Inherent Danger

My own fair city is back in the spotlight dealing with the aftermath of yet another tragic dog attack. In this case, a 75 year old woman was critically injured in her backyard by two pit bulls that got through a gap in their fence. My thoughts and prayers are with the victim and her family during this terrible time.

Now let me be clear on this: despite what you might read, the city is not considering a pit bull ban (quote from City Hall to that effect at the bottom of the article), and I am glad for that. The local newspaper has a poll up, not as a reflection of an action the city council is considering, but because they felt like asking it and thought it would be a good way to get traffic to the site, I guess.

Considering the panicked response on the web, I’d say that ploy worked, but please, don’t fret on the phone trying to get through a busy signal to vote on a meaningless poll. Our city has its share of knee jerk responders just like everywhere, but the general reaction I get here is: Oh, no, what have those owners allowed their dogs to do. As opposed to, say, “Eliminate all the pitties! Starting with Coupe!”

Just one year ago in our city, a two year old child was killed by the family German Shepherd in front of his three siblings while his mother slept in another room. This did not inspire polls or frantic Facebook campaigns about BSL, because of the one simple fact that the dog was a shepherd. I imagine had he been a pit bull, it would have been a different story. No less horrific, of course. And while German shepherds are one of the 75 breeds most commonly listed on BSL bans in the US, none seems to be as much of a lightning rod as the pit bull.

If I genuinely thought banning certain breeds would help prevent the death of a child, if I honestly and truly believed it in my heart, it is something I would consider. I would. I am a mother as well as a pet lover, after all. But the truth of the matter is that it won’t, the data has shown this time and time again, and it’s a useless waste of money to write and enforce this legislation at the expense of thousands of innocent pets’ lives when there are so many other things we should be focusing on other than DNA that would better help prevent animal attacks on people.

There are many more in-depth sources of information about the fallacy of breed specific legislation on the web, but to summarize the important points:

  • BSL relies on the judgment of the animal control officer to determine whether a pet is a “dangerous” breed or not, with no reliable way to differentiate breeds. And what if you had a lab/pit mix? What percentage of pittie DNA, exactly, does one need to determine a dog is worthy of banishment?
  • People forced to choose between their “dangerous” breed dogs and their apartment lease dump them at shelters, where they are overlooked by people frightened by the stories in the media. I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but in our area I’m guessing at least 50% of the dogs are pit bull or pit bull mixes.
  • Cities that have enacted breed bans have not seen a decrease in the number of animal bites. This is the most important thing, isn’t it? It doesn’t work.

Instead of trying to address the root causes of dog aggression, people just keep on adding breed after breed to the “bad dog” list hoping something will stick. One source lists over 150 breeds banned at various locations worldwide. The honest truth is that any dog can be dangerous, so should we just ban them all? Anyone feel safer?

That doesn’t mean we give up on looking for solutions. We should have something we can use to prosecute those who are responsible for such attacks.  I fully support breed-neutral dangerous dog laws as defined by the ASPCA. I especially like the broad approach that looks for risk factors ahead of time based on behavior, not breed.

Rather than wasting money hounding people walking their perfectly well-mannered pittie down the street, we need to be focusing that time and energy on people and pets who, regardless of breed, are at risk for being a danger to others. From the ASPCA website:

The best, most effective breed-neutral dangerous dog laws include the following elements:

  • Spay/neuter programs
  • License law enforcement
  • At-large/leash laws
  • Anti-tethering measures
  • Anti-cruelty and animal fighting law enforcement
  • Progressive/tiered levels of violations and enforcement of laws
  • Responsible ownership programs & dog bite prevention training
  • Owners held civilly/criminally liable
  • Mandatory microchipping

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read a news story on a dog attack and some neighbor is quoted as saying the dogs were always getting out, growling at them, giving off red flags left and right. Let’s go back to the recent San Diego incident for a minute. The critical information, buried in one of the many stories on the subject under “Pit Bull Attack” headlines, is this:

DeSousa said that officers have been called to the property at least twice […] On Dec. 25, officers were again called to the home where a neighbor reported that one of the dogs involved in the Saturday incident had bit his poodle, DeSousa said. The man also suffered a minor bite to his leg while trying to break the dogs apart.

Officers came to the home where no one was home and found the dog on the front porch. It was taken to a shelter where it was reclaimed in January, DeSousa said. The man who reported the dog attack declined to press charges.

This did not happen out of nowhere, unfortunately. If we had ordinances in place to pre-emptively deal with these red-flag situations, there is a chance this terrible incident could have been avoided. Instead we have one critically injured innocent woman and 12 dead dogs (the dog in question and 11  puppies, euthanized at the owners’ request.)

When Toledo, Ohio actually looked at the data surrounding their pit bull ban, they realized that a breed ban did not reduce the number of dog bites. So in October, they got rid of it. Cleveland followed suit this week, leading the way for the state of Ohio to consider the removal of pit bull language from state law. In all cases, breed specific laws would be replaced by laws that define a dangerous dog by the behavior of the individual dog. As it should be. Bravo to Ohio and Illinois for working on similar measures.

So yes, San Diego, by all means, open the debate. But I propose if you’re going to go through all the effort to start the discussion, please, instead of just lazily rehashing the age old “ban pit bulls or not”, can we  discuss implementing something that might actually do some good?

Filed: Be The Change, Daily Life Tagged: ,
  • Cathey

    Thanks, Dr. V for such a rational discussion of this very hot topic. Once again we are reminded that problem dogs are REALLY problem OWNERS who don’t care or refuse to take responsibility for their animal(s). And again, the ones who suffer are innocent people and animals. We can only hope that more cities take the more rational and productive action that Illinois and Ohio have.

  • Thank you for this post…I have always felt this way and I am glad to have this post from a vet to be able to reference! 🙂 I shared with my friends!

  • Tabitha

    I am sad to say that Toronto has a pitbull ban… its so sad I know.

  • Hear hear! I had an incident on my street last weekend where a jogger was attacked by a neighbor’s dogs. I scared them away by honking my horn and keeping my car between them and her and she ran home and called the authorities. They have been removed from the home, but this was not the first red flag. We’ve seen them attack a cable guy and a friend who was jogging with his dogs. Thankfully this was the last straw and they will be found new homes with a more responsible owner, who (hopefully!) won’t let them roam free on a street full of kids and joggers.
    I agree that it’s not the breed though – it is the responsibility of the owners to ensure that their dogs are properly socialized or penned. Now I can take my kids for walks on our street again.

  • Rose D.

    I was attacked by a poorly socialized lab a few years ago. No one believes me when I tell them my scars are from a black lab, but any dog can be good or bad, it’s up to the owners. In fact, the single sweetest, smartest, and most wonderful dog I ever met was a Pit Bull named Artemis.

  • Susan

    My office is in an old house on the edge of an upscale residential neighborhood. One of my co-workers was attacked by a small/medium dog (maybe 25-30lbs?)on his way to work. He was on the opposite side of the street, and the owner was in the yard with the dog off leach when the dog just charged across the street and bit my co-worker’s upper thigh. The owner just stood on his side of the street calling to his dog seemingly unconcerned! Thankfully it was more of a nip than a big bite, but still unacceptable. I just couldn’t believe the story and how unfazed the owner was! There definitely needs to be a way to hold owners responsible for their dogs.

  • Thanks for a well-reasoned and rational post! This issue is too often met with elevated emotion, which does nothing to address the issue of responsible ownership and effective dangerous dog legislation.

  • Amy

    I’m sorry, but I don’t care how nice Pitt Bulls can be if properly raised, because I know that they were bred to be fearless fighters. I just don’t think that nurturing can consistenly or always overcome nature. So while I am not on the Kill All Pitt Bulls bandwagon I am strongly on the “be very careful around a Pitt Bull.” (And Rottweilers.) Additionally if I saw one running free I would call animal control, where almost any other breed I would call animal control only if the dog is showing signs of aggressive behavior. Otherwise I would see if I could capture it and try to find its owner(s).

    • macula_densa

      The thing is… the vast majority of pitbulls that I meet in my profession (I’m a vet) are extremely sweet. I don’t think they actually ARE killers by nature. It’s just that they have the physical capability to seriously maim someone if they are poorly socialized.

  • Chile

    As a proud owner of a “dangerous dog” aka ROTTWEILER and a fierce fighter against BSL, I commend you for your wonderfully well written post about BSL. I find it pathetic that people automatically assume certain breeds of dogs are more aggressive than others. In the groups I’ve worked with in the past, we’ve shown that Golden Retrievers and the all American family dog Labrador Retrievers are well documented in bite cases. And most people can’t even correctly identify a pit bull as it is.

    In the case of an above poster and certain breeds running loose, I don’t call Animal Control right away. As a dog owner and lover, I attempt to catch the dog to see where it’s home is at. I never just surrender any dog to our local AC.

    As our bracelets say: “Breedism Bites!” and “Punish the Deed, not the breed.” Owners need to be held responsible for their badly behaved pets.

  • Heather

    thank you Dr V! I always tell people that Pit Bulls are NOT a “bad” breed. that there is no such thing as a “bad” breed. and to all the people who say “they were bred for fighting” my response is they were bred for fighting OTHER DOGS. back then, any fighting Pit Bull that attacked a human wasn’t bred from. they wanted a dog that was DOG agressive, but not human aggressive. in the Victorian era people called Pitties the “Nanny Dog” for the wonderful attitude to children.

    as Chile (up there) said, most people can’t even identify a Pit Bull. I read an article that showed that the “Pit Bull Checklist” some authorities use to identify a Pit can be used to identify pretty much any breed (the example they used was a chihuaha) as a Pit.

    and finally I point out to people that any breed can be dangerous if handled incorrectly. there was even a sad case in LA 10 years ago of a Pomeranian (that’s not a typo) killing an infant. even a tiny, fluffy little dog like a Pom can be a killer.

    • Rose D.

      I knew a Jack Russel that disembowled the family cat. I was more afraid of him than I’ve ever been of a “dangerous” dog.

  • I love to hear that you’re not a “PIT BULLS ARE EVVVILLLLEEE” type. Then again, almost every vet I’ve been to has liked pit bulls. I have a pit bull, a border collie, and a 10 month old. Guess who isn’t allowed to play with the baby? I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count. But yeah, there is no such thing as a bad breed– there are breeds that aren’t as good around children due to say.. being high strung, or what have you.. Bans don’t work. I live in Ontario, we have a ban, it’s stupid. The people that follow the ban’s laws are NOT the people with the dangerous dogs! My dog lost out on going to the beach, and going for walks. She will not wear a muzzle, I’ve tried everything.. So I gave up.. She’s 11, so I don’t think she minds, anyway, but I do. I hate that people think banning a breed is going to stop anything. When I was a kid my best friend was the family pit bull.. I hate that if the ban here in Ontario doesn’t go away, my daughter will not get to grow up with one of these awesome dogs. Plus, I know what aggressive behavior LOOKS like! Seriously, dogs never “just” bite, they have warning signs, and if you (as an owner) can’t see them, you should not own a dog, let alone a pit bull!!

  • Sue

    A wonderful and on target post! So glad to hear that San Diego isn’t jumping onthe BSL bandwagon!

    To the poster who commented how pit bulls were bred to be fearless fighters… Actually breeders would cull dogs that showed any sign of human aggressiveness, after all they needed to be able to be in the pit with the dog without a chance of the dog harming the handler. There is a difference between human agression and animal aggression/prey drive. Of course there are always dogs that weren’t treated correctly or may just be wired wrong. Again, it comes down to the owners being responsible.

    I have 3 dogs and a 3 year old… the only one that tolerates my monster? The pit bull. And she’s the only one I completely trust around him.

  • Hi Y’all,

    Once more I’m linking to this article on your site in my post tomorrow June 12, 2012 about breed ban legislation that happened recently in the entire state of Maryland and is now under consideration in Hero’s town in Caledonia, Mn.

    Y’all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog