Once again, anti-pit bull frenzy is unwarranted

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Pit bulls

A pit bull puppy is trained in Chicago in this file photo. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

"The Problem with Pit Bulls" was the headline of a Time magazine story (June 20, 2014) by Charlotte Alter. My problem is with the story, not with the dogs referred to as pit bulls.

The story, filled with inaccurate characterizations, called for breed-specific mandated sterilization, and ultimately vilified dogs referred to as pit bulls.

Whenever anti-pit bull frenzy is stirred up, it typically follows a tragic incident. This instance follows the pattern. A 3-year-old girl named Victoria was mauled in Simpson County, Miss., by her grandfather's three dogs, referred to in the media as "pit bulls."

It's difficult to discern exactly what happened this past April. According to Victoria, she was alone playing with some cats before the dogs broke through the back door and attacked her. News reports on the attack made no mention of the dogs' temperament or previous history.

Donald Mullin, Victoria's grandfather, shot and killed the dogs following the attack. Mullins and his girlfriend, Rita Tompkins, were charged with child endangerment.

Victoria is the same little girl who made national news earlier this month when a Jackson, Miss., Kentucky Fried Chicken employee supposedly asked her to leave the eatery because her scarred, disfigured face was "disrupting customers." The incident made national news. Interestingly, recent reports now suggest the episode was made up to raise money for the child's treatment.

According the Time story, a study in the Annals of Surgery in 2011 found that one person is killed by a pit bull every 14 days.

That data is absurd. Do the math; there are about 30 fatal dog attacks a year, so the numbers don't work. Also, in such cases, the dog breed is not identified. Over a decade ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks fatal dog attacks, stopped keeping tabs on the breeds involved because in the end what matters is what causes an attack -- not the typically inaccurate guess targeting the breed responsible.

Dog attacks which result in a fatality make news because they're rare events and therefore newsworthy.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are nearly 70 million dogs in America, and as it turns out, dogs are less violent toward people than people are to people. Over 1,500 children died of child abuse and/or neglect within their own families in 2010 (according to the Administration for Children and Families), and there were over 16,000 homicides in the U.S. in 2010 (according to the CDC).

When a dog attack results in a fatality (or serious injury), other factors supplant the alleged breed responsible, according to the National Canine Research Council. Sadly, it seems some of these factors may be relevant to what happened to little Victoria, such as:

--A victim's compromised ability, whether based on age (such as children) or physical condition, to manage their interactions with the dog(s).

--No able-bodied person being present to intervene (children should have adult supervision when interacting with any animal).

--Dogs not spayed/neutered. There's no data to suggest intact dogs are inherently more dangerous, but intact males are determined to roam in search of a female, and when they're off-leash without supervision, anything can happen.

--The owner keeping dog(s) primarily outdoors, often poorly socialized and with little or no training, rather than as family pet(s).

--The victim having no familiar relationship with the dog(s).

--The owner's prior mismanagement of the dog(s). Often, concerned family members or neighbors previously contacted officials about dangerous dogs, but no action was taken.

--The owner's abuse or neglect of dog(s). Dogs of any breed or mix who are abused and unsocialized may be fundamentally damaged as a result.

At a very practical level, identifying pit bulls is nearly impossible. What a dog looks like doesn't necessarily match the animal's genetic makeup. Modern genetic testing has shown that dogs most people identify as "pits" are, in fact, almost always mixes.

The Time story sourced PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as an expert source, and presumably in the corner of canines. That's hardly the truth. A long list of organizations that truly are in the business of animal welfare are actually opposed to legislation directed at a specific breed, including the American Veterinary Medical Association.

In July, experts from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior will release a position statement documenting why breed-specific restrictions and bans fail (in full disclosure, I co-authored this document).

At the end of the day, the vast majority of dogs we call pit bulls, based on a general 'look', are wonderful family pets. Many serve without incident as therapy dogs or in programs where children read to dogs; others are service dogs, some assisting wounded soldiers.

Blaming a dog breed and placing unenforceable restrictions on those dogs only distracts from addressing why any dog bites in the first place. For starters, we need sensible enforcement of current dangerous dog laws. If dogs are spay/neutered and kept as well-socialized, loving members of the family, and are supervised around young children, the number of serious dog bites would drop significantly.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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