Sunday, March 23, 2014

Day three... Why Pit Bulls?

Wikipedia says this image is public domain, if this is your image and you'd like me to take it down, I will happily do so for you.

I'm the sort of person that when I find a problem, I have to chew on it for a little while.  I'm still not over the idea that 58,000 people feel so strongly about a dog that mauled a little boy that they'd go like a Facebook page set up for the dog and not the child.  I can understand dog lovers wanting mercy for the 2.7 million animals put down every year due to overpopulation.  This dog would not be my priority to save when so many animals that have never caused anyone harm are destined to die.  When a story like this really catches my attention, I run down every lead I can find to get at the truth. 

In this case, I'm talking about the much maligned pit bulls. There are advocacy groups on both sides that make unbiased information virtually impossible to find by clogging up Google searches and setting up dozens of web pages that either sugar coat the situation or try to frighten the browser with anecdotes.

It's very difficult to find reasonable explanations as to why 5% of the US dog population is caught up in 78% of last year's dog bite fatalities, and why sometimes when bad things happen, people rally around dogs rather than pitying the families involved.

I'm not a strong believer in the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, but I'm quickly becoming somewhat hard pressed for answers.  He defends pit bulls, and is quick to point out that the dogs that bite him the most frequently are chihuahuas.  That statement is inherently flawed, because the dog's temperament has very little to do with its fatality rates.

 The chihuahua is what Eddie Izzard would call a  "small yapper type dog."  I tried to find some actual evidence that a chihuahua has ever been involved in a dog bite fatality.  There is at least one Wikianswers post that says it happened one time, but then I couldn't find a credible news source or any real life statistics that show a chihuahua has ever killed a person.  There are plenty of news stories about a person being bitten or even viciously attacked by chihuahuas, but I think a dog that small has a very difficult time killing even a small person.  It'd be like someone coming after you trying to drown you with only a teaspoon of water.  It's allegedly possible, but it's probably pretty difficult.

I did find a couple of news stories about small dogs killing infants, including a Jack Russell terrier killing a baby, which is horrible.  It is possible for things like this to happen, especially to a newborn left unattended.  As I mentioned in another post, newborns are 370 times more likely to die of dog bite related injuries than adults.  Infants are very easy for an animal to kill.  In fact, I was able to find instances of babies being killed by ferrets.  Leaving a baby alone with any animal is not a good idea.  It's difficult to find statistics on things like how many babies have ever been killed by dogs weighing less than 20 pounds, or how many people have ever been killed by ferrets.  Those sorts of things don't happen often enough that people think to keep statistics on them.  Most of the headlines I found about ferrets or small dogs killing babies were a few years old.  Instances resulting in death are infrequent.

Going back to what Cesar Millan said about the number of times he was bitten by chihuahuas, that might be an indication of aggression.  Indeed, pit bulls perform well in tests that determine aggression.  But aggression is not necessarily an indicator of whether the dog will cause a fatality, as you will see in this case.  The family owned the dog for eight years without ever having a problem, and suddenly the dog killed their two year old son.  An aggression test was given to the dog after the incident, and the dog passed.  Here's another dog, this dog was adopted 24 hours before he attacked his owner.  This is a dog that passed temperament tests very soon before being involved in an incident.  That indicates to me that there's more to fatalities than simple aggression.  Notably though not damningly, both of these dogs were pit bulls.

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that 78% of all dog bite fatalities last year were from pit bulls or pit bull mixes, but why?  Let's look at exactly what a pit bull is.  The Wikipedia says that pit bull is a generic term based on physical characteristics.  The wikipedia even goes on to say that the same pit bull can be registered in two different breed organizations as two different breeds of dog, the Pit Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.  When is a pit bull not a pit bull?  Apparently while it's also a pit bull.  There's also the breed called American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, which is apparently also a pit bull.  The wikipedia lumps in mixes of those three breeds as pit bulls.

But the Wikipedia goes on to say "visual identification of mixed breed dogs is not recommended by the scholarly community."  WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?  Pit bull is a generic term for a dog with a certain appearance, but you're not suppose to use that term to describe the dog's appearance if you don't already know by some other means that the animal is a pit bull?  This is the dumbest academic argument I've ever read.

I've seen a lot of youtube comments that claim many dogs involved in fatalities reported by the media are not real pit bulls.  But what even is a real pit bull if we're talking about three fast and loose breeds of dogs and all mixed breeds that spring from them?  It's hard for me to buy the "that's not a real pit bull" argument when there isn't really a solid definition of what a pit bull is.  If pit bull isn't a breed of dog, it's a way a dog looks, why are we debating whether or not the animal should be considered a pit bull if it looks like a pit bull?  Does every dog involved in a fatality have to be AKC registered before we can consider the statistics involved relevant?

It's becoming clear to me now that passions are high on both sides of the argument, between people who feel strongly about dog bite fatalities (and luckily in Kevin Vincente's case, only very severe injuries) and people who see mentioning the breed of the dog involved in the case as an accusation of all dogs of that general amorphous shape (as pit bull is not a breed of dog).  That is an exhausting sentence, which reflects an exhausting situation.

On one end of this debate (that really shouldn't be much of a debate) are people like Millan, who believe that any dog can be rehabilitated.  Millan is not, by the way, without his detractors.  On the other end, there are people who believe pit bulls are universally vicious.  And on both sides of this argument there are the families of the victims, some of which were pit bull owners themselves.

After days of study, I'm beginning to believe there is no understanding, and that the pit bull is a mythological creature.

Regardless of what the truth about pit bulls is, I disagree with Millan on one important point.  I believe that because dogs are animals and not automatons, they can snap suddenly even with intense training.  I think it just happens.  I think dogs have thoughts and feelings, and for whatever reason, whether it's the dog's temperament or a tooth ache or a fit of jealous rage, sometimes dogs just flip out.  Sometimes it's a dog that has a rocky past, sometimes it's a dog that has never been mistreated and has always been a member of the family.

I've seen so many families in past news reports over the last few days in shock over what their own dog did, to themselves, to their children, or to a passer by.  These are trusted family dogs that just suddenly lose it.

Another layer to this problem, as I see it, is the tendency in dog owners, breeders, and people writing about dogs to believe all dogs of a certain breed have certain personality traits.  Let me give you an example, this is from the Wikipedia page for the Bedlington Terrier:

Their courage has been compared to a bulldog's, and some dogs have extinguished candles at the request of their owner. They are also known for their intelligence and tenacity when it comes to taking on vermin. Bedlingtons are quite fond of fighting, and are prone to jealousy when around other dogs. One dog would become so jealous when around other dogs that he would grab them by the throat and attempt to kill them. One man stated that "this dog was about fit to kill any other dog of his weight" and compared him to the fighting dogs used in dog fighting. They have also been used in pit fighting.
However, both the AKC and the ASPCA call the breed "mild" and "gentle" and recommends it as being good with children. PetFinder says the breed is soft in temperament, companionable, demonstrative, loyal, and a quiet housedog. Although the breed may chase small animals outside, it is accepting of them inside. Playful and cheerful, the breed can be high-strung and excitable, and is prone to being headstrong. The New Zealand Kennel Club warns against keeping them with dogs that have dominate personalities, "as once challenged they are terrifying fighters, despite their gentle appearance", but otherwise the breed is good with other dogs.

That grouping of information has the same kind of nonsensical vagueness and lack of cohesion as astrology.  The dog is both good with other dogs and terribly jealous and aggressive with other dogs.  It's mild and gentle but it can kill practically any other dogs in the same weight.

What this all makes me think is that we have a tendency to assign personality traits to dogs based on anecdotal evidence, and those personality traits become a fixture of how the animal is perceived even when the combined traits don't make any sense taken together, and any one dog is prone to vary wildly from the standard. Whole breeds of dogs are stereotyped and then when the dog doesn't act the way it's suppose to, he's a special snowflake. That explains some of the fear and also some of the romanticism involved in the ownership of any breed.

The conclusion I've come to is that I am opposed to BSL (breed specific legislation) not because I think pit bulls are universally safe, but because I know fits of extreme violence against people are rare in comparison to the number of pit bulls there are living in this country.  The American Humane Society is against it.  I've come to feel that dogs are like people in the respect that you can't generalize that all dogs of a certain type or breed are any certain way in terms of personality.  If pit bulls didn't exist, I think some of the bad pet owners who cause at least a few of the horrifying situations I've been made aware of over the last few days would go buy another big scary looking dog.  If it wasn't the pit bull, it might be the rottweiler, the doberman, or the boxer that would become the most common assailant.

Pit bulls are certainly more dangerous than chihuahuas, and I'm not in a hurry to rush out and buy one for a child under seven.  Regardless of whether you own a pit bull, you should know that chained dogs are involved in 25% of all dog bite incidents.  In fatal instances, 24% of the time the dogs were unrestrained and off their property.  These are things we know, if you have a fence that will hold your dog in and hold children out, your dog will be less likely to kill someone else's child.  Of fatal attacks, 92% are done by male dogs, 96% of which are not neutered.  If you neuter your dog it lowers the odds it will be involved in a fatality.  Where dogs are concerned, this is where the focus should be.

Most of the focus, however, should be on survivors like little Kevin Vincente, victims who've lost their lives, and families who pick up the pieces.

If you need to be reminded why people love dogs after all that, and if you've made it this far, I'm sure you will, here's a Youtube playlist.  These are videos of real life heroes who happen to be dogs, a few of which are pit bulls.