Wendy Las van Bennekom
In 1993, all dogs with a pit bull-like appearance were banned overnight in the Netherlands by a law called the “pitbullwet.” In 2009, the law was repealed, and since then the Dutch government has been faced with a dilemma: How to maintain the public’s feeling of safety, as well as their actual safety from high-risk or potentially dangerous dogs, ideally without creating legislation that is unfair or excessively expensive to implement.
This article takes a look at the history of breed-specific legislation in the Netherlands from my point of view as a Dutch professional dog trainer and educator with a long history of working with Molosser-type dogs and other “power breeds.”
A brief history of breed-specific legislation in the Netherlands
First attempt, 1993-2008
The purpose of the 1993 “pitbullwet” law was to reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by dog attacks in the Netherlands—it was believed that most bite incidents in our society were mainly caused by pit bull-type dogs. It was said that these dogs always caused very serious damage because of their genetic background.
The law led to the euthanasia of many dogs that resembled a pit bull. Dogs with a broad skull and muscled neck, shoulders, and body, were deemed to be pit bulls and killed. The dogs were actually picked up from the street or taken away from their owners. There was a team of “specialists” that determined which dogs were pit bulls, but in reality nobody knew what a real pit bull was and what wasn’t; “pit bull” was used as an umbrella term for a set of physical characteristics. Many people working at the time (and even now) didn’t know that the American pit bull terrier exists as a registered breed.
Under the pitbullwet, all dogs with a broad skull and muscular body were seen as a potential danger to society. This has cost an incredible number of innocent domestic dogs their lives. The law was not based on any scientific report, or on data — in fact, a dog’s breed was often not even recorded when a bite incident did take place. For many people who owned and loved pit bull-type dogs, the law seemed like a witch hunt.
The pitbullwet was abolished in 2009, as it had not caused a significant decline in the number of dog bite injuries since it was put in place.
A few months after abolishing the pitbullwet, Dutch shelters started seeing an increase in the numbers of adult pit bull-type dogs being surrendered by their owners. These were dogs that should not have existed under the law. Clearly, pit bull-type dogs had not disappeared from the Netherlands. They were simply being kept off the streets, out of sight.
When the pitbullwet was in effect, the public felt safe from dangerous dogs, and this led to less media attention on the number of bite incidents in society. After abolishing the pitbullwet, this changed rapidly. These dogs once again became the target of fear campaigns, leading the public to believe these dogs are more aggressive and dangerous than other breeds.
New efforts at legislation
The number of pit bull-like dogs in public life increased enormously after 2009. More and more reports of bite incidents came through the media. In the vast majority of this reporting, it was stated that they were dogs of the Molosser or bull terrier type.
After a big law firm stepped in and started to take all cases where small dogs were “slaughtered” by one of these power breeds, and the story found its way to the media, the government decided it was time to act.
This time, instead of an outright ban on pit bull-type dogs, a group of experts in this field was asked to investigate the problem and come up with a report. After an initial report in 2015 in which they focused more on how dog owners contributed to the problem, their main report in 2017 shifted to the dogs and their genetic predisposition. The investigators made a list of breeds they labeled Hoog-risicohonden (potentially dangerous dogs):
- American Bulldog
- American Pit bull Terrier
- American Staffordshire Terrier
- South African Boerboel
- Bull Mastiff
- Bull Terrier
- Cane Corso
- Dogo Argentino
- Dogo Canario
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier
- Fila Brasileiro
- Anatolian Shepherd
- South Russian Ovcharka
- Caucasian Ovcharka
- Pit bull type: all pit bull mixes: pocket bully, micro bully, pocket pit bull, extreme pocket bully, Regular bully, Regular Pitbull, xl-enxxlpitbull, xl enxxl bully, red-nosed pitbull, red nose bully
- Bully Kuta
January 2016: Starting to understand the social complexities of dangerous dogs
In January 2016, there was an information day for municipal officials, police, and others about potentially dangerous dogs. (The organizers have asked not to be mentioned by name due to receiving threats related to their work.) During this day, various speakers talked about dangerous dog breeds and the social issues surrounding them. The main topic was the world of dog fighters and the many incidents in which people and dogs had been seriously injured after an attack.
One of the speakers on this day was the British criminologist Simon Harding, who had recently published a book called Unleashed about his research on the use of dogs by street gangs in the U.K. and the U.S. Some of the stories were horrific.
As a result of this day, a working group was set up at the Kynological Institute O&O (the Dutch Association for Instructors in Dog Education and Training, or De Nederlandseverenigingvoorinstructeurs in hondenopvoeding- enopleiding)
The aim of creating this working group for dog trainers was to give their students more information about the breeds on this new “high-risk” list. We saw that there was a huge gap in our dog training program when it came to dealing with dogs from potentially dangerous breeds. The majority of dog trainers in our country have little to no experience with these breeds. They usually saw working dogs, like Alsatians, border collies, and Australian shepherds, not “power breeds.” Molosser-type dogs are not welcome in many dog training schools. We therefore decided to develop specialist “power breed” training for accredited dog trainers.
How I became involved
Because I am one of only a few trainers in O&O who has hands-on experience with these dogs, this quickly became my project. It has been clear to me for some time that:
- The average instructor had little to moderate knowledge of these dogs.
- If they were welcome in a training class at all, the dog was expected to behave like an average Labrador.
- Well-intentioned owners were poorly guided or not guided at all.
- The government has developed a list of dog breeds that are seen as a danger to society based on a number of briefly described characteristics, rather than on real understanding or evidence.
I started to look at the report that had been made for the government in 2015, which defined a high-risk dog for the purpose of enacting breed-specific regulation. My aim as a professional dog trainer and educator was to offer more specific and accurate information to the government than their own report did, as well as identify gaps in understanding that O&O could address through education.
The government advisory panel’s definition of a high-risk dog
The following section is a translated quote from the report made by the RAD, the government’s advisory panel.
A high-risk dog is a dog that when biting is capable of inflicting excessive severe bite damage (resulting in death, loss of muscle and/or organ tissue). These dogs can be identified using the following list of characteristics:
The combination of weight and construction (jaw size, muscle strength, the ability to bite and keep breathing at the same time, little possibility for the bitten dog to grip onto the biting dog) such that powerful biting as well as retention of relatively large surface area with bites is possible.
The biting style is such that when biting, biting is repeated without pauses (other than the time it takes to repeatedly reach the bitten with a bite— for example, during the biter’s intermediate flight attempt) and/or is held for a long time (whether or not with repacking /sliding to get a better grip on the bitten and/or when biting in the throat area, continue to compress this), whether or not in combination with pressing the area and/or applying shaking/tearing. Bites are often focused on sensitive areas such as the throat and groin area, head (muzzle) or possibly front legs.
Focus on the bitten dog and the biting is intense (dog is difficult to interrupt, cannot be compelled to let go of the bitten dog, or stays focused on the bitten dog and/or other possible people or animals to bite). Prior to biting, dog shows excitement and/or silent focus on the bitten.
The genetic basis of the dog is characterized by selection made by humans for fighting characteristics towards humans or other animals. This genetic basis can be mixed with traits of other breeds or types such as the speed of greyhounds or ferocity of terrier-like dogs.
A closer look at the text of the report
Under “physical appearance” are a number of things that are open to interpretation, or so vague as to provide no practical guidance at all.
“Combination of weight and construction”: This is not further defined, so raises questions about which combinations it is intended to mean.
“Biting and the ability to keep breathing”: All dogs can do this. In fact, all predators can do this.
Then “little grip” is mentioned. This may apply to a number of terriers, but the list of high-risk breeds is mostly Molossian dogs. These usually have a lot of skin and with them there is more than enough for a human to grab hold of in order to interrupt a fight.
The characteristics described above can be found in all dog breeds. This describes predatory behavior. As sweet as we may find our pet dogs, they are descended from predators. The fact might be that the dogs on the list do have a stronger genetic predisposition to predatory behavior, the sequence ORIENT > EYE > STALK > CHASE > GRAB-BITE > KILL-BITE >(DISSECT > CONSUME is more often triggered and more often performed to its completion than in many other dog breeds. This is probably because in large parts of the world, they are bred and used for tasks like predator defense and fighting, where these qualities are particularly desirable.
To what extent this genetic predisposition is present in the pet dogs we breed in our part of the world (northern Europe), is yet unknown. In fact, my next project is focused on this. I want to test different dog breeds to see if there is an actual difference in arousal when they are presented with predation-provoking stimuli.
In my opinion this is about impulsivity in dogs. Perhaps we find this more often with certain breeds. Although I have not yet seen much rigorous research on this, there is one test to measure the level of impulsivity in individual dogs.1 This test can certainly be used to find out which dogs are more likely to instantly reach a high level of arousal and do not or barely get feedback on their own behavior. If this is found to be breed specific, this can be helpful in breeding selection to reduce the incidents that are caused in relation to these specific traits.
Although I am convinced that some breeds have a stronger predisposition to predatory behavior, many other factors play a part in the development of an individual dog’s personality. For example, how and where the dog is kept, the learning experiences it has had, how the owner handles the dog, and what the owner understands about their dog’s breed and behavior. There is very little research on the intersections of breed, environment, and owner behavior that making claims based on heredity alone seems like an oversimplification.
An alternative definition of a potentially dangerous dog
I have developed an alternative definition of a high-risk dog, from my experience working with dogs and learning about their behavior as a professional dog trainer and part of O&O:
A dog, regardless of its breed, that attacks from predation (predatory aggression) or an extreme form of affective aggression towards people and/or dogs.
I have to add that predatory aggression is a term I dislike, but use because it is common in the literature on dog behavior. I dislike this term because I do not think a predator is angry with its prey, or is in any other way emotionally driven to kill their prey, as “aggression” might suggest. I would rather speak of predatory behavior.
Predatory behavior and extreme affective aggression (aggression based on an emotion, for example, fear aggression) also includes breeds that are not mentioned on the list of 21 breeds. The criteria mentioned earlier do not, in my opinion, exclude any dog breed. This is not about dog breeds, but individuals. Of course, as the RAD report shows, we can speak of risk times impact — a dog’s breed can make them more dangerous simply because they are larger and stronger. That said, we have had several cases where a Chihuahua’s bite has caused loss of tissue, so I am not so sure that any dog breed can truly be classified as harmless.
The road to the government is long and hard. All this is “just” about dogs to them. This is not a priority on the political agenda, although efforts are being made to raise awareness. I was part of a working group for the secretary of state’s office. Later I initiated the KringErkendOpleidersKynologie, in which all accredited training institutes are united. We have tried to influence the government’s data flow on this topic by developing a report with alternative rules and regulations, which we presented to the secretary of state’s advisor. We also sent letters to the minister of agriculture in which we voiced our concern about the current developments.
Unfortunately, many politicians think too easily about the solutions. There is a lack of understanding of how much the dog is a part of society and how much owners appreciate and love their dogs. Not everyone can see why talking about a ban on certain breeds evokes so much emotion. In addition, people are confronted with a maze of legislation in which sometimes politicians themselves lose track of what started the process.
The current situation
The government decided to have four investigations conducted by an independent research agency working for a Belgian university. This research was done through a questionnaire presented to experts in three different countries. The goal was to reach a consensus on all aspects of biting incidents. The results of this questionnaire were presented last year at the city hall of Hoorn. Many involved in this research were present, including the national police and municipals. The assignment was to:
- Form an expert panel to determine the genetic characteristics of potentially dangerous dogs.
- Conduct a Delphi project to investigate how information on bite incidents can be registered and analyzed.
- Develop an education program for those involved in registration and preventing bite incidents.
- Form a curriculum of education for the owners of potentially dangerous dogs.
You can find this (in Dutch) at The Safe dog Project.
Unfortunately, this report mainly focused on dog-human aggression and not as much on dog-dog aggression. Predatory behavior was not mentioned at all.
We will now have learning outcomes developed by the research team that all cynological education institutes can use for their own program. This will be at the undergraduate level. They have also developed a master’s program for pet dog counsellors who will work with the municipal authorities. In addition to this professional education, they developed a 12-module course for dog owners. This can be completed voluntarily or be required by the municipality when their dog is considered a dangerous dog by a team of experts.
The group of accredited education institutes in the Netherlands (Kring Erkend Opleiders Kynologie) have decided to develop their own program and present this in the Netherlands. It will focus on the prevention of bite incidents. This program will include dog-dog aggression, predatory behavior and genetic predisposition in power breeds.
Many countries and localities have introduced laws that allow for the discrimination or outright killing of dogs based on their breed or their appearance. Breed-specific legislation, however, has been shown time and again to be ineffective in preventing serious injuries and deaths of dogs and humans. Laws like the pitbullwet did nothing to address the culture of keeping dogs as weapons and status symbols among street gangs, nor did it help provide education for owners of any dog breed about the warning signs so they can correctly interpret the subtle communication we see with these breeds of aggression or when and how to get help.
Dog training education organizations in the Netherlands are working hard to fill in the gaps of knowledge and skills that most professional trainers have when it comes to working with these breeds. Hopefully, by the end of this year, the Kring Erkend Opleiders Kynologie will present their joint project on an education program for accredited dog trainers and behavior consultants. This in addition to the already existing potentially dangerous dog training course “Zwarejongensen Pittigemeiden,” developed by me and my colleague Peter Martens. Accredited trainers will be able, if they have completed the entire course of seven modules, to be registered at the Dutch Kennel Club as an expert dog trainer. The kennel club has a list of qualified dog trainers and consultants at their website at the CKI department. At the same time the Molosser Training Center, which is my dog training center, is giving international lectures and training to owners of power breeds. Hopefully all this will lead to more responsible ownership, which will in my opinion lead to fewer bite incidents.