Fighting the truth
Contrary to what their fans say, pit bulls require extra-special attention
By John Grula 11/26/2013
My Oct. 17 Pasadena Weekly article about pit bulls generated quite a few comments. So, I’m addressing this subject again to offer a rebuttal and delve more deeply into some of the issues. One viewpoint expressed several times went something like this: “It’s not the dogs, it’s the owners.”
Well, let’s return to the story I related at the beginning of my initial article, which provided details of the ordeal suffered by a good friend of mine (a 67-year-old retiree), who was attacked along with his dog on Sept. 22 by a loose pit bull (according to the official report written by the animal control officer who arrived at the scene and apprehended the pit bull).
It turns out that the owner of the pit bull also soon arrived after the attack, and was greatly concerned about his escaped dog as well as the victims of its attack, my friend and his dog. The pit bull owner in this case was later revealed to be a middle-aged man who is married and has at least one child. He holds down a job to pay the mortgage on his nice, single-family home in a solidly middle-class neighborhood near Pasadena’s Victory Park. The man’s pit bull apparently escaped from his house while he was unloading some items from his car. The dog’s owner apologized to my friend and later paid him $200 in restitution for his out-of-pocket medical and vet bills of $125, his time (about three hours at an ER for treatment of his serious bite wounds, plus a visit to a vet for his dog’s injuries), and trouble.
In other words, the owner of the pit bull in this case is not some stereotypical low life, but instead appears to be a responsible citizen who most likely is also (usually) a responsible dog owner. Nevertheless, his pit bull perpetrated an unprovoked (again, according to the official report) and vicious attack against my friend and his dog. While this is only one example, it certainly is not consistent with the theory that “it’s not the dogs, it’s the owners.”
There is widespread agreement among scientists who study the subject that the grey wolf (canis lupus) is the wild canine species from which the domestic dog (canis lupus familiaris) was derived. In fact, dogs are considered a subspecies of the Grey Wolf, and wolf-dog hybrids are known to exist. So, the domestic dog has a genetic legacy inherited from the Grey Wolf, an aggressive predator that kills other animals for food.
For the last several hundred years, humans have developed many different breeds of dogs using artificial genetic selection (as opposed to natural selection) to produce breeds that exhibit huge variation in physical appearance and behavior. Let’s consider a few dog breeds that have been genetically selected to perform certain tasks involving breed-specific behaviors that are often rather complex.
In the British Isles, a breed of dog was developed that can expertly herd sheep. We call these dogs “collies.” A second example is a breed that has a keen ability to locate game fowl, and then indicate the location of the bird for a hunter by standing at rigid attention and pointing to the bird’s location with its muzzle. We call these dogs “pointers.” Another breed willingly, even joyfully, leaps into large bodies of water and swims long distances to retrieve a duck killed by a hunter, and then, holding the bird gently in its jaws, swims back to the hunter and drops the duck at his feet. We call these dogs “retrievers.” Finally, a fourth example is a breed that was developed to aggressively fight and sometimes kill other dogs and certain large animals. We call these dogs “pit bulls.”
While these various breed-specific behaviors can be refined and enhanced by human trainers, by and large these dogs behave the way they do by instinct, because their behavior has been genetically encoded through the process of artificial human selection. Think you can easily train a collie to do what a Labrador retriever does, and vice versa? Good luck with that.
When authorities investigated then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s illegal dog-fighting operation in 2007, they discovered more than 50 dogs on the premises and nearly all were pit bulls. Of course. They are the dog-fighting breed of choice. Vick later pled guilty to multiple felonies and spent 18 months in federal prison.
Since 1988 there have been at least three reviews of fatal dog attacks on humans published in the medical literature (for example, the Journal of the American Medical Association). In each review pit bull-type dogs were implicated in a very large percentage of the fatal attacks (29 percent to 45 percent), despite making up only a very small percentage of the total US dog population (1 percent in 1988 to 4 percent more recently).
Do we need to pay special attention to pit bulls? Absolutely. Stay tuned.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.