Bad Dog: Understanding Breeds and Attacks
Aren't dogs supposed to be man's best friend?
The website DogBiteLaw.com (though a widely discredited source) asserts that approximately 5 million people in the United States are bit by dogs every year. Clearly this is a problem in our country and across the world.
The following is my opinion (and that of many others, as well, I'm sure) based on facts and personal experience with multiple breeds of dogs and many breed owners.
Please keep in mind that, while I am a huge dog lover of all breeds, I am trying to present this article in a balanced way.
For whatever reason, it seems that many people have this inherent fear of certain dog breeds without really knowing anything about them. The problem here stems from the fact that they think they know about these dogs, when in fact they know nothing. The myths surrounding many tough-looking dogs are astronomical, and most of them have no relevance to the truth whatsoever.
So let's explore several things here.
1. Let's examine basic dog behavior and why a dog attacks.
2. Let's look at the breeds who are targeted by breed-specific legislation because they are supposedly "dangerous" and consider why they've made the list when others have not.
3. And let's try to figure out what we can do to truly deal with the problem of dog attacks in our world.
When is a Dog Being a Dog?
Dogs are wild animals who have been bred and domesticated by humans as companions and work animals. Of course, though now they are domesticated, much of their behavior still follows that of their origins. For example:
- Dogs are pack animals. It is instilled in them that there should be a pack hierarchy in their family, whether that family is a pack of humans or a pack of dogs.
- Dogs often have the natural urge to protect their food, territory, and the rest of their "pack."
- When sick, injured, or threatened, a dog's ultimate instinct will be to protect itself from further harm.
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So Why Would a Dog Bite?
Many factors could lead to a dog biting. Let's take them each one at a time.
1. It feels threatened or targeted.
This is called defensive, fear, or territorial aggression (in different contexts). It can also be the case with punishment-elicited aggression where the dog is being brutalized or abused and then lashes out.
A dog might feel threatened when approached by an attacker or a particularly rambunctious child. The level of sensitivity each dog has to stimulus will depend on how well "socialized" he is; a better socialized dog will be able to tolerate much more stimulus without a knee-jerk reaction. This socialization must start at an extremely early age, but it also must continue throughout adulthood in order for a dog to be well-socialized.
2. It wants to assert its dominance.
This is called dominance or predatory dominance (again, in different cases).
As I noted, dogs are pack animals with a mind that wants to understand where they fit into the situation at all times. A good dog owner will train the dog as its alpha, and the dog will understand that it has the lowest position in the house. In the wild, this would mean that dog would eat last. In a modern family, it means the dog must ask for its food. A dog who is confused about the social order of a situation will think itself above a small child or timid person and take advantage of the situation. In the wild, this is how a dog would move up the social ladder, so to speak. In today's world, this is a dog attack.
3. It is redirecting its aggression or fear elsewhere.
This is called redirected aggression.
If a dog is feeling particularly stressed in an environment (a busy vet's office, for example), but not because of any specific person or actions, he may become dangerous. A child might approach him, and when he has been otherwise fine with children, that would be a potentially dangerous situation because it could be the last bit of stimulus that is "too much" for him. This, again, might have been averted by proper socialization.
Wait... It's Up to the Owner?
If you really look at those situations above, you'll see that they have a lot to do with the way the owner has raised the dog and the way it is continually treated and trained.
While the situation, the breed, and the breeding of the dog also have a hand in a dog bite, it's amazing how far socialization and training can go in terms of preventing an attack or otherwise aggressive behavior.
There is a critical socialization period for a puppy from birth through fourteen weeks old. During this time she receives correction from her mother when she displays improper "dog behavior," and her siblings show her how to be dominant or submissive as they create their own pack order. It's vital that puppies at this stage be exposed to the sounds and smells of children, loud noises, and dominating humans.
A dog who has never seen a man before the end of this period may, for the rest of his life, be afraid of men for seemingly no reason. Imagine what else a lack of socialization could do to a dog's psyche and behavior.
But a dog's socialization obviously extends beyond this time. A puppy well-socialized until 14 weeks but then kept in a cage for two years will not come out normal and well-adjusted. Every day, dogs need to be exposed to all sizes of humans, to dogs, and to loud and large stimulus. This way they can feel comfortable in all environments and not feel threatened except in extreme circumstances.
But socialization is not enough. A naturally dominant dog may try to be the alpha of his owner and his family, and an unwitting master may let this dog be the alpha! This creates a dangerous situation even in well-socialized dogs because the human no longer has control.
This is the other reason that bites occur; if a dog is never trained not to bite, why wouldn't she? But a dog who knows her owner is the alpha of the pack will not bite unless the alpha indicates that it is appropriate to do so (by biting first, essentially). This is the way dogs evolved and lived for thousands of years: with the pack mentality. By using their evolution and breeding to our advantage, we can better understand and train them to avoid bites or attacks.
A Bad Owner Leads to a Bad Bite
What About Dangerous Breeds?
So then what about these dangerous breeds we're always hearing about? Every time there's an attack on the news, they say it was a pit bull. And other dogs like Doberman Pinschers and Rottweilers are always used as guard dogs on television shows and in movies. This means that those breeds are dangerous, right?
The Pit Bull Myth
Did you know that the Pit Bull is not even a breed? It's more like a type. People use the label to refer to many different breeds of dog, but mostly it's the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and sometimes even the Bull Terrier.
Often, uninformed people will cry "pit bull" when it's not a dog that's even related to those breeds. For some people, a "pit bull" is anything with cropped ears, a big head, a brindle coat, or just a dog that looks mean.
Think I'm wrong? Take the Find the Pit Bull quiz and prove me wrong. To be honest, it took me two tries between the five pages, and I consider myself quite educated.
The Dangerous Breeds Myth
But some dogs are bred to be attack people, right? Well, no reputable breeder breeds dogs to be vicious or aggressive in any way. (If you have questions about what a reputable breeder is, read my hub about How to Find a Reputable Dog Breeder.)
Some backyard breeders and irresponsible owners will intentionally breed vicious dogs trying to get vicious puppies. These people do this solely for dog fighting purposes or for some strange need for power.
The problem is a cyclical one. Breeds with a reputation (or a past) for being "dangerous" (like if they were bred to bring down large game like bears or bulls, as with the pit bull breeds) will attract dangerous people. These dangerous people get dogs that they expect will be vicious, and they treat them as if they should be vicious. The dog, eager to please of course, will act aggressively for its owner, and eventually these people breed dogs who are truly, innately aggressive and dangerous.
It becomes the problem of which came first? The bad dog or the bad owner?
Today many perfectly normal people are attracted to breeds with an aggressive past because they know that these breeds are totally different now. American Pit Bull Terriers are renownedly good at Agility, and German Shepherds compete excellently in Schutzhund. Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers make great family pets.
What we have to understand is that most dog breeds have lost their original purposes. Most Beagles are not hunting foxes, and most Golden Retrievers are not fishing hunted ducks out of ponds (though I guess some are). Each breed still has specific characteristics, but a reputable breeder will produce even-tempered and well-adjusted dogs, regardless of the breed.
What Can We Do?
So what do we do? We have a problem of ignorance, a problem of overbreeding, and a problem (most importantly) of people getting bitten by dogs!
While the last problem may be the most urgent, it is ironically not the one to fix first. This is because the bites and the overpopulation come out of the ignorance. Fix the first, and the rest will follow (as well as many other issues the world faces with domesticated animals).
1. Breeders should need a license. As it is, anyone can put two dogs together and sell the pups for a profit without regard to health of any of the animals involved. This leads to overpopulation, mistreated pets, and poorly bred animals. Those three factors lead to dogs biting people.
2. Dogs who are not breeding should be fixed. While being fixed may not be the best thing for every dog, it is best for the dog (and human) community as a whole. Maybe if you don't want your dog to be spayed or neutered, you could take a test to prove that you know what the pros and cons are. Then you should be fined if you are caught breeding without a license.
3. The media needs to stop identifying attacking dogs as "pit bulls" when they are not. Granted, sometimes they are the pit bull type dog, but more often than you would think they are not. This is misinformation that is having a devastating effect, and it has to stop.
4. All dogs need to be licensed with their state of residence, and dog insurance should be required. This way, the state knows about the dogs within its borders. Insurance would cover proper vetting for dogs (sick and injured dogs are notoriously more violent), spay and neuter, and would act as liability insurance in the case of a dog attack so no one's funds are drained in the off chance of a bite.
5. Breeds that are "prohibited" by insurance companies or building policies should be allowed to prove themselves. An AmStaff with a Canine Good Citizen certificate is a more reliable, more easily insurable dog than a Golden Retriever without one. Insurance companies need to realize that the policy of allowing well-behaved "dangerous" breeds is better for business than banning them altogether.
Maybe the logistics of these suggestions might be tricky, but isn't everything in the beginning? The bottom line is we need to get a handle on the low standard for pet ownership in this country and in most of the world. Breed-specific legislation just puts a band-aid on the gaping wound instead of stitching it up and dealing with the problem at its source.
Ultimately, education is our best weapon for prevention against dog attacks.
"Bad Dogs" on the Internet
- Dog Bite Law
An excellent, balanced site with many important statistics and explanations about dog behavior.
A website for pit bull lovers. It offers information on the breeds, including frequently asked questions.
- Temperament Testing
How does your favorite "family" breed hold up? You might be surprised.