Fuzzy Wuzzy or Killing Machine? The Case for Responsible Pet Ownership – Part 1

My favorite Guest Blogger, the Little Red-Haired Girl,
has returned to share her concerns about a topic that is important to very many of us.

    Human beings have been fascinated and beguiled by their fellow non-humans for hundreds of millennia.  We have studied, bred and successfully domesticated cattle, horses, cats, dogs, sheep, chickens, goats, camels, llamas, emus, geese, ducks, parakeets and many more animals than I could possibly name here.  Our motives for doing so relate to our need to be able to understand and control our environment and to have a ready supply of food, labor, transportation and other materials at our disposal.  Finally, a very important motivation, and one that I would like to focus upon in this article is our need for companionship
     Our pets, or as some term them, our companion animals, are an important part of the human experience.  Our ‘critters’ melt our hearts with their innocence and their affectionate ways.  For some of us, they complete what would have been an empty nest, filling a void left by an absent child or spouse.  They make us laugh, wonder, and even give us a reason to get up in the morning.  (I’m thinking of my eleven-year-old tabby Beamer, and the way she insists that I wake up every day at 5:30 a.m. whether I want to or not!) To sum it up, they become a part of our family. 
     Like any family member, though, they have their ups and downs; their good and bad traits.  As with other family members, often we become so emotionally involved with our pets is hard to act with the necessary objectivity when problems arise. Two issues have been in my mind lately and were precipitated by separate and seemingly disparate incidents.  The first issue relates to some recent attacks by pit bull terriers in our area: one involving a toddler who was bitten by a relative’s dog, the other involving a woman out walking her Yorkie, and who was attacked by two pit bulls roaming at large in the neighborhood.  The second issue relates to the irresponsible ownership of exotic or wild animals, as exemplified in the horrific attack of a pet chimpanzee upon a Connecticut woman and the subsequent tragic events following the attack (the chimp’s owner just died a few days ago, possibly because of the stress she underwent after this all went down.)
   At the risk of raising some hackles (and I know I will) I would like to first discuss (calmly, please!) the issue of dog breed legislation.   Let me preface this by saying I have never been personally attacked by a breed of dog considered ‘dangerous’, although one of my children has been.  I will elaborate on this attack a bit later because it is a very telling incident, and says a lot about the emotional blindness that some people have about the breed of dog they choose to own. Yet all dogs have a set of behavioral characteristics that are universal in varying degrees.  Let’s look at some of those behavioral characteristics.
     First, and probably most important, dogs show ‘pack’ behavior.  That is, they understand a hierarchical society with an alpha leader (can be male or female, by the way) who determines when, where and how the other animals eat, sleep, breed and rank in the pack.  Pack behavior is a combination of aggression, submission and cooperative behavior.   Responsible dog owners educate themselves about dog behaviors and breed-specific traits and take on the role of alpha animal in the relationship with their pet. 
     Other dog behaviors of note relate to the way dogs feed, mate, play and mark territory.   Here are some of the behaviors that when not controlled can give owners headaches at least, and at worst result in personal injury and legal trouble. Dogs dig, bury, herd, mark territory, track and trail.  They show aggression when they feel threatened or when a stranger intrudes upon their territory.  Do dogs know the difference between right and wrong?  As far as we know and can determine, no, at least not in the way human beings understand the difference between right and wrong. Dogs act on instinct and it is up to we humans, who supposedly possess higher intelligence and morals, to act the part of the alpha animal and give their pet a place in the hierarchy that makes them feel comfortable and secure.
     If we start from the premise that dog behaviors are instinctual and that the dog’s owner is responsible for controlling the dog’s behavior, we can assume that laws governing owner responsibility are reasonable and necessary for public health and safety.  Most people agree that these laws are a good thing.  But now let’s talk breeds. 
     This is where the humans start to get a little emotional.   So I’m going to pose the following question knowing full well that the hackles are now beginning to rise and that pulse rates are already starting to go up.  Why do pet owners choose dog breeds that have (rightly or wrongly) been deemed ‘dangerous’?  This is a question that has been studied by psychologists over a period of several decades, and especially over the past thirty or so years that the incidence of dog attacks have been more widely reported in the media. 
Let’s start with a list of the ten most ‘dangerous’ breeds of dog.  According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control, the ten most dangerous breeds of dog are as follows, roughly in this order, with descriptors of the most typical bred-in behavioral characteristics.
10.  Dalmation : sensitive, intelligent, can be human aggressive.
9.    Boxer : energetic, playful, headstrong.
8.   Presa Canario : not generally human aggressive, can be dog-aggressive, powerful, fearless.
7.   Chow Chow : independent, aloof, needs lots of behavioral reinforcement.
6.   Doberman Pinscher :  alert, intelligent, loyal.  Only attacks if feels threatened.
5.   Malamute :  Energetic, needs lots of exercise, may become destructive if bored.
4.   Husky : Energetic, intelligent.  Not a good guard dog due to gentle temperament.
3.   German Shepherd :  intelligent, alert, confident, fearless. 
2.  Rottweiler : great guard dogs, keen territorial instincts, aggressive temperament.
1.  Pit Bull Terrier : people-friendly, not good guard dog for that reason, can be dog-aggressive.
     It strikes me as obvious why people choose to own dogs from this list.  Many of the behavioral traits listed here are positive ones.  And yes, different breeds possess the aforementioned characteristics in varying degrees; moreover, each dog is unique and has a special appeal for each owner.  I myself am partial to Boxers and would like to own one someday.  But I am going to wait until my cats have gone to kitty heaven, and maybe even until after I retire to take on this demanding breed, who will doubtless require close attention and training.
     In the name of journalistic balance and fairness, I feel it necessary to show another list, this one consisting of the ten most family-friendly breeds and I wouldn’t be surprised to find some of the same behavioral traits on the list.  Let’s see if my theory holds true…my sources were the Animal Planet website, petcentral.com and dogobedience.org.  These are in no particular order:
1.  Newfoundland :  gentle giant, tends to drool.
2.  Pug : very sociable, not aggressive, good family dog, not good guard dog
3.  Staffordshire Bull Terrier (related to pit bull terrier) : Not prone to human aggression, but can be dog-aggressive.  Good alert barker, but friendly.
4.  Labrador Retriever : energetic, needs lots of exercise, not aggressive.
5.  Keeshond : intelligent, good alert barker, but not human aggressive
6.  Golden Retriever : intelligent, not human aggressive, good service dog.
7. Collie : gentle, active, but can be aggressive if poorly bred.
8.  Standard Poodle : intelligent, active, not human aggressive.
9. Irish Setter : Energetic, good alert barker, not human aggressive.
10. Pit Bull Terrier : people-friendly, bred for dog-aggressiveness, so best to have as a single pet.
     Yes, it’s beginning to look as though there are some common traits here.  I’m seeing lots of : “active, intelligent, not human aggressive, can be aggressive if poorly bred, can be dog-aggressive, gentle giant, good family dog, not good guard dog,” etc.  
     Finally, I’m going to cite a list from Dog Obedience Advice.  Here is a list of some breeds to treat with caution, in that they have been known to show aggression toward humans.  In no particular order:
1. Chow Chow
2. Old English Sheepdog
3. Llasa Apso
4. Rottweiler
5. Chihuahua
6. Toy Poodle
7. Dachshund
8. Jack Russell
9. Giant Schnauzer
10. Cocker Spaniel (Cockers are especially worrisome as a fair number of them are prone to a genetic disease called ‘rage syndrome’ where they will suddenly snap into spontaneous violence, not against strangers, but against family members.  Sadly, when this defect is found, it is best to put the dog down.)
     If you take a quick gander again at the first list I made, probably the most striking commonality you will find is that these are all big muscular dogs.  List #2 and #3 contain medium and small breed dogs.  The dogs on all three lists are also quite popular breeds.  It stands to reason if you have a decent-sized population of a given dog breed in a particular area, and if you are compiling a list of severe attacks, you will probably come up with a higher percentage of the so-called ‘dangerous’ dogs.  A Rottweiler or a Pit Bull will certainly do more damage than a Chihuahua, although a Chihuahua may be more aggressive.   Pit bulls have a particularly lethal bite style, a bite-and-shake Terrier bite style and they are bred for ‘gameness’ (fight to the death) and have an extremely high tolerance for pain.  Pit Bull bites can cause deep tissue damage, ripping muscle from bone, and these dogs have almost preternaturally strong jaws.  
     Am I saying that Pit Bulls are ‘bad’ dogs?  No, no, and again . . . a big NO !!! But it would be disingenuous for me, or for any Pit Bull owner, to say that the potential for fatal injury is not there.  The fact is that nearly 70% of fatal dog attacks in the United States and Canada over a 27-year period from 1982 until 2009, were by a combination of Rottweilers, Presa Canarios, and Pit Bulls and their mixes, with Pit Bulls leading the pack. My sources are a study by Merritt Clifton, the editor of Animal People, a periodical for animal advocacy, and a three-year study of fatal dog attacks at DogsBite.org, another animal and victim advocacy website.  Perhaps it is a bit simplistic for me to say this, but the more I learn about dog breed legislation (which the HSUS is against, by the way) the more I have come to believe that irresponsible dog ownership is the greatest factor which results in dog attacks.

In memory of Dusty, brother of Beamer and nemesis of Zule, whose troubled life ended too soon.

2 Responses to “Fuzzy Wuzzy or Killing Machine? The Case for Responsible Pet Ownership – Part 1”

  1. June 7, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I agree if you are going to take the responsibility of owning any dog for that matter you must take care to make sure that it is well socialized and trained properly. (And if it’s not, you have to make sure it doesn’t get put in a compromising situation.) Especially if you raise the dog from a puppy, you then have every opportunity to socialize the dog from a young age and get it used to all different surroundings.

  2. 2 Carroll Boswell
    May 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I really appreciate this post. One of my sons has two pit bulls, whom he loves, but I admit that they scare me. They are beautiful dogs and he is good with them, but even so he was hurt by them just in the course of playing with them. They can be dangerous without meaning to be. It seems to me that part of being a responsible dog owner is not only raising and nurturing the dog correctly, but making sure the dog is not put in a position where his instincts will get out of hand. People with pit bulls should just be sure no other people handle their dogs without precautions, and especially children. Owning such a dog is like being the parent of a special needs child; it takes extra care and protection for both the dog and the neighbors.
    That said, I have to put in a plug for corgis. Kathryn, my wife, has always loved them. We owned three in a row and I must say I have never met dogs I liked more. Over the last thirty years, we have owned a sheepdog (like in Babe), a Lab/Newfoundland, a blue tick hound (the “dog from hell”), and now a husky/collie that looks most like a coyote, but the corgis were the stars.

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