Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The 4th of July and Dog Safety: A Personal Account

So it is that time of year again, the time where two of my dogs live in my closet for the next couple of weeks because of the nightly fireworks. Do not get me wrong, I LOVE a good fireworks display but that makes me in turn responsible for keeping my dogs safe. I found out the hard way that my Tyson was terrified of fireworks the first 4th of July we had him. The neighbor's display started early and lasted for about 2 hours. The whole time Tyson was on lock-down in the bathroom, drooling, panting and shaking uncontrollably. Once it was all clear, it was time to let the dogs out to potty. The fireworks had been done for a couple hours so I thought it was safe. After being in the yard for about 2 minutes the neighbor's decided to continue with the show. As soon as the first boom hit Tyson ran, scaling my 5ft fence and was gone. I was frantic. I looked for hours trying to find my baby and could not find him anywhere. I finally gave up my search for the night and went home to cry myself to sleep. At about 4 a.m. I let the rest of the dogs out only to find that Tyson had climbed the fence back into the yard and was hiding under my deck. I have never been so happy, I have never been so lucky.

Working in a shelter for the past 8 years, I have seen the
numerous pets that are lost around the 4th never to be found again. Dog after dog come through the door, scared, lost and not knowing what happened. You have to be proactive when you own a dog during this time as it can be life or death for many.

After that night I almost lost Tyson forever, we have a ritual for the weeks around the 4th. No one is outside without a leash, no matter if fireworks are going off or not. I speak to my neighbors to ask when they think they will be setting off their display, so I can have my guys down in the basement in their covered crates. I approach my neighbors as friendly as I can as everyone is allowed to celebrate the 4th and this is not something to create neighbor wars over. Your neighbors could surprise you and be more sympathetic then you had thought. All of my neighbors understand and have no problem keeping me in the loop as they love my dogs as well. It is a good idea to have a radio playing, or tv on loud so that the noises can be drowned out as well. I also give my guys their most favorite treat in the world to bribe them to enjoy the night. Once they are in their crates for the fireworks displays, I leave them alone. Many times dogs will become even more anxious if you show more attention when they are scared. Many take this as a confirmation that there is something to be scared of.

There are also the type of dogs who really, really like fireworks. These are the types of dogs that will chase the sparks, chase the popping, and put themselves in danger-- not knowing that what they are doing could cause severe burns. Many people find it funny to watch a dog chase the sparks, but it actually is quite dangerous and the pets should be safely contained behind doors to ensure their safety.

If your dog has severe anxiety, I strongly suggest you talk with your veterinarian as there are medications that can be used to help calm/sedate your best friend. There is no reason for everyone in the home to be miserable.

The 4th of July is about celebrating, having fun, and having a day off from work. We all want to take the time to relax. We just have to help our four-leggeds out in relaxing sometimes. So have fun this year and keep those pitties safe!

~ J. Teal

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Standing Firm" on a Shaky Foundation: A Final Word on Brian Powers

Councilman Brian Powers has again quoted PBRC's website to support his proposed ban in Lakewood, Ohio, and we are once again compelled to respond. We will also take this opportunity to respond to a few of his other points.

In a follow-up letter to The Lakewood Observer, Councilman Powers contends that he did not take portions of our website out of context, but our last entry made it quite clear that he ignored or eliminated any reference to animal aggression. Here is the excerpt from his May 25th letter:

  • For example, according to Pit Bull Rescue Central "It is a fact that our APBTs, ASTs and pit mixes come with a built-in fighting heritage [their emphasis]. It doesn't matter where we get them from, whether it be the pound, a stray we pick up, or a puppy we buy from a breeder. … We cannot predict when or where it will happen and we can't love, train or socialize it out of the dog [their emphasis]." The experts understand that these dogs have been bred to fight and that a fight may break out suddenly and without warning. Again, according to Pit Bull Rescue Central, "a fight can strike suddenly and for no apparent reason. Warning signs can be very subtle with Pit Bulls and even completely absent in certain cases."
By stripping these quotations of any specific reference to dog fights, Councilman Powers makes it seem as if pit bulls might attack a human without warning and that their "built-in fighting heritage" poses a threat to people. The latter quotation was drawn from an article called "Fight Prevention," which explicitly pertains only to interaction between dogs. Councilman Powers, however, places it into the context of the following questions: "Are pit bulls really more dangerous than other dogs?" and "The people who own and work with pit bulls every day say these dogs can be very friendly. Why don't we listen to the people who know pit bulls the best?" These quotations were written as advice on how to handle a pit bull around other dogs, but in this context they become a general (but inaccurate) statement about the breed's interactions with people. They are there to educate pit bull owners and have nothing to do with the relative dangerousness of pit bulls as a breed. One can certainly take something out of context while quoting full sentences and paragraphs. Had he read on to the page entitled "Breed Info," he would have found the following statement:
  • Please remember that animal-aggression and people-aggression are two distinct traits and should never be confused. Unless they have been very poorly bred and/or specifically "trained" to attack humans (often by undesirable individuals through abusive methods), pit bulls are, by nature, very good with people.
Or this one:
  • Another very important characteristic of pit bull dogs is their amazing love of people. Many people are surprised by the loving personality of these dogs the first time they meet one. Pit bull dogs are indeed remarkably affectionate and truly enjoy human attention. They are wonderful cuddlers, and nothing beats a belly rub. In fact, most pit bulls think they are lap dogs!
But that wouldn't have verified his preconceived notions. His follow-up letter contains another lengthy quote, which, he declares, shows that pit bulls "ARE very different from other dogs." We readily acknowledge that pit bulls are predisposed toward animal aggression, but that acknowledgment does not support the proposed ban in any way. The fact that pit bulls might fight with other dogs is not a compelling reason to ban them. The point Councilman Powers continues to miss (or ignore) is that animal aggression and human aggression are entirely separate phenomena. As experts with over 100 combined years of pit bull experience, we don't agree with much in Councilman Powers's letters.

Of course pit bulls are different. All purebred dogs are "different" inasmuch as they have been selectively bred over generations to perform a specific task. Labradors (retrieving) are different from pit bulls, which a
re different from Rottweilers (guarding) and Border Collies (herding). But again, the fact is that pit bulls have never been bred to be aggressive toward humans. They have never been bred for protection purposes. In his original letter, Councilman Powers implies that pit bulls aren't the same dog they were fifty years ago due to "crossbreeding" and "inbreeding." He's claiming that pit bulls have been bred to be aggressive toward humans. There is absolutely no evidence, scientific or otherwise, to support this claim. While it could be true in isolated examples, just as any single dog could be poorly bred, it is not an across-the-board phenomenon. To point out that Michael Vick owns pit bulls is the fallacy of guilt by association. There is no relationship between Vick owning pit bulls and an imaginary negative change in temperament (interestingly enough, the majority of Vick's dogs have been successfully rehabilitated). Television personality Rachael Ray owns pit bulls. Actress Jessica Biel owns pit bulls. Doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, and accountants own pit bulls. When pit bull rescuers point out that famous people own pit bulls, it's not to pursue some kind of "innocence by association" argument. We are not arguing that pit bulls have a good temperament because Helen Keller owned one. As a way of recovering the breed's tarnished image, we are showing that pit bulls are not merely a dog for gangsters, drug dealers, and other degenerates. This is entirely true and verifiable, but Councilman Powers seems to have missed the point.

An interesting aspect of pit bulls' history is that they were systematically bred away from human aggression. As Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) explains in an article published in The New Yorker (hardly a bastion of pit bull enthusiasm) in 2006:

  • Pit bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was "Man-eaters die.")
The main argument of Councilman Powers's original letter hinges on the notion that all pit bulls are unstable in temperament. Insofar as he sets out to prove that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, he fails. In upholding breed specific legislation (not a ban) in Toledo, even the Supreme Court of Ohio admitted that pit bulls are not inherently "vicious" or more dangerous than other breeds (Tellings v. Toledo). This is not a canard of the lunatic fringe. The Supreme Court of Ohio, the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the ASPCA, and the HSUS do not believe that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, but Brian Powers does. The utter disdain for professional opinion in both letters is quite disturbing. As a group, veterinarians have no "special interest" in defending a particular breed of dog. Equally perplexing is his assertion that veterinarians are somehow unqualified to comment on pit bulls because they are trained to handle dogs. Veterinarians are actually more likely to be bitten than the average person because they encounter a disproportionately large number of fearful, painful dogs on a daily basis. If we can't trust the recommendations of the degreed medical professionals who know the most about dogs, who are we supposed to trust? This is akin to ignoring a physician who tells you not to perform complicated surgery on yourself. It is not in the Council's best interest to pass legislation without consulting veterinarians and animal welfare workers. They don't even have to be "out-of-towners." Some hands-on interaction with pit bulls wouldn't hurt either.

The temperament testing statistics that Councilman Powers dismisses are collected by an independent organization, the American Temperament Testing Society, which carefully evaluates companion dogs through a battery of situations similar to the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test. In the aforementioned article, Gladwell quotes Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the ATTS, on this issue: "We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs […] I've tested half of them. And of the number I've tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children." These statistics are an excellent gauge of normal pit bull behavior—that is, how these dogs conduct themselves when not starved, beaten, or chained to a tree without socialization. As it turns out, they act pretty much like any other dog when it comes to human interaction. In contrast, Councilman Powers can only recite the total number of fatalities attributed to "pit-bull type dogs" over a 25-year period. But, as the CDC points out, such numbers tell us nothing about the conditions in which the dogs were kept or the human negligence that is almost always the cause of these tragedies. The disclaimer that the CDC places before their study should settle any debate about the usefulness of this figure: "It does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic [...] There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill."

To support this argument, Councilman Powers's letters often drift into the realm of made-up facts and sensationalism. He writes, "When a labrador, collie or other dog bites, you might end up with a bruise or, in some cases, a puncture wound. When a pit bull attacks, you may end up maimed for life or, in many cases, dead." There is no clinical evidence to support this statement. The language is specious, relying on understatement and what rhetoricians call "misleading vividness." What counts as "some" cases? What counts as "many" cases? As Janis Bradley points out in her policy paper published by the Animals and Society institute in 2006, "Ninety-nine percent of emergency room-treated dog bites are rated as minor," which means "the person recovers quickly with no lasting impairment." To put this number into perspective, close to half of playground-related injuries are severe, but the overwhelming majority of dog-bite injuries, regardless of breed, are puncture wounds or minor lacerations. A couple of years ago, a woman in France received the world's first face transplant. The dog that disfigured her face was a Labrador Retriever. Several years before that, a Pomeranian killed an infant in California. While severe dog-related injuries are statistically rare, all breeds are capable of inflicting serious bites. As the conclusion on the very first page of the CDC report announces, "other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates [...] Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs." Peer-reviewed public health data tells us one thing: what matters is the total number of dog bites, not the severity of them. As we will see, history shows that breed bans usually result in a higher number of overall bites.

A look at some real numbers reveals that "many cases" isn't many at all. Over the past 43 years, there have been 17 fatal dog attacks in Ohio. At least 11 different breeds have been responsible for these fatalities. To use one year as a snapshot, in 2001, there was one dog-related fatality. That same year, four people died in farm-animal related deaths, 18 died in bicycle-related deaths, 30 died in ATV-related deaths, 1, 379 died in automobile accidents, and 452 people were murdered. In 2005, 83 of Ohio's children died as a result of neglect or abuse. In other words, in one year, more than seven times as many children were killed by their parents or guardians than in the total of all recorded dog attacks in Ohio (11) (National Canine Research Council). All of this illustrates that, despite a booming companion-animal population, dogs rank very low on the list of public health hazards. Nationally, dog bites have plummeted over the past three decades. As Councilman Powers writes, "members of Council have vowed to protect the people of Lakewood." This is true, and the Council has far more important issues on which to spend their time and Lakewood's money.

In fact, the broadest, most draconian instances of breed specific legislation ever enacted have failed to protect anyone. Just this past week, the Dutch government repealed a fifteen-year ban on pit bulls because they discovered that it did not reduce the number of dog bites. Despite banning the pit bull and three other breeds in 1997, the United Kingdom has had a fifty percent increase in dog attacks. In the wake of a comprehensive breed ban in 1991, Scotland's dog attacks have increased by over 150 percent over the past eight years. Closer to home, the city of Aurora, Colorado has witnessed a significant spike in reported dog bites since banning pit bulls in 2005. These are real examples of breed bans in practice, not theoretical politicking. They have done nothing to prevent dog bites because they do nothing to address the real problem: irresponsible ownership.

If the Council wants to protect the people of Lakewood, there are a number of solutions that are intellectually sound and do not buy into a media-fabricated frenzy. As Councilman Powers writes in his May 25th letter, "We must take action to stem this explosion in the pit bull population." PBRC agrees, and the best way to do so is to establish and promote low-cost spay-and-neuter programs. Such programs would actively reduce Lakewood's dog population, with the added benefit of making Lakewood a safer place to live. Intact dogs account for the vast majority of bites and fatalities. As a recent NCRC study shows, from 2005 to 2007, 91 percent of all fatal dog attacks in the U.S. were a result of one or more of the following factors: owner management (failure to "humanely contain, control, and maintain their dogs," as when dogs are chained or allowed to roam), function of the dog ("owners maintaining dogs for guarding or protection"), and reproductive status (whether the dog is spayed or neutered). Like the total number of dog-related fatalities relative to our human and dog population, these factors have remained constant over the past 40 years, regardless of pit bulls' popularity. Another CDC study indicates that the dogs most likely to bite are overwhelmingly male, intact, and chained. In Ohio, close to half of the children killed by dogs died in interactions with chained or penned dogs (another three were left alone with unfamiliar dogs). Laws that completely prohibit tethering, like the one passed by the community of New Richmond, Ohio, are easily enforceable, and they effectively attack one of the major reasons behind serious injuries without punishing responsible owners. Tethering is illegal in the entire state of Connecticut. Not surprisingly, there has been just one dog-related fatality there since 1965 (NCRC). These cost-effective methods would target the exact predictors that contribute to dog bites, rather than resorting to a sporadically enforceable ban that will require animal control to confiscate and house dogs that will probably never bite anyone. Most significantly, they place the burden of responsibility squarely on dog owners, the root of the problem. Lakewood's residents will not be any safer when tethered, intact pit bulls are simply replaced by tethered, intact Bullmastiffs.

PBRC is an online listing service and educational resource. None of our volunteers live in Ohio, and we have no stake in the Council's proposed ban. But when someone uses our information to mislead, we must respond. It seems that Councilman Powers started with the opinion that pit bulls are dangerous, then found, made up, or twisted evidence to suit his argument, rather than approaching the issue with an open mind and the desire to find out what is best for his town. Unfortunately, much of his evidence is statistically flawed, taken out of context, or demonstrably false. It is unlikely that the Council would build a road without consulting a civil engineer or authorize new police officers without listening to the advice of seasoned law enforcement officials. So it is deeply troubling that Councilman Powers is eager to enact complicated legislation that goes against the recommendations of the CDC and AVMA, while disregarding a raft of evidence that, as a breed, pit bulls are not temperamentally unsound and breed bans do not work. He would do well to lend an ear to those concerned voices flooding his inbox. Sometimes the right decision isn't unpopular at all.

The Volunteers of Pit Bull Rescue Central

Monday, June 2, 2008

PBRC's Response to The Lakewood Observer

Below is Pit Bull Rescue Central's response to an editorial written by Brian Powers for The Lakewood Observer.

The article can be found by clicking here:
Frequently Asked Questions about the Proposed Pit Bull Ban

On May 25th, Councilman Brian Powers quoted Pit Bull Rescue Central’s website to show that pit bulls are dangerous and unpredictable. Unfortunately, he ignored the context of these quotations and much of the other information on our website. More than anything else, we stress that while aggression toward other animals is a normal trait in pit bulls, aggression toward humans is not. This is a point that most people miss, and we are disappointed that Councilman Powers used our information to mislead his readers. The quotations were mainly taken from an article on how to prevent dog fights, and it is quite clear that we are talking about pit bulls’ tendency for dog aggression while urging pit bull owners to be cautious around other dogs. By neglecting to mention anything about animal aggression, the councilman made it seem as if we were declaring that pit bulls are generally unstable in temperament. This is not true.

In fact, pit bulls pass the American Temperament Testing Society’s stringent test at a rate similar to, if not higher than, many other medium-to-large, powerful breeds. The American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier pass at rates of 84.3%, 83.4%, and 88.8% respectively. Compare this to Golden Retrievers (84.2%), Great Danes (79.2%), Weimaraners (80.1%), and Standard Poodles (85.3%), to name just four common breeds.

The councilman also cites a Center for Disease Control report on dog bites and an American Veterinary Medical Association book on “vicious” dogs. The CDC has repeatedly acknowledged that this report is methodologically flawed and should not be used for setting public policy. It lumps American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers together with “pit bull mixes,” something it doesn’t do for any other dog. It is simply bad statistics to lump three breeds together with a bunch of dogs that might look like those breeds. Lumping German Shepherds together with mixes to create a third category called “German-Shepherd-type dogs” would result in a similarly inflated percentage. And while Councilman Powers seems confident that everyone knows what a “pit-bull-type dog” looks like, the doctors at the CDC aren’t, which is why they oppose breed bans and even stopped collecting breed-defined fatal attack statistics ten years ago. This is one of many problems with the CDC report; readers can find out more by clicking here.

There are, as the CDC notes, no reliable statistics on dog bites, and statistics on dog-related fatalities tell us little except that it is exceedingly rare to be killed by a dog of any kind. As Janis Bradley explains in her book Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous, your chances of being killed by a dog are roughly one in eighteen million. You have a better chance of being killed by lightning. While we are not familiar with the AVMA book, it is likely that those quotations were also taken out of context. Along with every other major veterinary and animal welfare group, the AVMA has clearly stated its opposition to breed specific legislation. Puzzlingly, Councilman Powers freely quotes the CDC and AVMA but refuses to heed the advice of their experts when it comes to legislation that would affect a significant number of people.

We urge the City Council and the people of Lakewood to show good sense in this matter. Breed bans do little to punish irresponsible owners. Councilman Powers writes as if all pit bull owners need to be punished. Why would he want to punish many people for the transgressions of relatively few people? Aside from wasting tax dollars, breed specific bans merely criminalize good owners, the kind of owners Councilman Powers needs in his constituency. Instead of strongly enforcing the laws already on the books and holding bad owners accountable, the council would rather curtail your property rights by having law enforcement officials bang on your door and take away your family’s dog (which may or may not be a pit bull), just because it looks a certain way.

The Volunteers of Pit Bull Rescue Central