Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pauline wants you to know the truth about pit bulls

Somehow, over the last month of my life, I've become a pit bull supporter.

It's surprising, because it happened amazingly suddenly. Now, I had known and loved many pit bulls in my time, and I had long been opposed to breed specific legislation (BSL). But the more I learn about pits -- both through personal experience and through research -- the more I find myself trying to set people straight on their beliefs about the breed. This has included my own friends and family members. (My mother, a long-time boxer owner, is a convert; she was previously pretty scared of pits, and now says she would definitely consider adopting one.)

Others I have had less luck with convincing.

When the Times-Picayune's article about Pauline came out online, one of the comments from (which, by the way, is always ripe with moronic and offensive notes) was "aww, how cute and to think that in a few years this cute puppy will be mauling someone's three-year-old." Well, that is the grammatical and correctly-spelled version of the comment, anyway. It enraged me. Why people feel the need to speak out of total ignorance is beyond me.

It is really hard to find good, unbiased data on things like number of dog attacks or number of pit bull attacks. Most data sources are pushing an agenda: whether pro-pit or anti-pit, they tend to make shady claims with little basis. The anti-pit (or anti-dog, or pro-BSL) folks tend to make a number of huge mistakes. They fail (whether through ignorance and stupidity, sloppyness, or intent to deceive) to take into consideration the following (discussed in more detail below):
  • Whatever the most common breeds of dog are in an area at a given time, they will usually be responsible for a disproportionate number of bites.
  • Whatever dogs are "fad breeds" at a given time are likely to be owned be irresponsible owners, and hence responsible for more bites.
  • Large breeds will usually inflict more damage than small breeds, and hence those bites tend to be reported more often than other bites.
  • There is no accurate way to report the breed, or mix of breeds, responsible for a bite. The person biten simply proclaims the breed, and unless the case goes to court and the dog owner proves that the biten person misidentified the dog, there is no one going around "checking" to see whether people accurately identified the dog. And believe me -- people cannot accurately ID dog breeds.
So, before we get to the hard data, let's look at each of these factors and see how they affect our ability to really draw conclusions from the data:

Most common breeds will have more bites incidents: I'll discuss two different sets of data here: dog bite related fatalities (DBRF), which are quite uncommon (while 4.5 million US dog bites are reported every year, between 1979 and 1999 (most recent data available), there were around 300 DBRF (see "Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks
in the United States between 1979 and 1998" in Vet Med Special Report, Jeffrey J. Sacks, MD, MPH; Leslie Sinclair, DVM; Julie Gilchrist, MD; Gail C. Golab, PhD, DVM; Randall Lockwood, PhD at Of these, the breed was known for 238 deaths. "Pit-bull type" dogs caused 66 of these deaths, with Rottweilers causing 39. So, roughly, Rotties killed a little over one person per year during that 30 year period, and pits (keep in mind that since pits are not AKC registered, these "pit bull type dogs" likely included multiple "bully" breeds), killed roughly two people per year during that 30 year period. Germand Shepherd, malamutes, Dobermans, wolf-hybrid, and "husky-type" dogs followed, with roughly one death every two years each. Saint Bernards and Saint Bernard mixes accounted for 8 deaths during this period, and Great Danes and Chows accounted for 7 each.

It's a shame that this info isn't more up to date, but this is definitely the most thorough scientific study available -- and some insurance agencies and lawmakers still base policies on this data. According to this study, DBRF that pits were responsible for peaked in 1987-88 (with 11 deaths). In 1979-80, when pit bulls hadn't really gained their "fad" popularity, there were only two. Likewise, as Rotties gained popularity, they jumped from causing no deaths during the early 80's to, eventually, about 10 deaths a year in the late 90's.

Insurance companies tend to have the most thorough statistics for non-fatal dog bites, simply because they have a vested interest in collecting this information. Unfortunately, they don't seem inclined to share it publically. However, you can gather from the most common list of "prohibited breeds" which breeds tend to cause the most serious (but non-fatal) bites (that is, which dogs tend to cause a lot of law suits): Wolf Hybrids, Akitas, Alaskan Malamutes, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Chow, Doberman Pinchers, German Shepherds, Pit Bulls, Siberian Huskies, Rottweilers, and Presa Canarios. Some lists include boxers and other breeds. Since these dogs cause the most law suits, you expect that they are at least among the most frequent to bite, fatally or otherwise.

Of all AKC-registered dogs, Labrador Retreivers are the most numerous. Since labs apparently don't cause a lot of law suits, despite being one of the most popular dogs, they are clearly not prone to biting. Good for the labs. Similar comments apply to the forth most popular dog, Golden Retrievers. Yorkies are the second most popular, but since they're too small to do much damage, their bites would, I presume, be seldom reported. Likewise, dachshunds (whom I've actually seen bite on three different occasions!) are 7th most popular but unlikely to do major damange. Note though that, as you can see at, even Yorkies and doxies have caused DBRFs. They are likely not included in the DBRF data because their popularity has soared only in recent years.

However, many of the dogs on the insurance companies' black list are very popular. Their ranks are: Germand Shepherds, 3; Boxers, 6; Rotties, 14; Dobermans, 18; Siberian Huskies, 23; Akitas, 50;Alaskan Malamute, 57; Chows, 64; and Staffies, 76. Pit Bulls, Presa Canarios, and, of course, Wolf Hybrids are not registered by the AKC. Now, it is important to note that even the AKC statistics are likely to mislead the casual analyist: what percentage of dog owners actually register their dogs? Any dog from a shelter is very unlikely to be registered; and most casual dog owners, who aren't competing in conformation or other events and aren't seriously breeding don't have reason to register their dogs, even if they are "papered" purebred animals: my Great Dane, for instance, is registerable, and I have her registration papers; I never paid the fee and mailed them in, though. Why would I? Note also that "backyard breeders" and other like types that advertise that their dogs have "papers" are likely, just like me, not to have actually registered their dogs.

Add to that that the AKC is not the end-all of dog registration. Although in the US, it is definitely the most highly-regarded kennel club, the Continental Kennel Club (CKC) also registers dogs. More reputably, the United Kennel Club (UKC) also recognizes the Pit Bull. However, neither of these groups rank their registeration popularity like the AKC does. Plus, these groups recognize the American Pit Bull Terrier -- it is a matter of debate as to whether other breeds should be classified as "pit-bull type dogs" as well.

So, it is very difficult to get an estimate of how many pit bulls there are in the US. Certainly their popularity varies by region. However, a quick glance at some news paper articles around the country shows you they are widespread: Seattle reports a pit population "explosion," with pits estimated to be the city's forth most popular breed; San Fransisco implemented a spay/neuter law to try to decrease their extremely high pit population; and estimates indicate that at any shelter in the US, anywhere from 25%-60% of dogs are pits and pit mixes.

Add to this these tid bits of evidence: on, out of a total of about 150,000 adoptable dogs, currently pits and pit mixes account for over 11,000 of those animals. Rottweilers account for about 3,000, Staffies, about 1,000, and the American Bulldog (so frequently confused with pits) accounts for about 1,500. Beagles and beagle mixes are high on the list, with about 8,000 listings, as are Australian Shepherds (3,000), Basset Hounds (2,000), labs (the winner of thed ay, with about 26,000 listings), boxers (about 6,000), Chihuahuas (about 8,000), Cocker Spaniels and Collies (2,000 each), Dachshunds (4,000), Germand Shepherds (about 15,500), and Goldens (almost 3,000). Note that all of these breeds that account for so many of the homeless dogs listed on petfinder are also towards the top of AKC's breed popularity list. Since pits and pit mixes are third in listings (behind German Shepherds and labs), and those breeds are the number 1 and 3 AKC breeds, my suspision is that pit bulls are just slightly less popular than these breeds -- definitely making them among the 5 or so most popular breeds in America.

So, yes -- we would expect them to have a relatively high bite rate. This much we can say based purely on the number of pit bulls in the US today.

Whatever dogs are "fad breeds" at a given time are likely to be owned be irresponsible owners, and hence responsible for more bites:

Of course, everyone's definition of "irresponsible" and "fad" are different; however, a think I can put forward a few ideas that should be generally acceptable (to be discussed further below):
  1. dogs should be selected for suitability for a family, not for "image" or "coolness" factors.
  2. pit bulls, as well as Rottweilers, Dobermans, and other breeds, are currently or have been thought to be "tough" and to enhance a certain sort of image.
  3. extreme popularity has rarely done good things for dog breeds in the past, and most noteably, has encouraged the wrong sorts of people to buy/adopt the breed.
  4. a large slice of the population rarely makes well-thought-out, sound decisions when it comes to dog selection (or many other things)
1. There's not actually a whole lot I can say to argue for this; it's sort of like, if I say, "It's wrong to murder someone," and you ask me, "Why?" -- well, I just don't really have an answer. If you don't think it's wrong, there's not a whole lot to be discussed.

There are a few things I can say: in general, a dog owner will be happier with a dog that matches their temperament and family and lifestyle. This ties in to much of what I say below. Imagine, then, that a movie comes out with lots of beautiful, sexy latin women. It would hardly be adviseable for young single men to decide, on that basis, that they were going to find themselves a latin wife. Similarly with dogs: hearing that pit bulls are "cool" is not a good reason to decide to buy one. Likewise, watching 101 Dalmations and thinking the puppies were adoreable does not give you good reason to go get a dalmation.

Just like having a "trophy wife" for the sake of having a trophy wife, or, say, adopting a child from Africa purely to increase your image of being a "good person" just seems wrong, getting a dog for image reasons seems wrong as well. A man who I was once in love with and who owned a pit bull (and was a fairly decent dog owner, for the record) told me early in our relationship that he "Just thought it would be cool to rock a pit bull." You rock watches, shoes, cars, maybe -- you do not rock dogs, of any sort. I should have known it would never last.

2. If you don't know that pits are currently the "tough, cool" dog to own, I don't know where you've been. They appeal to young men, in particular (interestingly, also the demographic most likely to be biten among adults), and they have taken that spot over from the Rottweiler, who in turn took the throne from the Doberman Pincher.

If you are unsure about exactly what "pit image" is being portrayed, check out this site, from Rags 2 Riches pit bulls, a "breeder" from Alabama. Dogs, shiney cars, and money are all very different things, but they are being shone together to suggest that if shiney cars and money are your thing, big, blue pit bulls are also (blue, by the way, is widely acknowledged to be the latest "fad" pit bull color; possibly taking over from red).

3. With the very high-profile addition of Bo, a Protugese Water Dog, to the White House, breed enthusiasts are already starting to worry that President Obama's choice of dog will cause a surge of popularity and damage this currently fairly rare breed. Another article on the same topic is here. Media attention is a very common source of extreme popularity in dog breeds, and this attention is seldom given to a dog that is very suitable for all families (perhaps the Marley phenomenon is a counter example). Note that the Saint Bernard, which was very popular for a time in the 70's and early 80's, is on the fatal bite list almost exclusively during that period. The Saint Bernard is now the 43rd most popular AKC breed.

4. Again, it seems fairly obvious to me that a significant proportion of the American population makes bad decisions when it comes to acquiring dogs (and many other things as well). If you need evidence of this fact, consider the 150,000 available dogs on petfinder. Clearly these folks chose dogs badly. Also consider anyone you know who has a dog that just "drives them crazy." Weimaraners are a frequent example: this strong, very active, sometimes stubborn breed is frequently purchased for its beauty. I run into Weimaraner owners all the time who say their dogs drive them crazy and just won't settle down. These comments certainly apply to many other dogs as well.

In general, when it comes to material acquisitions (which, sadly, dogs are to most people), people tend to be tempted by the wrong factors. I suspect this is the case in the nation's current housing crisis: initially low payments tempted prospective buyers into high price ranges, and now that the "bubble has burst," they are unable to make their much higher payments, and also unable to sell.

For a good general discussion of what popularity does to a breed, Daniel Tortora's book The Right Dog for You is invaluable. Although it is very outdated now, and I don't agree with some of what Tortora has to say (including his opinion of pit bulls), it remains probably one of the best researched and most high-quality guide to selecting a dog breed, and also discusses the poor breeding and poor ownership caused by "fads." Of course, most of the "fad dogs" he talks about no longer are so popular (Saint Bernards being one of them), but his remarks apply to currently popular breeds as well.

All this, then, is to say that pit bulls are very popular right now, and like Rottweilers and Dobermans before them, they are being "marketed" to the wrong crowd. I sincerely think that many of these people -- people who equate pit bulls with shiney things, power, and glamour -- would be bad owners of any breed. Also, since breeding is catering to that sort of crowd, some breeders may actually be selecting for the wrong sort of dogs. If so, those dogs may be dangerous; pit bulls in general, though, shouldn't be equated with those sorts of dogs.

As an example, the Rags 2 Riches dogs are supposed to be blue (fad color, and considered more valuable) and over 100 pounds. Pit bulls are not supposed to be over 100 pounds, and I actually have my doubts that any pure pit could be. However, by mixing in some sort of Mastiff blood, you can easily get a huge but very pit-looking creature. Since anyone attempting to do this rarely has the good sense to use a good, sound Mastiff for the venture, I wouldn't get near these dogs. In addition to that, note that when you breed a Mastiff to a pit (especially a non-English Mastiff, say, a Presa Canario, a Dogo Argentino, or Cane Corso), you are breeding a dog that was bred of tenacity and pit-fighting (and prone to dog-aggression, but not people-aggresion) to a dog that was bred for fierce loyalty to its family and extreme protectiveness (and thus potentially terratorial and aggressive to strangers). So, you've ended up with the potential for a very large, very strong (unlike show-line English Mastiffs, which are basically big sacks of love and laziness, these rarer "working mastiffs" are muscle-bound 90+ pound guard dogs) dog- and people-aggressive animal. This is a terrible idea, and will do nothing good for the pit bull breed, mastiffs, or the people who own them.

Please note that despite all that I just said, I love both pits and all Mastiff breeds. I simply think that both are not for everyone, certainly, and furthermore, combining them makes them even more challenging.

Large breeds will usually inflict more damage than small breeds, and hence those bites tend to be reported more often than other bites:

Although you will find this asserted frequently, it's hard to really prove such a thing. It seems like common sense, though. As I said, I've watched dachshunds bite on a number of occasions, and did the victim go to the ER? Of course not! He yelped in pain, and everyone laughed about it. Which isn't good, by the way -- aggression shouldn't be tolerated in any size dog. People, however, have a strange tendency to think that in a small dog, it's "cute."

I'm a big dog person, and I have been bitten several times and gone to the ER twice. Although neither was very serious, they definitely required stitches. Neither time was the dog actually trying to hurt me: I reached into the middle of a dog fight and paid the price (don't do it, kids!). Most recently, my hand was in a boxer's and a Saint's mouth simultaneously. I ended up with 10 stitches and a scar that still hurts months later. Of course, either dog could have crushed my hand if they had been serious. So, even with a relatively "minor" big dog bite, you tend to end up at the hospital.

Consider that we tend to describe big dogs as "biting" and little dogs as "nipping." The behavior is really no different, little dogs just lack the strength to do much damage. Their mouths don't open wide enough to engulf adult limbs. They can be viscious and still unable to do any damage.

So, finally, I would like to point out that a pit bull bite is not worse than another large dog bite. Although pits do have strong jaws, so do other large, powerful dogs. National Geographic did a bite pressure test, and found the pits were comprable to other dogs. And no, their jaws do not lock. You can watch the bite force competition here.

There is no accurate way to report the breed, or mix of breeds, responsible for a bite. The person biten simply proclaims the breed, and unless the case goes to court and the dog owner proves that the biten person misidentified the dog, there is no one going around "checking" to see whether people accurately identified the dog. And believe me -- people cannot accurately ID dog breeds:

I am actually in the process of working on a survey to support the fact that people cannot accurately ID dog breeds. I will post a link to it when I'm done.

Anecdotally, my Saint Bernard, Remy, has been misidentified as everything from a Clumber Spaniel (the markings are right, but he weighs 170 pounds!), to a boxer (no clue where that came from), to a Mastiff (the hairiest, whitest Mastiff in the world!). My female Saint, Chalmette, who is not "typey" (ie, isn't a well-bred Saint with a big, broad skull, but does have classic Saint markings and is 120 pounds) has been identified countless times a s a beagle -- the biggest beagle ever, apparently! My Great Dane puppy, who is blue merle, is frequently called a Catahoula (we live in Louisiana, after all). And my old boxer Rudy, who died shortly after Katrina, was constantly identified as a pit bull -- just because she was brindle, a common pit color.

My point, then, is that pit bulls have never been shown to be more dangerous than any other dog, especially given that they are frequently badly owned. Those who suspect that there is something fundamentally "different" and "wrong" about them are simply listening to urban legends. These are dogs, and they are subject to all the good and bad traits that any dog is -- as well as all the good and bad owners that all dogs are. They happen to be going through a bad period because of their over popularity.

I've heard some predict (and the insurance data quoted above seem to support this) that the Presa's popularity is on the rise, and perhaps they will be the next dog to "rock." I have the same fear for Cane Corsos -- which, locally, are bred out of a tattoo shop. These wonderful, powerful, and beautiful Mastiff breeds are potentially much more dangerous than pit bulls. They are much larger, stronger, and have tended towards both dog and human aggression, as well as terratoriality, for years. These dogs are true guard dogs, like the Doberman and the Rottweiler, but are even larger and stronger. I hope for both these Mastiffs' sake and the sake of the families that own them that they never acheive the popularity of the pit bull.

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