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


Anonymous said...

Thank you PBRC for this very intelligent & well-researched post.

The National Canine Research Council has also posted a response to Councilman Brian Powers comments at:

Karen Delise
National Canine Research Council

Donna said...

One quibble, guys. The individual Vick dogs you highlighted in your post were not rehabilitated. They were given basic house manners. They were - please note, Mr. Powers - dog friendly when we selected them for our program, and they stlll are today. (I'd send him the People Mag photo of the Vick dogs dorking on the sofa together, but that might make his little head explode!)

Unfortunately, Powers is not the only politician who believes that all pit bulls possess the inherent potential to attack and mortally wound any breathing animal at any given moment. This belief is being used against our dogs in so many places, but it has never been as cleanly pointed out at in the Lakewood editorials.

As always, we can blame the media for exaggerating our dogs to the world: every news clip that shows dogs engaged in battle reinforces the notion that every single pit bull is an unpredictable mass of explosive animal aggression. But, more than the media, we've all certainly reinforced that idea inadvertently in our words as rescuers.

Language is a powerful tool and dispensing information comes with big responsibility. Powers needs to do more research (outside of what Merritt Clifton has provided) and we all need to look at ways to communicate our message so that it is never used against our dogs to justify their destruction.

What is seen as 'different' will be the end of our dogs.


EmilyS said...

well, the "truth is out there" already.

There's plenty of completely accurate material... like PBRC's... that mentally corrupt legislators like Powers and moronic researchers like Clifton can chose to use against our breed.

That genie can't be forced back in the bottle. Some may want to equivocate about the breed's history, but plenty of completely responsible educated breed advocates will not. Those people, many of whom are out in public accomplishing incredibly difficult results in sport and "work" with their pit bulls, do not deserve to be demeaned or insulted.

We can only fight distortions with truth.. the truth about our breed's history and the truth about what that means in the case of individual dogs.

The Vick dogs (whatever knowledgeable people can assume about the extent to which they are/are not typical of gamedogs) are surely an dramatic example of how pit bulls deserve to be judged as individuals.

We don't have to dissemble or equivocate about the truth of what those dogs were intended for... and surely not about what they are despite that truth.

Or, as some would say, because of that.

Anonymous said...

This is really tricky. It seems to be a sad trend and a new tactic by the media?: