Being bitten by a dog is a primal experience in fear. As a member of homo sapiens I fully expect to be at the top food chain. So I have never forgotten what it felt like to have dog fangs rip through the back of my leg when I was a kid. Recent data suggests that that people in the United States suffer about 5 million dog bites annually and that emergency rooms treat about 370,000 people for such bites. The pro-dog group, National Canine Research Council, notes that dogs have killed about 30 people annually in each of the last three years. This out of a population of 310 million people and 70 million dogs.
In my case, I don't recall the breed; it was some kind of small dog that certainly could not have killed me, neverthelss it was a shock. Being assured that the dog had had its shots, my parents treated my wound with mecurochrome and that was it. In recent years, one breed has been singled out as especially dangerous, pit bulls. In fact, something like 600 cities and localities have outlawed pit bulls.
Over at RealClearScience, Ross Pomeroy tells the story of baseball player Mark Buehrle and his family's pit bull Slater. The problem is that Buehrle has been traded to the Toronto team and the province of Ontario has banned pit bulls. So Buehrle's family has decided to move to pit bull accepting St. Louis, Missouri, while he commutes to play ball. So are pit bulls especially dangerous? Pomeroy argues:
Discrimination against pit bulls stems primarily from media sensationalism. Over the past decades, thousands of articles and reports have depicted the dogs as powerful monsters that will attack children unprovoked, locking their jaws down upon unsuspecting victims and not letting go. All of this is simply untrue.
It is true, sadly, that pit bulls have been widely exploited for use in illegal dog fighting, potentially due to their strength and athleticism. This has promulgated the dogs' vicious stereotype. Additionally, three different studies have found that dogs commonly perceived as "vicious" -- pit bulls, among them -- were more likely to have owners who committed crimes and scored higher in psychopathy. It follows that these owners may be more likely to mistreat their pets, which can adversely affect the pooches' demeanor.
The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS) is an organization that scores different dog breeds for their ability to interact with humans and their environment. ATTS's signature temperament test, which the organization has conducted on over 30,000 dogs, measures "stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness as well as the dog's instinct for protectiveness towards its handler and/or self-preservation in the face of a threat." How well did the pit bull score? It was found to be the second most tolerant breed, losing out only to golden retrievers.
Moreover, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) contends that, "controlled studies have not identified [pit bulls] as disproportionately dangerous." The AVMA also insists that "it has not been demonstrated that breed-specific bans affect the rate or severity of bite injuries occurring in the community."
Basically, banning pit bulls is another exercise in moral panics in which officials want to be seen as doing "something" even if that "something" does essentially nothing about the alleged problem it's supposed to solve.
As my former Reason colleague Radley Balko noted in a blogpost, "A Canine Innocence Project?" back in 2010:
Bad owners create bad dogs, regardless of the dog's lineage.
Bans on pit bulls don't prevent dog fighting, nor do they prevent people from raising vicious dogs. They just ensure that dogs fitting the pit bull description will be vicious, because the well-bred lines will be discontinued and good owners will stop raising them. Meanwhile, people who raise dogs for fighting will simply move on to another breed.
Moreover, the term pit bull isn't really a breed at all. It's a generic term that can and has been applied to just about any dog with bulldog and/or terrier traits (take the pit bull test here). The American Kennel Club-recognized breed that's generally associated with the term is the American Staffordshire Terrier. And the vast, vast majority of staffies are harmless (they're actually considered a child-friendly breed).
In fact, most fighting dogs commonly called pit bulls aren't bloodlined staffies. Fighting dogs are bred for attributes conducive to fighting, not for pedigree.
Better to impose strict liability on dog owners for any damage their pets do to others or their property.
Holding dog owners to a strict liability* standard is clearly the way to go.
*Having only finished three semesters of law school, I evidently abused the legal term "strict liability" which means "liability incurred for causing damage to life, limb, or property by a hazardous activity or a defective product, without having to prove that the defendant was negligent or directly at fault. It arises not from any wrongdoing but from the fact of the activity or product being inherently hazardous or defective." A negligence standard is more appropriate. And by negligence, I mean things like not properly taking care or training his or her dog. Thanks to commenter RC Dean for calling me down.
Hat tip to Alex Berezow.
Disclosure: I much prefer cats to dogs.