If it bites, it must be a pit bull, right?

August 20, 2010

Media bias is becoming more dangerous to dog-owners than the dogs the media is trying to make everyone afraid of.

The National Canine Resource Council looked at news stories involving dog bites in a four-day period, and results were typical of what you’d see in any four-day period at any time in the United States.  From the ASPCA:

August 18, 2007—A Labrador mix attacked a 70-year-old man, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. Police officers arrived at the scene and the dog was shot after charging the officers.
This incident was reported in one article in the local paper.
August 19, 2007—A 16-month-old child received fatal head and neck injuries after being attacked by a mixed-breed dog.
This attack was reported on twice by the local paper.
August 20, 2007—A six-year-old boy was hospitalized after having his ear torn off and receiving a severe bite to the head by a medium-sized, mixed-breed dog.
This incident was reported in one article in the local paper.
August 21, 2007—A 59-year-old woman was attacked in her home by two pit bulls and was hospitalized with severe, but not fatal, injuries.
This attack was reported in over 230 articles in national and international newspapers, as well as major television news networks including CNN, MSNBC and FOX.

Along with over-reporting, false reporting is a major contributor to the public relations nightmare currently facing pit bulls. There is an emerging tendency for all short-haired, stocky dogs to be called pit bulls—and when a dangerous dog’s breed is unknown, the media is not above assuming that the dog involved must have been a pit bull. The National Canine Resource Council terms this phenomenon “Everything is a pit bull, whether it is or not.” In the rush to publish, the pit bull label is often inaccurately applied—and even if a correction is later made, the damage is done.

Now for some facts:

  • A breed estimate based on looks is a badly faulty assumption.  According to the NCRC, the truth is you can’t always tell what breed you’re looking at just because the dog is stocky, has short hair and a squarish face.
  • Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control counts 4.5 million bites per year, most never reported to local authorities.

Analysis by the CDC pins down the variables that make bites more common, and they have nothing at all to do with breed:

Function of Dog – In 2006, 78% of the owners of dogs involved in fatal attacks maintained the dogs not as household pets, but as guard dogs, fighting dogs, intimidation dogs, breeding dogs, or yard dogs.

Owner Management & Control – In 2006, 84% of the owners of dogs involved in fatal attacks either maintained their dogs on chains or in pens, allowed the dogs to run loose, neglected or abused their dogs, and/or allowed children to interact with unfamiliar dogs.

Reproductive Status of Dog – In 2006, 97% of the owners of dogs involved in fatal attacks failed to spay or neuter their animals.

In other words, whether the dog is intact or spayed/neutered and how the dog is being treated or socialized are the biggest factors  in whether a bite is more or less likely. It’s not about breed, whether it’s a pure bred pit bull terrier or an unknown mix.

Nevertheless, when I look for items to include in news wraps over the course of the week, I encounter literally dozens of gory stories on the awfulness of pit bulls.  What the media are either unaware of or willfully ignoring is that the dog’s — and the event’s — circumstances should be the story.  So why the disconnect?

Two reasons:

  • The Taco Bell dog is considered cuter, so they make terrible villains.
  • A news story is like fresh bread. It goes stale fast, and looking into the history, background and circumstances will take time.  In the news biz, time really is money.  If the dog is short haired, stocky and looks mean, that’s a great visual. If the dog looks lovable, with a waggy tail and bright eyes, like the mutt you grew up with, at first glace it’s hard to understand how he/she could bite anyone, much less cause serious harm. Not a sexy story.

The problem we face is that the information we’re given about which dogs are doing the biting is filtered through an impossibly biased (and frequently wrong) source. More importantly, it misses the point.  Rather than “What kind of dog was it?”, ask “Was the dog intact? Was he/she chained up outside all day in a dirt pen and largely ignored?” Evidence shows that will get you to the heart of the issue faster, and tell the real story.

As Gina says dozens of times a day, “Question everything.”

Photo credit: Kent Brockman, comicvine.com. Gidget, technorati.

Filed under: media,pets, connected — David S. Greene @ 5:05 am


  1. My next door neighbor has a purebred yellow lab. A census worker told me the “pitbull” tried to bite her. (Actually, he barked at her.) I corrected her and she didn’t believe me. “Labs are nice dogs. Pitbulls bite.” My neighbor has the dog’s papers handy, and the breeder on alert, just in case.

    Comment by PamJJ — August 20, 2010 @ 7:02 am

  2. Oh brother, Pam!

    I think the situation is improving for pibbles, thanks for folks like BADRAP and the lessons of the Vick survivors. But we still need to bring down the overall number of pibbles so they’re not killed by the barrel-full in shelters.

    Part of that answer is making them credible as an adoption option, and part is aggressive programs offering free or incentivized spay-neuter to reduce their numbers overall.

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — August 20, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  3. Thank you for an excellent post. Pibbles definitely need a press agent.

    And we definitely need to all work harder to get the word out that early socialization will make all dogs less likely to bite.

    Comment by Pamela — August 20, 2010 @ 7:25 am

  4. Regarding the s/n portion of the argument — I’ve wondered if the reproductive status of the dogs is really an incidental statistic…as in, are more dogs who are socially neglected/abused by their owners left intact in the first place, leading to a false correlation? Perhaps the is some truth to it, but not to the degree suggested by unfiltered numbers?

    Theoretically, I can rationalize how an intact animal may be more prone to conspecific aggression due to perceived competition, but am not convinced that this would translate to humans.

    I really don’t know the answer; it’s just something I have questioned for a while.

    Comment by Michelle — August 20, 2010 @ 7:26 am

  5. Michelle: I don’t have any hard numbers because I haven’t kept any. But after 30 years of training dogs for the public, I can tell you that intact males dogs have the shortest trigger. If I have a dog ‘go off’ in class – towards other dogs or people – overwhelmingly that dog is an intact male. Not 100% of course, but more so than intact females, neutered males, or spayed females.

    Of course, dog training class is not ‘real life’ – it’s an artificial situation, somewhat stressful in that it’s out of the dog’s normal routine, and so on. But it is something to keep in mind.

    Comment by Liz Palika — August 20, 2010 @ 7:48 am

  6. “Reproductive Status of Dog – In 2006, 97% of the owners of dogs involved in fatal attacks failed to spay or neuter their animals.

    In other words, whether the dog is intact or spayed/neutered and how the dog is being treated or socialized are the biggest factors in whether a bite is more or less likely.”

    No, no, no, no, no. The fact that a huge percentage of the dogs were intact DOES NOT demonstrate that this status was a factor in their behavior. This is evidence that the OWNERS failed to take responsibility for their dogs in that respect, as well as in failing to properly socialize, contain them, etc. And for anyone ready to jump – No, I am not suggesting that ‘all dogs should be sterilized and owners that don’t do this are irresponsible.’ Owners that choose not to sterilize their dogs for legitimate reasons are highly unlikely to be among those whose dogs have a propensity for dangerous behavior due to inappropriate breeding and rearing and confinement (or lack of it). Let’s suppose that a high percentage of dangerous dogs are unlicensed, or not wearing collars when they attack a person. By the “intact dogs bite” logic, simply buying a license and putting a collar on the dog would reduce its potential danger to the public, right? The existence of a fact and of an act does not mean that one is the cause of the other.

    Smaller quibble with this statement: “It’s not about breed, whether it’s a pure bred pit bull terrier or an unknown mix.” I would have added “or a different breed altogether.”

    Comment by elaine — August 20, 2010 @ 7:49 am

  7. I think there’s both — some “intact male syndrome” and some “poor training/socialization and isolation.”

    Not that I have a lot of experience with intact males. Woody is the first one I’ve had, and although he’s sensible, well-socialized, well-trained and non-aggressive (loves people, comfortable around strange dogs), he is definitely a “man-dog.”

    There’s a reason why most people can’t manage stallions and why geldings are such awesome mounts, after all: Two reasons, in fact, and once they’re gone, the animal who remains is much more tractable.

    Can an experienced dog-owner/handler/trainer compensate for the special challenge of a dog with testicles? Of course. Can a “normal” pet owner? Probably not,and most don’t want the extra work, anyway. Can someone who tosses a dog into the back-yard to isolate him or puts him on a chain 24/7? Absolutely not.

    But the “direct coloration” between “intact” and “bite” is undoubtedly a great deal more complicated — and a lot less direct — than the numbers seem to indicate.

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — August 20, 2010 @ 8:28 am

  8. a pitbull or a poodle…or another breed or or or…

    Comment by mare — August 20, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  9. My Rott is a lapdog. The worst thing about him is as soon as you pet him he rolls over for belly rubs. It makes it hard to sleep at night. He also does not spoon.

    The wirehair pointer spoons, and her butt makes a nice pillow.

    Comment by Erich Riesenberg — August 20, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  10. @ Liz Palika – Thank you for sharing your insight and experience. Most canine behavior problems I see* are shyness and lack of confidence due to poor socialization…and most intact dogs I know are owned by people who consider them part of their family…several are therapy dogs, etc. So my supposition is hardly based on vast life experience, but falls more under speculation and statistics.

    *By see I literally mean observe over time…not that I am normally asked to work with them.

    Comment by Michelle — August 20, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  11. I’m with the people who question the validity of the reproductive status connection. Even if intact male dogs have the shortest trigger, is “short trigger” the primary factor in the majority bite and mauling cases? For example, in the Nicholas Fabish case in San Francisco, the boy was left unsupervised with an intact mating pair. That doesn’t suggest a dog who “snapped” but a predictable sort of territorial aggression.

    I think an unspoken factor here is poverty. Poverty prevents people from getting animals altered when they want to. Poverty leads to people getting genetically iffy, backyard bred dogs rather than going to a more conscientious and knowledgable breeder. Poverty leads to the logistical conditions that allow the attacks to happen, from keeping dogs in inappropriate spaces to leaving a child alone with dogs when you can’t afford a babysitter to improper supervision and deficient training of pets. Poverty contributes to the kinds of neighborhoods where there’s not enough police presence, dogs run free, and elderly people are fending for themselves.

    Comment by Barbara Saunders — August 20, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  12. Mt original comment was:

    I don’t have any hard numbers because I haven’t kept any. But after 30 years of training dogs for the public, I can tell you that intact males dogs have the shortest trigger. If I have a dog ‘go off’ in class – towards other dogs or people – overwhelmingly that dog is an intact male. Not 100% of course, but more so than intact females, neutered males, or spayed females.

    Of course, dog training class is not ‘real life’ – it’s an artificial situation, somewhat stressful in that it’s out of the dog’s normal routine, and so on. But it is something to keep in mind.

    Comment by Liz Palika — August 20, 2010 @ 7:48 am

    I again state – I was not talking about all intact male dogs. I was talking about intact male dogs in a class situation. Which I admitted is an artificial situation.

    My point was – with intact males, intact females, neutered males, and spayed females – the intact males tend to have the shortest trigger.

    Now, the dogs in class tend to be dogs who have issues of some kind and the owner is looking for help. The dogs and owners come from a variety of backgrounds, many are far from the poverty level, but the owners care enough to try and do something about their dog’s behavior.

    I wasn’t implying that all dogs that bite are intact males or that all intact males bite.

    I was adding some information from my perspective and experience.

    Comment by Liz Palika — August 20, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

  13. I’m guessing it’s the patches, but this is my “pit bull” :)


    Comment by straybaby — August 20, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

  14. Wow, great article and comments.

    I really like the slogan “ban the deed, not the breed.” A dog of any genetic heritage can act aggressively – and usually it is a result of its upbringing (or lack thereof). Therefore any media or legislation should be a non-breed-specific look at behaviors that we want curtailed, rather than simply banning a certain look of dog.

    It seems like the media picks a breed to go after and moves on to another after a few years. Right now, pit bulls are the popular breed to hate; before that it was Rottweilers, Dobermans, and German Shepherds. All fantastic dogs – especially with the right training, of course, like any other dog.

    It seems to me like these reports usually say “pit bull” or else don’t name a breed at all. The example above citing a Lab is the first I’ve ever seen a Lab mentioned. It seems to me further evidence that the media prefers to highlight the dog-to-be-feared du jour rather than objectively looking at the story. Has anyone else noticed that?

    Comment by PawPosse Sonia — August 20, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

  15. I read the story about the pit bull bite. “Martin [owner of one dog] said it appeared the dogs broke free from their chains and broke through the backyard fence.” Again, dogs not physically maintained or controlled by humans are more likely to attack humans.

    I do believe intact males are more likely to bite, but I do not think it is a causation correlation. I think the causation is still either using the animal merely as a stud and not socializing or interacting with OR refusing to meet the dog’s needs one of which is mating for an intact dog. I do think the ASPCA likes this statistic though as anyone who sees the number of dogs die in shelters hopes people read this and will alter their animals.

    Both of these issues are more common for owners that choose to own pit bulls. I’m not saying no one ever leave other dogs intact or chains them in the backyard, but there is a higher number of these special people that are attracted to the pit bull breed.

    A few things left out of this article that I feel deserve a mention. When reporting dog bite statistics based on breed it is important to qualify the number of bites versus the entire population of that breed. 2 pit bull bites in a population of 2000 pit bulls is a lot less than 1 jack russell terrier bite in a population of 50 jack russell terriers. One thing the media also does will do is play with words. It’s an incident unless it involves a particular breed and then it is an attack.

    Kudos to acknowledging that a dog that bites is often called a pit bull because it bit someone without actually being a pit bull.

    Comment by Robyn — August 20, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

  16. Robyn said [a causation of intact males being more likely to bit is owners’] “refusing to meet the dog’s needs one of which is mating for an intact dog.”

    Can’t tell if you are spreading this nonsense because you don’t know any better, or if you are saying it to feed a myth in support of mandatory S/N laws. Either way, it won’t fly.

    Intact dogs don’t “need to breed” to be manageable. If that were the case, one would need to give an intact male that opportunity on a daily basis – at least – because they would mate that often if presented with the option. If that were the case, intact males would be useless as service dogs and working dogs, any job.

    Yes, many people find neutered males easier to manage, and Yes, you are entitled to feel “it isn’t fair to the dog” if you have a need to project your own feelings onto animals. But there is no basis for concluding that an intact male that is used for breeding is any more or less manageable than one that has not been bred. How people train and maintain their dogs is what makes the difference.

    Comment by elaine — August 20, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  17. I agree that the *correlation* between intact status and bite risk is, in fact, not *causation.*

    The intact animals who populate the serious bite/mauling/fatality stats have not been neutered because neutering represents a conscious choice and positive effort and expense on the part of the owners. And what the stories behind the bare stats show is that most of these animals’ owners (or “owners”) have *never* made a positive effort to do *anything* with or for their animals.

    The dogs are also unvaccinated. That didn’t cause the bite. It’s just a correlation, a stand-in for an owner characteristic that IS causative.

    Treating “intact” as if it was an independent risk factor makes as much sense as lumping the devoted non-vaccinating owner who does annual titres at the holistic vet in with the ignorant or negligent owner who just doesn’t want to stand in line at the shot clinic and part with ten bucks.

    I can predict the behavior of an intact male coming for training pretty well if I know WHY he is intact.

    If the dog is intact because the owner cannot discriminate between the dog’s balls and his own, then he’s going to be up on his toes, aggressive, posturing, and, as Liz said, more likely to *go off* at other animals and perhaps people. (These dogs are most frequently “macho” breeds or highly reactive terriers, so there’s some sampling bias there that is hard to correct.)

    If the dog is intact because he’s an excellent example of his breed and is wisely being retained for breeding, he will present no special problems. Neutered males are butthead adolescents, too.

    If the dog is intact because the owner *thinks* he’s breed-worthy, but really just wants to make some puppies for $$, he’s liable to be a general PITA.

    I don’t see dogs in training classes whose owners genuinely cannot afford to get them neutered, as those folks also can’t afford training classes.

    I do see them as breed rescue fosters sometimes, and I honestly can’t think of any who either needed or were improved by their subsequent neutering. Actually, of the fosters who I have first met as intact young adults or older pups, five out of seven were dogs who I’ve had reason to regret had to be neutered — because they had such nice temperaments that the gene pool might have been improved if they’d gotten to swim in it. (That’s also true of a couple of the dogs that came to me already neutered — I’ve been known to utter the rescue heresy “Damn, that’s a nice ES — I’d have bred my bitch to him in a heartbeat.”)

    I’ve got an eight-year-old Labrador living with me now. He was neutered last month. I only got him neutered because (a) I’m rehoming him, and didn’t want the trouble of screening out idjits who were looking for a free chonklit-colored stud; (b) he had a prostate the size of a tangerine, a benign condition for which there is one sure cure. His behavior is now and was before entirely exemplary. He was not difficult to manage or in any way a stallion-level of pet. His previous owners could not have managed a stroppy gerbil. Easy dog with balls = easy dog without balls. Little creep with balls – little creep without.

    That’s leaving aside the point that reporters treat intact bitch as if it was equivalent to intact male. This is only true in that correlative way, that the intact bitches who end up attacking neighborhood kids or the old lady next door are intact because no one cared enough to spay them — or train them, exercise them, socialize them, contain them, license them, vaccinate them.

    In general, spayed bitches will have *higher* baseline aggression than intact bitches. It’s not a huge effect, but it appears to be real.

    Comment by H. Houlahan — August 20, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

  18. It seems to me that the biggest cause of dog bites is irresponsible owners who don’t train and properly socialize their dogs. Instead of mandatory dog licensing, maybe we need to think about mandatory OWNER licensing? And if a dog is a biter, holding the owner strictly responsible rather than just a slap on the wrist.

    Comment by CatPrrson — August 21, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

  19. I think elaine is correct. I think reproductive status is incidental to these incidents, not causal.

    The following scientific studies found that sterilization does not reduce aggression in dogs. In fact these all found that spayed or neutered dogs have higher rates of aggression than intact dogs.

    Michelle Bamberger, MS, DVM, and Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB
    Signalment factors, comorbidity, and trends in behavior diagnoses in dogs: 1,644 cases (1991–2001)
    Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol 229, No. 10, November 15, 2006

    Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression
    Ilana R Reisner, Frances S Shofer, Michael L Nance
    Injury Prevention 2007; 13:348–351

    Deborah L. Duffy, Ph.D., and James A. Serpell, Ph.D., Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
    Non-reproductive Effects of Spaying and Neutering on Behavior in Dogs
    Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Non-Surgical Contraceptive Methods for Pet Population Control, 2006

    Anthony L. Podberscek, James A. Serpell
    Animal Welfare and Human-Animal Interactions Group, Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.
    Applied Animal Behaviour Science 47 (1996) 75-89
    The English Cocker Spaniel: preliminary findings on aggressive behaviour

    V. O’Farrell and E. Peachey
    Behavioural effects of ovario-hysterectomy on bitches Small Animal Clinic, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Summerhall, Edinburgh EH9 1QH
    Journal of Small Animal Practice (1990) 31, 595-598

    Hyeon H. Kim a, Seong C. Yeon a,, Katherine A. Houpt b, Hee C. Lee Hong H. Chang a, Hyo J. Lee
    Institute of Animal Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, Gyeongsang National University, Jinju 660-701, Republic of Korea
    Animal Behaviour Clinic, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-6401, USA
    Effects of ovariohysterectomy on reactivity in German Shepherd dogs
    The Veterinary Journal 172 (2006) 154–159

    Comment by LauraS — August 23, 2010 @ 8:03 am

  20. It seems that many of you are happy to explain that high incident numbers of intact animals being responsible for dog bites is only a correlation (and could be spurious). HOWEVER several of you go on to make anecdotal observations of causation – e.g. poverty, owner characteristics etc. It seems the point should be that incidents need to be look at for all the contributing factors and that looking at percentage of incidents (e.g. reproductive status, use of animal, breed of animal, etc.) often does not tell the full story nor explain WHY animals become aggressive. You also need to consider the factors that effect REPORTS of bites. I believe there has been a study (can’t remember it) that found that people are less likely to REPORT a bite of a dog such as a chihuahua or other small dogs (the report SPECULATES that part of this is that people feel they will be perceived less tough if they report these bites). The point is social behavior (here the interaction of two species – human and dog) is quite complex with a variety of contributing factors. Laws that require certain actions – like breed specific legislation – entirely misses this point and is counterproductive.

    Question EVERYTHING!

    Comment by Sarah — August 30, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  21. Yeah, I just think that people that neglect their animals shouldn’t be aloud to have any. Period.

    Comment by LACI — November 23, 2010 @ 9:52 am

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