking the worst type of guard dog imaginable: I come in, they don’t know me from Adam, and they jump on my lap to lick me within two seconds. These are also the guys who typically don’t startle easily, which makes them VERY stable in that regard.

Are my human-hypertolerant guys the minority? From personal experience, I don’t know. Statistics seem to support me slightly (when you compare their results in temperament tests, for example, they tend to score extremely high on sociability to humans, often higher than Labs or Goldens).

Inversely, the ones I see in my work are often referred to me because of unprovoked dog-dog aggression, starting typically around the 18-months or 2-year mark. These attacks are not necessarily frenzied or extremely hard to interrupt – so there is also a question of degree in the expression of the frenzied attack problem – but they do seek out conflict.

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

Psychology vs. morphology

Again, we are dealing with psychology more than morphology here – although I’d rather be bitten by a Chihuahua, of course (and I am more likely to be!). The strong bite pressure is partly possible because of their wide skull and strong muscles, but you don’t see anyone calling for the ban of St Bernards. The psychology aspect is that Bull ancestors were bred for clamping down onto a furious, shaking bull’s nose. How much of that tendency remains in an individual breed/line/dog is a valid question is another unanswered question. Suffice it to say that we can reasonably assume that the tendency remains.

One of the factors driving this inability/unwillingness to let go is the state of frenzy, the adrenaline rush. A dog who is ‘seeing red’ is oblivious to his environment (and to your orders, or to pain, if the state of arousal is intense enough).

Remember though: genetics are probabilistic, not deterministic

Not every Lab has a soft mouth and not every Bully has a hard bite. All I am saying is no, it is not ridiculous – or naively breedist – to claim that behavioural tendencies can be inherited.

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

Lastly: can we pry out the influence of irresponsible ownership in the development of this frenzied aggression? It seems we can.

Most serious incidents I’ve analysed involved a ‘status’ dog (a dog kept to intimidate or fight other dogs) being kept in neglectful/abusive conditions, or a recently adopted dog of unknown origins. Often several dogs are involved in these attacks, and they are found to be in a state of near starvation, with many scars on them from dog fights and human abuse.

To top things off, he/she may be actively trained for dog fighting: trained to have a quick, powerful and tenacious bite. These dogs undergo hours of training every day and are provoked and starved and beaten up. Let me add a point of nuance here. Some bully-type dogs are trained like athletes within perfectly legitimate dog sports like wall-jumping or weight-pulling. So if you see evidence of power-training in your neighbour’s backyard, it doesn’t mean that your neighbours are dog fighters. But consider calling the police if the dogs appear to be neglected or abused in any way.

Dangerous breeds: but not if they have a pedigree?

Dogs on the HRH (Hoog Risico Honden) list are exempt if they have a pedigree. The reasoning seems muddy to me, and may be the result of pressures from interest groups (i.e. Kennel Clubs). This is my take:

a. The aggression would have been bred out of them: how do we measure this?

It is easier to ban the breeding of aggressive dogs from the pedigree world, than to try to regulate this from backstreet litters. So putting dogs from backstreet litters under close scrutiny might be a good move, risk-wise. It implicitly targets the dangerously irresponsible owners whom (one assumes) breed their own dogs intensively and do not register them. The snag is… I know plenty of responsible owners of non-pedigreed dogs (I am one), and so I am registering my non-pedigreed dog. So the only people who will come under more scrutiny are the responsible owners of non-pedigreed dogs. The criminals will continue to fly under the radar and will not register their dogs.

Breeders (one hopes) breed for a ‘companion’ line of the breed, a dog who is suitable for an urban family. They do so by removing aggressive specimens from the gene pool. Within a few generations (that’s very quick with dogs), a character trait can be strongly attenuated. The English Bulldog is such a success story.

My issue is methodological (and surmountable): where do you draw the line of ‘too aggressive to breed’? How do we objectively and reliably measure this?

  1. I am yet to find a suitable temperament test for aggression – or for any other temperament trait for that matter. This area of research is plagued with shaky results: poor predictive values, tons of false positives, a fair few false negatives, to name but a few of the problems.
  2. Without an objective yardstick, we have to rely on individual judgment. Considering the commercial interests at play, the pendulum may swing towards under-reporting aggression problems then blaming the owners. Mmmmhhh. Business as usual then.
  3. The tests used to measure aggression have come under a lot of criticism for how unfriendly they are, and the number of false positives they produce. At least, they are erring on the side of caution, I’ll give them that, but snatching an umbrella to let a dog startle isn’t exactly animal-friendly. Some components of the test are no longer used as they downright traumatised the dogs…

b. The aggression would have been ‘bred out of them’: how do we regulate this?

  1. There are a million and a half different types of aggression in dogs (well, about ten). Some only develop with sexual maturity, some even later, with social maturity. Are we going to wait until the dog is over 2 years old before we subject them to the aggression test? It’s not the biggest problem in the world but it’s an added policy complication. And would a breeder follow up with all the offspring of a sire x dame combination for two years before letting the combination breed again?
  2. Aggression – and behaviour in general – is the product of the interaction of Genetics x Environment (x Epigenetics). I know enough young adult dogs who became severely aggressive after a violent burglary. Would these also be banned from breeding? It is not a huge deal for the welfare dog concerned, but it is not rational from a purely genetics perspective (though who knows about epigenetics influences…)

c. The aggression would have been ‘bred out of them’: I beg to differ on certain breeds

From professional experience (so take it with a pinch of salt, this is not based on big-numbers), I see enough trigger-happy pedigreed Staffies who aren’t reliable with other dogs: hyperfocus, insufficient inhibition and unprovoked attacks. Staffies, pedigreed or not, require particularly careful socialisation to other dogs in my book, if only from the perspective of size and tendency for excitement.

Exempt breeds: lower risk?

Some breeds on the second list struck me as odd: Neapolitan Mastiff and Shar Peis. I would most certainly not put these breeds in inexperienced hands. They are still bred for protection, and many Shar Peis seem to really have a problem with other dogs come social maturity.

The Hondenbescherming reviews the matter of exempt breeds very aptly here.

Where are the German Shepherds?

Your average German Shepherds (or Malinois, for that matter, or Dutch sheps) is more bite-prone than your average Staffies. Few will argue there. Let’s not even talk of the working line German Shepherds who display these traits a hundred fold. Your typical German Shepherd tends to:

  • Hyperfocus on fast movement
  • Get spooked by uncertainty, novelty or excitement: not exactly great to walk in the city
  • Get easily frustrated and…
  • … Get mouthy when frustrated or spooked
  • Be wary of strangers
  • Be protective of their family or territory

Note how I am using the word ‘typical’ and ‘average’. What it means is you can expect these problems and you’d better be prepared to deal with them if you want to bring a shep in your home. It does not mean every single shep is neurotic.

My point is: this is not a great risk picture for such large breed, so why weren’t they included in HRH list, then?

Where it makes sense to exclude Shepherds from the list

The answer is in the ‘damage’ aspect of the risk calculation (Likelihood * Damage = Risk).

German Shepherds bite more frequently (in my experience, so take it with a pinch of salt), but the damage they incur (tends to be) less severe. They (tend to) go for flash-bites instead of sustained bite. They (tend to) threaten more than injure. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen bite reports involving sheps that made me blanch. A shepherd is no guarantee for bite control.

What drives (most) incidents is fear so once the threat is retreating, the shepherd (tends to) let go. This in contrast with fight dogs who were bred to seek out conflict and to keep it going, inflicting as much damage as possible. Sheps just spook easily. Bulls on the other hand tend to be quite bold. What drives the severe aggression incidents when you look at the reports/the press does not seem to be fear. Often, very little provocation was needed and the bull actually sought out his/her dog victim.

Where it does not make sense to exclude Shepherds from the list

The primary goal of the proposed 2018 legislation is public safety, primarily humans.

It is interesting, therefore, to note that the average Staffie (tends to) be extremely sociable to humans. Much more so than your average Shepherd. Again, this reflects my personal observations (and informal temperament studies).

As a dog professional, I get nervous if a German Shepherd comes close to my kid and I watch his body language like a hawk. If it’s a Staffie, we brace ourselves for A LOT OF licking and sometimes annoying jumping – to reach the face… for licking and I am a lot less on edge. I make no secret that Staffies are among favourite breeds for that very reason. The boundless joy they (tend to) show from the slightest human attention is pure bliss to me.

Before you think I am being biased by my love of Staffies, I can tell you that I get nervous if an unfamiliar Staffie comes up to my dog and I then watch the interactions like a hawk. A look is slightly too sustained and I’m out of there like a flash.

So will (German) Shepherds be added to the HRH list?

This RDA report says it’s a possibility.

Knowledge used to draw the list

According to this Government document, the list was put together based on the advice of 5 (national and international) experts. The High-Risk Dogs being a devilishly complicated tale of behaviour genetics, epidemiology and criminology, I need to know what experts were consulted to know how much weight to give this pannel. 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: look at the ratio of serious serious research 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 more serious papers came from bite treatment data from hospitals, with the incumbent 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? If you’d like a list of many many many papers touching on bite epidemiology per breed, temperament per breed, and BSL effectiveness, write a comment.

Regardless of the literature, having toyed with BSL from 1993 to 2008 (see Regeling Agressieve Dieren) and failed to reduce bite incidents, so shouldn’t the Netherlands know better?

The original report: focus on the owner

If you look at this report from the RDA (RDA = a panel of specialists advising the government on the animal-related issues), the risk factors are: owner first, breed second, context third (degree of provocation, husbandry conditions, 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, which itself is influenced by 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 still a bit shaky, but you can get a reasonably picture out of the scientific literature and local Dutch municipality data:

  1. Bully breeds on the HRD list don’t rank that high in tendency to inflict bites (to people). Chihuahuas and daschshunds tend to top these lists;
  2. Bully breeds on the HRD list are, together with German Shepherds and Rottweilers 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. Bully breeds on the HRD list appear more often than their counterparts in criminal cases (where someone submitted a complaint about the dog)
  4. Owners of impounded dogs from a bully breed on the HRD list appear more likely than the average Dutch citizen to have a criminal record
  5. Irresponsible husbandry was involved in a high proportion of serious attacks.

Who is the irresponsible owner?

What kind of owner could make it more likely for a dog to be involved in a severe aggression incident? People who:

  • Use these breeds as dogs and encourage them to act intimidatingly.
  • fail to socialise their dog.
  • Not only provoke, but highly train their dogs for aggression to other dogs (dog fights) and/or people (protection, revenge, status)
  • Neglect and abuse their dogs. People who keep lots of bully dogs and barely feed and care for them. Who beat them up or worse when they under-perform.
  • Do not let their high-risk dogs (as in an individual dog with known aggressive tendencies) out on the leash, or keep them behind a SECURE door or fence. So many horrendous attacks involve a dog who’d escaped out of his property and into its victim’s by jumping over fences.

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.

My position on the proposal itself is more mixed: problems with status dogs are spilling into daily life at an alarming rate. Something needs to give and the proposed change might be a first step in the right direction. The text deserves praise in that it at least focuses on responsible ownership aspects too (the compulsory course).

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. This license would need to be carried on your person every time you take your dog out in public, and would need to be renewed every 10 years.
  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, off-leash dogs outside of the designated areas.
  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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9 Comments

  1. Heath Keogh
    Posted 16 August 2017 at 17:38 | Permalink

    A very interesting read. I am the author of the Metropolitan Police Service, LEAD Initiative, (Local Environmental Awareness on Dogs).

    We engage with all dog owners, of all breeds of dogs, regardless of social background of the owner. Through early intervention we are able to manage RISK and proactively engage with irresponsible owners before their dogs move on to commit a more serious offence. Over a period of 5 years, in the London Borough of Sutton some 297 owners were engaged with either due to their dog’s behaviour or due to their irresponsibility as a dog owner. Out of the 297 owners that have been engaged with, 4 have gone on to commit an offence under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Which is a success of over 98.7 % .

    Our work is recognised National as ‘Best Practice’ and is endorsed by national dog charities, government departments and ministers.

    Please do not hesitate to contact for more on the LEAD Initiative.

    Kind Regards

    PC Heath Keogh

    Heath.J.T.Keogh@met.pnn.police.uk

    • Posted 25 August 2017 at 12:40 | Permalink

      Hi Heath. Many thanks for reaching out. I have just sent you a mail to follow up. LEAD sounds extremely interesting indeed.

  2. Alison
    Posted 17 October 2017 at 09:03 | Permalink

    Hi there
    I’ve found your article very interesting.

    I have a Bull Terrier – we got her from a registered breeder (from the UK) and she is Kennel Club registered (with the kennel club name the breeder gave her) and she has a bloodline certificate.
    We live in England but taker her everywhere with us , even on holiday. We recently got married in Venice and she came too! We were planning to come to The Netherlands next year (2018), when this ban list may be in action. Can you advise me what I need to do? Or where I can go to find out? I hear in Denmark she can be seized and killed, and Germany has tight restrictions too in various states. I do not want to take any risks with her life, or have her taken off us. It’s all very confusing!
    Thanks for writing the article, it’s been a huge help so far.
    Many thanks
    Alison

    • Posted 4 November 2017 at 09:03 | Permalink

      Hi Alison. Many thanks for your message.

      I would advise you keep an eye on the government list for updates: https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/hoog-risico-honden

      What we know so far, is that, somewhere at the start of 2018, owners of dogs on the list who do not have a pedigree recognized by the Dutch kennel club will need to attend a compulsory course. There is doubt about the timing as preparation does not seem to be progressing much. My estimate is 12 months, rather than 2.

      Depending on the gemeente (municipality, city council) you move into, different rules will be in order. A dog will only be seized with due cause, and this only happens if the dog is involved in a severe accident. Bear in mind that this is the way things work right now and that the regulations might tighten. So for now, I wouldn’t worry about her being seized. The worst that could happen if your dog has no aggression problem is that the gemeente says she needs to be muzzled (not pleasant, but dogs can be taught to tolerate it) and leashed.

      The minister of Finance who authored the law proposal has categorically rejected the idea of a standard rule for euthanizing certain dogs, even on the merits of a severe incident. He continues to recommend that euthanasia only be considered on a case-by-case basis. So you don’t have to worry about the worst case scenario when moving here. Having said that, a new government has just formed and I do not know to what extent this will affect the proposed legislation. Knowing the Dutch culture and the political climate around this issue, I would be extremely surprised if anything approaching euthanasia made it to the legislation.

      What I would do is check with the Dutch kennel club (http://www.bullterrier-rasvereniging.nl/index.php/96-raad-van-beheer) and ask them if you can make your UK pedigree into an official Dutch one. Then the local police will have no recourse against you (again, provided the dog has no aggression problem).

      If you are in The Hague, get in touch when you move here and we’ll help you further.

  3. Kei
    Posted 3 January 2018 at 15:52 | Permalink

    Thank you for this thoroughly informative article.
    Very impressive and balanced view.
    I am a dog owner in the Hague, we had two Frenchies but lost one of them unexpectedly recently. While I still grieve his death every day, I started to think about the possibility of adopting a dog from a shelter as a way to appreciate his life, and to give the surviving dog a companion. I have noticed the overwhelmingly big number of Staffies (or variants thereof) in the shelters. I have always had a loyal and loving image of Staffies but I also feel I am not sufficiently familiar with the higher risk dogs. I am however, a committed and keen learner. There is of course also the issue of compatibility with our existing dog, which has the highest priority for us.
    Is there any advice you could give me as to what I could do (besides reading websites like yours), before calling the shelter? Thank you.

    • Posted 25 January 2018 at 11:31 | Permalink

      Hi Kei. I am sorry about the loss of your dog. You must be devastated. As far as adopting a Staffie is concerned, I would advise caution in the sense that they are large dogs and most are very high-energy. Many are also dog-intolerant. You might want to find out as much history from the shelter as possible to ascertain that you have a dog-friendly Staffie before you set your heart on one. You’d also need to have tons of time to exercise/entertain them. Aside from that, I am a huge fan of the breed in that many many many of them (the majority, in my experience), are indeed incredibly loving family dogs. But just a little on the hyper side and can be tricky with other dogs.

  4. Maxime Van der Merwe
    Posted 10 January 2018 at 12:10 | Permalink

    Good day,

    I have a rednose pitbull of 2 years old (neutered). We are currently residing in South Africa (immigrated in 2002) and want to move back to the Netherlands. I am currently doing research on whether we can take our pitbull with, as I’ve not found solid rules and regulations about what it means if she is classified as a high-risk dog? Would it be necessary to take her to behaviour classes before our move, what would you recommend? She does have trouble with new people, but is extremely social with our friends and family. With trouble I mean she is afraid and does not come close to whenever someone new approaches her, she just walks away from them. Is it true that she would have to wear a muzzle out in public?

    Does my dog need a dutch “passport”? or how does the process of registering her work?

    Looking forward to your reply! She is a sweetheart and I would be devastated to leave her behind.

    Maxime

    • Posted 25 January 2018 at 11:29 | Permalink

      Hi Maxine. I am not sure, unfortunately, as many points in the proposed law are unclear. I could contact the Ambassy and ask. I suspect, for example, that you might run into trouble with the validity of your pedigree and you’d need to somehow transfer it to a Dutch one. I think it’ll be masses of paperwork but I don’t think anything unsurmountable.

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