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Dogs That Bite and People That Don't Listen

People often try to explain away misbehavior in children, dogs, and dog breeds.

I recently gave a series of talks at the All about Pets Show in Toronto. As often happens at such events, people stop me as I am walking around the hall to ask me questions, solicit advice, or to offer their opinions about various aspects of dog behavior or events occurring in the news that may have an impact on dogs and dog owners. I usually enjoy these interactions, and try to be as helpful and open-minded as I can. However, sometimes (fortunately rarely) these encounters can be quite unpleasant.

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On the second day of the event, a woman accosted me and began to harangue me about statements that I had published about pitbull terriers. The statements which so offended her were reports of research published in respected scientific journals that found that pitbulls, and pitbull crosses accounted for a disproportionate number of dog bite related injuries and deaths. I tried to tell her that I was reporting credible research findings, and tried to summarize some of the newer data that had recently appeared in behavioral and medical journals about the dog breeds that bite. In most instances she did not even let me complete my description of the research before she rejected the findings claiming that the breeds were being misidentified, that data surveys based upon press reports were inaccurate or biased, that statistics underestimated the real number of pitbulls in the population, that other breeds like Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers had a higher bite incident rates but these simply weren't being reported because of bias. She also said that researchers ignore the fact that pitbulls are the dogs that are most likely to be abused and provoked by people, and she implied that that meant that many of their bites are justified. I tried to give her some specific research findings to ask her if she could explain them using her own rationale, however she ignored my requests and eventually resorted to the ad hominem argument that I simply didn't know what I was talking about and I must have an irrational dislike of the breeds involved. I must admit that I got frustrated by this, and rather than losing my temper I simply walked away to end the encounter.

As a psychologist I suspect that I know what is going on in her mind. For many people dogs fit into their family structure in the same way that children do. There is a real bond here, and lots of love and affection for dogs in general and of course especially for the family's favorite breed of dogs. If a human child does something wrong it is natural for a parent spring to his or her defense. I once watched the interview of a mother whose son had been arrested for shooting a shopkeeper during a holdup. Unfortunately for the shooter, there were security cameras in the store and near the entrance. When shown the video of the boy and his companion entering the store, the mother claimed that her boy was being misidentified, despite the fact that he was wearing his high school jacket with both his name and team number on it. When asked about that she claimed that the jacket must've been stolen. When another camera clearly showed the boy's face, she still claimed that it was not him, and the police had singled her son out for arrest based on racial profiling. When the boys companion actually spoke his name during the robbery she was ultimately forced to admit to his identity, however she then went on to claim that her son was provoked into shooting the clerk because the clerk was threatening him. However the video clearly showed that the clerk had his hands out to the sides and had stepped back from the counter defensively. This mother was clearly offering the human equivalent of the defenses that the woman in Toronto was giving as explanations and denials of reports of aggressive misbehavior by pitbulls.

People who know my work also know that I am not a fan of breed specific legislation, however, as a psychologist who has studied the genetic basis of dog behavior I also know that there are real differences in temperament across breeds. Aggressive tendencies are part of those breed-specific differences in a dog breed's personality. When I encounter credible data pointing out differences in the temperament of various breeds I often report them. I think they are interesting and important, and can help us to intelligently select the dog breeds which can fit into a family's living situation or particular service dog positions. Take for example the following bit of data.

Doctors Alison Kaye, Jessica Belz and Richard Kirschner studied 551 dog bite injury cases that were brought to the Division of Plastic Surgery at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia over a five-year period. The victims ranged in age from newborn to 18 years. As is the usual procedure in trauma cases, as much data as possible was gathered about the event that caused the injury at the time that the patient was admitted. One important bit of data that was collected in these cases was the breed of the dog that bit the child. What is striking in this report is the fact that of all of those injuries where the dog's breed was identifiable, 50.9% were due to pitbulls (55.7% if we include crosses). The next closest breeds were Rottweilers accounting for 8.9% of the bites (10.3% with crosses), German Shepherds with 3.7% (7.0% with crosses), and Akitas and Cocker Spaniels each account for 3% of traumatic dog bites. According to the available statistics the most popular breeds of dogs in the city of Philadelphia are, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Yorkshire Terriers, Bulldogs and Rottweilers. As in most large cities in America, pitbulls (defined as American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, and American Staffordshire Terriers) account for less than 1% of the canine population. On the basis of these statistics alone one would expect that Labrador Retrievers would have the highest bite rate yet they are virtually invisible in this data set. Instead we find that pitbulls are responsible for more than 50 times the rate of bite injuries than what we would expect given their population numbers. This is from information taken as part of medical intake of dog bite victims who are being treated for trauma. It is not based on press reports, nor does it represent some kind of inherent bias against square-headed dogs. No matter how much one may love the bully breeds, these are facts that, like a surveillance video of a robbery which identifies a perpetrator, cannot simply be explained away under the cloak of bias or misrepresentation.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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