Jaimee Westfall, a trauma nurse at Texas Children's Hospital for 13 years, said serious dog- bite cases were unusual in years past but now are becoming increasingly common.
"Over and over, I hear the victims' families say that they never thought their dog could do this," Westfall said. "He just snapped."
Thousands of complaints about aggressive dogs also are pouring in to the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
"We had 4,130 calls this past year in the unincorporated area, which is 5 percent more than the year before," said sheriff's spokesman Thomas Gilliland.This is an area where victims are seeking to use sweeping criminal laws to effect deterrence that would be much better achieved through a more robust civil justice system. Owners of aggressive dogs that attack someone have no "mens rea," or criminal intent, which in generations past was the bright-line distinction dividing criminal law and civil liability. But by the 21st century, that distinction had been muddied through overcriminalization and the expansion of criminal law to supplant other types of regulation.
The dogs linked to the three recent deaths and many catastrophic injuries at Texas Children's were attributed to pit bull-type breeds that can include the American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier as well as sometimes American bulldogs and presa canarios.
Colleen Lynn, who heads a national dog-bite victim group based in Austin, said 71 percent of the 31 dog-bite deaths recorded across the U.S. last year involved pit bull-type dogs.
Meanwhile, while we all feel terrible for the 31 people killed in dog attacks last year (22 by pits and their mixes, according to the story), there are an estimated 3.5 million or so pits and pit mixes in the United States, making them one of the more popular breeds. Also, people get bitten by dogs a lot, and mostly not by pit-associated breeds. About 1.5% of the American public is bit by a dog each year, with one in six bites requiring medical attention. So in practice, a breed-specific ban won't address most dog bites, and most dogs subject to it would be unlikely to ever seriously harm anyone.
Americans are prone to demonize dog breeds almost as a fetish, and at any given point in time the folks who worry about dangerous dogs always seem to have some waxing bogeyman to critique. After WWII, German Shepherds were the most feared attack dog. In the '60s, a movie starring James Garner titled "They Always Kill Their Masters" helped shift that scare-focus to Dobermans. And in recent years, urban dog fighting culture, a la Michael Vick, has shifted similar concern to pits.
But most pits (or Dobermans, or German Shepherds) aren't a serious threat, while any dog that's mistreated, neglected, or afraid can become dangerous. I happen to own three dogs, two of which would be characterized as pit-mixes. All three came to us essentially through rescue type scenarios - the pits from a young, since-incarcerated idiot who had bought them, but never trained them, to fight. Of the three, the only one I worry about biting anybody is the much smaller, non-pit mutt (a mix of Chow, German Shepherd, and some sort of much-smaller terrier breed, at least). The bigger dogs are a greater danger to lick you to death. Moreover, when they're around anyone they don't know, small children, etc., I make sure I closely control them, in part because of the extreme prejudice aimed at pits. As a practical matter, they pose little risk to anyone.
By contrast, in my neighborhood in Central East Austin, there have always been people who chain aggressive dogs outside or in some cases train them to fight. (Until the area began to gentrify and white people began to complain, we didn't see animal enforcement here much.) Any one of those chained dogs - regardless of breed - is more dangerous than any of my animals. As "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Milan wrote recently on the subject, "a breed is like a suit of clothes, it doesn’t tell you anything about the dog inside." One of Michael Vick's fighting pits actually ended up being trained and certified as a therapy dog (for which, it merits mention, pits are temperamentally well-suited). In a proper environment, these are loyal and submissive animals with big hearts, while in the wrong environment, any dog can become a danger.
To me, the idea that the government would ban or euthanize my dogs based on such long odds of tragedy borders on demonical. My dogs are my friends, my family - like this poor fellow, I'd feel incredibly guilty and sad if I ever acted on such busy-body advice to kill them. Milan says that he rehabilitates animals but trains people, and IMO irresponsible humans (and perhaps increased rates of reporting) are the proximate cause for the rise in dog-bites, not pits in general, and certainly not mine. Legislators should seek methods besides breed bans and criminal enforcement to counter the problem, and encourage victims to avail themselves of the civil justice system. In the meantime, though, keep your paws off my dogs.