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City must take action against vicious dogs

June 09, 2012

The Maryland Court of Appeals might have done local governments no favors when it ruled this spring that pit bulls are a breed apart, subject to more regulation and less benefit of the doubt.

The ruling might help jurisdictions to lower the number of dog attacks — but then again, it might open a can of worms that creates more problems than it solves.

We have seen the same numbers that Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith has seen, and we, too, find them impossible to ignore. All other debating points aside, pit bulls are predominantly responsible for recent dog attacks, and governments must spare no quarter in protecting its citizens and police officers from vicious animals.

Further, pit bulls have been developed to fight, and there is little doubt, once instilled, it is hard to wash an entire breed of undesirable habits. Finally, the powerful jaws of a pit bull can couple with a bad temper to create a tragic result. In sum, the courts and Chief Smith have plenty of evidence on which to rely.

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Of course, nothing is ever that simple, so we have no quarrel with the Hagerstown City Council for proceeding slowly in the matter of pit bull regulation.

The council last week showed little enthusiasm for Smith’s call to increase liability for those who own pit bulls, and perhaps even landlords who rent to pit bull owners.

Like the council, we have several questions that we believe should be answered before singling out pit bulls for punishment.

As Smith noted, “pit bull type” dogs are five times more likely to attack.

While this is damning evidence to be sure, we would ask what constitutes a “pit bull type,” and will this vague definition force officers to go thumbing through breed manuals before taking further action?

Several other breeds of dog are easily mistaken for pit bulls. And what of pit bull crosses? How can we draw a clear line between what animals are vicious killers and which are cuddly pets?

We also would be curious to know the statistics from 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Every passing generation seems to have a vicious dog breed du jour, be it Dobermans, German shepherds or rottweilers. We suspect that pit bulls were not responsible for the majority of attacks two decades ago, nor is it likely they will be two decades hence.

How can a law anticipate the breed of choice among drug dealers, criminals and dog fighters? Also, isn’t it likely to believe that, if pit bulls are effectively legislated away, the meaner elements of society will simply turn to some other breed and teach it to attack?

As Hagerstown City Councilwoman Ashley Haywood said, much of the culpability rests with the owner, not with the dog.

Still, we believe in the chief’s instinct to protect the public, so if these questions can be satisfactorily answered, the Maryland court action might still permit the city to take some further action to guard against vicious dogs.

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