Everyone likely knows someone who has a pit bull. They are common pets for families and are often kept as guard dogs because they are extremely loyal and protective. However, there have been numerous injuries and even fatalities involving these dogs, which has led some states to restrict their control and ownership.
While Tennessee does not have breed-specific legislation (BSL) on the books, some of its municipalities and counties do.
What Is a Pit Bull?
The term pit bull does not refer to just one breed of dog, but to a group of breeds that includes the American bulldog, American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier, among others. Breeders originally paired Olde English Bulldogges for their muscular bodies with terriers for their agility and “gameness,” or fighting spirit.
These dogs became bull-baiting dogs – canines that could bite and hold larger animals. Bull-baiting was banned in the 19th century, and soon after, individuals began fighting the dogs against each other. The pit bull’s reputation preceded it, and some dogs are still bred for their fighting ability today, despite dog fighting being illegal in all 50 states.
Many pit bulls are companionship or working dogs and have been popular family pets for decades. They are typically gentle, affectionate and loyal.
Proposed Ban on Pit Bulls in Tennessee
According to the American Kennel Club, in 2008, state Senator Tommy Kilby introduced Senate Bill 2738. This breed-specific legislation (BSL) would have made it a crime to own a pit bull in Tennessee.
Further, it specified this type of dog as an American bulldog, American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or mixed breeds containing 50 percent of their lineage. The law would have forced owners of these breeds to give up their dogs.
Senate Bill 2738 was considered too constrictive and didn’t get very far. While there are no outright pit bull bans in Tennessee, the state and various municipalities do have dangerous and vicious dog laws on the books.
Dangerous Dog Laws in Tennessee State
The Volunteer State does have dangerous dog laws that aren’t breed specific. If a dog, no matter the breed, attacks an individual and causes serious bodily injury or death, a judge in the county where the attack occurred can order the dog destroyed on the petition of the district attorney for the county.
The DA’s petition will name the dog’s owner, who will be given notice of the state’s rules of civil procedure and the date of a hearing regarding the incident. If the owner does not appear before the court within five days of receiving the notice and show good reason why the dog should not be put down, the dog will be destroyed.
In Tennessee, counties with a population of more than 800,000, or with a metropolitan government and a population of more than 100,000, can adopt local ordinances authorizing petitioning a court to dispose of dangerous dogs or vicious dogs.
Penalties for Dangerous Dog Violations
Dog owners in Tennessee must keep their dogs under control at all times, no matter the breed. The owner of a dog that attacks someone and causes serious injury can face felony charges, and the greater the injury, the higher the class of the felony charge. If a dog kills someone, its owner faces a Class C felony and jail time.
There are exceptions to these rules if the:
- Dog in question was commanded by law enforcement or the military.
- Person the dog injured or killed was trespassing on the owner's property.
- Dog was protecting its owner or another individual from the person it injured.
- Injured person was provoking the dog.
Breed-Specific State Laws
Local breed-specific legislation is typically for pit bulls, but can include other large breeds. The types of BSL laws in Tennessee are:
A breed ban is the most restrictive regulation. It prohibits the breeding and ownership of a particular breed. Bans typically allow users to keep their dogs, but only under specific conditions. This is to reduce the likelihood of injury or death. Breed bans may require a dog’s sterilization.
Tennessee municipalities and counties in which pit bulls are banned include:
- South Pittsburg.
Additional Breed Restrictions
Some Tennessee municipalities allow ownership of pit bulls, but place specific restrictions on owners.
For example, Mt. Juliet does not allow the breed in dog parks, and Brownsville requires owners to muzzle their dogs before going on a walk. Pit bulls must also be microchipped.
Some cities may have declarations stating that certain breeds are vicious or dangerous. In those instances, a dog's owner may have to pay higher fees for registration, get their dogs microchipped or sterilized, or muzzle their pet in a public place.
They may need to carry more liability insurance, have larger kennel facilities, fencing, and warning signs that there is a dangerous dog on the property. These Tennessee cities have dangerous-breed declarations:
- Jefferson City.
- Lookout Mountain.
- Red Boiling Springs.
- White Pine.
Some municipalities may require an owner to get a special permit to own a breed. For example, South Fulton requires owners of pit bulls, Dobermans, Rottweilers and German shepherds to do so.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.