Sunday, February 05, 2012

Demonizing pit bulls: Breed ban bad approach to dog-bite deaths

Among the criminal penalty enhancements and/or new crimes we can expect in the 83rd Texas Legislature in 2013, IMO  we're almmost certain to see legislation proposed banning dog breeds - especially pit bulls and related variants - under the pretense of protecting children, old people, etc., from deadly dog bites. Witness a Houston Chronicle story from yesterday that frames the issue in precisely that way, decrying the fact that "In the past five months, a newborn, another toddler and a 71-year-old retired teacher have been attacked and killed by dogs in the Houston area." Reported the Chron's Cindy Horswell:
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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

I totally appreciate your point about the ineffectiveness of legislating against a particular breed. At the same time, I doubt that a robust civil justice system would be much of a deterrent to irresponsible pit bull owners. My guess is that most of those types are judgment proof. This is a difficult issue with no easy solution.

jimbino said...

Can we start a fund to send these dogs to our legislators?

Anonymous said...

We already have laws on the books regarding dangerous dogs. See Texas Health and Safety Code 822. Any dog owner identified as owning a "dangerous dog" as defined in the code has some pretty substantial requirements to meet, including obtaining liability insurance coverage or financial responsibility in an amount of at least $100,000 to cover damages resulting from an attack.

How about we just enforce the laws we already have?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Bingo, 7:21. Given that, I don't know what makes jimbino et. al. think new laws will do any good.

2:26, that doesn't change the fact that we're talking about a tort, not a crime with intent. Also, early in this country's history almost all offenses, even WITH mens rea, were prosecuted by victims in civil settings. The fact that we've stripped civil law of much of its force under the guise of "tort reform" doesn't mean that's not the better venue for addressing the problem.

Our society has become like a carpenter who decides he will eschew saws, drills, screwdrivers and levels and will henceforth only use a hammer. Criminal law is not the sole possible solution to every social problem.

RSO wife said...

Why bother with the laws we already have if we can make a new law that makes us look like we know what we are doing?????

Dogs that are bred and sold by responsible accredited breeders and trained correctly behave the way they are supposed to behave unless they are mistreated by their owner.

A lot of people don't care where they get a dog as long as they get a good deal. Because of that, they know nothing about it's breeding or what kind of bloodline the dog has, they only know they got it cheap. Puppy mills are all over the place and the people who run them have no idea what they are doing.

There is a large parking lot close to my home that almost every weekend has people selling dogs from the back of cars and trucks. They are even there on weekdays during the summer. This has been against the law for a long time. I spoke to the dog catcher about this and he said he drives that parking lot every time he is in the area and if there is someone there selling dogs they get ticketed. That's the most he can do. He also told me to let the sheriff know because the sheriff can arrest them, the fine is $500 and the sheriff's dept gets all the fine money.

Recently, on a Saturday morning, I was going to one of the stores and there were people on the parking lot selling puppies. When I went into the store, I saw a Sheriff's deputy standing in one of the lines. I stopped him and told him what was happening and his response was, "What do you want me to do about it?" I asked if it wasn't against the law to sell dogs out of the trunk of a car and he said it was but that he had other things to do.

Can we make a law against that?????

Anonymous said...


This is the first time ever that you and I have been in perfect agreement. Breed specific legislation has never been the answer to the problem of of dog attacks.

In addition to being simple-minded and lacking fair standards, a major problem with breed specific legislation is that such laws/ordinances usually contain language that also bans "variants" of the prohibited breed. Determinations by animal control authorities about dogs' bloodlines are almost always made without any scientific proof, evidence, or testing. There are documented instances of high school dropouts employed by animal control making official judgements about the breed and/or genetic background of dogs solely through visual observation. In states and communities that have adopted breed-specific bans, such judgments have literally taken on the force of law and led to the forcible removal and euthanization of family pets that never exhibited any aggressive tendencies. That's the ugly truth about breed-specific legislation.

Thanks for posting this.


Anonymous said...

"71 percent of the 31 dog-bite deaths "

I rarely disagree with you, but, I think the fact that you own some of these dogs is clouding your judgment here. The above statistic says enough. 71% of "deaths." Yes, other breeds bite people but few are as vicious as pit bulls. I have a border colllie. She would probably only bite if she felt threatened in some way. Even if she did, there is no way she would latch on until the victim died in the way a pit bull does. Furthermore, a dachsund bite isn't likely to kill anyone. Just because other breeds bite doesn't put them in the same category with these dogs.

I've seen the damage a pit bull did to a friend's German Shepherd. There were puncture wounds where the pit locked its jaws and held on until the other dog stopped moving. This was not a dog that was abused or mistreated. These dogs are very territorial and they will attack another dog that invades their territory. The reason they attack - and kill - children is that, due to their size, they think the child is like another dog invading their territory.

I can't recall ever hearing of someone being killed by another breed. I know it happens but is rare compared to killings by pit bulls. Pit bulls are dangerous dogs. And, its not just the ones who are mistreated that are dangerous. Those that have not been mistreated have killed, most likely based on the territorial instinct.

The numbers don't lie. If you can put your bias aside, that's an easy fact to see- 71%. You really can't argue with that. To do so, ignores the reality of the situation.

I hate, as much as anyone, the proliferation and expansion of criminal laws. But, I have no problem with imposing criminal liability for someone who keeps one of these dangerous dogs. Its almost like keeping a bomb and just hoping it doesn't go off. Owners of these dogs should at the least be required to confine them within a secure fence and maintain ample liability insurance. Failure to do so should lead to criminal sanctions.

People who argue against breed-specific legislation simply choose to ignore the numbers that prove, beyond doubt, that this is a dangerous breed. The argument that pits are dangerous because they are mistreated is also belied by the facts. So, put aside your bias and take a good look at the facts.

Anonymous said...

These are nanny dogs. This article is about a pit bull in Texas getting an award for saving a little girls life.
And for our legislators to make it criminal to own one is wrong on many levels. However understanding the historical motives behind Texas legislation a law against pit bulls and similar breads goes along with so much of Texas legislation targeting minority’s and other undesirables. Our marijuana laws, affirmative action, and now crazy talk about laws against pit bull ownership! But our governor appears to believe its ok to molest children in state juvenile lock up. I have come to expect our Texas legislators to make laws that target minorities. Why should common since or intelligence get in the way of the legislative precedence of such deep ingrained wasp ideals.
Are all these legislative attacks against minority’s, especially targeting African Americans necessary, or are they nothing more than hate crimes perpetrated by our legislators. And if they are necessary shouldn’t we try to get these target groups some help to become more civilized so our legislators can spend more time on other important stuff? Like finding the money to take care of all the people locked up on account of the target laws?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:07, you're the one ignoring the data, or rather cherrypicking it: That's 71% of an EXTREMELY small sample size. 22 pits killed someone last year, out of 3.5 million-plus animals, but you conflate the killers with every other animal with a remotely similar bloodline.

To analogize, if (as is the case) black people are statistically responsible for a disproportionate share of murders, should non-murdering black people be incarcerated prospectively? Should the Irish be prospectively punished for DWI? From a statistical standpoint, it would make about as much sense.

My view is no more biased by owning these dogs than your is because your friend's dog was attacked. A few years ago I had a dog attacked on a walk by a roaming German Shepherd mix, and spent quite a bit on vet bills to bring him back from the brink. But I don't fantasize from that experience that every similar dog is inherently dangerous. Beyond anecdote, do have any evidence (besides mistaking correlation and causation) that the millions of dogs who didn't attack or kill anyone are as dangerous as those that did? If not, it's your own bias and fear shining through.

Anonymous said...

Dog attack is another good reason to obtain a CHL and start packing. There have been many unruly dogs in my county that have met their Maker this way. Of course, the dog owners are quick to try and file a "cruelty to animals" charge against the shooter, but it doesn't fly when the shooter claims the dog was about to attack him. It's unfortunate for the dog, but it makes the owner think twice about spending 500 or more dollars for another dog he can't let run wild and unruly.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sheldon, by the logic of the pit-banners, we would have been better off if the family's dog had been euthanized and the girl were still lost in the woods.

Unknown said...

This may be a bit irrelevant... but when you mentioned that you had never heard of a dog other than a Pit kill a person/child, I was reminded of the story of a pet ferret eating the face and fingers off a child.

Responsible pet ownership is the key... not villifying breeds.

A Texas PO said...

I used to be one of those people who feared pit bulls and pit mixes, primarily due to the media's over-reaction to such few cases clouding my judgment. Something tells me, though, that more people are killed crossing the state's highways than by pit bull attacks. But as was pointed out, the breed-specific ban changes. The early '90s saw a mass hysteria over rottweilers, and people in the '80s feared chows. If we ban the pit bull, there will just be another breed getting all of the attention tomorrow. If we must criminalize this sort of thing, then lets criminalize the owners using the laws currently on the books.

Many of the breed problems today have to do with over-breeding and poor breeding choices by owners out to make a quick buck (if I hear another one of my probationers talk about mating their pits to sell the litter, I think I'm going to scream). I heard that San Antonio some years ago, as part of their pet licensing program, began charging more for unaltered animals and those owners intent on breeding their canines. Not sure if this has cut down on the problem (and I use that word lightly). But what's next if we ban pit bulls? Are we going to ban bird dogs since they harass the pigeons in the parks? In the words of John Stossel, "Give me a break."

Anonymous said...

Number of people seriously injured by lions, tigers and bears in the U.S. is far less than that of those injured or killed by pitbulls and pit mixes...OH MY!

Miscellaneous Lawyer said...

This seems to be a bit of a trend in far too many situations. Polititians banning or heavily regulating an entire area because of a small sample.

For example, in Australia, there is a small problem with organised crime, in particular with 'bikie gangs.' Now the sad fact is, most men (or women) in 'bikie gangs' are simple motorcycle enthusiasts. But the current laws allow any organisation to be labelled 'a criminal organisation' and extreme strictures placed on its members.

On a closer note, there is talk of introducing legislation outlining animal rights. Things like the minimum number of walks a dog needs to have each week...

Anonymous said...

I have always been a "live and let live" kind of person, and have always hated the vilification of any breed of dog, but my opinion has changed recently. My husband and I have both recently been bitten by a young female pit bull in our neighborhood. Prior to those bites, the dog rushed/chased both of us on separate occasions. All four instances occurred in the street, away from the dog's own property.

I'm a homeschooling mother of 3 very young children, and I don't feel safe walking in our neighborhood anymore. So we don't. And the $100k "dangerous dog" insurance doesn't make me feel one iota safer.

As sad as I am to say this, I'd welcome a breed ban because it would remove this dog from such close proximity to my children.

Anonymous said...

You don't need a breed ban to fulfill the goal of "removing the dog from close proximity." Reporting the dog as dangerous and working to have that specific dog removed from close proximity, would more efficiently satisfy that goal.

For future reference, running away from a dog further excites its prey drive and exacerbates the situation. I would carry mace instead.

Anonymous said...

Texas actually has laws preventing breed specific legislature. I hope that won't change. Banning a breed is not the solution as the fear and "danger" will simply be transitioned to a new breed. The best answer would be a comprimise between those who love the breed and the general public. I own a Pitbull and I spend extra time and care to ensure my dogs don't cause an incident. While the Insurance thing is an answer to if something does happen it doesn't address what causes most of the problems irresponsible ownership. I'd be in favor of a registration program to own certain breeds and a certification/registration program to breed all breeds both with hefty fines if found in violation.

There are plenty of websites out there than extoll the virtues of Pitbulls and provide examples and also bust the myths of things such as a stronger bite or being human aggressive by nature. Not to mention the fact that most people can't actually identify an actual Pitbull vs breeds that simply look similar.