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OPINION

Why dog breed bans are misguided and harmful

It’s not often the dog but the person holding the leash who creates the conditions, often by neglect or abuse, for a dog to attack.

Supporters of the XL bully dog breed held placards during a protest against the UK government’s plans for the breed, in central London on Oct. 7.HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images

“They’re not dangerous if you raise them right. Neither are the dogs.”

Those lines are from a sign carried by one of the hundreds of demonstrators who recently took to the streets in London to protest Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposed ban on the American XL bully.

Sunak’s measure came after a string of biting incidents, at least two of them fatal, involving canines believed to be American bully XL dogs, a relatively new breed. In one short but horrific incident caught on camera in Birmingham, England, an 11-year-old girl is attacked and bit by a dog.

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But such a policy ignores the real cause behind aggressive and dangerous dogs. It’s not often the dog but the person holding the leash who creates the conditions, often by neglect or abuse, for a dog to attack. While it’s true that the American bully XL has a history of being used in dogfighting, the boxer, the shar-pei, the Boston terrier, and the English bull terrier also all have histories of fighting.

Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said in an interview that there are many factors that can come into play and compel a dog to bite — “how the dog is socialized, how the dog is managed, and whether it’s spayed or neutered plays a role. So when places enact policies that just look at breed, not only is it not fair, but it’s just not effective.” It’s making a blanket judgment on what a dog breed is perceived to be, she said. Nowadays it has become very difficult “to look at a dog and know or make a guess as to what type of breed it is.”

That’s why the MSPCA, Holmquist said, helped push for a law, passed in 2012, that prevents cities and towns from enacting dog breed bans. It was around the time that there was hysteria around pit bulls and Dobermans. But discrimination against certain dog breeds still occurs in some spaces, and the MSPCA is working to remove dog breed bans in housing policies.

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“Responsible Massachusetts dog owners are often not welcome in certain housing markets, particularly if they own medium or large dogs, or certain dog breeds (or a dog that looks like one of these breeds),” read testimony presented jointly by animal rights advocates, including the MSPCA, during a hearing last month on a bill that would prevent some housing providers, such as condo associations and public housing, “from arbitrarily refusing responsible dog owners as tenants.” The organizations also noted that this “discrimination occurs in some publicly-funded housing, making this a particularly pernicious practice.” It makes it a housing equity issue, as well.

Massachusetts’ cities and towns do have the power to police specific dogs through the dangerous dog law, the purview of the animal control officer. “If there is a dog that is of concern that’s demonstrated some behavior that’s outlined in the law, there’s a process for addressing that through a dangerous dog hearing,” Holmquist said.

Meanwhile, it’s looking like there will be no such dog hearings for the American bully XL in England. Prime Minister Sunak has pledged to ban the dogs but, thankfully, existing ones will receive amnesty. The dogs, which can weigh over 130 pounds, have risen in popularity since the COVID-19 lockdowns, which saw dog ownership rise. Under Sunak’s plan, owners of those existing dogs will have to register them, as well as muzzle them in public places. They will also be required to neuter them in an attempt to eradicate the dog type within a decade.

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What’s baffling is that the UK has evidence that banning breeds does not make the public safer. The country has in place a Dangerous Dogs Act, which was enacted more than three decades ago. It bans four breeds: the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, and Fila Brasileiro. Despite that, the number of dog bite incidents has gone up in the UK.

The English dog-owning community is not taking the proposal lying down, but it seems clear the British government has the authority to deem a breed dangerous and ban it. In the case of the American bully XL, it still isn’t officially recognized as a breed by the UK’s Kennel Club. So the breed needs to be declared a breed before it can be banned.

I’m still waiting for a ban on bad dog owners, because when you follow the trail leading to a terrible dog incident, often the owner’s treatment of the dog is to blame. The American bully XL may become extinct in Britain, but you can bet the country’s bad dog owners eventually will find another breed to mistreat. And sadly it, too, will be banned.

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Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.