Dogs vs. Mailmen: Does Size Matter? A Tale of Ankle Biters and Toe Tasters
Does Size Matter?
In the ongoing war of Man against Beast, it is often automatically assumed that the old adage "Size does Matter" must hold true. After all, it certainly did matter as Godzilla trampled Tokyo multiple times, and then finally got tired of Japanese food and turned his attention to New York. Of course, since I examine everything here through postal blue lenses, I have often wondered how much size matters in the Mailman's ongoing bloody war of attrition against all creatures included beneath the canine definition. My subsequent research revealed that size does indeed matter, but perhaps not exactly in the way you think.
Big Dog - Big Bite
Nobody can deny that the big dogs are responsible for more fatalities. According to DogBite.org, between 2005 and 2012 73% of all dog bites that resulted in death could be attributed to two breeds, the Pit Bull and the Rottweiler. The fact the pit bull label actually applies to a couple dozen different breeds sort of confounds the issue about who is number one, but it cannot be denied that the big boys in general do the most damage. This does not mean they bite more, but when they do bite it packs a wallop. On an interesting side note, the top mailman-maimers and the breeds also responsible for the largest number of fatal attacks on civilized non-postal humanity are part of a canine classification known as the "Molosser." The Molosser breeds all share a common ancestor; this being a large shepherd dog known as the Molossus which originated in a portion of ancient Greece. So the Molosser breeds, which include the Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Mastiffs and other types often tagged as dangerous share a common ancestry. Any mailman will tell you they also share a common taste for human flesh, but this may just be stress related hyperbole. Actually, their reputation as biters may be exaggerated, as will be demonstrated as we delve further into this topic.
Nonetheless, the strength of these Molosser brutes is something to be feared. As a case in point, several years ago I was delivering my route when a hefty Rottweiler actually broke through a chain to get to me. Fortunately the owner was able to restrain the animal before it chewed off one or several of my body parts. In the end it turned out that the dog owner was the son of a letter carrier, and he was absolutely mortified about the incident. To make amends he brought cookies to the post office and gave me a hotel gift certificate. Fortunately, he did not intend the hotel outing to be a fence-mending gesture and I did not have to share the room with either him or the dog. In the end everything worked out okay, but it was a close call!
Speaking of mending fences, a Rottweiler owned by a former neighbor actually knocked out planks in my fence by continually butting its thick head against it. I guess it caught the scent of the post office on me, and its inborn sense of duty to destroy all Mailmen made him none too pleased about it. It was actually a relief when the people moved while I still had a few planks left, because it was getting embarrassing to walk around the back yard in my underwear.
Nature or Nurture?
The ongoing debate in the discussion of dangerous dog breeds essentially centers around whether the big dogs were born bad or made that way. Having met more than a handful of the charming people that are drawn toward Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, I have always intuitively felt that these dogs quickly adopt the delightful dispositions of their owners, but now I have discovered there is actual evidence to back this assumption up.
An article in the March, 2009 Journal of Forensic Science entitled "Vicious Dogs: The Antisocial Behaviors and Psychological Characteristics of Owners" presents evidence in favor of the nurture side of the debate. The study is a bit wordy, and you almost have to have a degree in obscure academic terminology to understand it, but the conclusion drawn is that "...vicious dog owners reported significantly more criminal behaviors than other dog owners. Vicious dog owners were higher in sensation seeking and primary psychopathy. Study results suggest that vicious dog ownership may be a simple marker of broader social deviance."
That's quite a mouthful, and although I'm not absolutely certain what "primary psychopathy" means, it doesn't sound like the kind of person you would want to trust with watching your cell phone and computer while you duck into the bathroom at Starbucks. The long and short of this study and the other evidence I am about to present is that the raw material in these "big dogs" isn't necessarily bad. It seems that for the most part dogs are dogs, and the real difference is that the bigger dogs pack a bigger bite. As we have seen, they are often also made vicious by their owners, who are attracted to the "macho" breeds.
Ankle Biters, Toe Tasters
I think people understand this intuitively already, but there is actual evidence to back up the notion that some of the small dogs are actually worse biters than the big boys. My own personal experience can attest to this, since the only time I was bitten during my postal service career was by a sneaky Cocker Spaniel who crept up on me from behind and left a gouge in the back of my calf. This happened nearly twenty years ago and since then my dog radar has become more finely honed, meaning I'll probably get bitten tomorrow.
Anyhow, even though I would like to blow you away with piles of indisputable statistics to prove that the ankle-biters and toe tasters bite more, I can't do this because really good statistics about dog bites in general are hard to come by. Dog bite fatalities are easy to record, because when people are spurting arterial blood out of gaping tooth wounds they are naturally inclined to go the hospital, where a friendly employee with a clipboard will check off a box on a form as you patiently wait for an ER nurse to finish up with the hangnail patient and come over and staunch your wound. But aside from dog bite fatalities, overall non-fatal dog bite statistics are hard to come by.
The reason is that the great majority of bites go unreported. To cite another personal case in point, just the other day a little terrier tried to take off a piece of my finger. I actually thought the little brute was friendly, and I had been giving him a very satisfying neck rub as good as any Swedish masseuse could do. The ungrateful little pooch was enjoying this immensely.until I lifted up my hand to go on my way. That was when he leaped up, as Terriers are good at doing, and tried to snap off my finger. Fortunately my reflexes are still good and I got away with just a tiny scratch, which I naturally did not report to my supervisor. Contrary to popular opinion, letter carriers are not obligated to pet your dog, feed your dog, or even like your dog, which offends some people when they find out. In fact, letter carriers are strictly warned not to pet dogs at all, and I would have had some explaining to do if I had reported the incident. So please don't tell!
For the most part I think that when most people get a little nip from a dog they do like I did; they wash their hands, perhaps apply a little bit of antibiotic ointment, and go on their way. I think this is the primary reason why there is such a dearth of overall dog bite statistics. All the same, there do exist a few interesting studies that hint at certain non-Molosser breeds as being the overall worst biters.
Will the real biters please stand up
A study done in Ohio that reviewed that state's dog bite statistics over a twenty year period found that there were several breeds responsible for a higher percentage of dog bites than the "Pit-Bull" collection of breeds. While Pit-Bulls accounted for only 2% of dog bites in this study, the so called "friendly" Labrador retriever scored a much higher 7%. Yet most people who shy away from Pit Bulls would scratch a Lab behind the ears without hesitation. Cocker Spaniels and Toy dogs also had a higher incidence of dog bites than the much maligned Pit Bull, according to this study.
Another measurement of the tendency of certain dog breeds to bite is the Canine Temperament Test. According to the American Temperament Test Society, the "...Temperament Test provides breeders a means for evaluating temperament and gives pet owners insights into their dog's behavior." A high score on the temperament test generally indicates a relatively non aggressive animal, while lower scores indicate greater aggression. Surprisingly enough, Pit-Bulls do very well on the temperament test, scoring in the 90 percent range in the aggregate, a number which indicates much less aggressive behavior than the Chihuahua (69.8%), Cocker Spaniel, (82.1%), the Dachshund (81.6%), and a host of other ankle biters and toe tasters.
Canine Temperament Test - American Temperament Test Society, Inc.
When delivering a package in a customer's yard I was once bitten, or should I say gummed, by a feisty old Chihuahua who had not lost his spunk but had lost most of his teeth. Since he did not come up much higher than my ankle, the only part he could get his worn down choppers around was my toe. All the old fellow had to show for his efforts was the rather unsavory taste of shoe leather, which does not go away easily, even with the most effective over the counter mouthwash. Anyway, ever since then I have shied away from this breed, and now I have finally scientifically proven that I was not being overly skittish and paranoid, but that I had legitimate reasons for my fears.
Well, I won't go that far, but the statistics I stumbled across at least lean in the direction of proving that dog size doesn't really matter in the way we think it does. Big or small all dogs alike have teeth, and it is often the little ones that have more willingness to use them. Size does matter, but the good thing is that the big ones usually announce their presence and generally don't sneak up behind you. The moral of the story, anyway, is to keep your eye on your tender toes and ankles, keep a spare tourniquet in your satchel in case one of the big ones gets you and a wet-wipe in the more likely event that you get horribly gummed.