Monday, April 14, 2014

A Misunderstood Misunderstanding

"Pitbulls are not dangerous: they are just a misunderstood breed."

I have rarely heard a more absurd statement then that. Pitbulls are dogs: they are animals. All animals and all dogs bite for many reasons. They bite because they are afraid, or hurt, or annoyed, or defending their space or property. Just as a toddler will smack her/his brother or sister defending their current possession of a favored toy, dogs will defend against perceived threat of taking of their bone. Dogs do not have opposable thumbs to hang onto their stuff, and they have no hands or fists to punch or slap a perceived aggressor or thief. Their natural instinct when being hurt is to defend themselves by biting back. Statistics show that there are approximately 4 million dog bites every year in America with about 1 million of those (1/4) requiring a doctor or emergency room visit. That is a whole lot of dog bites, and it would be ridiculous to think that Pitbulls would not be among that number.

And though they are amongst that number Pitbull attacks are actually a very small part of those numbers. Pitbulls are actually much less prone to biting than many other breeds. Actually the most prolific biters are poodles. But we do not hear of Poodle attacks because they are just not as severe. It is an unassailable fact that Pitbulls are less prone to attacks than many dogs. But it is also an unassailable fact that Pitbulls are more prone to extensive damage or to kill when they do attack. Every couple of weeks another pit-bull mauling or killing of a child or other dog is highlighted in the news. And every time we are once again inundated with the same tired argument about the breed being misunderstood, and that it is not the animal’s fault but the owner’s. I would agree that it is usually not an especially vicious animal and that the attack was likely caused or exacerbated by actions of the child or other things out of the control of the dog. Actually most attacking Pitbulls never show any previous signs of aggression, and are most commonly reported as very sweet and gentle dogs previous to the attack. Indeed the most common phrase heard in Pitbull attack reports is "Never showed any previous signs of aggression..."

What the “Pitbulls are wrongly maligned” apologists do themselves not understand is that it is not the tendency toward violence that makes pitbulls so dangerous but their power and lethality when provoked as so many dogs are. The reason we don’t hear of poodle mauling’s and deaths is that poodles are just not physically capable of the levels of destruction that pit-bulls are in the same situation that so many dogs find themselves in. The danger of Pitbulls is their incredible muscular strength and power. They have quite large and powerful mouths, jaws, and teeth, and amazing body musculature. While it is a myth that Pitbull jaws lock during an attack an average Pitbull can easily fit its large mouth and teeth around the arm of a full grown man and rip most of the flesh from that bone in seconds with a few amazingly fast and powerful shakes of its head. If that same Pitbull finds itself in the same defensive situation with a child; well history shows all-too-clearly the level of destruction possible in seconds.

Recently I watched parents with a Pitbull lounging directly next to their very young children. Though this is a very sweet dog that has been around these children many times the mother was nevertheless very close by, dutifully ready, should the unthinkable happen. What even this very good and protective mother does not realize is the incredible speed and power that such attacks occur in, usually with no visible or obvious warning. though the mother could possibly intervene within a few seconds the damage inflicted in those critical few seconds would likely be extreme and possibly fatal, and there is also no guarantee the mother could pull the dog off of the child without further devastation to the child, and even to herself.

The point is that it is just a naturally precarious situation placing small children and dogs together: any dog and child. This is because they both are unpredictable, and both have little understanding of the other. Children do not understand how they can hurt or frighten or annoy a dog, and dogs do not understand that the child does not understand their warning signs or how to stop a child from hurting, frightening, or annoying them. In the dog-pack dogs understand these warning signs clearly and back off or fight. There is really little difference in the way toddler siblings interact in similar situations as they yell and fight over real and imagined slights and infringements on their perceived space and property. Anyone with toddlers knows there is no credible argument that a toddler will not eventually hurt, frighten, startle, or annoy the family dog. Putting themselves in harms way and frightening the bejeezus out of their parents (and grandparents) is what toddlers do. They seem to take no greater joy than the look of horror on their care-takers faces as they find ever-more creative ways to harm themselves. It is really not a matter of if a toddler will hurt, frighten, startle, or annoy a dog, but when. Case-in-point: it was only this morning that I had to sternly remind my own sweet granddaughter: "Honey, we never ever hit the dogs..."

I have had this discussion with an acquaintance who owns a very sweet Pit-bull. She defends this very sweet dog, explaining that "She is not mean at all, but is actually afraid of everything and would never hurt anything." Though this sounds like a cogent defense, a person I met who provides a foster-home for Pitbulls explains that fear is a far more common reason for attacks than aggression. Any dog expert will explain that dogs much more commonly attack out of fear than aggression and that aggression is often a response to an underlying fear.

I find myself constantly admonishing my toddler granddaughters to not rile-up my two small dogs; to not pull their ears or do other things to hurt them, to not jump on the couch and potentially on a dog, to not take their bones or taunt them…  I live in constant fear of the day that they harm or frighten or taunt one of the dogs too far and the dogs reacts as most dogs, or you, or I would. It is all-too-possible, even likely that the dog will react by biting after the child fails to recognize the dogs warning signs to leave it alone, or because it is afraid, startled or hurt, or simply defending its property or its place on the couch. Although my dog will likely be then perceived as a vicious, dangerous dog, and perhaps euthanized the child is unlikely to have serious lasting wounds. This is simply because of the physical prowess of the dog. In the same situation and the same defensive attack that would likely not even require stitches for many dogs, a similar response by a Pitbull would likely leave the child seriously wounded and disfigured, or dead.

And of course the newspapers would pick up that story, and the same tired argument would again play out in the news about whether Pitbulls are an especially vicious breed or misunderstood. And again both sides will miss the pertinent issue entirely. The concern is not whether Pitbulls are more vicious, but whether they are more dangerous and lethal in the same situation played out so many times when a dog meets dog or dog meets child situation goes very wrong. To say that a Pitbull will not respond in such precarious and volatile situations like every other dog would is just absurd denial. To ignore that a very common bad situation between child and dog is far more dangerous with such a powerful animal is irresponsible.  So yes, Pitbulls are misunderstood, but by both their detractors and defenders. They are generally very sweet and gentle dogs, but they are dogs; they react like dogs, and though undeniably not more vicious, they are inarguably more potentially dangerous.

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