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Blame the Owner, Not the Dog

Boca Raton News
by John Johnston

September 18, 2004, GAINESVILLE, FL--A sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 70-pound pit bull Thursday in Gainesville after the dog attacked a student in an apartment stairwell and turned on a neighbor attempting to help. The dog bit the student on his left arm, biting almost to the bone, said Sgt. Steve Maynard of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

Molly Carlin and Mary Jane McManus were sitting on the back-porch of their Delray Beach home in 2002 when they ran outside, and saw two Rottweilers attacking 33-year-old Marguene St. Juste near her home on Northeast Third Avenue. None of the preceding surprises Joanne Morrison who told the Boca News Friday “I had a dog attack several months ago.”

Meanwhile, a noted dog attack study author told the Boca News Friday: ”Over two thousand years ago, Plato extolled a basic understanding of canine behavior when he wrote: the disposition of noble dogs is to be gentle with people they know and the opposite with those they don’t know.  Recently, this fundamental principal of canine behavior seems to elude many people as parents allow their children to be unsupervised with unfamiliar dogs and lawmakers clamor to declare certain dogs as dangerous in response to an attack,” says author Karen Delise.

Delise is a veterinary technician with a degree in Veterinary Science Technology, and is author of a book covering nearly four decades (1965-2001) of human fatalities from dog attacks. “It is necessary to emphasize that a fatal dog attack is an exceptionally unusual event,” Delise said, adding: “Approximating 20 deaths per year in a dog population of 53 million yields an infinitesimal percent of the dog population (.0000004%) involved in a human fatality.” In fact, says Delise, the question is “much more one of testosterone, than it is breed.”

Delise said that her studies show that all dog related human fatalities nationally since 1999 found that 95 percent of the dogs involved “were not neutered, and 94 percent of the dogs were male. Female pit bulls are not attacking people,” she said. Morrison agrees, to a point: “It’s not the dog’s fault – it’s the fault of the owner,” she said. And Morrison’s recent incident was not only an attack on her own dog, “but the dog entered my property to do it – and anyone with half a brain knew this was going to happen.”

Morrison explained that she had called the Boca Raton Police “ahead of time” telling the department of a on-going problem of dog noise and dogs trying to get into her yard. “They were very helpful and cooperative,” Morrison said, “but said they couldn’t do anything without the dogs actually causing harm.” The problem festered for months, she continued, “until finally one of the dogs got through and attacked my dog. I called 911 and the police were there in five minutes – with the dog still in my yard.” Morrison praised both the police and “the city – who then made them (the adjoining property owner) put up a fence. But the law is sorely lacking in dealing with this problem before it happens. I had a $400 vet’s bill for my dog – but what am I going to do…..the law is really toothless. There is no protection before the fact against dog owners or dangerous dogs.”

"After reviewing over 431 cases of fatal dog attacks it is apparent there is no single factor that translates in a lethal encounter between a person and a dog(s),” study author Delise says. “A fatal dog attack is always the culmination of past and present events that include: inherited and learned behaviors, genetics, breeding, socialization, function of the dog, physical condition and size of the dog, reproductive status of dog, popularity of breed, individual temperament, environmental stresses, owner responsibility, victim behavior, victim size and physical condition, timing and misfortune.”

The study revealed that while many circumstances may contribute to a fatal dog attack, the following three factors appear to play a critical role in the display of canine aggression toward humans;

• Function of the dog – (Includes: dogs acquired for fighting, guarding/protection or image enhancement)

• Owner responsibility – (Includes: dogs allowed to roam loose, chained dogs, dogs and/or children left unsupervised, dogs permitted or encouraged to behave aggressively, animal neglect and/or abuse)

• Reproductive status of dog – (Includes: unaltered males dogs, bitches with puppies, children coming between male dog and female dog in estrus)

Many communities and cities believe that the solution to prevent severe and fatal dog attacks is to label, restrict or ban certain breeds of dogs as potentially dangerous, according to Delise. “If the breed of dog was the primary or sole determining factor in a fatal dog attack, it would necessarily stand to reason that since there are literally millions of Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and German Shepherd Dogs in the United States, there would have to be countless more than an approximate 20 human fatalities per year,” she said, adding: “Since only an infinitesimal number of any breed is implicated in a human fatality, it is not only unreasonable to characterize this as a specific breed behavior by which judge an entire population of dogs, it also does little to prevent fatal or severe dog attacks as the real causes and events that contribute to a fatal attack are masked by the issue of breed and not seriously addressed.”

Pit Bulls in particular have been in a firestorm of bad publicity, and throughout the country Pit Bulls often bear the brunt of breed specific legislation, Delise said. “One severe or fatal attack can result in either restrictions or outright banning of this breed (and other breeds) in a community. While any severe or fatal attack on a person is tragic, there is often a tragic loss of perspective as to degree of dangerousness associated with this breed in reaction to a fatality. Virtually any breed of dog can be implicated in a human fatality.”

From 1965 - 2001, there have been at least 36 different breeds/types of dog that have been involved in a fatal attack in the United States. (This number rises to at least 52 breeds/types when surveying fatal attacks worldwide), according to the study. “We are increasingly becoming a society that has less and less tolerance and understanding of natural canine behaviors. Breed specific behaviors that have been respected and selected for over the centuries are now often viewed as unnatural or dangerous,” Delise said. “Dogs have throughout the centuries served as protectors and guardians of our property, possessions and families. Dogs have also been used for thousands of years to track, chase and hunt both large and small animals. These natural and selected-for canine behaviors seem to now eliciting fear, shock and a sense of distrust among many people.”

“There seems to be an ever growing expectation of a 'behaviorally homogenized' dog - Benji in the shape of a Rottweiler,” Delise said. “Breeds of dogs with greater protection instincts or an elevated prey-drive are often unfairly viewed as aggressive or dangerous. No breed of dog is inherently vicious, as all breeds of dogs were created and are maintained exclusively to serve and co-exist with humans. The problem exists not within the breed of dog, but rather within the owners that fail to control, supervise, maintain and properly train the breed of dog they choose to keep – any dog, regardless of breed, is only as dangerous as his/her owner allows it to be. Addressing the issue of severe and fatal dog attacks as a breed specific problem is akin to treating the symptom and not the disease. Severe and fatal attacks will continue until we come to the realization that allowing a toddler to wander off to a chained dog is more of a critical factor in a fatal dog attack than which breed of dog is at the end of the chain.”