Editor’s note: this is part 1 in a series on dangerous dogs. In part 2, “Dangerous Dogs Part 2: Myths and Misconceptions from Both Pit Bull Advocates and Opponents,” Sarah Albert discusses some of the most common myths and misconceptions surrounding pit bulls that come from both pit bull advocates and opponents.
Dog bites and attacks are extremely emotional events. They create a sense of panic and trigger an innate fear within us—the fear of becoming prey. This is something we, as a species, are no longer used to. With an estimated 78 million dogs owned in the United States (not counting homeless dogs) plus dogs living in closer proximity to us, both by becoming family pets and through urbanization in general, it appears that dogs are extremely safe overall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year (bitten by about 5.8% of dogs) –with only around 800,000 of those needing medical attention (bites from about 1% of total dogs), and around 20-30 bites causing death (.000038% of total dogs). These facts surrounding serious dog attacks show exactly why dog attacks make so many headlines, and draw so much heated debate – they’re rare, fear-inducing, and easily sensationalized. Of course, this is still a very serious topic for us to discuss. We don’t want to see anyone being mauled by dogs; children bitten and admitted to hospitals; or dogs euthanized for growling at or biting a person or other animal.
However, after examining the debate and data revolving around dog bites and dangerous dogs, it’s clear there is a massive amount of misunderstanding around why dogs bite, which dogs bite, and what may be the appropriate proactive approach to protecting people from dog bites. To begin understanding this topic a bit better, we have to confront some of the issues surrounding this area of discussion and consider the topic of dangerous dogs more closely. To be clear, when we think of the topic of dangerous dogs, dogs labeled as pit bulls or bully breeds tend to come up in the discussion more often than not. They make many headlines and are implicated in a number of dog bite statistics.
Let’s begin by discussing these dog bite statistics. We often see, on websites and social media, bite numbers and percentages being thrown around regarding which dogs bite. This seems, at first glance, like conclusive data that certain breeds may be inherently more dangerous, but there really is more than meets the eye in this case. We want to be skeptical as we examine these data. There are several inherent flaws with dog bite statistics that many people don’t take into account that we’ll discuss here.
There is no national dog bite reporting system in the United States.
The United States has no central reporting agency to track the number of dog bites across the country. This means that all dog bites are not recorded, and there are various measures of which bites people feel need to be reported. Because of this, many less serious bites often go unreported. This makes determining bite frequency difficult.
To know true bite frequency we would need to know the number of each breed in a community’s dog population and compare this to how many of that breed are actually biting. If we were able to get an accurate count of dogs in a community, and dogs of certain breeds, we would then want to compare that frequency to the other dog breeds. Why is this important? Pit bull-type dogs are a very popular type of dog right now. More of them exist in communities, so the likelihood of a bite is higher than with a less popular breed. For example, if we have a dog population of 1,000 and we have 400 pit bull-type dogs and 25 Mastiffs, it makes sense that we would see more pit bull-type dog bites in this community. It would be unfair to look at these as equal populations.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a good idea of how many dogs even exist in any given community. Many dogs go unreported each year, and the only numbers we have may be from dog licensing data from animal control facilities. This would not include dogs not registered, or homeless dogs. Despite this fact, dog bite statistics are generally looked at, by the public, as a reliable estimate on the number of dogs biting, despite the fact that we miss a lot of information just from our lack of data.
Dogs are often listed as purebred, even when they aren’t. “Pit bull” is a generic term that includes several purebred dogs and mixes.
When you look at many dog bite statistics, we see that dogs are listed mainly as purebred dogs. This would imply that mixed breed dogs do not bite, or do not bite as frequently. Pit bull-type dogs (which often includes any dog that remotely resembles an American Pit Bull Terrier) are also labeled as simply “pit bulls.”
What exactly is a pit bull-type dog? “Pit bull” actually refers to a more general term today (both legally and socially). It includes several breeds of dogs – American Pit Bull Terriers (where the term “pit bull” came from originally), American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Bullies, American Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, and others. In addition to this, the term also includes mixes of these breeds, and any dog with the physical characteristics of one or more of these dogs (even if they share no genetic ancestry). That’s a LOT of dogs.
We do this “typing” with other mixed breed dogs as well. It is commonplace to see dogs listed as collies, shepherds, labs, or hounds when these dogs are clearly mixes of unknown origin. Sometimes these dogs are listed as purebreds, sometimes as mixed breeds.
This makes things a bit more complicated. When you start adding in purebred dogs and mixes, your pool of total dogs is going to increase significantly. Think back to my first point on calculating bite frequency; our pool of dogs labeled as “pit bulls” can be much larger than the actual population of purebred dogs.
In addition to this, when we’re looking at these statistics, the goal is to have defined sets of data to compare. It is certainly clear that the generic term “pit bull” is not a defined set of data. If we actually broke down this term into its purebred breeds, and required confirmation a dog was a purebred before being labeled as such, perhaps those numbers would decrease. But, this is not what is happening now with our dog identification, and is not terribly realistic.
Visual identification of dogs is often unreliable.
Even when we are looking at a dog that has bitten someone, often we have a hard time accurately identifying the breed. We may think we know what breed or mix the dog is, but studies have shown our guesses are often inaccurate and extremely subjective. In one study, animal professionals from around the country were tested on their ability to guess the predominant breed in a mixed breed dog. This was then compared to a DNA ancestry test on the dog. This study even gave the professionals a lot of leniency in guessing the breed – if they chose any breed in the dog (even as low as 25% of its makeup) they were scored as “correct.” With this in mind it was found that, on average, these professionals were only able to accurately determine the breed of dog around 27% of the time. That’s an extremely low accuracy rate compared to how well professionals thought they were doing (or what the public thinks they can do). In this same study, each dog that was assessed by these professionals was labeled with an average of 53 different predominant breeds amongst all the animal professionals.¹ Obviously, those labels are extremely subjective, depending on who is looking at the dog that day. We have to remember that this inaccuracy and subjectivity is reflected in the labels dogs are given by animal shelter professionals and veterinary professionals across the country. These labels stick with dogs their entire lives.
In another study, animal professionals were again asked to give breed labels to dogs with unknown ancestry. Similar to the other study, a DNA analysis was done to determine each dog’s breed ancestry. In this case, researchers found that pit bull sensitivity (the number of true pit bull dogs labeled accurately by staff) was only 50%. On the other end of the spectrum, 38% of non-pit bull-type dogs were nevertheless given the “pit bull” label.² This means we’re missing half of the true pit bulls while also inaccurately labeling other dogs as pit bull-type dogs. Again, not very accurate.
These labels are immensely important. They determine how a dog will be labeled by animal control, the victim, witnesses, and the media if a dog bite does occur. This also determines how the dog is listed in bite statistics. This contributes again to those inherent flaws in dog bite statistics.
These labels are an important point of discussion as well since most bite victims self-report when entering emergency rooms. We leave it up to the average person to accurately identify a dog during an intense, emotional event. If animal professionals are unable to label these dogs adequately in their everyday activities, how can we expect the average bite victim to do this?
So, whether a person is bitten by a loose dog, or even a family dog, the breed labels may or may not be accurate. As you can see, breed labels greatly impact dog bite statistics, and are likely inaccurate.
Dog bite statistics remove a lot of context.
When we look exclusively at dog bite statistics, we miss almost the entire story. Again, pit bull-type dogs are popular dogs right now. What we do note is large, popular breeds tend to make up most of the serious dog bites at any given time in history. Popularity is a human, societal factor that changes with time. Historical dog bite statistics tend to reflect this.³ On top of this, there is a lot of context missing when a dog bites someone. We should always take a statistic, or a story of a bite, and consider – what led to this situation?
Imagine a situation where a dog is tethered outdoors almost exclusively. The dog is poorly socialized, under-exercised, highly aroused by situations in their environment, and is starving. A small child wanders into the yard and is mauled by the dog. If we were only looking at dog bite statistics, we would have missed all of the important information about this situation – information that could help us prevent more bites from happening in the future. Instead, all we see are the numbers and a breed label given to the dog. We then draw an inaccurate conclusion that the dog’s breed caused the bite – classic post-hoc fallacy in this case. Correlation does not imply causation. Context is completely missing.
Even in situations where we think we have all of the information, context is often unknown or misrepresented. When we see the media report on a dog attack, we hear sparse information about the situation. Often, the dog is identified as a family pet, and the owner claims they never expected the bite to happen. Often, when we dig into the situation more, we see many warning signs of impending bites. We’ve seen family dogs that live exclusively on chains, used as guard dogs, and being used for breeding purposes (being in heat or guarding puppies). We’ve also seen dogs labeled as pit bull-type dogs who have no similar characteristics to these dogs. Sometimes there are histories with animal control (nuisance reports, dogs growling or biting at other people, dogs roaming frequently, etc.) that suggest the owner was reckless with their dog, or the dog had a history of aggression. In all, we tend to miss a lot of things, and the owners of the dogs often do not want to admit they knew the dog was a danger.
It is important to note – a family dog who is well trained, socialization, and appropriately cared for will generally not showcase the same behaviors as a dog who is unsocialized, abused, neglected, and tethered. Context is critical.
This isn’t to say that all pit bull-type dogs are poorly maintained. A large majority of these dogs are owned by responsible, caring owners. You have people from all demographics and socioeconomic classes owning these dogs, just like any other dog. Again, pit bull-type dogs are very popular right now, both purebred and mixed breeds, so we see more of them across the board. We also see many of them coming into veterinary clinics and being cared for as members of the family. Remember, according to bite estimates, dogs are very safe. Millions of dogs are living in homes, and doing nothing to hurt anyone each and every day. The owner and the living conditions of the dog do have a large influence over a dog’s behavior, it’s not just genetics. Instead of focusing on breed or mix in our statistics, let’s look closer at the context. It’s likely we’ll find many more common factors that could help us create better ways to keep people and dogs safe.
Poor treatment of a breed is a major reason that the breed may be associated with biting.
We also have to remember that some dogs gain popularity for the wrong reasons. Popular culture has made many dog breeds popular for negative reasons throughout the course of history. These are dogs that are sought for guarding, protection, or fighting purposes. Functions that all encourage aggression. When this happens, we see bites increase in those breeds. Once this popularity shifts, we tend to see those breeds biting less frequently.
For example, in the early 20th century German Shepherds were considered to be dangerous dogs, and the number of people owning these dogs for negative reasons increased. Bites subsequently increased. Eventually, their reputation received a makeover with the “Rin Tin Tin” series and their popular use in police and guide dog work. The bites started to drop.
Pit bulls have been largely associated with gang and thug culture since the 1990s, and have been involved heavily in street-level dog fighting. These instances have created dogs that are being owned by people who encourage aggression. We also see these dogs more likely to be neglected, tethered, and abused. Would it make sense that these same dogs, regardless of breed, would bite?
On the flip side, Labrador retrievers are a popular breed today, but have a very positive image as the quintessential family dog. These are dogs that are typically kept in home environments as family pets. They are usually owned humanely, and are generally more socialized. That positive image rarely makes them desirable for people who want to encourage aggression.
Replace pit bull-type dogs with the next popular dog, and you’re going to see this trend continue. Dangerous breeds are highly influenced by their popularity and portrayal in popular culture.
Human ignorance of dog stress signals contributes to bites.
Sometimes, dogs bite because people miss the signals that a dog was giving leading up to the bite. Unfortunately, many people assume a dog is comfortable with a situation because they don’t see obvious stress signs, such as fleeing or tucking the tail. Dogs often display more subtle signs to display their discomfort with situations and to politely ask people to leave them be. These often go ignored or unseen – eventually leading to a bite. This is where we often hear stories of dogs that bit without warning, or out of the blue. This is rarely the case – almost all dogs warn before biting.
With small children, even the smallest bite in the right place has the capacity to seriously injure or kill. This is important, too, as people often assume only large dogs can maim or kill, but small dogs have been implicated in killing or seriously injuring small children as well.
Not all aggression is equal.
When we talk about aggression in dogs, the public tends to consider aggression as one very specific behavior. Aggression is a very complex trait, and not all situations where dogs display aggression should be considered equal. There are dogs that showcase aggression towards members of their family or people they are familiar with; while others are only aggressive towards strangers. Some dogs are aggressive towards other dogs; and some show predatory behavior towards children, small dogs, cats, and other animals. Some dogs display defensive or fear-induced aggression.
Consider yourself. You may be a friendly person overall—social and outgoing with most everyone. Let’s say you are out one night alone and a stranger comes up to you and corners you in what you consider a threatening manner. You verbally tell them to leave you alone while giving “leave me alone” body language signals at the same time. The stranger continues to advance upon you, ignoring your requests. Would it be out of the question for you to defend yourself in this situation? Does this mean you’re an aggressive individual? Of course not. We respond to fear and stress very differently than we do in more relaxing situations. Dogs are the same way, but we have to remember that what we consider a threat and stressful is different than what they may consider stressful or threatening. This is important to note as there have been dogs that have killed people who were fear aggressive—these dogs attack defensively because they fear the actions of the human, actions that the human may not recognize as causing fear in dogs. This is one reason it’s important to understand dog body language. There was a post on this blog recently on how to understand dog body language that explains in detail how to read the signs.
Conclusion: these aren’t really statistics at all.
To sum up, there are many issues inherent with these dog bite statistics that are being shared online. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who published probably one of the most well-known and shared sets of dog bite data, has even stated the issues inherent within their own study and the downsides to using breed-specific enforcement to control dog bites.
“Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues. Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites.”⁴
Just by examining these inherent flaws in our current dog bite statistics, it’s actually fair to state these really aren’t statistics at all, but rather just a small picture of dogs being reported for biting. It may give us an idea on the number of serious bites, but we can’t draw definitive conclusions about why dogs are biting or which dogs are biting from these numbers alone. We have to examine the lack of comprehensive nationwide reporting, the preponderance of breed misidentification, and context (including owner management) more closely, and actually ask for information beyond the headlines to find out how to best protect people from dog bites in the future.
¹ Croy, K. C., Levy, J. K., Olson, K. R., Crandall, M. & Tucker, S. J. (2012) What kind of a dog is that? Accuracy of dog breed assessment by canine stakeholds. Retrieved from: https://vetmed-maddie.sites.medinfo.ufl.edu/files/2012/05/2012-Croy-Madd…
² Olson, K. R., Levy, J. K., Norby, B., Crandall, M. M., Broadhurst, J. E., Jacks, S., Barton, R. C., & Zimmerman, M. S. (2015). Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff. The Veterinary Journal, 206, 197-202.
⁴ Sacks, Jeffrey J., Leslie Sinclair, Julie Gilchrist, Gail C. Golab, and Randall Lockwood. “Breeds of Dogs Involved in Fatal Human Attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217.6 (2000): 836-40.
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Latest posts by Sarah Albert (see all)
- Dangerous Dogs Part 2: Myths and Misconceptions from Both Pit Bull Advocates and Opponents - July 21, 2017
- Dangerous Dogs Part 1: Taking a Bite Out of Dog Bite Statistics - June 1, 2017
- “Breed Branding” - April 14, 2017