Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dog Bite Fever: Pit Bulls in the Media. The Animals. The owners. The Children.

I know I post all kinds of crazy things on here.  Today is no exception.  Apparently I like controversy, so I'm opening up a conversation with you about pit bulls.

Clearly this is a tragic situation.  The kid was very badly injured.

Some people think that the child is responsible for what happened, but the poor little guy is four.  Four year olds are not rational.  They're barely more than babies.  They learn a lot at that age, but they're also stubborn, willful little people who know a tiny amount of what they need to know to get by in life.  Bad things obviously happen to unattended four year olds.  But it's extremely easy to get distracted while preparing a snack, or the toddler could sneak off while you're in the bathroom.  And, let's face it, doggies are interesting for little people.  One minute, their just standing around, both of them minding their own business, the next the child's head is in the dog's mouth, and he's being shaken violently.  And this is a good kid, my kind of kid.  The kid that likes super heroes, especially Iron Man.  And now he's going to need surgery.

On the other side of this discussion are 50,000 people who have rallied to save the dog through a facebook page called "Save Mickey."  I looked for a Facebook group for people supporting the kid through his recovery and the series of plastic surgeries he will have to have, the one I found has only 130 supporters.  The dog was on a chain in its own yard.  Pit bulls are not an inherently bad breed of dog, though they are frequently mentioned in the media related to dog bite statistics and deaths.  They're big working class dogs, common in North America, and known for their stocky, muscular build.  I've known many pit bull owners over the years, none of whom has ever mentioned any incidents to me.  Anecdotally, one particular comrade of mine is a pit bull owner, and I know that animal to be a sweet creature.

But here are the facts:  Large breed dogs can do more damage than smaller dogs.  Don't believe me?  Look at lists of "dangerous dog breeds."  I'm not saying this particular list of breeds provides an accurate description of a dog's inherent temperament, but just looking at the dogs, what do they all have in common?  They're not small lap dogs.  The Chihuahua bites.  It can be mean spirited and rotten, right?  But it's not on this list, because it's a tiny little dog with a tiny little mouth that can't reach very far to bite you, and an adult human being can easily overpower it.  The dogs on this list, they're all big dogs.  It stands to reason that big dogs can do more damage to a person in a small amount of time even with a person resisting the damage than little dogs can do.  It's not because little dogs are better, or sweeter, or don't need to be socialized.

Pit bulls, along with other large breed dogs, have a lot of qualities that make an attack from them more dangerous.  They're muscular.  They have a lot of bite pressure.  They have a heavy body that can be used to knock people down, which is dangerous enough by itself when you're talking about an elderly person who can easily break a hip.  When a healthy person is prone, it's easier for an animal to get at the head and neck, which can lead to fatal attacks. 

Last year, there were 32 fatal dog attacks in the US.  By the same source, 78% of the animals involved were pit bulls or pit bull mixes.  Possible reasons for this:  they're large dogs that can do a lot of damage quickly, pit bulls are popular dogs in the US (with this source siting 5% or less of the US dog population), and it's not a breed so much as a fuzzy group of breeds, so it takes less genetic similarity to be considered a pit bull than it does for a dog to be considered (for example) a German Shepherd.  This source sites 56% of the fatalities last year as children under 7.  Sixty-one percent of these kids were four or younger, like Kevin.  Ninety-two percent of children who died in dog attacks last year were killed by pit bulls.

Here's a link to another dog bite fact sheet, but I'll go ahead and tell you what I found interesting from the statistics they've gathered as well.  92% of the animals involved (this list includes non lethal bites) are male dogs, 94% of which had not been neutered.  25% of the animals were chained.  Chains are not a good preventative measure against having your dog attack a child.  The insurance industry pays out over a billion dollars in damages because of this problem every  year.  Unattended newborns are 370 times more likely to be killed by a dog than an adult.  That is some really, really awful information there, and if you want to read the whole list, I encourage you to do it.

This source lists a resource for parents to teach their kids about safe dog handling, which is for kids from age 4-7.  We can't be sure that this would have prevented Kevin from having this problem, after all, he's four.  Kids at that age are very dangerous, not because they're bad or foolish, but because they're inexperienced and curious.

The dog fact sheet linked above has some suggestions for responsible pet ownership, and if you're a dog owner, I urge you to follow these directions.  Statistically, neutering your dog greatly reduces the risk of it biting a child.  Training and socialization are crucial elements of dog ownership.  Get your dog use to other dogs and people, and the world will be safer for it.  Good fences make good neighbors, keep your dog behind a fence.  Don't leave your dog on a chain.  Don't leave a baby alone with a dog.  Those are all really good suggestions.

I'd like to add, make yourself aware of animals living in your neighborhood, and assess yourself as a dog owner.  If you have a dog that shows aggression, please, take whatever steps are necessary to protect your neighbors.  Seriously.  Things are going to happen.  Knoxville has a map of places where dangerous dogs live, and it's because there are incidents.  I urge you to love the children who live in your neighborhood more than you love yourself or your dog.  There is absolutely no shame in doing the responsible thing in this situation, even if it is painful.

The point of all of this is not to disparage pit bulls or their owners (many of which are fine dogs owned by fine people), it is merely to provide relevant dog bite and fatality statistics and address the overwhelming majority of respondents to this case who rush to the aid of the dog to the exclusion of the child.  I've seen people expressing the concern that it's wrong to punish the dog for what it has done because it doesn't understand and isn't responsible for its actions.  Putting the dog down would not be a measure to punish the dog, it would be a measure to protect children who will eventually be exposed to the dog.  There is no malice or justice involved in this process, only a cautionary measure taken to prevent potential further incidents.  This is a dog that has killed another dog and injured a child severely.  I've heard people say there's no such thing as a bad dog, and maybe that's true, but I think there is such thing as a dangerous dog, and I think it's reasonable to say this particular dog has proven dangerous.  It should never be allowed near a child again.  If they can safely keep it penned at an animal sanctuary, good.  The safety of children should be the primary concern.

If you take nothing else away from having read this blog entry, remember that statistically, neutering your dog and keeping it behind a fence that will hold it rather than on a chain where children can walk up to it seems to dramatically decrease the odds that the dog will bite a child.  If everyone who keeps an unsupervised outdoor dog were to do these two things (neuter the dog and keep it behind a fence), I think dog related deaths would become much rarer.

If Kevin's story has touched you the way it touched me, or if you just feel like helping a kid in need, here are some ways you can help Kevin.  You can donate to his medical care fundraiser.   You can buy him some supplies for his hospital stay (things like Batman pajamas and tasty snacks to cheer him up) using his Amazon wish list.  Or, you could show support to the family by liking a Facebook page set up to support the child.  I chose to send the kid some oreos, some books, and a Superman cape, because he really is a super kid.

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