Monday, November 22, 2004

Dog bite "crisis"

(Hat tip: Patterico citing Professor Bainbridge.)

The Slate article describes an incident where a pit-bull mix is attacked by a Pekingese and bites. When the owner of the Pekingese and her 5-year-old grandson try to break up the "fight", both wind up being bitten. (Scare quotes because it doesn't sound like it was anywhere near enough closely-matched to qualify as a real fight.)

The author, Jon Katz, blames the owner of the pit bull for having a dog of that breed in the first place, for keeping it in the second place, and for not having had the sense to get rid of it before the inevitable happened in the third place. (OK, I'm exaggerating, the hysterical fit-cum-article has a little more substance than that.)

Some comments:

I suspect that for every case you care to cite where a dog "just went off", you'll find vastly more cases where dogs of the same breed have been perfectly gentle and well-behaved, and died of old age before their "vicious nature" came to the fore and they "just went off".

I'm very suspicious of the notion of "dangerous breeds". Some people hear scare stories about various breeds and freak out. If your reaction to seeing, say, a Punxatawny Setter, is to panic and throw a fit, only the very calmest of dogs would fail to react. Also, the prejudice against certain breeds is likely to lead to a reporting bias. Threatening behavior that might be ignored in a Spaniel might land the Punxatawny Setter in the pound.

Absent very good statistical proof that any particular breed is inherently dangerous, I object to slapping any breed with the term. One danger in doing so willy-nilly lies in diluting the term. If you apply this term to enough breeds, you'll wind up with a large pool of dog owners who own, or have owned, one or more of these "dangerous breeds", and has cause to suspect the designation is meaningless. What happens if a real "dangerous breed" comes along? What are you going to call that?

(By the way, what's to stop anyone from extending the label to other breeds, including yours?)

Some of my job involves going out in the field, and occasionally into customers' yards. One of the recurring subjects of our regular safety training meetings is dogs and dog bites. One of the safety posters on the wall makes the point, "Any Dog Can Bite". In fact, the rule seems to be, the smaller the dog, the more injuries-requiring-medical-attention you see per dog.

People don't take small dogs as seriously as big ones. Strangers will ignore warning signals in a small dog that would command immediate attention in a big one. Owners will allow small dogs to get away with behavior they'd never tolerate in a big one. Everyone believes small dogs are inherently safer than big ones. When one injures, or even kills, a child, everyone is astonished.

Discussions of certain breeds of dog also give rise to what I consider a four-letter-word in politics. That word is "need". Any time someone wants to ban or restrict anything, those who oppose the ban are asked why anyone would "need" three pit-bulls (or even one). Why would anyone "need" to buy more than one gun per year, month, week, or whatever? Why would anyone "need" to own a SUV?

No, dammit, that's not the point. The proper response to those who ask this question is, "Why do you "need" to restrict the freedom of others in such a heavy-handed way?"

The Wiccan Rede, as close to a rule as most of the Neo-Pagan community is willing to tolerate, states: "If it harms none, do what you will." This statement denies the existence of victimless sins. And contrary to what some in the community think, it does not forbid acts that cause harm. In fact, as stated, it doesn't forbid anything – it merely states that harmless acts are always permitted. In practice, since it's impossible to live without causing some harm to something, we have to use common sense. In order to ban or restrict any activity, you need to show that there is a direct harm that results from pursuing that activity. Speculative harm and extremely indirect harm are not sufficient.

In particular, those who propose restrictions on any one breed of dog had better have solid proof that this breed is significantly more dangerous than any of a number of other breeds that are widely owned.

1 comment:

Firehand said...

Overall, I have to agree. With a few exceptions, the biggest problem with most any breed is the way they are treated by their owners.

I remember a man telling about how everyone was terrified of his Doberman- except all the kids who played with it. He'd raised it properly.

I've known too many cases of 'gentle' breed dogs that were bad-tempered, aggressive, some downright dangerous, and it was always because of the way they were treated and raised.