Violent dogs have become a profound issue for the dog culture and a mushrooming public health risk for Americans. The numbers are startling: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that in 1994, the most recent year for which published data are available, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occurred in the United States. According to the Humane Society, last year more than 800,000 people—more than half of them children—were bitten seriously enough to go to a hospital. More than a dozen bite victims die each year. In the last decade, the number of dogs in America rose 2 percent annually while the number of bites increased 37 percent.
The injury rates are highest among children, especially young boys. Adults tend to get bitten on the arms or legs; children, closer to the ground, are typically bitten on the face and neck, the CDC says. According to the Dog Bite Law Foundation, a comprehensive resource for information on dog violence, there is an 80 percent chance that a biting dog is a male.
Although pit bull mixes and Rottweilers are the most likely breeds to kill and maim humans, other breeds have also been responsible for fatal attacks on people: German shepherds, huskies, Alaskan malamutes, Doberman pinschers, chows, Great Danes, Saint Bernards, and Akitas. Contrary to stereotype, retrievers, poodles, and other popular breeds are much more likely to bite people than pit bulls or Rottweilers. They also, as a rule, do less damage.
Bites are usually not random attacks by strays. The great majority of biting dogs belong to a family member or friend of the victim. When a young child is the victim, the attack almost always occurs in the family home, and the perpetrator is usually a "good" dog that had not previously behaved in a menacing way. Owners who buy aggressive dogs for security may be kidding themselves: The chances that the victim of a fatal dog attack will be a burglar or human attacker are 1-in-177. The odds that the victim will be a child are 7-in-10.
The epidemic of attacks on people suggests that something is seriously wrong with the way many people acquire, train, understand, and move about society with their dogs. Well-meaning dog rescuers have taken an approach that may increase the amount of dog violence and frighten and alienate non-dog-owners. For some rescuers, saving violent dogs has become a mission. Violent dogs are now brought into the mainstream population by the thousands each year. Among some dog advocates, it's considered immoral to euthanize a violent dog, but acceptable, even praiseworthy, to bring one into contact with children. Sometimes, a moral inversion seems to occur: Gentler, adoptable dogs are left to die in shelters because more dangerous dogs are seen as in greater need.
Rescued, puppy mill, and incompetently bred dogs have more behavioral problems than properly bred purebreds or thoroughly evaluated shelter dogs. That's often why they need rescue in the first place. Training them is a consuming, demanding, and ongoing job. The fundamental question remains: Is it right to breed, sell, rescue, and re-home so many dogs capable of so much damage? Is it right to adopt a violent dog?
The animal-rights movement sees itself as deeply moral, a powerful advocate for animals. But who is fighting for all those kids with face and neck injuries? Who's thinking about how attacks—which tarnish the reputation of all dogs—are making it increasingly difficult to integrate the nonviolent dogs into our society, so that they can remain part of our homes and lives, sometimes our workplaces and public spaces?
(Obviously, it would be helpful, as many dog lovers advocate, to teach children how to approach strange dogs, to not look them in the eye, grab at them suddenly, put one's face close to dogs' faces, or mess with their food. Still, it's nearly impossible to teach a 3-year-old to always behave appropriately when she encounters an animal, and it's distasteful to blame her for getting bitten.)
Spice was by no means a "bad" dog. There are, in fact, no "good" or "bad" dogs; the species is incapable of moral choice. Spice reacted instinctively when another dog approached her owner and got into her face, and Jan was right to insist that the incident wasn't Spice's fault. Nor can we blame Jan or the poor grandmother who led her grandchild into such a horrific scene. But deciding on blame is beside the point. Blame or no, the consequences of attacks like these are not acceptable.
When people buy, rescue, or otherwise acquire a dog from unscrupulous breeders or amateur rescue groups, they are making a decision with ethical consequences. They have a profound responsibility to consider their actions; to gauge the dog's behavior, to train it thoroughly and rigorously, to protect other humans and dogs from harm.
Personally, I don't want to own a dog that inspires fear. I choose my dogs carefully, have their temperaments observed and evaluated, train and socialize them day after day. Yet I know any dog can be unpredictable. Should mine ever harm another person or dog, I would consider myself responsible, except in the rarest of circumstances (if someone attacked me, for example).
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