How do you report on the death of a little boy caused by two family dogs? There can be few greater family tragedies. I’ve known about this for some time, but I was waiting. I was waiting for the inevitable, because the dogs involved in the attack were identified as pit bulls. I suspected the entire story would be sensationalized. And that’s exactly what seems to be happening now.
The 7-year-old boy was attacked while inside a fenced area with the two dogs referred to in all news reports as pit bulls in Lowell, Massachusetts, on Saturday, October 21.
According to witness accounts described on a Boston TV station, “Two 100-, 120-pound pit bulls just getting his neck, his legs. It was actually horrific to watch. Everyone was screaming, no one knew what to do.”
Authorities said one of the pit bulls escaped after the attack before being captured and euthanized. The other dog is in the custody of the city’s animal control.
According to various reports, the dogs were owned by an Iraq war veteran and were used for emotional support. At least initial indications suggest the dogs were friendly and had no history of complaints.
Lowell city council member Rodney Elliott is now trying to revive efforts to ban pit bulls. A proposed ordinance restricting pit bulls was attempted in 2011 but was shot down by the Massachusetts legislature when the state passed a law banning regulations against specific breed bans of any kind.
Elliott told WBZ, Boston radio, “We banned chickens…it’s a public health issue…this is a public safety issue.”
Elliott says there are 74 registered pit bulls in the city of 108,000 people, and Lowell has to take steps to prevent another tragedy. On local TV he said, “The strength and power of this dog (meaning pit bulls) is different than other dogs.”
Elliot’s public pronouncements worked. The Lowell City Council voted unanimously to have the city manager investigate “the viability of measures” that can be taken “against certain breeds of dogs.”
So how dangerous are dogs called pit bulls? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said there were 36 fatal dog attacks nationwide in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available. There is no indication of what breeds are involved because the CDC stopped reporting breed many years ago because the information “isn’t relevant,” not to mention that breeds are often misidentified.
Certainly, dogs that people call pit bulls are frequently involved in such attacks, this is not a surprise for various reasons. One reason, there are simply a lot of dogs called pit bulls in America. They are now likely the most common dog in the nation.
Other reasons are complicated socioeconomic issues, of which I suggest these dogs are victims. The CDC, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have identified the explanations as to why the most serious dog bites occur, or dog bite fatalities, as:
- Dogs involved in crime or used as accessories to crime
- Dogs involved in the particular crime of dog fighting
- Dogs purchased for the sole purpose of “protection”
- Dogs that are tethered or kept in yards and break out and wander without adult supervision, or dogs left in yards without supervision
- Unaltered male dogs, not because they are more aggressive, but because they want to meet, well, a “hot looking babe,” and they find ways over or under fences and roam neighborhoods, sometimes threatening people in the process
- Dogs that are not properly socialized
- Public complaints about individual dogs not being acted upon by officials
This case may be an exception, as none of the above may apply, though there was apparently no adult supervision.
All dogs are individuals, and to make a blanket statement about any one breed is akin to profiling. Having said that, it is true that individual breeds do have specific tendencies.
The problem with suggesting that is the case for pit bulls is that dogs referred to as pit bulls are in actuality mix-breed dogs. When there are genetic tests, dogs with a certain profile or phenotype, which we generically refer to as pit bulls, are, in fact, mix-breed dogs. Where pit bulls are banned, in reality, dogs with a wide genetic variability are banned, not a specific breed.
What’s more, breed-specific legislation doesn’t work to lessen severe dog bites in communities, according to a paper I co-authored with veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sagi Denenberg, now at the University of Bristol for the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.
Yes, large and powerful dogs can potentially do more damage than smaller dogs. Having said that, just this October, a Kuna, Idaho, infant was seriously injured by one or more of the family’s three Dachshunds.
According to detectives, a woman who lives in the home was loading items into her vehicle in the garage while the infant sat in his swing. As the woman made trips to and from her truck, she checked in on the boy. During her last trip to the vehicle, she was out of the home for about four minutes and returned to find the child on the ground and visibly injured,
We do know that the overwhelming majority of dog bites happen to children, and that they most often occur when there is no adult supervision.
According to the AVMA, there are 4.7 million dog bites annually (other data suggest more or less). While all dog fatalities are a tragedy, they are rare events. You are more likely to be run over by a forklift truck or killed by a balloon than a dog bite. Fatal dog attacks make the news because they are such infrequent events, particularly since more than half of all U.S. households have at least one dog, and there are about 90 million dogs in the country. The fact is: People are far more likely to harm people than dogs are to harm people.
Still, there are a handful of “experts” who continue to pontificate that somehow dogs with a certain look are innately different than other dogs and are unpredictable and dangerous. However, there remain no facts to back these claims.
I don’t know specifically what happened in Lowell, or why these family dogs turned on the little boy. Most often, I can say there’s previous history of concern about a dog, that neighbors or friends knew the dogs were a problem, and sometimes even local authorities are aware. That appears not to be the case in this instance.
So, without an explanation, public officials are considering a shoot-from-the-hip approach. If that happens, and dogs with a “pit bull look” are banned, dog attack numbers won’t be affected.
As you read this, thousands of dogs with the same “pit bull look” are working as service dogs for soldiers with PTSD. They’re visiting nursing homes and hospitals to help people feel better, serving as hearing dogs or service dogs for people with physical limitations, and providing companionship as family pets… and all without incident.
Profiling could make sense if there were facts to suggest it may be useful. There are no such facts.