Dangerous breed: dog or man?
A recent spate of dog attacks in the Inland Empire and elsewhere has raised new questions about pet-owner responsibility and new concerns over specific breeds’ predisposition to violence. And it's led pet owners and the public to reconsider their relationship with dogs and the way we interact with them.
On August 15, KPCC crime and safety reporter Erika Aguilar took up these issues with animal researcher Dr. David Haworth, dog behaviorist Brandon Fouché and PETA’s Lisa Lange at the Crawford Family Forum.
The consensus among dog advocates, dog trainers and researchers is that it comes down to how we interact with dogs - how we train them, how much we understand them, and how they’re represented by the media .
What we can do to help them be truly our best friends, not a public threat?
Born, bred, or raised to be aggressive?
Much of the focus lately has been on pit bulls, partly because several recent attacks were initiated by pit bulls, and partly because the breed is over-represented in L.A., San Bernardino and Riverside County animal shelters.
But pit bulls are not the only breed of dogs that bite, says Haworth.
"The important thing to remember is that animals, all dogs, can bite," he says. "They don't have many ways to express themselves."
Fouché says dog bites are more closely associated with how people raise their dogs. Some dogs are natural-born alpha, beta, subordinate or runt, but he believes they’re never born aggressive.
But dogs can be brought up to be assertive and aggressive if they're trained with that specific purpose, he says.
Haworth agrees: "When you talk about dog breeds … particularly the ones that incite fear in us, those are breeds which are built to have predispositions. It doesn't mean that they're going to [attack]. Every dog is an individual, every dog has a multitude of circumstances which lead it to do any single action."
Fouché says there are three parts to a dog: the predatory side, the loving and affectionate side, and then what he calls the superhero part of the dog—the one that can detect when a person is in danger and jumps into rescue mode.
Most people, he says, never tap into the "superhero" side because they're too busy tapping into the loving side and the predatory side of their dog.
"We buy toys, squeaky toys, that represent a kill," Fouché says. "We give them stuffed animals that look like the little Pomeranian that moved in next door."
Understanding a dog's genetic predisposition
A dog's genetic predisposition plays an important role in a dog's behavior, particularly when they bite, says Haworth. A dog has the potential to be a hunter, a sheep herder, a retriever—this is better known as its genotype. But a dog's behavior doesn’t rely fully on its genetic predisposition. It can be greatly influenced by its environment — how it’s trained and curbed. This is called phenotype.
"We don't do our animals a service by not understanding their nature and allowing them to express it," Haworth says.
"I agree—there's so much neglect out there, and it starts with not understanding your dog," says Lange, senior vice president of communications for PETA. "It doesn't matter if you know what the breed is, every dog needs attention, every dog needs exercise, it's important to understand."
"This is what I think is part of the problem,” says Fouché. “We believe that exercise is so important, and it's really not. Exercise is not that important. Activity is."
He says a wild animal's instinct is to raise its pup into a predator, but domestic animals such as dogs don't have to be raised that way. And he says that something as innocent as throwing a ball can wake up a dog's predatory instinct.
"You wake up that hormone that makes him chase,” he says. “But that chase is an inanimate object and so it doesn't fill the cycle of life; it doesn't feed the stomach. So it becomes an erotic thing. And if it becomes an erotic thing, then that dog that chases the ball can now chase the skateboard or the bicycle or ultimately a jogger."
"Do they have the genetics to do those bad things? Of course they do,” he says. “But just because you have a dog who loves to chase his ball doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be chasing a jogger. You can stop that behavior and teach them one way is okay. Ball is good; jogger not so good."
Every breed has its day. Today: the pit bull
Every dog breed is likely to go through a period of demonization, Haworth says. If you go back to the 1800s, the Bloodhound was demonized for its association with slave-tracking, he says.
More recently, the German shepherd, the Doberman and the Rottweiler were considered dangerous breeds. They were implicated in a number of dog-bite related fatalities in the 1980s and 1990s, according to statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In May, three pit bulls and one mixed dog fatally mauled a 63-year old jogger in the Antelope Valley. The dogs' owner was charged with murder. Two Presa Canarios—another fighting breed—were also involved in a fatal dog attack in San Francisco 12 years ago. That attack too resulted in murder charges against the owner.
"Every dog, every breed has had its day," Fouché says. "And this is the pit bull's."
Lange says part of the reason why pit bulls or pit bull-type of dogs are so popular today is because of the image they offer to their owner. It's a status symbol, she says.
"It all comes down to the person," Lange says. "You see someone walking down the street with a pit bull or a pit bull mix who's got the prong collar and he's got the outfit, and he's got the whole thing—he is sending you a message—the person is, not the dog."
Lange says that people breed these animals for the wrong reasons, "because they either want a macho status symbol or they don't know the tendencies of certain breed of dogs."
Are laws in place to protect us effective?
All dogs bite, Haworth says. If we were to look at the statistics, the breeds that are statistically most likely to bite aren’t those that do the most damage.
"The national insurance companies would tell you that the breeds most likely to bite are cocker spaniels and dachshunds," Haworth said. "Of course, they don't make the news because they're a lot smaller."
Most insurance companies will cover homeowners who have dogs. But they often charger higher premiums if the dog has been known to bite. They can also exclude the dog from the coverage plan.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid out in 2011.
Dog bites or dog attacks come down to how we, as a society, understand and approach pet rearing and training, Fouché says. But when it comes to safety and preventing dog attacks, people have instead turned to laws and legislation as a solution.
Los Angeles County is serious about keeping checks on dogs it deems dangerous and vicious, says Marcia Mayeda, Director of the County of Los Angeles' Department of Animal Care and Control. LADACC is the largest animal control agency in the country, serving 51 cities and all the unincorporated area of Los Angeles County.
By law, a potentially dangerous dog, Mayeda says, has to be kept in a locked secure yard, must be walked with a secure leash by a competent adult, must be muzzled in public, must be spayed/neutered, microchipped and may be required to have insurance. These laws, she says, are not breed-specific.
From PETA's perspective, Lange says it's a matter of controlling breeding. She says PETA would like to put laws in place to stop all dog breeding.
"We're in favor of breed-specific legislation," Lange says. "As long as there's an overpopulation crisis like the one we're facing now, we want to see an end to all breeding."
When it comes to reducing unwanted dog populations, ending all breeding is a laudable goal, says Haworth, but in terms of stopping dog attacks on people, it may not be so effective.
"So they stop being pit bull attacks on people and they start being rottweiler attacks or other breed attacks,” he says. “They still happen."
Haworth: "If an animal has shown itself to be unstable and aggressive, then there's steps to be taken to protect the community and people. And I think that's something that I think many people, including most professional organizations, all have to come with policy statements saying breed-specific bans don't work."
Lange: "Don't work with regard to reducing bites."
Haworth: "With reducing violence."
Lange: "We want a ban on breeding. As long as there are as many homeless animals as there are in shelters across the country, we don't think we should be breeding one more dog or cat."
Aguilar: "Is that realistic?"
Lange: "Yes, it's very realistic."
Aguilar: "You think we can completely ban all dog breeding and really bring down the overpopulation?"
Lange: "We can and we should."
Haworth says that the problem with breed-specific legislation is that it is very difficult to identify a breed.
"Phenotypically, once you have a mixed breed, it is extremely difficult to determine whether that is a pit bull mix, a labrador mix or a boxer mix," he says.
He says basing legislation on a specific type of breed built on a generalization of how that breed behaves misunderstands the problem.
"I think it's as bad as saying males under the age of 21 tend to have higher accident rates in cars than any other populations and therefore we should never allow males under 21 to ever drive cars," Haworth says. "It doesn't make sense."
Can attack dogs be rehabilitated?
Before a dog attacks, a dog has that certain stare, Fouché says.
"It's deep because you don't know if you're dealing with a dog that's been Schutzhung trained—that's a dog that's been professionally bred to go after you," he says. "Most dogs start with a certain look, then from the look it's a body posture, maybe hair rising, and then there's a growl, and after the grow there may be a bark and then after the bark then he'll attack."
But that fear, he says, may be fueled by a lack of understanding of the dog. And sometimes it's that lack of understanding that leads to how we look at rehabilitation of such dogs, says Lange.
"I think that it is foolish to look at a breed like the pit bull and not recognize the capabilities of that animal in hurting other animals or people," she says. "I think that when you tell people, ‘You can take any pit bull and you can rehabilitate them with just the right training’, you're putting an awful lot of faith in that individual person. I would say, people can let dogs down all the time, and it's a risky situation."
Both Haworth and Lange agree that the question is not always about whether a dog can be rehabilitated, but rather whether it is fair to the dog.
"If you rehabilitated this animal, and rehabilitation for this former fighting dog is life in a cage, is that fair to that dog?" Lange says.
Fouché says the key to rehabilitation is introducing a dog to a social life, and understanding what the dog needs—not what it wants.
"It is extremely important to understand the animal,” he says. “That specific animal's needs, that specific animal's tendencies and then to spend the time that it takes to make sure that animal understands what is okay and what is not okay in your life. It's just like parenting."
— Luis Gomez with Erika Aguilar
- Do you believe certain breeds are dangerous? What informs your belief.
Erika Aguilar, KPCC’s crime and safety reporter
David Haworth, DVM, PhD: president and CEO of the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that invests in science that advances veterinary medicine for companion animals, horses and wildlife
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