Friday, March 31, 2006

The Relative Danger of Pit Bulls

Since I'm working on a book about pit bulls in society, I have to do research about... well... pit bulls in society. This happens to be an incredibly unpleasant experience in many cases, because so many people are so incredibly ignorant about pit bulls yet have no problem spouting stereotypes and myths without any factual basis... but I suck it up. After doing so much reading about pit bulls for so many years, I've become much more savvy about when it is and is not appropriate to "educate" others. Some people simply don't want education, and even if they do, the topic of pit bulls is not one that can be easily and thoroughly discussed within the confines of a message board or a chat room. The issues are deep and heavy, and it takes years of study and experience to truly understand the situation.

So my frustrations come out here instead. And tonight I feel the need to address something I saw repeatedly yesterday while reading through various blogs; namely that the plethora of news articles about pit bull attacks (and relative lack of articles about other breeds) is proof that the breed-type is somehow more dangerous than other breeds. The easy availability of media reports about pit bull attacks versus attacks by other breeds helped these clueless souls reach various conclusions, such as: pit bulls should be banned to reduce dog attacks, pit bulls are more dangerous than other breeds, pit bulls are more likely to cause serious damage than other breeds, and pit bulls attack people more frequently than other breeds. Anti-pit writers defended the media, saying "don't shoot the messenger" or similar comments - as if the media were a reflection of real life. As if we really are under constant attack by pit bulls.

This is, of course, an absolutely absurd way to "prove" something (like pit bull attacks) happens all the time. Stories in the media are nowhere near an accurate cross-section of our nation's daily events. News reports are overwhelmingly sensational. They are designed to grab our attention with quick sound bites and flashes of video. They are supposed to stir our emotions. What stories do we see on the news? Murdered children, gun violence, horrific accidents, scary new illnesses, drugs, legal wranglings, and angry people. Is this really "normal"? Are we really constantly surrounded by misery and death? I don't know about you, but my life is pretty calm and boring most of the time. Certainly nothing like what you see in the news. The media does its best to weed out only the most exciting, most interesting, most juicy pieces of abnormal behavior.

So what do we really see in the news? We see unusual events - events that will provoke an emotional reaction from viewers. Does a dog attack provoke an emotional reaction from viewers? Sometimes. If it's bloody enough and a child is involved, probably so. Does a pit bull attack provoke a reaction from viewers? You betcha! And it doesn't even have to be very bloody or involve children. This has become clear to me as I struggle to keep tabs on media articles containing the words "pit bull". Many of the articles I find are not even dramatic or interesting if you replace the words "pit bull" with that of another breed. I have found articles reporting pit bull breeding (oh horror), loose pit bulls (gasp), and a pit bull that chased a cat under a car (dear god, no). Imagine reading about poodle breeding (huh?), loose Golden Retrievers (cute!), and a Dalmatian that chased a cat under a car (typical dog, right?).

The mere words "pit bull" create an immediate emotional response - usually fear, followed closely by anger - in most people. This is exactly what the media is looking for. Key words, triggers - things that draw an audience to them. The media churns out article after article about pit bull attacks because audiences eat them up. Is the media making up all these stories? Hardly. Pit bull attacks happen, and in some cases they are extremely severe. But the media does show a distinct lack of interest in coverage of dog attacks committed by non-pit bull dogs. Compare the deadly attack on Nicholas Faibish by his family's two pit bulls (CA) with the fatal attack on Kate Lynn-Logel by her family's two Alaskan Malamutes (CO). The setup was almost exactly the same - a young child left alone with two large dogs, resulting in a bloody death. The pit bull attack story was on the front page of the CA papers for months, made the national news for weeks, and was resurrected every time the legislature's BSL activities were reported on (BSL prompted by the pit bull attack, incidentally). The Alaskan Malamute mauling ran in the local CO news for one or two days and then vanished without a trace. Why such a difference in treatment?

The liklihood of being killed or injured by an object - its relative danger - is not dictated by how many news articles it appears in. If this were the case, why is it so difficult to find news articles on the dangers of peanuts? More people are killed by peanuts than by pit bulls (or any type of dog) each year. Yet searching media reports for "death by peanut" proves to be a waste of time. Why? Because the word "peanut" does not strike fear into the hearts of readers. There's no shock, no anger, no hatred, no blood, no betrayal, no screaming. Only another silent death by allergic reaction.

Clearly, using the news to prove a breed's relative danger is unscientific, to say the least. In order to determine whether a particular breed is more or less dangerous than another, we have to use statistics gleaned from comprehensive scientific studies. Currently, I know of no such studies. Even the famous oft-abused, flawed CDC fatal dog attack study can not be used to determine a breed's relative danger, as the authors themselves pointed out.

How do you scientifically determine whether a dog breed is more or less dangerous than other breeds? First, remember that a dog's breed has to do with a dog's genes, not its environment or its upbringing. Therefore, all dogs in a test group must be raised and trained in exactly the same way, in exactly the same environment. This will isolate the dogs' differences in temperament to the genetics (i.e. breed) only, without environmental influences. Next, of course, we will need to make sure our test dogs are 1) purebred, 2) accurate representatives of the breed (did not come from breeding stock that was somehow tempermentally flawed), and 3) of a reasonable, meaningful population size (in other words, 2 or 3 test dogs per breed will not cut it).

Now, assuming all of our test dogs have met this nearly impossible criteria, we must now start pushing their buttons to see where they start to crack. If the dogs have all been raised and trained the same, and they are all being provoked in the same manner under the same circumstances, then presumably their behaviors will be dictated primarily by their genetics. I would imagine that this would give us data about which breeds would be "more likely to bite" than others.

This still does not tell us about a breed's relative danger. Some people have asserted that large-breed dogs are capable of doing more damage than small-breed dogs simply by virtue of their weight, or muscle mass, or head size, etc., etc. The ability to do more damage translates to higher danger. And yet, I would argue that a dog's size makes little difference in the face of their attitude. A highly aggressive Cocker Spaniel can do just as much (or more) damage as a laid-back Rottweiler. If a breed temperament study such as I have described above determines that Cocker Spaniels have a significantly lower bite threshold than Rottweilers (and mind you, this is just conjecture on anyone's part since there has never been a scientifically planned breed temperament study such as what I described), then which is actually more dangerous - a big ol' Rottweiler that probably won't bite or a small Cocker that probably will?

To determine relative danger of a breed, we would need to come up with some sort of algorithm that is based on a combination of both its typical bite threshhold (gathered as I have described above) and its size/strength (and it should be noted that within each breed, individuals vary in size and strength, so this is going to be a very complicated algorithm indeed).

And here is where I come full circle and ask, ultimately, whether this sort of experiment even matters. Sure, we may be able to pinpoint breed-specific bite threshholds. But in the end, in real life, the dogs we face are not just products of their genetics but also of their environment and their training. Our experiments may determine that Dalmatians have low bite threshholds, but outside those experiments, in real life, we may find that Dalmatians are being raised, trained, and socialized by responsible, loving, attentive owners. Meanwhile, the same experiments may indicate that pit bull-type dogs are remarkably tolerant to provocation... but in real life, many pit bulls are being neglected, unsocialized, or even trained to bite.

In real life, you can not isolate genetics from environment. They are intertwined. Even genetically sound dogs can be ruined by bad ownership. Even dogs with flawed genes can be managed responsibly by good owners.

At any rate, my three points here are thus. One, counting media reports of pit bull attacks in order to prove that the pit bull is "more dangerous" is incredibly unscientific. Two, there have been no scientifically valid experiments performed which would prove beyond a doubt whether any particular breed is more or less "dangerous" than another. Three, we should not be hung up on a dog's breed as the sole determinant of its behavior when in fact dog owners themselves have so much power, control, and influence over their dog's actions in the first place.

Having gotten this off my chest, I'm going to bed.

My Pit Bull is a Liar

Imagine - two dogs, one toy. How can Felanie possibly get her way with the King of Selfishness, Dozer? Physically, she doesn't have a chance against Dozer's massive 85 lb. frame. But mentally, she's a heavyweight.

Dozer isn't just selfish. He's really selfish. If Felanie is having fun with a bone, Dozer grabs it from her. If Felanie is drinking out of the water bowl, Dozer shoves past to get a drink. If Fel is sitting at my feet, Dozer squeezes his bulky body between us, usually smashing my feet in the process. If Clark (my husband) is petting Felanie, Dozer will ram his head into Clark's hand with a loud whine. Poor Felanie! As the smaller, older, quieter dog, she sits in Dozer's shadow a lot.

So I was floored by a new trick she recently acquired. How do you get a toy from Dozer? Why, just pretend like something else is way more fun, of course! The other day, Felanie wanted the Kong ball, but Dozer had it. He wasn't playing with it, just holding it in his mouth while half asleep. Fel hovered nearby for a few moments staring at him, but she knew she couldn't physically take the ball. Suddenly, she ran off crazily, found a Galileo Bone, and started playing with it enthusiastically (and noisily) in the dining room. She barked at it, jumped on it, shoved it loudly into the wall, pawed it, and chomped at it.

Dozer immediately perked up and ran over to see what was going on. For a few seconds, he watched Fel shove the Galileo Bone around, chomping on the rubber Kong ball in his mouth. Then, as if coming to some conclusion, he abruptly spit out the Kong ball and gruffly snatched the Galileo Bone from between Fel's paws. Fel grabbed at the Bone and pretended to struggle with Dozer for a moment, but he wrested the Bone away in an instant, and flew into the bedroom with Felanie, barking, in hot pursuit... or so it seemed.

A few moments later, Felanie returned without the Bone. But she wasn't dejected and forlorn; her eyes sparkled as she scanned the floor. There it was! She made a beeline for the rejected Kong Ball. After pouncing on it gleefully, but very quietly, she raced off toward the living room - the opposite direction of the bedroom and out of sight - with the Ball tightly clamped between her teeth. I could hear Dozer playing loudly with the Bone in the bedroom, none the wiser. He was under the impression that he had just won a glorious victory.

Felanie has since pulled the switcheroo not once but many times. Sometimes the trade is about equal (as in the case of Bone for Ball), but I have seen Fel trick Dozer by giving up things as boring as, for instance, access to the water bowl, a piece of string, and a dead fly. In all cases she manages to make the most dull and insignificant objects into fabulous, irresistable items that Dozer simply must have.

Felanie is a liar. A very clever liar.

My First Blog

Finally, I've started a blog. I decided to try it out, even though I'm not sure how well I'll be able to keep up with the demand on my time. I already write and manage the sites Happy Pit Bull and Stop BSL, and I am also the webmaster for the Humane Society of Williamson County.

So why start a blog? Many of my regular site visitors aren't looking for pit bull care instructions or ownership rules. They want to know more about what it's like to own a pit bull, or what sort of experiences I've had with my dogs, or how I'd handle a certain situation, or what my thoughts are about some news article. But my two informational websites, Happy Pit Bull and Stop BSL, can only handle so much content before they become disorganized, opinionated, and off-topic. I needed a place where I could talk about both personal matters and questions about pit bulls that don't quite fit with the theme of my websites.

Thus, it occurred to me that a blog might fit the bill.

So let's get started, shall we?