On January 31, 2013 Representative Brenda Gilmore and and Senator Reginald Tate introduced legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly that would require anyone within the state of Tennessee who owns a "vicious dog" to obtain a minimum of $25,000 in insurance against liability for any injuries inflicted by the dog. HB 0621 is scheduled to be heard by the Tennessee Agriculture Subcommittee today, Wednesday, March 20, 2013.
(i)Any dog that, without provocation, bites, attacks, or endangers the safety of a human or other animal on public or private property;
(ii) Any dog which because of its physical nature and vicious propensity is capable of causing serious bodily injury, as defined in this section, or death to humans or other animals and would constitute a danger to human life or property; or
(iii) Any dog that behaves in a manner that the owner knows or should reasonably know that the dog is possessed of tendencies to attack humans or other animals
“Belongs to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog. The ownership, keeping, or harboring of such a breed of dog shall be prima-facie evidence of the ownership, keeping, or harboring of a vicious dog.”
As written, the legislation will significantly impact dog owners that have any dog that resembles a Pit Bull Terrier. According to the ASPCA, dogs such as the American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Bulldog are commonly labeled as pit bulls due to their body type and the shape of their head. Because the bill does not clearly specify what is considered to be a pit bull, any of these dogs, and perhaps others, could be considered "vicious". This designation would be based only on the appearance of the dog and not because the animal has shown aggression towards another animal or human.
The use of the term "physical nature" within the legislation is also of concern. Any large breed dog, typically considered any dog over twenty-five pounds, has the physical capacity of inflicting serious bodily injury if it attacks a human. In the past dogs such as the German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, Rottweiler and Chow-Chows have been labeled "vicious dogs" primarily because of their size, use as guard dogs and/or due to their protective nature. We have learned over time that just because these dogs belong to a specific breed does not mean they are all automatically vicious dogs.
If based solely on the "physical nature", an extremely vague and broad term, dogs such as Labrador Retrievers, Standard Poodles or Collies could be classified as vicious based on their size.
According to the American Humane Association, approximately 92% of fatal dog attacks involved male dogs, 94% of which were not neutered. Conceivably, as the legislation is written, anyone who owns a male dog that has not been neutered could be required to purchase liability insurance because their particular dog has a "physical nature" which falls within the parameters of those dogs most likely be to be involved in a fatal attack.
A study published in the journal "Applied Animal Behavior Science" showed that Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers are the three breed of dogs most likely to bite. If legislation is going to attempt to define a "vicious" dog simply based on the breed or the dog, then owners of these dogs should also be required to carry liability insurance.
We have come to learn that dog owners are typically responsible for whether a dog acts in an aggressive manner more so than the breed of dog itself. Various breeds of dogs have different tendencies. Some are more protective than others, some enjoy water more than others, while others are more suited for herding cattle. It is up to the individual owner to determine if these dogs are vicious or gentle, or whether they are a good retriever or herd dog. Training, socialization, spaying or neutering of any dog, regardless of size or breed, is the key to having a well adjusted, approachable dog. Breed specific legislation does not work, as pointed out by the Humane Society of the United States.
As of this morning, HB 0621has been removed from the subcommittee calendar, but it is a matter that can easily be brought up again during this legislative session. It is important that we remember we must continue to be the voice for animals who face discrimination simply because of how they look. We must advocate for legislation which holds irresponsible pet owners accountable for their "aggressive" or "vicious" dogs. If a dog is trained to fight other dogs, it will. If a dog is trained to indiscriminately attack humans without commands, it will. If the Tennessee legislature truly wants to ensure that the general public is safe from vicious dogs, it is imperative that law makers introduce detailed, comprehensive legislation that addresses the underlying causes of dangerous dogs. As citizens of Tennessee it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our law makers act in a responsible manner when introducing legislation. We must demand that members of the Tennessee General Assembly only propose bills that genuinely protect the public from vicious dogs, not simply discriminate against an animal based on appearances.