"Dangerous Dog Summit" Says Headlines Don't Tell Whole Story
Here's a report from a recent conference addressing concerns about supposedly "dangerous dogs." The article ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Worry over bully breeds, bad dogs is overblown, experts say
By Sarah Newman
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Even though dogs have never been more a part of our lives than they are today . . . even though nearly 45 million American homes have at least one canine family member . . . dogs are being forced out of their homes, out of entire communities, in fact, in ever-increasing numbers.
Headlines suggest that the problem is a rash of attacks by dangerous dogs. But speakers at a recent "Dangerous Dog Summit" sponsored by Best Friends Animal Society contend that the headlines fail to tell the whole story.
About 100 people including shelter managers, breeders, animal-control officers, dog trainers and other animal volunteers and professionals attended the three-day summit, which was held last weekend in Lakeland, Colo., just outside of Denver. Denver has one of the toughest pit bull bans in the country. Some 2,000 pit bulls were put to death there last year because of it. Around the country, banning pit bulls has become the popular answer to the dangerous-dog question. Local municipalities that have jumped on the ban wagon include Florissant, Ferguson, University City and Shrewsbury, which has pulled the welcome mat out from under Rottweilers as well.
Rottweilers are ranked second to pit bulls for their involvement in fatal dog attacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Little wonder that they've been singled out for special rules and regulations.
But let's not forget German shepherds, which also are high on the fatal-bite list. Also add Doberman pinschers, akitas, chows, Belgian malinois, Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies, Irish wolfhounds, Great Danes and Shar Peis, all of which are among the 26 breeds banned or regulated under current laws.
The number of breeds already deemed dangerous should be enough to make any dog owner dizzy. But the proliferation of breed-specific legislation that sparked the Dangerous Dog Summit also includes bans on any mixes thereof. And on any dogs of a certain size.
In Fairfield, Iowa, for example, any dog over 100 pounds is subject to regulations. By definition alone, that would include such breeds as the borzoi, the Great Pyrenees, the Newfoundland and the St. Bernard.
Some dogs that have caused serious injury have managed to escape the bans for now.
Last year, there were 26 human fatalities, according to summit speaker James W. Crosby, a dog-bite and dangerous-dog investigator from Jacksonville, Fla.
It's unclear how many serious bite injuries dogs inflict each year, but estimates based on the last major study of cases treated in hospital emergency rooms puts the number at around 334,000.
Children under 10, the main victims of dog bites, are two times more likely to drown in a five-gallon bucket and 1 times more likely to die from injuries caused by playground equipment than they are to die from a dog attack, said Crosby, a professional dog trainer and former police lieutenant.
Some figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also may help put the dog-bite situation into perspective: Between 1997 and 2002 in Colorado, one child was killed by a dog. Between 1997 and 2002 in the United States, one child was killed in an alcohol-related motor-vehicle accident every day.
Crosby has no doubt that we've got a dangerous-dog problem. He just believes that there's "a certain amount of hysteria involved" in it.
There's also a consistent pattern of abuse and neglect. Twenty-five percent of dogs involved in fatal attacks are chained or otherwise confined. Others are poorly trained, poorly handled guard dogs. Or macho status symbols for young gangbangers. Some are victims of domestic violence. Most are intact males.
Breed bans are an emotional response to unfortunate incidents, Jane Berkey of the Animal Farm Foundation (www.animalfarmfoundation.org) in Bangall, N.Y., said. "They're a response to fear, not to facts."
Some things to think about:
All dogs bite, and all can cause serious injuries. No scientific studies have proven that one breed bites more than any other. The most dangerous dog that Best Friends ever had at its large, no-kill sanctuary, in Kanab, Utah, was a dachshund mix named Brownie, according to the organization's president, Michael Mountain.
Existing animal-control laws aren't properly enforced. If they were, many of the problems related to dangerous dogs chained dogs, dogs running loose would be lessened.
When breeds are banned, irresponsible owners will continue to ignore the laws, or turn to other breeds, re-creating the problem. Crosby noted that pit bull breeds have been banned in his county in Florida since 1989, yet the number of complaints and bite incidences has not decreased.
Shelter systems and animal-control may not be able to handle all the surplus animals.
Breed identification is a problem. Laura Allen, a lawyer with Best Friends, notes that the term "pit bull terrier" can include "a Staffordshire bull terrier, American pit bull terrier or American Staffordshire terrier" or any mix of those breeds. Studies have shown that animal-control officers cannot identify "pit bull terriers" beyond a reasonable doubt. Until just recently in Toledo, Allen said, a dog that did not look like a pit bull, even if it was 50 percent pit bull, was not considered a pit bull. But if a dog looked like a pit, it was considered a pit, no matter what the percentage of the breed.
"One thing that always stands out to me about dogs throughout history is that they are an entirely responsive species," Mountain said. "We can breed them and train them to be any way we want them to be. All they want to do is please us. If we want them to herd, they'll do it. If we want them to just cozy up with us on the sofa, they'll do that. So if we ask them to become aggressive and violent, either intentionally or through irresponsibility, they will."
"The dogs aren't the bad guys here," Mountain said, echoing the theme that kept re-surfacing at summit gatherings. "People are. The dogs are the victims, not just of irresponsible breeders and owners but of the violence that pervades our whole society."