Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ending BSL: Big Picture vs DNA

The blogosphere/Twitterosphere (?) is alive with posts saying DNA tests may end BSL. The study came out from Victoria Voith (the summary is in that second link, from Best Friends), and basically says we suck at visual breed identification. I totally agree with this. It's impossible to *know* what's "in" a dog. I make this argument all the time- to people adopting puppies: "What's in this dog?" "I can raise him just how I want him." Well, says me, "I have no idea what kind of dog he is, I didn't see his parents" (thinking, even if I did, I wouldn't really know...) And, "no, I can't guarantee that 8 week old puppy doesn't have pit bull in him," and "well, you can do your durndest to raise him exactly how you want him, but he's going to have some genetic make up beyond your control, based on his heritage, which I can't really tell you about." And so on.

On the other hand, I'm not sold on DNA being the answer to BSL, either. First, I'm not sold on the DNA tests. Maybe it's because I saw this video awhile ago, and, well, it's convincing. Savvy, a purebred, with known heritage, Am Staff, was DNA tested with less than stellar results:

I looked up the DNA test that was used in this video, and it's apparently not the preferred one. However, none of the DNA tests are flawless. There are two main tests, as far as I can tell: the Wisdom Panel and the Canine Heritage test. The Wisdom Panel claims to have 157 breeds in its database, and used 13,000 dogs to get their markers. The Canine Heritage test has 100 breeds, and both claim over 90% accuracy. The authors of this article had the same concerns that I did, so they submitted the DNA of their two dogs to Wisdom, Canine Heritage and another company with 3 different results. Obviously not scientific, but not convincing proof.

So, I agree with some of the pro-DNA'ers: I picked up the term "Oakland Brown Dog" years ago, and have incorporated "purebred mutt" into my vocabulary. I use these terms to describe dogs of unknown heritage and limited breed-identifiablity. I find this a useful jumping off point to talk to adopters. I don't think it's a stopping point, though- breed characteristics have their place: it's what we like about purebreds, and what we hate about them. Which is why another reason (besides inaccuracy) that I don't think this is the way to fight BSL.

I don't want people to have to test the DNA of my pit bull to tell me he's a pit bull to say ok, BSL doesn't apply. My pit bull is probably a mix. When strangers ask what kind of dog he is, I describe him as a pit bull mix. I could call him a lab mix, a beagle mix, etc- because I really don't know, and probably, one of those things is accurate. But mostly he's a pit bull (walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.) I see the argument: sure, you can't properly visually ID a pit bull. According to DNA, this dog is actually a border collie/schnauzer/chihuahua, so BSL is bunk. That may save my dog, and it *may* show politicians that BSL is wrong, but I doubt it. I think a better approach is what I write about here all the time: changing politicians and owners mind about dog ownership. This isn't about the dogs, it's about the owners. It's not about whether the dog who bit a person or killed livestock is a pit bull or a border collie/schnauzer/chihuahua or even a purebred mutt, it's about the decisions the owner made that got the dog in that spot. Let's have Responsible Owner Legislation. Pointing fingers at DNA to end BSL is still talking about the dogs. It's still about breeds, it's still about identification. Forget it. I want to talk about people and stewardship. Educate and penalize for that, not for heritage. Don't even let the conversation go in this direction.


smartdogs said...

Excellent post.

As a lover of mutts and a big fan of conservation breeds and wise out-crossing I think that our bizarre obsessions with breed / racial purity and labeling are some of the greatest disservices we do to dogs.

Valerie said...

Thank you for this post. It's not about the breed, it's about responsible ownership/guardianship.