Over at Snopes, Brooke Binkowski has a thorough rundown of the research on a favorite topic of mine — the futility of breed-specific dog bans. This is when a local, state/provincial or, in some cases, national government bans certain types of dog breeds arbitrarily deemed “aggressive” by local authorities. Just about any breed of dog can be aggressive, and the dogs bred to look tough aren’t always the breeds that do the most damage.

More to the point, there’s just not much evidence that prohibiting certain breeds cuts down on bites. Binkowski, for example, notes that since Ireland banned 11 breeds in 1998, dog bites in the country have risen by 50 percent, a huge increase even after adjusting for the country’s increase in population over that period. When the province of Ontario banned new ownership of “pit bull”-type dogs in 2005, the frequency of dog bites didn’t change in its capital, Toronto — only the breeds that did the most biting. That’s a pretty good indication that serious dog bites are more the product of bad owners than of bad breeds.

A counterargument you’ll often hear is that while breed-specific bans may not affect the overall number of bites, they could reduce the severity, given that the dogs commonly called pit bulls are bred to have unusually strong jaws. But as Binkowski points out, seven years after a pit bull ban in Sioux City, Iowa, in 2008, not only did the overall number of overall of bites go up, the severity of bites remained unchanged. Binkowski writes:

This pattern is repeated everywhere that breed bans have been enacted and enforced, or at least places [where] records of bites are kept. Initially, the number of dog bites do often go down, mostly because owners move, give up their pets, or have their dogs impounded or euthanized. Then (as people get dogs to replace the pets they had to give up or put down) the number of attacks levels off and then begins to rise, possibly because the breed ban creates a false sense of security: Certain breeds are banned because they are dangerous; I don’t own a dangerous breed, therefore my dog won’t hurt anybody.

The pit bull, in particular, has gotten such a nasty (and undeserved) reputation that the term has come to define any menacing-looking dog. It’s sort of the “assault weapon” of the dog world. For example, I’ve discovered in covering countless “puppycide” stories over the years that police officers will often describe any dog that frightened them as a “pit bull,” even dogs that look nothing like what we conventionally consider a pit bull to be.

In fact, the term “pit bull” can be used to describe several different breeds, perhaps most commonly the American pit bull terrier. It’s generally used to describe breeds descended from dogs used in bullfights and other bloodsports, but the aggressiveness has generally been bred out of them. (You can take your own “pick the pit bull test” here or here.) The American pit bull terrier is, in fact, known for its gentle nature, especially around children. Petey from “Our Gang” (also known as”The Little Rascals”) was what we would today call a pit bull. The dogs that are specifically bred for fighting — the dogs that give the term “pit bull” its reputation —  could have any number of breeds in their bloodlines. And any type of dog can be bred or trained to be aggressive.

It has been my impression that these laws tend to be introduced and passed after high-profile dog-maulings, as local policymakers shift into “we must do something” mode. But Binkowski notes something much more interesting: Breed-specific dog bans seem more likely to pass in areas that have recently experienced demographic change:

Looking into the data on breed bans turns up an interesting finding: each region that has enacted breed-specific legislation of some sort appears to have also experienced significant, if not dramatic demographic changes over a relatively short period of time. For example, Denver, Colorado (a city that has one of the toughest breed bans in the United States — and routinely ranks among the highest in the nation in dog bites) has had breed-specific legislation in place since 1989, not long after the “energy bust” and associated migration dramatically changed the population of the city. Ditto for nearby Aurora, which put its own breed ban in place in 2005; Miami-Dade County, Florida, 1989; Yakima, Washington, 2001; Ontario, Canada, 2005; and so on.

This is at least suggestive that the motivation behind movements to ban specific types of dog aren’t really about the dogs at all. They may instead be proxies by which uneasy majorities can register their suspicions about the race, class and ethnicity of the people who own those dogs.