Heavy Petting

Dog Bites Man

Not a story—a national crisis.

Spice was a sweetheart, gentle with kids, the best pal of my border collies, generous with her toys and snacks, happy to play tug of war and chase endlessly across suburban lawns. Her owner Jan, an ad executive in my northern New Jersey town, was deeply involved in dog rescue. She believed it immoral to spend hundreds of dollars for a purebred dog (like mine) when so many dogs are in shelters facing death. Accordingly, she had plucked Spice—a 3-year-old mix of pit bull, Labrador retreiver, and probably a few other breeds—out of a Brooklyn animal shelter days before she was slated for euthanasia. Jan didn’t know anything about her history, except that she’d been found on the street, half-starved and beaten, and that “because she was a pit, she didn’t have much of a shot at being adopted.”

So Jan bypassed calmer and easier shelter dogs and brought Spice home, trained her conscientiously and consistently, loved and pampered her. Spice proved a wonderful pet—obedient, easygoing, affectionate. I had no hesitation about her playing with my dogs, and I listened sympathetically as Jan complained about harassment and what she called “breed prejudice”—that fear of pit bulls that caused people who encountered them to grab their kids and dogs and cross the street.

Despite Spice’s gentleness, some of the neighbors were afraid of her. They circulated petitions and ordered their kids to stay away. Jan’s landlord threatened eviction if the dog so much as looked menacingly at a mailman, and her insurance rates rose sharply. “If the dog even sticks her head out the door off leash, somebody calls the police,” Jan groaned.

Last fall, while they were walking in a park, a Pekingese slipped out of its collar and dashed toward Spice and Jan, growling and barking. Spice, startled, almost reflexively grabbed the dog’s head in her mouth, bit down, and hung on. Neither Jan nor a horrified dog owner passing by could get Spice to loosen her grip. The smaller dog yelped, then went still. The Peke’s owner, a woman in her 60s strolling with her 5-year-old grandson, screamed and rushed up to intervene. Spice had always been friendly and reliable around children, but now she was aroused, almost frantic. People were shouting. The boy cried and screamed in fear.

It all happened in a few seconds. Spice bit both the woman, who required 30 stitches in her arm, and the child, who after surgery still had small but permanent facial scars and most likely some psychological ones. The animal-control authorities seized the dog. Local ordinances meant near-certain euthanasia.

Jan hired a lawyer and went to court to try to save Spice. “It was terrible,” she said, “but it was not the dog’s fault. You could see she was sorry. That Peke ran at her, the woman and the kid came charging up. I am terribly sorry it happened, but she is a wonderful pet. I love her to death. She was walking calmly, on a leash and under control. She doesn’t deserve to die.”

But the judge, in consultation with two local vets who worked with the town shelter, ruled that the dog was dangerous. Jan had implored me, “as a dog lover and dog writer,” to testify at the hearing and write letters on Spice’s behalf to the judge and the vets. She wanted me to affirm that Spice was gentle and that Jan was a responsible owner. She agreed to muzzle Spice when they walked and confine her in a new backyard fence she would build. She even considered moving in with her mother in a rural area farther west, where there’d be less contact with people.

I thought about how I should respond.

As America’s love affair with dogs has deepened, some dog lovers and those in the rescue and animals rights movements have advanced the idea of “no-kill” policies in public shelters, where virtually all dogs—especially those considered “adoptable”—would be kept alive, for years if necessary, until homes are found for them or they die natural deaths.

Pit bulls would probably be prominent among such residents. Known for strong mouths and aggressive behavior, pit bulls have become both the target of anti-dog activists and the focal point for many rescuers, precisely because they’re hard to place. Pits (Staffordshire terriers, their partisans prefer to call them) usually make wonderful, safe pets. But when they do attack, they often cause much more damage since they have a greater ability to injure people.

Violent dogs have become a profound issue for the dog culture and a mushrooming public health risk for Americans. The numbers are startling: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that in 1994, the most recent year for which published data are available, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occurred in the United States. According to the Humane Society, last year more than 800,000 people—more than half of them children—were bitten seriously enough to go to a hospital. More than a dozen bite victims die each year. In the last decade, the number of dogs in America rose 2 percent annually while the number of bites increased 37 percent.

The injury rates are highest among children, especially young boys. Adults tend to get bitten on the arms or legs; children, closer to the ground, are typically bitten on the face and neck, the CDC says. According to the Dog Bite Law Foundation, a comprehensive resource for information on dog violence, there is an 80 percent chance that a biting dog is a male.

Although pit bull mixes and Rottweilers are the most likely breeds to kill and maim humans, other breeds have also been responsible for fatal attacks on people: German shepherds, huskies, Alaskan malamutes, Doberman pinschers, chows, Great Danes, Saint Bernards, and Akitas. Contrary to stereotype, retrievers,  poodles, and other popular breeds are much more likely to bite people than pit bulls or Rottweilers. They also, as a rule, do less damage.

Bites are usually not random attacks by strays. The great majority of biting dogs belong to a family member or friend of the victim. When a young child is the victim, the attack almost always occurs in the family home, and the perpetrator is usually a “good” dog that had not previously behaved in a menacing way. Owners who buy aggressive dogs for security may be kidding themselves: The chances that the victim of a fatal dog attack will be a burglar or human attacker are 1-in-177. The odds that the victim will be a child are 7-in-10.

The epidemic of attacks on people suggests that something is seriously wrong with the way many people acquire, train, understand, and move about society with their dogs. Well-meaning dog rescuers have taken an approach that may increase the amount of dog violence and frighten and alienate non-dog-owners. For some rescuers, saving violent dogs has become a mission. Violent dogs are now brought into the mainstream population by the thousands each year. Among some dog advocates, it’s considered immoral to euthanize a violent dog, but acceptable, even praiseworthy, to bring one into contact with children. Sometimes, a moral inversion seems to occur: Gentler, adoptable dogs are left to die in shelters because more dangerous dogs are seen as in greater need.

Rescued, puppy mill, and incompetently bred dogs have more behavioral problems than properly bred purebreds or thoroughly evaluated shelter dogs. That’s often why they need rescue in the first place. Training them is a consuming, demanding, and ongoing job. The fundamental question remains: Is it right to breed, sell, rescue, and re-home so many dogs capable of so much damage? Is it right to adopt a violent dog?

The animal-rights movement sees itself as deeply moral, a powerful advocate for animals. But who is fighting for all those kids with face and neck injuries? Who’s thinking about how attacks—which tarnish the reputation of all dogs—are making it increasingly difficult to integrate the nonviolent dogs into our society, so that they can remain part of our homes and lives, sometimes our workplaces and public spaces?

(Obviously, it would be helpful, as many dog lovers advocate, to teach children how to approach strange dogs, to not look them in the eye, grab at them suddenly, put one’s face close to dogs’ faces, or mess with their food. Still, it’s nearly impossible to teach a 3-year-old to always behave appropriately when she encounters an animal, and it’s distasteful to blame her for getting bitten.)

Spice was by no means a “bad” dog. There are, in fact, no “good” or “bad” dogs; the species is incapable of moral choice. Spice reacted instinctively when another dog approached her owner and got into her face, and Jan was right to insist that the incident wasn’t Spice’s fault. Nor can we blame Jan or the poor grandmother who led her grandchild into such a horrific scene. But deciding on blame is beside the point. Blame or no, the consequences of attacks like these are not acceptable.

When people buy, rescue, or otherwise acquire a dog from unscrupulous breeders or amateur rescue groups, they are making a decision with ethical consequences. They have a profound responsibility to consider their actions; to gauge the dog’s behavior, to train it thoroughly and rigorously, to protect other humans and dogs from harm.

Personally, I don’t want to own a dog that inspires fear. I choose my dogs carefully, have their temperaments observed and evaluated, train and socialize them day after day. Yet I know any dog can be unpredictable. Should mine ever harm another person or dog, I would consider myself responsible, except in the rarest of circumstances (if someone attacked me, for example).

We need to show our dogs how to live peaceably in the world. Most dogs—of all breeds—can be trained to, although dismayingly few are. But some dogs simply can’t be, for reasons of poor breeding and genetics, trauma in the litter, past abuse or training. Those dogs ought to be removed permanently from society, not recycled again and again. The violent dog epidemic is—or ought to be—morally untenable for those who see themselves as advocates for dogs.

We have lost our moral perspective when we don’t recognize that the rights, safety, and welfare of children take precedence over even our most beloved pets. If any of my dogs ever bit a child and caused serious injury, I would seek a different, safer environment for the dog or, more likely, put him or her down, unwilling to ever take the chance that it might happen again. It wouldn’t matter whose fault it was, if anyone’s.

I told Jan that I was very sorry. But I couldn’t help. Spice was euthanized.