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‘Pit bull’ perspectives: interview with Karen Delise, part 2

'Pit bulls' are just dogs.  Four legs, two eyes, one heart.
'Pit bulls' are just dogs. Four legs, two eyes, one heart.
Michelle Ting

Karen Delise is a leading expert on fatal dog attacks, ‘pit bulls,’ and canine aggression. She is the author of Fatal Dog Attacks and The Pit Bull Placebo: the Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression.* She founded and directs research at the National Canine Research Council. She kindly agreed to answer a series of questions from the Atlanta Animal Welfare Examiner about ‘pit bulls’ and society’s strange relationship with canine aggression.

Read part one of the Atlanta Animal Welfare Examiner’s interview with Karen Delise.

What about breed-specific mandatory spay-neuter laws?

Again, dogs do not bite because they are intact, they bite because there are other circumstance occurring during their interactions with humans. This is what needs to be addressed, rather than the reproductive status of the dog.

‘Pit Bulls’ often fare even worse than other animals in Georgia’s shelters. For example, DeKalb County kills about 90% of the ‘pit bulls’ it takes in (almost 35 per week), as opposed to 65 % of all animals considered together. This leads some to see the ‘pit bull’ situation as hopeless. What can be done?

Pit bulls (and other dogs) are killed in shelters for a number of reasons; lack of homes is certainly one of them. Another reason is fear about the breed. Many “shelter” personnel believe the hype and hysteria about these dogs and do not adopt them out because they fear the dogs are “unpredictable” and they fear liability. Shelter personnel need to be educated about the myths surrounding the breed and the myths that they are liable for any unforeseeable behavior of the dog once it is adopted.

What can legislators and law enforcement do to prevent dog bites?

The incidence of dog bites has declined dramatically in the past 30 years. Leash laws have been an important part of this decline. Thirty years ago, it was commonplace for people to allow their dogs to run loose in the neighborhood, which also put dogs at risk for any number of circumstances which may prove harmful to the dog, other animals or humans. Existing leash laws should be enforced. School programs to educate children about dog bite prevention are also helpful.

What can dog owners do to prevent dog bites?

Most dogs work very hard to adapt to a human/foreign environment, and dogs are continuingly required to suppress many of their very natural and normal canine behaviors. Owners need to understand this and work with their dogs to humanely control and contain their dogs.

What can others, such as non-dog-owners and parents, do to prevent dog bites?

Again, school programs about dog bite prevention are helpful.

How has the media portrayal of the circumstances surrounding dog attacks changed over time? What does that tell us?

Thirty to fifty years ago, news stories about dog bites did not usually mention the breed of dog involved, but did describe the circumstances surrounding the bite. They evoked sympathy for the victim, but explained how it happened. There was no talk of “unpredictability” on the part of dogs—it was understood that dogs bit for a reason. By describing the circumstances surrounding a dog bite, these stories also gave people an education in how to avoid being bitten. They recognized cause and effect. Back then, these stories were local news. People read the local paper to keep up with goings-on in their own communities—there was a sense of community that made these stories interesting—they involved people you often actually knew.

Nowadays, stories get picked up nationally, so that sense of community is absent, and the media resorts to sensationalism in its competition for readers/viewers. The media doesn’t report things that make sense, such as a dog biting after being tormented. Instead, dog bites are portrayed as unexplainable or unprovoked. People are often afraid of being seen as ‘blaming the victim,’ and that contributes to the media unwillingness to report the circumstances surrounding a bite. In our increasingly litigious society, those involved in an incident are often unwilling to accurately describe their involvement.

Another recent trend is in the reporting of “maulings” with no injuries or only minor injuries, and “escapes,” which would not have been considered worth reporting twenty years ago.

Dogs bite for a reason, but you would not know that from reading today’s news stories. I have little faith in the media’s accounting of how a dog bite occurred, as almost without exception, there is always more to the story than what was printed.

What purpose does media-generated hysteria about particular breeds of dogs seem to serve?

There is intense competition for readership/viewership. Mixed breeds don’t have the emotional charge of ‘pit bulls.’ This feeds a ‘vicious circle’—the self-fulfilling prophecy of media-generated fear leading to these dogs becoming more attractive to substandard owners.

Only a tiny fraction of all dog bites make the news, and which dog bite incidents are reported is based solely each media outlet’s belief of its “newsworthiness.”

About 6000 people are hospitalized as a result of dog bites in the U.S. every year, however, a search of media sources reveal that only about 100-200 of these are reported by the media.

Are news articles an accurate reflection of the prevalence and circumstances of dog bites?

Absolutely not. Most serious, and virtually all minor bites, are not reported in the news.

For example: In Denver, a city obsessed with “keeping its citizens safe” from dog bites by banning 'pit bulls' and over the past two decades steadfastly defending this ban in the courts of law, there were 38 children that were injured so severely by dogs that they were admitted to a single Denver Hospital between the years 1994 and 1998.

Of these 38 children with severe dog bites, only 5 of these cases were reported in the media.

If you look at the hospitalization rates for dog bites in any large city, and then scan the newspapers for articles, you will find that only a very select few cases ever are picked up by the media.

Forget about minor, or less serious bites. I rarely, if ever, see minor dog bites reported in the news, unless it is by a dog the media has labeled a “pit bull.”

Last year there was a fatal attack on a couple by a pack of marginally cared-for, largely abandoned dogs. Could you comment on this attack?

This was a rare and shocking case. In the past 50 years, there have only been 3 cases in which there was a double fatality by the same pack of dogs.

I spoke at length to the Director of the animal shelter where these dogs were housed and later euthanized.

This was a case of a large pack of dogs that were not even “marginally cared-for.” But, yes, they were “largely abandoned.” The dogs were extremely malnourished and infested with parasites. A few of the dogs had open wounds infested with maggots. Of course, all of the dogs were intact (meaning not spayed or neutered), and at least two of the females had recently had puppies. The dogs were operating as a semi-feral pack.

This couple was killed because these dogs were desperate, suffering and allowed to behave aggressively and fend for themselves. They were abandoned, ignored, and left to their own devices. Unfortunately, two innocent people paid the price.

Do you think we will be able to move beyond vilifying dogs? Do you think there will be a day when dogs are seen as they are, not through some lens of media-generated hysteria?

No. I believe the pit bull will eventually be upstaged by another breed/type of dog and this type/breed of dog will suffer a similar fate as the “pit bull.”

And I believe the internet has spawned a new era of junk journalism in which reporters rush to print stories without fact-checking and without citing reputable sources for their claims (and often times these stories remain on the internet indefinitely). Google searches for quick “facts” (often obtained from anonymous or less than credible web pages) has largely replaced serious and reasonable research.

I see the internet as a tangled web of misinformation and information, which is difficult and time consuming to differentiate between. The media will often grab what (mis)information is most readily available, as deadlines often take precedence over accuracy.

What was the strangest or most surprising finding in your research into the history of canine aggression and how it is perceived and portrayed?

The most surprising, and disturbing thing is how easily humans disassociate themselves from the behavior of their dogs, even in cases where humans have clearly, directly and purposely abused or encouraged their dogs to be aggressive. Equally disturbing is the notion that we can collect “dog bite data” by numbers and by “breed” without any acknowledgement or recording of the other critical factors that contributed to a dog bite.

Dog bite data that records “x” number of bites by “x” breed is useless information.

Now if the dog bite data recorded that “x” number of bites occurred after “x” number of dogs were running loose, or having their ears pulled, now THAT is useful information by which we can learn to reduce dog bites.

*The Pit Bull Placebo: the Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression is also available as a free pdf download.

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