Breed Bans Dissected

Written by TNKN contributor Selma of the Caveat blog.  Originally published in 2006.

PART I

This summer, I initiated an email conversation with one of the self-styled experts who support the banning and restriction of dogs collectively known as ‘pit bulls’ by journalists, politicians and the non-dog-savvy public.

Dr Alan M Beck is on faculty at Purdue University in Indiana.  He is the head of the Centre for the Human-Animal Bond

A visit to PubMed, the NIH online Library of Science, reveals that Dr Beck has written a few papers about dogs and none on breeds or canine behaviour (to search, use ‘Beck AM dog’ without quotes in the search window)  He published a small book,  ‘Ecology of Stray Dogs’ penned over 30 years ago.    The books is rather dry but interesting as I believe it is the only study of its kind.

Dr Beck’s latest interest appears to be writing about robotic dogs and the wonderful pets they make. Dr Beck’s area of interest is the benefit of pet ownership and the bond that develops between people and their pets, not specifically dogs.

His work on dog bites largely involves the collation of information obtained through personal observation, random small sample surveys and media reports.  He then extrapolates to come to his conclusions.  His confidence intervals are huge and his results do not appear to be supported by any other scientist in the field, although they are widely quoted in the news media.

Dr Bonnie Beaver of the AVMA testified at the Committee Hearings on January 27, 2005.  Here’s an excerpt regarding Dr Beck’s support of the Ontario breed ban (note Zimmer’s comment):

Mr Kormos:  All of the scientific evidence that has been presented to date, both pre-committee and during this committee, has objected to and in fact rejected breed-specific bans as a solution to dog bites, but for Professor Alan Beck at Purdue University, who provided a quote to the government, in effect giving his seal of approval to this legislation.

 

What do you know about Professor Beck and his support, if it is in fact support, for breed-specific bans?

 

Dr. Beaver: This is a recent change in his mind. For many, many years he had followed and condemned breed-specific bans. It has been surprising to those of us who know him and who know the materials to which he has access. They are the same as the materials to which we have access. Every one of us who has been actively involved in this area is very surprised and has not had a chance — this has come out, literally, within the last few weeks.

 

Mr. Kormos: Has this been along the road to Damascus?

 

Dr. Beaver: I have no idea where he’s coming from.

 

Mr. David Zimmer (Willowdale): I suppose one interpretation of his change would be that he has finally seen the light.

 

Dr. Beaver: He would be one of a very small minority who deal with this dog-bite issue — not breed-related issue; dog-bite issue — literally on a daily basis. His work is in a slightly different area. His has to do with the human-animal bond. It’s not dog-bite-specific.

I opened my communication with Dr Beck by stating that I was working on an article.  I explained that I had been unable to find any scientific evidence to support breed bans and had contacted him because he is often quoted in the media as an expert on the subject. 

Here’s roughly how the conversation went.

Caveat:  This excerpt, reprinted from the Chicago Tribune at KansasCity.com on August 20 convinced me to contact you:

“It’s a dog that does not need provocation to go into a full, aggressive attack,” said Alan Beck, director of Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond and a supporter of pit bull restrictions.”
 
Another excerpt, from an article by Steve Dale entitled ‘Pit Bulls in the City’:
 
“Pit bulls are different; they’re like wild animals,” says Alan Beck, director for the Center for the Human Animal Bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN. “They’re not suited for an urban environment. I believe we should open our eyes and take a realistic approach to pit bulls.”

I have many scientific references and statements from experts supporting opposition to breed banning, but there is a real dearth of material supporting the pro-ban stance in the literature.
 
If you could give me some background, or even direct me to papers supporting these and similar statements, I would be most appreciative.  I should mention that I have read your papers available through Loansome Doc and cannot find the information I am looking for in those articles.

Beck: It is my pleasure to talk with you. I was the “expert witness” for the Ontario Law, and my testimony is attached.

I also presented a talk at the AVMA conference a few months ago.

From my printed abstract of my talk at the AVMA conference: Pit bulls are different; like a wild animal, they need full time supervision because escape would be disastrous for them and the community and they are not suited for a crowded urban environment. I believe we should open our eyes and take a realistic approach to pit bulls.

The analogy to a wild animal was totally because the widespread, and recognized belief, that escaped pit bulls often get into trouble and all pit bull literature recognizes that they are “escape artists.” Escaped pit bulls are very much a risk factor in serious and fatal attack.

Note:  I don’t know if Dr Beck thought he could satisfy me with this response but in my opinion, what he says is nothing but hearsay and personal opinion.  He unfortunately did not provide any scientific references.

The affidavit presented to the Ontario government prior to the public Committee hearings held in January and February 2005 also seems to be mostly  opinion and hearsay.  I hope the government didn’t waste too much of the taxpayer’s money on this affidavit.  Here are a couple of snips from the affidavit.

Beck:  There are different underlying reasons for very serious or fatal dog bites:

1. While most bites are not serious, chance alone dictates that some will be at the serious end of the injury distribution;
2. Certain types of dogs actually bite a victim in ways more like a predatory attack inflicting multiple bites or tearing of flesh;9
3. Breeding and the inherent characteristics of certain breeds or types of dogs;
4. Socialization; and
5. Training of a dog to be more attack prone.

Note:  Statements such as 2. and 3. have been refuted by every reputable scientist in the field.  To qualify, the American Pit Bull and other terriers use a ‘bite and hold’ type of grip rather than a slashing approach.  Statements 1, 4 and 5 are not in dispute.  There is no ‘breed’ which is more or less likely to bite and behaviour is not inheritable.  If it were, then a much higher percentage of dogs of particular breeds would track, retrieve, herd, guard, etc than actually do.

Beck: Later studies still demonstrate that pit bull dogs account for the majority of fatal dog attacks.

Note: There is not one peer-reviewed scientific study which supports this statement.  Dr Beck seems to rely heavily on the speculative results of flawed CDC papers which attempted to explore the reasons behind dog bite related fatalities using media reports as a data source.  The authors stated in the paper and elsewhere that their breed listings were not in any way scientific or to be used as an indication that any breeds of dogs were more or less aggressive than others.

Beck:  However, 30-50% of U.S. dogs are registered by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and there is no evidence that some breeds are more or less likely to be registered.12

(The reference cited is a personal communication from an AKC spokesperson.)

Note:  As it is estimated that a maximum of 25% of dogs are registered purebreds in the US, the 30 - 50% figure seems inaccurate.  The majority of dogs are mixed breed, unregistered pets.  In Canada, the Canadian Kennel Club estimates that only 10% of all dogs are registered purebreds and the other 90% are mixed breed pets.

Beck: It appears that compared to their popularity, there are breeds that are less prone to fatally bite, even breeds larger in stature than the pit bull (Table 3). There are also breeds whose attack rate no more or no less than expected relative to their popularity (Table 4). Lastly, there are breeds that are more prone to kill and pit bull dogs are significantly over represented (Table 5). While pit bulls are not specifically registered by the AKC, combining all Bull Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers is presented as a surrogate for the pit bull population. Even if one questions the validity of the AKC approach, no one argues that the pit bull population no larger than 2-9% of the dog population yet accounts for nearly 30% of the fatal attacks on humans. This attack rate is significant from both a common sense and statistical perspective.

Note:  Actually, I would argue with the population figure presented and with the 30% fatality figure.

Dr Beck did not include the American Staffordshire terrier (much more popular than the Staffordshire Bull or the Bull in the US), and the all-American breed, the American Pit Bull terrier, registered by the UKC and the ADBA.  The ADBA alone estimates that there are at least 5 million purebred APBTs in the US, which is almost 10% of the total estimated dog population for just one of the breeds erroneously dubbed ‘pit bulls’ but omitted by Dr Beck.

The estimated population doesn’t account for the large and unknown number of unregistered dogs often called ‘pit bulls’ by the public, ie, dogs with short hair, whip tails, droopy ears and square muzzles.  Furthermore, there are many purebreds often erroneously called ‘pit bulls’.  Some experts say that over 20 AKC/CKC breeds fit the profile.  This method of estimating population represents, in my view, a slapdash approach.  I’m surprised it wasn’t flagged by someone in the Attorney General’s office.  Maybe it was and they were told to keep it quiet, let it ride.  Or maybe they really do know next to nothing about the subject, which seems more likely, using Occam’s razor .

I have never understood the equation of a dog’s size with aggression, as we see here.  There are many breeds larger in stature than the APBT  (35 - 50 lbs), the SBT (34 lbs) or the AmStaff (65 lbs) such as the Labrador retriever, German Shepherd dog, Airedale terrier, Collie, Basset Hound, Scottish Deerhound, Golden retriever, Bullmastiff, Dobermann, Great Dane, etc, etc, etc.  With dogs size doesn’t matter and I’m surprised that Dr Beck doesn’t seem to be aware of that.

PART II

I sent Dr Beck another note, concluding with some questions.  I reproduce the questions and the answers provided by Dr Beck here, unedited and uncorrected.  You can see that although I keep asking for scientific evidence, it is not forthcoming.

Caveat:  To present a balanced and useful report that does not simply repeat the arguments of either side, I would like to offer my readers some valid scientific evidence for both points of view.  Unfortunately, I can’t find it, which is why I contacted you directly.  All I have is experts quoting other experts who are quoting other experts, but much of this seems to be personal opinion.

Is there any science, beyond anecdotes, media reports, and the CDC studies, that addresses the following questions:

First, are pit bulls inherently dangerous (i.e., are they genetically predetermined to be more dangerous than any other breed)?

Beck:  Are dogs that spontaneously herd, point, or dig genetically predetermined to exhibit their behavior? Yes. The behaviors that facilitate fighting, including not needing a provocation, are also genetically predetermined.

Caveat:  Do they attack more frequently than other breeds, ie, are there any reliable and verifiable statistics to answer this question?

Beck:  Yes; as an example, pit bulls attack other dogs more than 4x as any other breed using law suite data. I will attach the CDC article. One telling part of the article is:

“Despite these limitations and concerns, the data indicate that Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs accounted for 67% of human DBRF in the United States between 1997 and 1998. It is extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60% of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities.”

Caveat:  Do they attack more viciously than other breeds?

Beck:  Yes; even the breeds defenders acknowledge they bite harder and are harder to break off the attack. Part of the breeding.

Caveat:  Are pit bull attacks disproportionate to their population in the dog world?  Do we have any idea what the true population of the pit bull breed is?  Should we be including, as the anti-BSL advocates would have us do, the registrations from the American Dog Breeders Association, whose registrations place the number of purebred American Pit Bull Terriers currently alive in the United States at approximately five million?  How about other kennel clubs and municipal licensing departments?  Do we have those numbers?

Beck:   Look at the Testimony for our estimates. Also, everyone notes that pit bulls are the most commonly relinquished dog to shelters, indicating a disproportionate recognition that they do not do well in the home setting

Caveat:  How important is the owner’s behaviour as opposed to the breed or mixed breed in determining the dog’s behaviour?

Beck:  When you see a border collie herding, do you blame the owner?

Caveat:  How much credibility do you attach to the breed identification skills of the general public?  This seems to be seen as a weakness in breed-based legislation, ie, that there are many purebred and mongrel dogs which are labeled ‘pit bulls’ by those not familiar with breeds and types.  Do you think this is an important concern?

Beck:  Most cities and the US military, which bans the breed on Army and Marine bases internationally, use the same definition.

“A pit bull is an American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, crosses of these breeds, and any other dog with physical characteristics similar to these breeds”.

Remember, breed clubs, and those who sell dogs appear to have no problem identifying breeds!

Caveat:  Finally, in view of your interest in pet ownership as a benefit to individuals and society as well as your recognition of the strong attachment formed by owners and their dogs, do you feel that a breed ban can have serious emotional and psychological impact on responsible, caring owners of these dogs, especially as the vast majority of them, even according to proponents of breed banning, are harmless family pets?   Do you believe that the benefits of breed-based laws outweigh this negative effect on dog owners?

Beck:  Anything that lessens the killing of beloved pets and children makes dog ownership more welcomed. If the breed had a genetic disease there would be serious attempts to breed it out. Why a genetic tendency to kill is not considered a breed defect is not clear to me, but is probably a reflection of a human defect. This problem has been recognized for 15+ years across the world.

PART III

Note:  I asked well known expert Marjorie Darby of GoodPooch.com to join the discussion about the validity of the breed-banning approach.  Her piece is a bit lengthy but, as always with her work, well worth the read.  Enjoy!

Beck:  Are dogs that spontaneously herd, point, or dig genetically predetermined to exhibit their behavior? Yes. The behaviors that facilitate fighting, including not needing a provocation, are also genetically predetermined.

Darby: First, before I even begin to participate, I want to make one thing perfectly clear.  I have no particular affinity for ‘pit bulls’ (or Labrador Retrievers, or Shih Tzus, or Golden Retrievers, etc.)  Breed fancy is a very personal thing.  Still, even though I’ve trained many dogs, from many breeds and mixes, I have never felt the need to develop breed-specific training techniques.  All dogs respond well to ethical training methods.  A dominant Great Dane is trained virtually identically to a dominant Chihuahua, whereas a submissive ‘pit bull’ must be handled pretty much the same as a submissive Poodle.  

With that, I’ll begin.

Beck writes, “The behaviors that facilitate fighting, including not needing a provocation, are also genetically predetermined.” 

I ask, “Says who?”  Where is the science behind claiming an inherited form of provocation recognition?  For that matter, where is the science behind the theory of species-specific aggression (which is, by definition, learned behaviour anyway)?  In fact, where is there any science behind the theory of a genetic cause for aggression, at all?  What gene exactly is it?  What are the alleles?  What are the neurotransmitters involved?  …The secondary receptor sites? 

At best, there may be bio-chemistries that cause an individual to react more quickly or more vehemently, thus making it more likely they’ll learn and employ aggressive behaviours in the future.  Those behaviours still have to be learned and practised, though.  For instance, I have yet to see any infant ninjas or people killed by 3-week-old puppies, even when 3-week-old giant breed puppies are larger than the Pomeranian and Yorkshire Terrier dogs that killed people.

I’ll borrow from one of the articles I’ve already written on this subject, in terms of personality type and action:

“There may be elements of an individual’s temperament that can be genetically linked, but that is not a cause for the development of aggressive behaviour.  It merely means that some individuals may be more likely to react more quickly or more vehemently than others in the same situation.  HOW the individual responds has everything to do with personal experience.  For example, an outgoing child might be more likely to rush to the aid of an accident victim, whereas a more timid child may not.  That same outgoing child may then steal the victim’s wallet (if raised in a home where criminal behaviour is the norm).  The timid child may draw on his CPR training, giving him the confidence to push him into action, ultimately rescuing the victim.  Temperament may affect the manner in which we react, but it doesn’t determine the actions themselves.”

Many people harbour all sorts of unprovable, and even inaccurate, beliefs.  Everyone can say anything they choose.  Where’s the data to back it up?

Still, I love the specious theory that ‘pit bulls’ attack without provocation.  By definition, an unprovoked dog bite is deemed to be “unprovoked” by the humans involved.  Most unprovoked dog bites do not involve ‘pit bulls’ and, from the dog’s perspective, most bites are “provoked”. 

Other than having been trained to attack on command, dogs only bite when they’re afraid.  They might be afraid of loss of resources.  They might fear loss of territory.  They might fear loss of status in the pack.  They might fear a physical attack.  Whatever it is, dog’s have their own reasons for biting.  (Most of the “reasons” are eliminated through proper rearing and supervision.)

Beck:  Yes; as an example, pit bulls attack other dogs more than 4x as any other breed using law suite data. I will attach the CDC article. One telling part of the article is:

“Despite these limitations and concerns, the data indicate that Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs accounted for 67% of human DBRF in the United States between 1997 and 1998. It is extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60% of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities.”

Darby:  Law suit data?  At best, law suits are emotionally-driven, in many cases.  Since there is hysteria surrounding ‘pit bulls’, I’ve seen people react very strongly and unjustifiably towards even friendly ‘pit bulls’ at dog parks, for example, where they don’t have the same reaction to a much more threatening dog of a breed that doesn’t frighten them.

I surveyed a number of insurance companies between 2003 and 2004.  Maybe things are radically different in the U.S., but Mr. Beck’s comments aren’t even close to accurate in Canada.  Of the insurance companies I questioned, not one mentioned ‘pit bulls’ in terms of claims.  Not one.  When asked for the breeds they could recall having been involved in claims, representatives mentioned “mixed breed dogs” and “small dogs”.  The only breed that was mentioned by name was the Labrador Retriever.

Municipal dog bite statistics (you know, those pesky, real-world reports compiling the annual number of official dog bite reports against both people and other animals?) don’t concur with Mr. Beck’s claims, though.  In Toronto, for example, in 2004, 12 of the city’s 30,000+ ‘pit bulls’ were reported for biting.  8 of those were bites against other animals.  This leaves hundreds of reported bites in Toronto against other dogs attributed to non-‘pit bull’ dogs.  Hundreds, as opposed to the 8 ‘pit bull’ bites.

(I always love when non-‘pit bull’ dogs are involved in unprovoked biting incidents, and the causes are concluded to be anything but their breed.  But when a ‘pit bull’ is involved in an unprovoked biting incident, the cause is nothing but its breed.  It’s pretty funny, actually.)

There are many accounts of ‘pit bulls’  having been attacked by other dogs.  In Chicago, earlier this year, a ‘pit bull’ was injured when it was attacked by a Pomeranian.  The owner of the Pomeranian faced several charges.  The ‘pit bull’ didn’t retaliate, despite its bloody wounds.

In Port Colborne, Ontario, earlier this year, two at-large Labrador Retriever mixes savaged a Pomeranian, killing it, before attacking a ‘pit bull’.  The ‘pit bull’ didn’t harm either of the two Labs.

I was in the vicinity when a ‘pit bull’ was attacked by a Sherpherd cross.  The ‘pit bull’ did nothing but cry, in response.  It suffered wounds to its neck.  The Shepherd was known to have attacked other dogs in the past.

When dogs are broken down into ‘pit bulls’ and non-‘pit bulls’, it’s clear the overwhelming majority of bites, attacks, and fatalities against both humans and other dogs are attributed to non-‘pit bull’ dogs.

Look at the oh-so-obtusely-referenced CDC fatality data.  About 320 of the past 400 dog-related human fatalities are attributed to non-‘pit bull’ dogs.  Yet ‘pit bulls’ are supposed to be somehow genetically unique and inherently dangerous?  Clearly, most of the bites, attacks, and fatalities are caused by non-‘pit bull’ dogs, which can only mean there is nothing especially or uniquely different or dangerous about ‘pit bulls’.

Common sense concludes that the tiny percentage of ‘pit bulls’ involved in fatality incidents are due to extenuating factors, since virtually all ‘pit bulls’ have not, and will not, kill anyone.  I.E. there must be reasons, other than the biting dog’s breed, size, or shape, which causes dog bite-related human fatalities.

My research has found that 99.9% of all ‘pit bulls’ will never be involved in an attack at any time in their lives.  To make generalizations about the entire ‘breed’, based on the actions of less than 0.1%, is ludicrous.  Completely ludicrous.

Moreover, the CDC data curiously encompasses primarily just those years where ‘pit bulls’ were being used as guardians the most, and were involved in the most dog bite-related human fatalities in the U.S, as a result of this negligence.   (Mr. Beck is aware, I hope, that ‘pit bulls’ are also hugely popular here in Canada, yet had not been attributed with a single, unprovoked human fatality prior to May 2006) (In that case, the dog is alleged to have been a Labrador Retriever/’pit bull’ cross by media and the Attorney General’s office, but the owners acquired the dog as a Jack Russell/Collie mix and had never thought of the dog as a ‘pit bull’ during the five years they’d had him.  That makes it the first fatality attributed to a ‘pit bull’ cross, but the second for a Lab cross.) (Are Lab crosses twice as dangerous as ‘pit bull’ crosses, then?) 

Why not look at the past 100 years?  The breeds most often trained by humans as guardians make up the top ten “killers”, no matter what timeframe one looks at.

Still, fatality statistics don’t exactly tell us much about the larger problem of dog bites.  One is more likely to die tripping over one’s slippers, than to be killed by a dog.

In Canada, every recent dog-related human fatality has involved dogs and victims residing in the same home.  (The same can be said for most bites and attacks.)  Therefore, one’s risk of being killed by a dog one doesn’t actually live with is virtually zero. 

Obviously, dog-related fatalities are not a “public safety” issue.  They’re more of a domestic matter.

Beck:  Yes; even the breed’s defenders acknowledge they bite harder and are harder to break off the attack. Part of the breeding.

Darby:  There are a number of dog breeds that bite and hold, as opposed to ‘bite and release’ or ‘slashing’ bites.  ‘Pit bulls’ are not unique in this regard.

In October 2005, a police officer was attacked by a Belgian Malinois police dog.  Being unable to shake herself free, she ultimately shot the dog, killing it.  Other officers had to pry the dead dog’s jaws from the officer’s arm.

And no…the Belgian Malinois does not share close genetic ancestry with the ‘pit bull’.  It is a herding breed, as are many of the dogs who kill people in Canada.

Beck:   Look at the Testimony for our estimates. Also, everyone notes that pit bulls are the most commonly relinquished dog to shelters, indicating a disproportionate recognition that they do not do well in the home setting

Darby:   If Mr. Beck is suggesting he can solve the irresponsible dog ownership problem by banning one type of dog, then I’d be very interested in hearing the specifics.  But he’s not really saying that.  He’s saying that because hapless ‘pit bulls’ are not only one of the most popular kinds of pets, but also the current fancy of some of the most despicable members of our society, their owners’ negligence is evidence the dogs are the problem.  If so, are the children in foster care there because they are the problem, and not their negligent parents?

Beck:  When you see a border collie herding, do you blame the owner?

Darby:  Many people confuse things that show some inheritability, with behaviours or traits that are learned.  If every dog behaviour is inherited, why aren’t we breeding dogs to “heel”?

Herding is still a terrific example of this kind of flawed logic.

First, we didn’t invent any instinctive behaviours in dogs.  All instinctive dog behaviours are possessed by all dogs, to some degree.  All breeds can herd, to some degree.  All breeds can retrieve, to some degree. 

Selective breeding merely enhanced natural traits, either by making them more pronounced or by increasing the likelihood offspring will exhibit those traits.

Still, there is not a single dog on the face of this planet that wins a herding championship without any training.

Also, there isn’t an honest breeder of herding dogs who claims every single one of her offspring has the ability to become a herding champion.  (Shhhh.) (whispering) (There are even puppies, born of herding champions, that show little interest in herding.) (Imagine that.)

Finally, there are many dogs, not from herding breeds, that excel in herding.  There is a herding titled ‘pit bull’ for goodness sakes

When you put it all together, it’s clear that:

a.      selective breeding can enhance the likelihood or the degree to which an INHERITABLE trait is present
b.      not all dogs bred for this INHERITABLE trait will exhibit proficiency
c.       even those dogs that possess this natural ability still require significant training in order to become proficient (for herding dogs, that’s at least 2 years of dedicated training prior to a championship)
d.      dogs not selectively bred for this INHERITABLE trait can demonstrate natural ability (as a function of being a dog, where all dog breeds are genetically identical) as well as proficiency, with training.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “We didn’t know (insert breed name here) couldn’t swim.  It was only after someone told us we shouldn’t be letting our dog swim, that we learned they’re not supposed to be able to do it.”

Perception.  Expectation.  Belief.  They’re all so subjective.  And all can pervert what we teach our dogs. 

When I get a new, aggressive dog in for re-training, the only thing I care about is whether it has bitten in the past, or not.  (The best predictor for a future bite is a past bite.)  Other than that (purely for safety reasons) pretty much everything else is a function of its previous environment, or is simply a natural dog behaviour that is common to all dogs, or most dogs of that temperament type. 

What I say about ‘pit bulls’ and the myth they “can’t be socialized with other dogs” is this, “I find the exact opposite to be true.  When I get dog-aggressive ‘pit bulls’ in for re-training, they tend to remain that way UNTIL I begin to re-socialize them with other dogs.”  Once they learn there is nothing to fear (no loss of status in the pack, no loss of resources, no loss of territory, etc.), they settle right down and learn to tolerate, and even enjoy, interactions with other dogs.

Aggressive behaviour is, by definition, a learned behaviour and, therefore, is not governed by breeding practices.  This supports the dog bite data which shows dogs of every size, shape, reproductive status, and from every original breed purpose, are involved unprovoked biting incidents.

At best, aggressive dogs tend to be those that are poorly-socialized, and are dominant, submissive, or any temperament-type in between (in short, pretty much any dogcould become aggressive). 

I always like to challenge those who use nonsensical terms like “good” and “bad” temperaments.  I ask those who claim to “breed only for good temperaments” what they’d expect if one of their so-called “good” temepered puppies was tied to a tree in someone’s backyard for the next year?  What if it was further neglected or abused?  Any honest person would have to admit even a dog with a so-called “good” temperament would likely develop anti-social behaviours, in such an environment.

The “real” temperament types (dominant, submissive, etc.) don’t change with environment.  A dominant dog can be well-mannered, obedient and confident, or it can be untrained, challenging and mistrustful, depending on its environment.  A submissive dog can be a dutiful, loyal companion, or fearful biter.  Temperament doesn’t determine any learned behaviours in dogs.  Any dog, of any temperament-type can become aggressive in the wrong human hands.

Beck:  Most cities and the US military, which bans the breed on Army and Marine bases internationally, use the same definition.

“A pit bull is an American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, crosses of these breeds, and any other dog with physical characteristics similar to these breeds”.

Remember, breed clubs, and those who sell dogs appear to have no problem identifying breeds!

Darby:  It sure is easy to visually identify a dog’s breed when one doesn’t actually have to validate his/her claim. 

I can walk by a Great Dane and decide that I just walked past a ‘pit bull’, and who’s to say I’m wrong?  

I can also sanctimoniously conclude that a dog in my presence is this breed or that, and what could the owner possibly do, in response?  If it’s a registered purebred, he/she could go home; find the dog’s registration papers; and bring them to me.  Couldn’t I then dismiss them as being forged or for a different dog? 

What if the dog is like the majority of dogs in Canada, and isn’t a registered purebred?  Would I be appeased with the dog’s veterinary records, claiming the dog is not the breed I concluded?  Maybe.  (Reminds me that, as much as 10 years ago, I was warning ‘pit bull’ owners to have all records include their dogs’ breed as some plausible mix, like Boxer/Lab cross, for example.Note from Caveat:  So were we)  Several courts have found that a veterinarian’s determination of breed is not a statement of fact, but rather an opinion.  Thus, the veterinarian’s breed differentiation expertise would come into question.  Can he/she differentiate between a German Shepherd/Doberman cross and a Beauceron, for instance?  Few could.  In fact, many veterinarians in Canada have never heard of my example, the Beauceron.  Where either German Shepherds or Dobermans and their mixes are restricted, Beauceron owners might be unfairly caught up in the net, if those enforcing the law don’t know what a Beauceron is.

Even Toledo’s foolish dog warden helped win the case against the city’s ‘pit bull’ ban by admitting, in court, that a dog which is part ‘pit bull’, but doesn’t overtly have the appearance of (what he would describe as) a typical ‘pit bull’, would not be targeted by the city ordinance; whereas dogs that have no ‘pit bull’ in them, but appear “similar”, would be required to abide by the breed-specific regulations.

The court, not surprisingly, found this admission to be clear evidence of extremely arbitrary enforcement of the law. 

If dogs that are part the targeted breed, but just don’t look like it aren’t affected, but dogs that look like it, but aren’t actually part the targeted breed are affected, then we all have to admit we’re just targeting dogs based on gross appearance, alone.  No one, not even those supporting breed-specific laws, claim it is the dog’s appearance that causes unprovoked bites.  Rather, they allege, it’s the dog’s genes.  They claim to target dogs possessing some as-yet-undiscovered “aggression gene”, even though the above scenario indicates a pass for some of these dogs, and the inclusion of some that couldn’t possibly posses this alleged gene.

And by any honest person’s standards, that’s not just unjust, it’s pointless.

But let’s delve a little deeper into this theory of visual breed determination.  Let’s say there’s a ban on Great Danes in my community, and someone decides my dog is a Great Dane.  Being from rescue, I don’t have any registration papers for her.  Maybe she’s a Great Dane, and maybe she’s only part Great Dane.  Maybe she’s not a Great Dane at all.  There’s no definitive way of knowing for sure.

If she was a purebred, and I had registration papers for her, I could “legally” prove her breed, as per the Animal Pedigree Act.  However, the vast majority of dogs are not registered purebreds, making any conclusions about their breeding quite subjective. 

(There is little certainty, when it comes to dog breeds; as any honest member of a reputable, purebred dog registry would attest.  There have been countless cases of forged registration papers for dogs of mixed parentage.  Meaning, we have to trust a purebred dog’s registration papers were filled out honestly.  DNA paternity is helping with that, but there are still people forging those documents.  Still, dogs purported to be registered purebreds make up only a small percentage of the overall dog population.)

Getting back to my own dog, I always like to remind people that visual breed identification is, at best, a highly subjective exercise.  I practice, all the time, as it is a bit of a hobby.  Much of the time my GUESS is correct.  Sometimes it isn’t.  I don’t even bother to obtusely guess the mix of obviously mixed breed dogs.  Sometimes I’m surprised to learn they’re actually rare purebreds of a breed newly-introduced to Canada.

Rather than debating the level of accuracy of third party observations, I’ll provide my own experience.  Because the breeds my (almost assuredly purebred, tattooed, rescue Great Dane) has been confused for can be quite comical (and downright moronic, in some cases), I feel it would be most effective to provide a picture of my dog, along with the purebreds for which she’s been confused.

Here is my dog, in all her (poorly-bred) glory:

I’ve been involved with Great Danes for close to 40 years.  My rescue girl is likely a purebred Great Dane, as she has all the physical characteristics, and is tattooed (although it is now illegible).  She’s brindle and 32” tall, at the shoulder.  While she’s an average height for a female, she weighs in on the lighter end of the scale; around 110lb.

Even so, she’s been confused for a:

 Mastiff

Greyhound

Pit bull

Rhodesian Ridgeback

 

 

Irish Wolfhound

Boxer

Dalmation (!?)

Afghan Hound (!!???)

 

 

Obviously, some of those left me scratching my head.  Clearly, many people are doing little more than guessing a dog’s breed.

It is also important to point out that none of the people charged with enforcing dog control by-laws are instructed, much less required to demonstrate any proficiency, in dog breed identification.

Having worked with countless shelter and rescue groups, over the course of close to 40 years, I can attest that very few of their employees or volunteers are especially knowledgeable in any area of dog training or behaviour, canine genetics, or breed identification. 

It’s too graphically dense to post here, but I’d previously sent Caveat a compilation of dog pictures, and the corresponding breed identification decided by one or more members of animal control departments, shelters, and rescue organizations.  For anyone experienced with many dog breeds, these labels are all-too-often laughable.  Yet they’re made by the exact kinds of people charged with enforcing breed-specific ordinances.

Oh, what the heck.  Here are a few examples (keep in mind that these dogs were not listed as mixes, but as unqualified members of these respective, pure breeds):

This dog was listed by one animal control department as a Labrador Retriever

This dog was listed for adoption as a Jack Russell Terrier

This dog was listed as a German Shepherd Dog

 

Again, many people are doing little more than guessing a dog’s breed.

Beck:  Anything that lessens the killing of beloved pets and children makes dog ownership more welcomed. If the breed had a genetic disease there would be serious attempts to breed it out. Why a genetic tendency to kill is not considered a breed defect is not clear to me, but is probably a reflection of a human defect. This problem has been recognized for 15+ years across the world.

Darby:  What the heck?  “…recognized for 15+ years across the world”????  What does this even mean?  I’m pretty sure people have always found unprovoked attacks against innocent people to be an undesirable outcome of dog ownership. 

As long as people encourage their dogs to behave aggressively in some situations, and ignorantly dismiss the fact that dogs don’t do a very good job of differentiating, there will always be mishaps.  Only once canine aggression is viewed as unacceptable in human society will we ever hope to reduce the number of unprovoked dog biting incidents.

It is not responsible people and their well-behaved, well-socialized, supervised dogs involved in biting incidents, no matter what the dog’s breed.   It isn’t responsible dog owners who reward their dogs for behaving aggressively when strangers walk by or encourage their dogs’ aggression towards the neighbour’s dog.  Responsible dog owners have canine companions, not weapons.  Only irresponsible people harbour aggressive dogs.

Every dog involved in an unprovoked attack that I’ve investigated has had a known history of aggressive behaviour. 

Like all learned behaviours, aggressive behaviours have to be practiced before they’re perfected.  Aggression, in dogs, follows a pretty predictable scale of escalation: from stiffened body posture, staring, and raised hackles, to warning barks, growling, bared teeth, lunging, attemped bites, and finally successful bites.

At any point, an owner is capable of recognizing the staring or stiffened body posture, as an indication the dog is uncomfortable with that situation.  He/she can then step in to teach the dog there is no reason to feel threatened.  When dogs don’t fear loss of resources, or loss of territory, or loss of status in the pack, or physical attack, they don’t feel a need to respond in a threatening manner.  Competent dog ownership halts the pattern of escalation from mere discomfort to full blow aggression, at the stiffened body posture stage or even earlier.  Proper socialization teaches the dog its world is safe and non-threatening, thus eliminating the dog’s perception it needs to protect itself in some way.

Furthermore, since mixed breed dogs come from irresponsible “breeders”, by definition, I’m not sure why Mr. Beck concludes that any attempt is or isn’t being made to breed dogs for any INHERITABLE traits.

For the most part, no one who’s concerned about his dogs, their offspring, or the world around him, mates dogs of different breeds, in this day and age.  For goodness sakes, even if both dogs are registered purebreds, it doesn’t make a mating a responsible act.  Most registered purebred dogs are not breeding quality. 

Granted, there is still the issue of educating people about what is and isn’t inheritable.  We can’t breed for learned behaviours.  But we can breed for those traits that enhance the likelihood or the proficiency of learned behaviours.

Agility is a good example.  For that I’ll borrow something I’ve already written regarding myths about canine genetics.

“For example, we see more Border Collies winning Agility because a higher percentage of Agility participants choose Border Collies to compete.  Although many Border Collies have just the right combination of temperament and ability to succeed in Agility, this does not mean that every Border Collie is a born Agility champion, nor does it mean that ONLY Border Collies can succeed in Agility.  Far from it, actually!  We must always step back and look at all the factors involved in why certain breeds seem to excel in certain areas, and distinguish between causal factors such as owner influence (no dog signs up for Agility on its own), conformation (you can try to compete in high jump with your Chihuahua, but you probably won’t be very successful), temperament (a dog that is eager to work will be much more likely to stick with rigourous training), and instinct (a natural herding ability will probably be necessary for successful training of a herding champion).”  - GoodPooch.com http://www.goodpooch.com/MediaBriefs/aggression.htm

The thing I find so amusing is the absolute refusal to admit the human influence on dogs.  While the majority of dogs involved in bites, attacks, and fatalities are not ‘pit bulls’, they do span the gamut of breeds and mixes. 

Clearly, there is no breed commonality to unprovoked dog bites.  But there are commonalities, and all of them relate to irresponsible ownership.  Dogs involved in unprovoked bites (no matter what their breed) were most likely inadequately supervised; poorly-socialized; have a history of aggressive behaviour; and in many cases were routinely isolated by way of a chain or cage.

I’d like to state, unequivocally, that despite years of research into dog biting incidents, I have yet to come across one attributed to a dog that was responsibly-owned at the time of the bite.  I have not come across one case of a responsibly-owned ‘pit bull’ attributed with an unprovoked attack.

The factors common to nearly all unprovoked biting incidents have nothing whatsoever to do with breed.  They’re things like lack of supervision, socialization, and obedience training.  A number of years ago, I put it this way, “Dog bites occur for a number of specific, and often predictable, reasons.  Responsible dog ownership has never been one of them.”

Research shows over 99.9% of all dogs, from all breeds, will never be involved in an attack.  Thus, I also like to say, “If any breed were genetically programmed to attack, surely more than 0.1% of them would.”

When it comes to ‘pit bulls’, fewer than 0.1% will ever be involved in an attack at any time in their lives, and even conservative estimates suggest at least 99.99998% of all ‘pit bulls’ have not killed anyone.  Frankly, I don’t know what relevant information is gleaned from the acts of less than 0.00002% of the population.  Whatever it may be, it certainly doesn’t conclude anything about the rest.

PART IV

The following is my next attempt to extract some scientific references from Dr Beck.  I corrected one glaring typo which changed the sense of his reply; otherwise the material is presented as received.

Caveat:  Dear Dr Beck,

Thank you for your response in support of breed banning and restriction. 

The reason I asked if you were aware of anything other than the CDC papers is that the research in those studies was flawed, as stated by the authors themselves and others, some of whom I have interviewed.  Here are just a few problems that have been pointed out to me.

The table showing the number of deaths caused by the ‘breeds’ is almost 10 years old.  Do we have any statistics which show that these two types still top the list?  Usually, if one looks through past records, certain breeds top lists for awhile and are then replaced by other breeds.  For example, according to one expert, Great Danes topped the fatality list for a two-year period, yet their total for human fatalities over four decades is 7 . Do we know if that has happened with pit bulls, ie, if they have been replaced by another breed since 1998? 

Here is a quote from a researcher in Canada:

“Most honest and objective researchers can clearly demonstrate that other breeds topped the fatality statistics in the U.S. prior to the 1980’s, and another breed has topped those statistics since 1997. In short, for about 11 of the past 100 years, ‘pit bulls’ topped the dog-related fatality statistics in the U.S. This figure represents less than 0.00001% of the total ‘pit bull’ population.”

Another expert had this to say:

“We often hear that ‘pit bulls’ and ‘rottweilers’  have been responsible for 67% of human fatalities.  This is misleading because it refers to a table in one of the CDC  papers covering only the period of 1997-98.  A one-year period is not long enough to predict a trend, especially in the case of an exceedingly rare event such as a death caused by a dog attack.  Sixteen human fatalities in a human population of roughly 300,000,000 and a dog population of roughly 60,000,000 is not statistically significant.  The attributed percentage of 67 is more than four times higher than the number itself, which is 16.  This  is always a red flag in statistical research.”

When I asked about the breed identification aspects of the paper, this was the reply from another expert with over 50 years’ experience on the subject:

“As with the other CDC papers, there is a serious flaw in the breed allocation model. Under ‘purebred’ we see ‘pit bull type’.  This is not a pure dog breed, it is a nickname for a shape exhibited by many breeds.  I suspect that if breed determination by the public were not a major problem, and the ‘pit bull type’ dogs could be sorted into proper breed categories, we would find the numbers dropping significantly for the bull-and-terrier types overall and obviously the total would be much lower for each correctly identified breed than for the catch-all category used.  This is why the CDC does not attach much credence to the breed discussions in the paper and I’m afraid I have to agree with them.  They do the same with ‘husky’, another slang term yet interestingly, they separate the Alaskan Malamute.

It is also of interest that they use ‘husky-type’ and ‘pit bull type’ under the crossbred category, but then list ‘mixed breed’ as a separate entry.  Is not any kind of crossbred dog a mixed breed?  It is impossible to state with finality that a mixed breed dog’s ancestry is such-and-such and I don’t know why they even tried.

It’s too bad the real value of the work has been overshadowed by the weakest aspect of the study because the conclusions regarding prevention were excellent.”
 
The groups who oppose breed banning have provided me with quite a few papers discussing dog temperament and physiology, common factors leading to dog bites and attacks, dog behaviour, dog breeds, bite statistics, the success vs failure of breed bans, etc.  My desk is littered with articles that support the anti-breed banning stance.

To date, I have been unable to find any scientific journal articles supporting the banning of pit bulls or other breeds.

All I have been able to find is in news reports and editorials and it seems to be personal opinion, which is why I wrote to you for some help.

Do you know of any objective evidence from a scientific source that supports the pro-ban side of the argument, ie, that pit bulls are different, that they are responsible for more bites, attacks and deaths, that banning them has reduced dog bites and attacks or anything else?

Beck: Your pro pit bull “friends” have little respect for data. Of course pit bull issues are relatively new; they did not really exist in any numbers before 50 years ago. Dog fighting began here after the civil war. There were few car related deaths before there were cars!

The Sacks articles, there have been several, and others, all show that pit bulls were a problem since 1980 and Rottweilers since 1983; look at the articles so I have no idea why they say it is only the last year.

The Danes toped the list, because of the other kinds of fatalities (size related) and they are much more common. No one said pits are the only killing dog and that all deaths are from pits. That is not true of any public health measure. It is risk factor, especially a manageable risk factor that protects the largest number of people that is the issue. Last week a presa killed its owners. It that breed was as common as pits their would be no one arguing against a ban.

Note:  So, on the one hand, there aren’t very many ‘pit bulls’ but on the other hand, they are common.  Which is it?  Where is the reference for the size-related deaths caused by Great Danes?  How do we know they are more popular?  I certainly see more bull-and-terrier types than Great Danes in my travels.  It sounds as though one breed (and one with very special ownership criteria), is more common than the 4 - 6 small to medium sized purebreds, the similar purebreds and the ubiquitous mixed breed dogs exhibiting the bull-and-terrier characteristics.

To refute each statement would make this into a book, not an article.  It’s apparent to me that Dr Beck is swimming against the tide.  He is the only one with any academic credentials at all who testifies in favour of breed banning, yet he doesn’t have an objective, scientific foundation for his position which he is willing to share. 

It’s disheartening that someone with an academic interest in a completely unrelated area can testify in favour of discrimination against dog owners and get paid for it by people who make it clear that they couldn’t care less about how many lives are ruined as long as they get a photo-op or a sound byte.

PART V

These were my final questions for Dr Beck.

Caveat:

Dear Dr Beck,

First, let me say how much I appreciate your candor and your willingness to provide me with information.  Not all of the experts I have contacted have been so willing to help.

From what you have told me, you are convinced that there is a problem with pit bulls in the US.  I infer that the primary reason for restricting types of dogs is based on the number of human fatalities attributed to those types.  The situation in the US seems very different from what we have seen in Canada.

In Canada, nationwide since 1983, we have had one death attributed to one of the breeds usually called pit bulls but whether it was a purebred or mixed breed dog is unknown.  It happened in 1995.  According to figures obtained from the Canadian government, we have had many more deaths (15+) caused by a very different and also popular type of dog. 

In view of the Canadian experience, which is the focus of my piece, and in view of the fact that other types of dogs appear in fatality statistics much more often than pit bulls do, do you think that a ban on those other types would be a more effective way to address public safety around dogs in the province of Ontario and across the country?

Beck:  Dr Beck did not answer the question but sent this along:

I waited almost to the last minute hoping to get the latest Canadian data, which has not arrived. You may want to contact the Toronto attorney general’s office.

I do not feel it appropriate to take pit bull dogs away from their owners and feel such laws are unconscionable. I do believe there is enough evidence to support restrictions, like leashing and muzzling when in public, leading to a ban.

My final question to Dr Beck:

Caveat:  Would it be fair to state that there is no scientific evidence to support the banning or restriction of any particular breed or type of dog?

Beck:  Dr Beck did not answer.

I should mention that I obtained Dr Beck’s consent to reproduce our conversation, ie, to use whatever I liked, with the understanding that I would not take his responses out of context or mention others.  That is why I decided to use the Q&A format, as it is identical to what was said.  Obviously, I edited out some of it for the sake of brevity and also to remove the names of non-participants.

I leave it to you, intelligent reader, to decide whether or not there is a factual foundation for the breed banning pandemic.

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