Are Pit Bulls Considered 'Dangerous' Dogs in California?

Helen Keller and President Theodore Roosevelt both had pit bulls, once considered the all-American family pet.
i Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Following well-publicized dog attacks, many communities rush to declare select breeds as "dangerous dogs." These discriminatory practices target physical characteristics – often muscular pups with blocky heads – rather than address problem behaviors. Thankfully the state of California identifies a dangerous dog by its deeds, and not its breed.

California's Dangerous Dog Statutes

In 1989, to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens, California's legislature enacted statutes defining and regulating dangerous dogs. The statute defines two levels of dangerous dogs: "potentially dangerous" or "vicious." Potentially dangerous dogs engage in less problematic behaviors, such as requiring a person take defensive action or attacking other dogs or livestock. Vicious dogs engage in far more serious behavior, such as attacking and seriously injuring a human being or continuing behavior previously labeled potentially dangerous. These rules and regulations target problem dogs of any breed, along with their irresponsible owners.

Breed Specific Legislation

A number of communities across the United States have adopted laws that regulate or restrict specific breeds of dogs – a practice referred to as breed specific legislation, or BSL. Opponents of BSL argue that these faulty and discriminatory practices target physical characteristics rather than address problem behaviors. Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control acknowledge that research does not support policy-making decisions based on specific breeds. Recognizing the failure of targeted legislation to solve their dog-related challenges, a number of communities have repealed breed specific laws, among them Topeka, Kansas and Cleveland, Ohio.

Breed Specific Spay/Neuter

In 2005, the state of California adopted a law allowing municipalities to enact breed-specific ordinances pertaining to mandatory spay or neuter programs or breeding requirements, "provided that no specific dog breed, or mixed breed, shall be declared potentially dangerous or vicious under those ordinances." The state argues that rather than blaming the breeds, the law directly addresses problems caused by irresponsible breeding, notably pet overpopulation, inhumane treatment and the production of "defective animals that present a public safety risk." Jurisdictions that implement breed-specific regulations must measure effectiveness of their programs by compiling statistical data on dog bites in their communities and supplying this information to the state veterinarian.

Tips to Protect Your Pit Bull

BADRAP, an Oakland-based pit bull advocacy group, suggests pit bull owners practice “defensive driving” to avoid trouble and protect their beloved pooches from haters. The group suggests that when in public places, always keep your pit bull on a leash, 6-feet long or less. As long as you obey leash laws, both you and your charge are less likely to take the blame if a ruckus starts. To this end, avoid nose-to-nose meetings with strange dogs. This is not speed dating. For canines, rushed greetings are very challenging and tend to set dogs up for failure. Above all, train your pup; better yet, obtain a Canine Good Citizen Certificate, or CGC. A well-behaved pit bull can lessen public scrutiny, not only towards your pooch, but also the breed as a whole.

Averting a Dangerous Dog Label

If you receive notice that a petition for a dangerous dog hearing has been made against your beloved pooch, research your local dangerous dog statutes. Many cities and counties have adopted significantly different versions of California’s statewide dangerous dog law. Prior to the hearing, voluntarily offer to take steps to prevent future problems, such as installing a taller or stronger fence, attending obedience classes, sterilizing your pup and obtaining insurance. If the case goes to hearing, seek advice from an attorney who practices animal law.

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