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."
- 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.
- 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!
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 are 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 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