I just got back in town from a wonderful family vacation with my beautiful kids, 8 and 10 years old. Returning to town to hear about the tragic death of a 6 year old boy here in our local community in nearby Hendersonville, NC, was indeed devastating. He was killed by a neighbor’s dog when he climbed over the fence from his grandfather’s yard to the dog owners’. My heart breaks for the victim’s family.
Doing what I do for a living, specializing in dog aggression for 15 years, I find myself deeply saddened by this incident as one which ideally could have been prevented in a number of ways. The “warning signs”, however, may not have been ones that we as a culture are accustomed to looking for.
There is no blame here for the parents, for the owners of the dog, or for the shelter who adopted out the dog. The dog apparently had shown no previous signs of aggression before or in the time since the adoption a few weeks before the boy was killed. The dog had played with the boy and other children without concern in the days before. Adults had interacted with the dog and described him as being friendly without reservation. Details are still unclear about the case to be sure, and there may be more information about the dog and his history that emerges in the coming weeks. But from my professional position, there is a central conversation that we need to be having as a dog loving local and national community about certain risks related to our pet dogs’ behavior at a time like this. It is a conversation that few want to have. Avoiding it, unfortunately, doesn’t make it go away.
Any dog could take offense to a person entering their property by coming over a fence in their backyard, especially if the owners of that dog’s property are not home. The potential for a child to be bitten under such circumstances would be relatively high for any kind of dog. A young child accidentally finding their way into a fenced yard with dog without adult supervision, even for a few minutes, can easily result in a dog bite. And this kind of thing happens all the time. But we don’t hear about all the dog bites on the evening news. We mostly hear about Pitbulls and similar kinds of dogs.
Many feel that the dog’s breed is the reason these incidents make the news, that certain kinds of dogs have gotten an unfair reputation for being vicious or aggressive. And while breed stereotyping does indeed exist, and misunderstandings about breeds and their behaviors abound, the stereotyping itself is not the reason these incidents make headlines. It is the level of damage that these kinds of dogs are capable of inflicting that makes some bites more newsworthy than others.
It isn’t that other dogs don’t bite. They do. Any kind of dog (and I mean any kind of dog) can and will bite under the right circumstances. We would all be wise to remember this and not take dogs for granted (especially when it comes to kids) as the animals they fundamentally are, no matter how friendly they might behave overall. Bully breeds, including Pitbulls, are not more likely to bite people. They are arguably far less likely to bite in frequency compared to many other kinds of dogs.
Ask any vet- a Chihuahua coming in for an exam is almost invariably a bite risk for veterinary staff. But the bites those little guys are capable of would be hard pressed to put someone in the ER. Even the notoriously nippy and reactive border collies, snapping as they often do, fail to cause life- threatening injuries with any regularity. My own son has been bitten a few times by border collies and terriers belonging to neighbors, and has never been bitten by a Pitbull. But he never went to the hospital for any of those bites. The problem with dogs like Pitbulls is in the style and severity of bite that has been deliberately bred into them for the sake of their history as bull baiting and fighting dogs.
For these dogs, the ritualized warning that helps other dogs and people see a bite coming have been muted because such warnings are counterproductive in the fighting ring. Breeders interested in winning such fights historically bred the inhibited displays out while exaggerating the force of the grab-bite in predation/altercation. Many kinds of dogs have been genetically altered in such ways, exaggerating the eye – stalk – chase and muting the grab-bite -- kill-bite in herding dogs for instance. Throughout history, these changes were invaluable for many tasks necessary for humans to be successful. With some breeds of dogs, these changes were for no purpose other than blood sport entertainment. Sad, but true.
Their better qualities (and there are many) as pets and companions have made bully breeds very popular. They are gregarious, playful, hilarious, tolerant, and obedient on the whole. But make no mistake about it- ANY dog of ANY breed can be triggered by a cue in the environment to engage in their artificially selected job (hunting, herding, ratting, protecting, conflict) when the conditions resemble that original context. Like a program opening and running by the click of a mouse on your computer, the software of the genetics awaken a sequence that is largely out of the dog’s control.
So don’t burden yourselves or your neighbors with the unrealistic notion that it’s “all how you raise them”. Sometimes it doesn’t have a darn thing to do with the people, the dog’s past, the life the dog is living. It’s not true, or fair, to maintain that dogs are mere blank slates on which we write their behavior. Their experiences in the rest of their world have a lot to do with it, to be sure (their life LEARNING and their ENVIRONMENT obvious factors), but the GENETICS will matter too. And every dog is indeed an individual SELF unlike any other. But we need to start preparing people better and have more honest conversations that are indeed a little uncomfortable.
It’s not about condemnation. It’s about that golden ounce of prevention. Know what a dog was bred for. Know what they are designed for. Expect to see it in the right set of circumstances so you can be prepared to make good choices and be pleasantly surprised when you never see unwanted behaviors at all. But don’t put on blinders. It won’t change what’s there.
Let’s talk about these dogs. Like the clients who came in today with their new Pitbull mix after this week’s events to learn more about their dog and be proactive about her behavioral management, we can take action. We can all take steps to say we are ready to talk. Let’s love the bully breeds we have and think about how to protect them from themselves, from the GENETICS they never asked for and don’t understand. They have no bad intentions. They are not vicious. They have been designed by unethical people and our job, as I see it, is to begin to unburden them from these impulses and abilities they never wanted in the first place. But let’s not make more. We can redesign them again and let nature fix the mistakes of the past through GENETIC diversity. For them. For us. For our kids. Breed no more.