Maryland anti-pit bull rule will hurt dogs, people

Nita Ghei International Trade Economist
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Maryland dog owners, shelters and rescues are still trying to determine just how devastating the recent Court of Appeals of Maryland decision declaring “pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls are inherently dangerous” will be. In these cash-strapped times, as the General Assembly meets in a special session to raise taxes on all of us, local governments should also consider the high costs of implementing this rule. The new liability rule is simultaneously too broad and too narrow, covering too many dogs who pose no danger to anyone, while failing to address the real problem: irresponsible owners with poorly trained and aggressive dogs who do pose a risk to others.

The Court of Appeals decision means that a dog with any “pit bull” ancestry will be considered inherently dangerous, and even a landlord can now be held liable for damage done by a tenant’s dog if the dog falls within this category. All that matters is the dog’s breed, not the dog’s behavior, in determining liability. There are several problems with this: how to identify what is a pit bull for purposes of liability; the obvious inequity in declaring a dog dangerous simply because of its breed when its actions do not support that label; and addressing the real problem, serious dog bites.

There is in fact no such thing as a “pit bull,” as the dissent points out, but a general category that includes the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Stafford Bull Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier. The major registries, the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club, do not even register the same breeds or have the same standards. In theory it is possible to conduct DNA testing to determine the breed. The Best Friends Animal Society estimates the test costs $120 per animal. Over 15,000 dogs are expected to be affected in Montgomery County, and DNA testing is estimated to cost over $140,000. Baltimore City is expected to spend about $130,000 testing approximately 14,000 dogs.

The DNA testing is the smallest part of the costs of enforcement. This will be an extraordinarily expensive rule to enforce, with few, if any, benefits to show at the end of the day.

Families will be faced with eviction, even though their dogs have done nothing, as landlords rightly worried about liability would prefer not to have tenants with dogs in the suspect class. Homeowners will most likely be hit with higher insurance, or risk losing insurance altogether. When Ohio had breed-specific legislation that imposed a similar liability, homeowners there would, anecdotally, pay as much as $550 more in insurance. As it becomes harder to keep a “pit bull,” these dogs will get dumped, and fewer people will want to adopt them. The result is going to be dogs that pose no danger to society straining the already over-stretched resources of local shelters and rescues, or they will be euthanized — for no reason.

This is a slippery slope with no ledge. For instance, what about the other breeds on the list of dog breeds most likely to bite? How far will this strict liability expand?

Ultimately, it is not the breed that determines whether the dog bites, it is the owner. There are American Staffordshire Terriers who participate in pet-assisted therapy and visit schools and nursing homes but would be considered inherently dangerous under this new rule. How does that make any sense? The traditional strict liability rule, which looks to the behavior of the individual dog, is the appropriate rule, if the goal is to reduce damage from dog bites.

Ohio recently repealed its statewide breed-specific legislation because it was ineffective and inequitable. In Maryland, Prince George’s County has had breed-specific legislation in place for many years, banning “pit bulls” with little effect. It is not the breed that is dangerous, but the individual dog. Scarce resources are best spent tackling the root cause: irresponsible owners who fail to control and train their dogs, instead of penalizing dogs for simply being the “wrong” breed.

As the General Assembly meets in special session, it should consider one of the many bills being introduced to overturn this decision. The budgetary impact of enforcing this decision could run to several million dollars for county governments, leaving aside the heartbreak for the families, while failing to address the problem of serious dog bites. Expanding strict liability is not the answer.

Nita Ghei, Ph.D., is a Maryland attorney and a member of the Board of the Maryland-based Cocker Spaniel Adoption Center, Inc., an all-volunteer non-profit dedicated to rescuing cocker spaniels and mixes.