The Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in Denmark is among other based on a single insignificant police neighbourhood investigation. New information paints a unique picture of politicians who legislate based on media coverage and people's fear - and without looking at the facts.
"Two fighting dogs went crazy: They would kill Sille and Ronja!"
"Bitten half to death!"
"Fighting dog killed little Chico!"
Many Danes have undoubtedly heard some wild stories of maimed and murdered victims of "dangerous fighting" dogs, whether children, adults or other dogs.
Especially in 2009 and 2010 the Danish media bubbled with horrific stories, at the same time making it sound like the population of "dangerous" dogs was expanding rapidly, and caused politicians to act and ban 13 breeds.
The law can be ripped completely apart
On the surface it seems like a sensible decision to impose a ban. When dangerous fighting dogs bite loose in the streets, it makes sense to remove them so we can all go in peace.
But when you look closely at the arguments and the knowledge that underlies the prohibition, logic evaporates as soon as an unrestrained bitch in heat.
So says Cecilie Thorslund, who has as the first dived into the background of the Danish Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and has described her spectacular discoveries in a thesis judged with the highest top mark.
"The government has broken with 80 years of tradition in dog legislation by dropping documentation. If you look at the factual arguments, the law falls completely apart. It has been more important to show decisiveness than to ensure decision-making on a sound basis," concludes Cecilie Thorslund, who wrote her thesis in Social Science at Roskilde University (RUC).
Other countries dropped BSL because it has no effect
Cecilie Thorslund brings in three central points:
1. De 13 banned breeds of dogs - with Pitbull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier (Amstaff) as the most famous - account for only 6 percent of the 5,000 dog bites which are annually registered in Denmark. By comparison, German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Dachshunds account for a total of 78 percent.
2. Holland, Scotland and Italy have had a similar BSL against the biggest and strongest dogs. Experience from the three countries shows that neither did it limit the number of bites, gave fewer serious accidents, or for that matter, made people more comfortable because of the ban.
3. The three countries have even chosen to cancel or adjust the law because it had no effect.
"And from what I've seen, there is no reason to believe that the ban would have a greater effect in Denmark," notes Cecilie Thorslund.
The countries have instead adopted rules that punish individual dogs and owners for their actions rather than to restrict the dogs because of race.
A bloodhound goes on a hunt ...
One of the best examples of sloppiness in the legislation is related to a specific number, which is still referenced eagerly in the debate about dangerous dogs.
According to many media - and the basis for Dogs Act 2010 - Denmark has 20,000 of the unpopular dogs.
But in Denmark only a fraction of dogs are registered, so where does the number come from?
Cecilie Thorslund decided to put her nose down on the track and by gaining access to official records, sniffed her way back to the original source.
A Copenhagen neighbourhood comes into focus
It turns out that the figure came from Danmarks Radio, the Danish national TV station, who in turn received it from the Danish Kennel Club.
The Kennel Club has the original version of the only known head-count from a neighbourhood in Copenhagen where the local police over two days made an attempt to interview people on the street with a dog, that "seemed dangerous" - especially dogs of the 13 breeds that are now banned - to investigate whether the dog was registered.
Wild equation quantifies number on dangerous dogs
The experience from the small random study in a Copenhagen neighbourhood is used by the Danish Kennel Club when they are asked by Danmarks Radio to provide an estimate of the number of "dangerous" dogs throughout the country.
The idea is, according to Cecilie Thorslund, when only ¼ of the dogs in that neighbourhood are registered, you can just take the number of registered dogs in the Danish Dog Register and multiply it by four, and you get the number of dogs throughout the country.
So conceived, so done: In 2009, the Danish Dog Register had around 6,000 "dangerous" dogs in their registers. That figure was multiplied up to 24,000. However, to make the figure slightly conservative, the Kennel Club decided to round it down to 20,000.
The figure has since been referenced frequently in the media - but far worse: It has been used as an argument in a central report that forms the basis of the BSL against "dangerous" dogs.
"This tiny police report suddenly becomes a major and supporting argument in favor of BSL because surely that many dogs can only create problems. But nobody ever questioned the figure, and there is no reference to further studies in the report," explains Cecilie Thorslund, who among others, has analyzed the transcripts of all the political discussions and all communication with organizations that were involved in the decision making.
Police report is an "absurd" bad source
The particular neighbourhood in Copenhagen is due to its many immigrants and socially disadvantaged people hardly a representative sample for the whole country.
But even if the figures from the randomly performed police report could really say anything about the rest of the country, it would still be too uncertain to use, according to Cecilie Thorslund.
"I would argue the police report is an almost absurd source because of its racist phrases and random remarks like that the dog is a 'potency extension' and owned by 'people with another ethnic background than Danish or other people with low self-esteem'. It is, in other words, not completely objective."
"I was actually shocked that there could be so poor documentation for something as important as a law that affects thousands of people and dogs and it's just one example of the lack of knowledge in this whole process," said Cecilie Thorslund .
The police also noted at all meetings they had on the streets, the owner's apparently had control over their dogs.
Great opposition to dog law
Cecilie Thorslund stresses that the Danish Kennel Club opposes the ban on the 13 dog breeds. The same applies to all other organizations and stakeholders who were consulted.
For the thesis, Cecilie Thorslund interviewed several people with a passion for dogs from the banned breeds. Everyone is against the law, and several of them said that they will ignore it, either by illegally buying dogs abroad, or even to breed puppies of the breeds they love.
Those few - but illustrative - interviews shine some light on the fact previous bans at home and abroad have had little effect, and this input could have been used by politicians, when they decided to introduce a ban.
The experts were consulted
Politicians chose the opposite route and overheard expert advice, like among others the introduction of a license requirement for dog owners. Instead, they send this message to members of the dog committee, including the Danish Kennel Club, the National Police and Animal Protection:
Get us a list of the dogs, we prefer to prohibit.
"It is a sad misconception among many that the dog committee recommended a ban because it was actually something that was forced upon them. The report shows clearly the members think it is a bad idea, but when politicians want alternatives, they come up with some. "
"The government's communication towards the Committee indicate that it had already decided what should happen before the committee had done its work, and it's yet another reason why I interpret this as pure symptom policy making by the government. The idea is to show they were acting. But when you act this way, it is based on fear and not on facts," underlines Cecilie Thorslund.
King Christian .7 (1749 - 1808) was influenced by an erection
Politicians can at least be happy to be in the same boat as one of the great rulers in Danish history.
The hardworking Cecilie Thorslund has on top of all the needed investigative paperwork to investigate the law, been down into the National Archives to find out how Danes have historically seen dogs and legislated against them.
She cited an example from 1769, when King Christian .7 with a regulation required that all dogs would be killed if they were not kept on a leash.
One single incident in the waiting room of a recognized doctor had stirred up the respectable community. A young patient with rabies showed up, clearly suffering and only wearing a sheet. And under the sheet: a properly erect penis, which outraged all other respectable patients in the waiting room.
They knew even back then that rabies primarily came from bats and rats, but because the young patient received so much attention for his amoral erection in a public space, the king clearly had to take action.
"Christian .7 wrote off all the knowledge and documentation of rabies and imposed a ban in order to please the public, and politicians are doing completely the same today. This case is about dogs, but it probably could just as easily have been about burkas, jail sentences, or anything else, "notes Cecilie Thorslund.
Twice as many races under observation
The Dogs Act will be evaluated in 2013. It is already in the air, that it should include more breeds. 12 races have already been put under special observation and can be covered by a subsequent law, bringing the total number of banned breeds up to 25.
The currently banned breeds are:
- Pitbull terrier
- Tosa inu
- American Staffordshire Terrier
- Fila Brasileiro
- Dogo Argentino
- American Bulldog
- Central Asian ovtcharka
- Caucasian ovtcharka
- South Russian ovtcharka
Breeds under observation, and possibly banned in the near future:
- Anatolian Shepherd Dog
- Bull Mastiff
- Cane corso italiano
- Cao fila de Sao Miguel
- Dogo canario
- Ibero mastiff
- Mastin espanol
- Mastino napoletano
- Polski Owczarek podhalanski
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Link to the original article in Danish: http://videnskab.dk/kultur-samfund/muskelhunde-lov-hviler-pa-historisk-tyndt-grundlag
A big thank you to "Science Denmark" ("videnskab.dk") and journalist Thomas Hoffmann for allowing me to reprint their story in English on this blog and help spread the word, also across the borders of Denmark.
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- Open letter to Merete Eldrup
- How BSL can bring a whole country into madness
- BSL up close and personal