While meandering through Facebook recently, a post to a friend’s page came up. It was a simple meme with a picture of an adorable boxer puppy and it said something along the lines of “If you think I’m dangerous, have you seen who is running for president?” In watching the comments, my friend did the best she knew how to counter the ignorance that soon followed. A comment like, “I know you love pit bulls, but I have never seen a news story about small dogs mauling and killing children”; “I was bitten out of nowhere as a child, all I did was sit on the couch and the dog came out of nowhere and bit my leg!” Her picture perfect response, “I am sorry you had a bad experience as a child.” Bam. Done. Leave it there. Was my friend defensive? Absolutely! Did she turn it into a confrontation? Nope. Perfect.
Why do I say perfect? Isn’t this the best time to educate? Shouldn’t we be correcting her? Nope. Not in this instance, I truly don’t think so. Let me explain… Dog bites are traumatic. No matter at what age they happen. There is probably some of what we now understand to be PTSD associated with that memory. And let’s face it, its Facebook. Having a truly civil and logical discussion on social media is next to impossible most days. Friendships suffer, family members get blocked and we find ourselves backed into the proverbial cyber corner. In this particular instance, this woman likely had created a version of the memory that wasn’t quite complete, she was likely too young to identify the mistakes that could have led to the event while they happened around her, and all she remembers is: dog, bite, ouch, fear.
As hard as it was for my friend to say less than she wanted, it was just as hard for me to keep my mouth shut as well. This woman doesn’t care that our experiences are different from hers. If we tell her that what she experienced isn’t “normal”, it isn’t “right” and she is letting fear control her, all we do is negate the feelings that are just as legitimate to her as ours are to us. We KNOW, with all of our hearts, that our dogs are not monsters. She KNOWS, with all of her heart, that every dog that looks like the dog that hurt her is capable of being a monster. (And the media proves it to her every time they run a story of a “vicious pit bull” who came “out of nowhere” and “mauled” someone.) By negating her experiences we tell her that she can’t possibly have felt what she felt and that her fears aren’t valid. She may know in her brain that there is some validity to “the deed not the breed”, but her adrenaline, her fear mediated responses, and her constant media-reinforced thought processes are going to override logic most times.
When fear comes in to play, rational thought often goes out the window. She stated, as though it were fact, “Physiologically, those dogs have locking jaws.” sigh. This is the statement that turns the temperature of my blood up a few notches. It makes my eyes roll like I am 13 years old again, and it makes me want to shut down mentally until I can scream, “No. They. Don’t. They are not mutant dogs with robo jaws! They have no little switch behind their ears that locks their bottom jaw into place and won’t let it open!” When I studied anatomy, I don’t recall a different anatomical structure for Pit Bulls and … every other canine. As a Veterinary Technician, when I treat dogs, I have never treated a Pit Bull as a different species than any other dog. They are physiologically and anatomically built like every other dog at a skeletal level.
Cranial Dimensions and forces of biting in the domestic dog
As you can see above, this picture comes from a scientific text, the Journal of Anatomy to be exact. Animal Farm Foundation and Canine Research Council provide some really fantastic, factual, scientific research regarding dogs in general. You can find this diagram as well as some really great information on their pages. Also, you will notice in the picture above, that there is no little hook, lever, button or other locking type mechanism involved in a dog’s jaw. (any dog’s jaw.)
I can be incredibly empathetic when a person’s dog hang-ups have to do with negative personal experiences. When their hesitation hinges more on myths, untruths and dogsbite.org fueled misinformation, I tend to lose some empathy.
When we are talking “research” (not just about Pit Bulls, but about anything) it is important to take into consideration where the information comes from. Especially in our age of technology and information at the click of a button. There is a link here to a wonderful Huff Post article about why statistics show that Pit Bulls are so aggressive. (I mean, we all know that we can skew numbers to say about anything we want them to. But this is why less than reputable folks like dogsbite.org can push their agenda without any sort of critical thinking or examination of the sources of the statistics.) The reason I mention this article is that it points out where a lot of folks are getting their facts. Often, this is much less a study of actual information, and more a study of media reporting. The measurement of a lot of these studies is actually a study of “what is the media reporting?”. The numbers are often compiled by noting what was reported on the evening news and what was reported in the news paper. We know that the media likes stories that get ratings. Fear often drives ratings. The old journalism adage “If it bleeds, it leads”drives what the media even considers worthy of spending the time reporting. There is also a trend in media coverage of events that involve pit bulls to lean toward biased wording. For example, when a dog bite story is covered by the media (if its covered) and it involves, say, a Black Lab, the wording is often something along the lines of, “Family dog involved horrible dog-bite tragedy.” When a bite involves a dog with any resemblance to a Pit Bull it usually sounds a little something like, “Pit Bull mauls child in vicious, unprovoked attack. – City in crisis-What can be done about vicious dog maulings?”
The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has done several studies regarding the link between breed and aggression. Each time, the answer is very similar… Breed cannot be a predictor of aggression. This study is a little different, it includes a survey of dog owners who advise of their dog’s personality. (In fact, I am fairly positive I participated in this study several years ago.) An excerpt from the study regarding Pit-Bulls specifically reads:
“Pit Bull Types
Owners of pit bull-type dogs deal with a strong breed stigma,44 however controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous. The pit bull type is particularly ambiguous as a “breed” encompassing a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified. Visual determination of dog breed is known to not always be reliable.45 And witnesses may be predisposed to assume that a vicious dog is of this type.
It should also be considered that the incidence of pit bull-type dogs’ involvement in severe and fatal attacks may represent high prevalence in neighborhoods that present high risk to the young children who are the most common victim of severe or fatal attacks” – Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed”
(I’m just gonna put this up and leave this right here.)
In running through some research while writing this blog, I ran across a piece in Psychology Today that I thought was interesting. I think this man has some valid points, but I truly think he is missing the key about finding the source of his statistics. Read a little below:
Psychology Today Canine Corner Article
“On the second day of the event, a woman accosted me and began to harangue me about statements that I had published about pitbull terriers. The statements which so offended her were reports of research published in respected scientific journals that found that pitbulls, and pitbull crosses accounted for a disproportionate number of dog bite related injuries and deaths. I tried to tell her that I was reporting credible research findings, and tried to summarize some of the newer data that had recently appeared in behavioral and medical journals about the dog breeds that bite. In most instances she did not even let me complete my description of the research before she rejected the findings claiming that the breeds were being misidentified, that data surveys based upon press reports were inaccurate or biased, that statistics underestimated the real number of pitbulls in the population, that other breeds like Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers had a higher bite incident rates but these simply weren’t being reported because of bias. She also said that researchers ignore the fact that pitbulls are the dogs that are most likely to be abused and provoked by people, and she implied that that meant that many of their bites are justified. I tried to give her some specific research findings to ask her if she could explain them using her own rationale, however she ignored my requests and eventually resorted to the ad hominem argument that I simply didn’t know what I was talking about and I must have an irrational dislike of the breeds involved. I must admit that I got frustrated by this, and rather than losing my temper I simply walked away to end the encounter.
As a psychologist I suspect that I know what is going on in her mind. For many people dogs fit into their family structure in the same way that children do. There is a real bond here, and lots of love and affection for dogs in general and of course especially for the family’s favorite breed of dogs. If a human child does something wrong it is natural for a parent spring to his or her defense. I once watched the interview of a mother whose son had been arrested for shooting a shopkeeper during a holdup. Unfortunately for the shooter, there were security cameras in the store and near the entrance. When shown the video of the boy and his companion entering the store, the mother claimed that her boy was being misidentified, despite the fact that he was wearing his high school jacket with both his name and team number on it. When asked about that she claimed that the jacket must’ve been stolen. When another camera clearly showed the boy’s face, she still claimed that it was not him, and the police had singled her son out for arrest based on racial profiling. When the boys companion actually spoke his name during the robbery she was ultimately forced to admit to his identity, however she then went on to claim that her son was provoked into shooting the clerk because the clerk was threatening him. However the video clearly showed that the clerk had his hands out to the sides and had stepped back from the counter defensively. This mother was clearly offering the human equivalent of the defenses that the woman in Toronto was giving as explanations and denials of reports of aggressive misbehavior by pitbulls.” – Dogs That Bite and the People that Don’t Listen, Stanley Coren Ph.D., F.R.S.C.
In the above excerpt he points out, in his professional opinion that we (I am taking a lot of liberty with his conclusion here) , as pit bull owners, are nothing more than mere enablers to our own criminal dogs, and we enable because we treat them like our children. We are incapable of “seeing them for what they are” and accepting that they are vicious, ill-behaved, aggressive animals. We will continue to deny the truth that is placed in front of us with scientific data, by touting lots of our own “research” but never being willing to back it up. We will offer nothing but denial and watered down defenses for our carelessness in owning such horrible vicious animals. (Paraphrasing complete) I will tell you this… I love my animals as if they were my children. I don’t have human children, I have 4 legged children. BUT, if my “kids” were to cause significant harm to another animal or human, and if they were showing signs of true aggression and misbehavior, I would be the first to tell you. And I would be the first to A) look for a root cause like chronic pain, disease, dementia, etc. and B) put my dog down if he/she can’t be properly managed. (I say that having never had to do that, but it is something I feel very strongly about.) Now, having said that, I have a little more insight than the average pet owner having worked with animals for the better part of 20 years. Not everyone has that kind of experience. I, also, expect a certain level of behavior and response out of my dogs, which means that I have enlisted the help of trainers, taken their advice and worked with my dogs. More than the average dog owner. I am capable of identifying with a certain degree of assurance, aggression, fear, submission, stimulus reactivity, etc.
Why do I bring this particular article up at this particular time? Because we, as pit bull people, have a reputation as tenacious as the ones our dogs have. Watch this video. (seriously, its hilarious… but mostly true)
Now that you have had a good laugh… how many of us recognized a little something about ourselves in there? *I am raising my hand high and jumping up and down over here* I have seen the shut up and nod! I have seen the curl up and play dead (metaphorically). We don’t want to be THOSE pit bull people! We want people to love our dogs and enjoy our company. So, to save face, save relationships, and save feelings, sometimes the best course of action for us is to respectfully disagree. Appreciate a frightened person’s fear. It came from somewhere. Thank them for being willing to share with you, and if you have your dog with you, (and your dog doesn’t think the person is nuts and the energy isn’t horrible) offer to let your dog change their mind. Otherwise, be on your way. Whether it is online or in person. Always end the conversation with a positive. “I am so sorry you had that experience as a child.” “Thank you for being willing to share with me.” “Your YorkiPooSchnoodlePom is adorable!” “I respect your opinion, I can agree to disagree.” be the calm of this storm. Smile and nod. Sometimes letting our dogs never eat us in our sleep, or break through plate-glass windows to eat neighborhood children, or tear the fence down board by board to get to the neighbor dogs is all of the proof we need to show these folks that they don’t “snap”. They don’t “turn on you” at some point, and they weren’t “born to kill”. So, no matter what someone says to you about your dog, your choice to love a square head and a bully smile, just know, you totally got the better deal.