Comments from DogsBite.org
DogsBite.org - On Sunday, our nonprofit submitted our public comments to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking public input on proposed amendments to the regulation of service animals in air travel. The public comment period closed late Monday, April 6. Our comments address why airlines should be able to prohibit specific breeds -- pit bulls and fighting breeds as service animals -- from flying in a confined aircraft cabin.
The NPRM came after years of escalating abuse by individuals claiming to have a "disabling" health condition requiring a service or emotional support animal (ESA) in air travel. In 2018, the issue of fake service and support animals onboard airlines became so bad that airlines increased requirements for both types. Six months later, Delta Air Lines banned pit bull-type dogs as service animals and ESAs. The NPRM, thankfully, proposed eliminating the ESA distinction entirely.
My organization welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Department of Transportation's ("DOT") Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ("NPRM"), issued on January 22, 2020 seeking public input on proposed amendments to the regulation of service animals on flights. We will specifically address why airlines should be able to prohibit specific breeds -- pit bulls and fighting breeds -- from flying in the cabin.
Since 2017, my nonprofit has written extensively about public policy issues pertaining to service and support dogs in aircraft cabins, starting with a report about the attack onboard Delta Air Lines flight 1430, when a "support" dog "repeatedly attacked" a man in the face. In 2018, we issued a special report about why breed matters in service dogs, which outlines what some service dog organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International ("ADI") already state about fighting breeds: they are a poor choice for a service dog. Most of these groups only choose certain breeds: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Labrador-golden mixes and standard poodles. In 2019, we issued an in-depth report about the civil lawsuit filed against Delta after the attack onboard flight 1430. That lawsuit remains pending. - DogsBite.org (DOT-OST-2018-0068-18935)
Our public comments are 12 pages in length and are divided into multiple sections, including: unpredictable aggression and the disproportionate response by pit bulls; unlike all other dog breeds, pit bulls attack adults more often than children; and the lack of an effective assessment test. The NPRM specifically requested public input on whether "certain dogs may be dangerous because of their muscular bodies, large and powerful jaws and neck muscles, and ferocity."
Thus, we outlined the primary reasons why pit bulls and fighting breeds pose a unique danger to passengers and crew when traveling in the highly confined space of an aircraft cabin coupled with the unpredictable elements of flying, such as sudden turbulence. Even when in a safe, predictable environment, pit bulls consistently display these dangerous traits, "failure to communicate intention before an attack, disinhibited aggression and a disproportionate response to stimuli," we state.
Airline travel has a number of unpredictable elements, from sudden turbulence to abrupt loud noises to long delays. This unpredictability combined with the extremely confined space inside an aircraft cabin could exacerbate the well-identified dangerous characteristics in pit bulls, a breed that consistently displays these traits -- failure to communicate intention before an attack, disinhibited aggression and a disproportionate response to stimuli -- when in a safe, predictable environment. - DogsBite.org (DOT-OST-2018-0068-18935)
Our blog posts typically remark on one of several traits that make pit bulls uniquely dangerous, such as "unprovoked, disinhibited aggression" or a disproportionate response to minor stimuli (when petting the dog on the head, results in a full frontal attack). DOT seeking comments about pit bull behavior provided a rare opportunity for our nonprofit to state the larger picture, pertaining to why airlines should be able to prohibit fighting breeds as service animals flying in the cabin.
Throughout our comments is data from recent medical studies showing that compared to attacks by other breeds, "pit bull terriers inflicted more complex wounds, were often unprovoked, and went off property to attack" (Khan, 2020); "unlike all other breeds, pit bull terriers were relatively more likely to attack an unknown individual and without provocation" (O'Brien, 2015); and "when attacks come from unfamiliar dogs, the pit bull was responsible for 60%" (Prendes, 2016).
Multiple modern medical studies also call to attention the alarming number of unprovoked attacks by pit bulls compared with other dog breeds. DOT stated in the NPRM, "there may be concerns that certain dogs may be dangerous because of their muscular bodies, large and powerful jaws and neck muscles, and ferocity when provoked to attack." This indicates that DOT has little to no knowledge about why so many U.S. jurisdictions regulate pit bulls, along with jurisdictions in 53 countries worldwide. Fighting breeds do not need provocation to attack. Fighting breeds were selected for the willingness to attack in the absence of species-specific signs. - DogsBite.org (DOT-OST-2018-0068-18935)
We also address whom the most common air travelers are, adults. Studies since the 1980s show that pit bulls attack adults more often than children, a trait not shared by other dog breeds. This remains true today. "Between 2005 and 2019, canines killed 521 individuals in the United States. Pit bulls were involved in 346 of these deaths, 66%," we state. "Of the total number of persons ≥10 years old killed by dogs during this 15-year period (285), pit bulls were responsible for 73% (208)."
Pit bulls pose the most threat to the most frequent airline passengers, adults, due to their failure to communicate intention before an attack -- pit bulls will attack without warning and will attack in the absence of species-specific signs. Pit bulls are also more likely to attack "unfamiliar" persons compared with other breeds and are more likely to attack adults than children. As stated earlier, dogs selected for fighting also lack an appropriate "cut off" behavior once an attack begins. Other dog breeds "bite and release." - DogsBite.org (DOT-OST-2018-0068-18935)
Lastly, we address DOT's mistaken proposal that airline operators have the ability to "conduct an individualized assessment of a service animal's behavior to determine whether the service animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others." This "individualized assessment" approach being a substitute for a breed ban in an aircraft cabin. However, there is no behavior test that measures unpredictable aggression and the tests that do exist have a low predictive value.1
DOT mistakenly believes that airlines have the capability to conduct an "individualized assessment" of each service animal to determine whether the animal will pose a danger to others in a crowded aircraft cabin. Airlines do not have this capability. Shelters do not have this capability, despite having dog trainers or behavioral testers on staff, because the predictive value of these tests is low. - DogsBite.org (DOT-OST-2018-0068-18935)
Delta's position is: "Absent an approach that clearly demonstrates an animal can behave properly, airlines should be able to impose breed restrictions to ensure passenger safety."2 Our nonprofit agrees. Lacking an effective assessment test, dog breeds are a "baseline" assessment tool. "Dogs of specific breeds exhibit different behaviors," we state. Herding dogs herd. Retrieving dogs retrieve. These behaviors do not require specific training. Furthermore, form follows function.
There is a reason why border collies have a differently shaped body than a racing greyhound. There is a reason why pit bulls are characterized by exaggerated jaws and neck muscles. Border collies, greyhounds and numerous other dog breeds do not have the physical conformation to execute an efficient "killing" bite. Pit bulls and dogs bred for fighting and baiting ("killing") do have this physical conformation due to being shaped by hundreds of years of selective breeding to best perform the task of killing. - DogsBite.org (DOT-OST-2018-0068-18935)
In our closing, we state: "The question is not whether one pit bull is a 'safe' service animal and another pit bull is a dangerous service animal. The question is, how can an airline conduct an 'individualized assessment' when no assessment test exists for unpredictable aggression?" Erring on the side of safety, when traveling by air, is always the best choice. "Absent an effective assessment tool, airlines should be able to ban pit bulls and fighting breeds," we conclude.
Now that the public comment period is closed, what's next? According DOT's rulemaking process, there is no time limit for an agency to publish a final rule after publishing an NPRM. The agency will review public comments and analyze them, then "decide whether to proceed with the rulemaking we proposed, issue a new or modified proposal, or withdraw the proposal," states DOT's website. Given the impact of COVID-19 on air transportation, it could be a long wait.
We thank everyone who submitted a comment during the open comment period. We have yet to go through comments ourselves. We may do a follow up post about comments pertaining to the whole NPRM, particularly responses to DOT's proposal to eliminate ESAs. This means ESAs will no longer be able to "fly for free" and will be treated as pets when traveling by air. Valid ESAs can be trained to perform a task for a person with disabilities making the dog a real service animal.
2Comments of Delta Air Lines, Submitted July 10, 2018 (DOT-OST-2018-0068-4141), Dated May 23, 2018 | Docket No. DOT-OST-2018-0068.
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05/09/09: Alexandra Semyonova: Heritability of Behavior in the Abnormally Aggressive Dog