Wednesday, January 23, 2008

2007 attacks part 2: The breed question (or not?).

I am amazed at the attention my post on the dog fatalities for 2007 generated. My friend Karen Delise (author of the great book “Fatal Dog Attacks; the stories behind the statistics”-READ IT!) called and we discussed at length the subject of breed citation. Understand, we share information on a regular basis, and both work hard to make the best decisions and assignments of contributory factors (I think) of anyone out there. And the question of breed identification, listing and importance is a real late-night toss-and-turner for both of us.

I can’t-and won’t-speak for Karen, but I do want to share some of my thoughts, concerns, and ramblings on the breed question.

First off, I work very hard to be cautious in assigning a breed label. If the dog is listed on recognized registration papers as breed X, then the assessment is relatively easy. Of course we all know that there are those registries out there that are meaningless, so as such I look for recognized, real registry papers.

Purebred dogs are by no means the norm in these cases. Then we have to match photos, owner claims, and when I can hands-on examination of the subject dog, and the issue becomes a bit dodgy. One dog may be clearly, say, a Lab. No question, it is just oozing “labbiness”. On a scale of one to ten, this dog is an eleven in the class of “Labrador Retriever”.

But what about the sixes, fives, even fours? If it drops off enough I readily tend to classify the dog mixed breed, or better “NPB” for no predominant breed. Sure, there are those new DNA tests that are being sold to “..tell you the breed makeup of your dog…”, but the genetic scientists I have spoken too generously call those tests “well marketed consumer products.” In other words in the scientific class of those late night infomercial products.

Sometimes we have to make judgment calls. This truly affects the accuracy of the numbers. Forget trying to go as far as “Red-nosed Pit”, “American Pit”, or any of the more discriminative labels. It often just can’t be done.

More sinister is the use of breed statistics to establish “proof” that just isn’t there. Sure, a dog that kills someone may be a Left-Handed Chilean Truffle Hound, but how much does that have to do with the attack? Usually not much.

The reality is that fatal dog attacks are strongly multi-factoral. Dr. Randy Lockwood of HSUS called it “…a perfect storm…”, and I have to agree. A fatal dog attack is the result of a conglomeration of many things, all joining up in one perfect storm that goes directly against thousands of years of physical and social evolution. After all, humanity selected dogs as companions because the DIDN’T present a threat, and because they DID evolve as part of and hand in hand with human social units.

Problem is, some people, often media, seize on the breed of the dog and THAT’S IT. End of report. End of listening to the facts. And that does a disservice to all of us, dogs included.

If I just completely ignore breed, I lose credibility. No one is going to buy the “It’s just a dog-leave it at that” statement. Someone is going to trot out breed, usually in the first reports, and then breed becomes the elephant in the living room.

Yet listing breed, as I did in the last post, leads to people seizing on that factor and twisting the data to fit their pre-conceived notions. If we give irresponsible reporters an opening to seize on any easy explanation, even if it is wrong, they will. Boil it down to an eight second sound bite and move on. And then politicians and enemies of dog ownership use that to further their arguments. So we are screwed.

So what am I doing to do? I’m not sure yet. I refuse to depart from the data-that is where I have to be unswervingly honest. Part of the data stream is breed. Yet that is not the only part, not even the most critical part. Maybe just listing the breeds involved in general terms for the year instead of numbers of each breed? That may be the answer, but then the next question is always “How many X?” Trying to redirect then looks like evasion.

I welcome comments and opinions here. It is not an easy question, and I don’t have the answer.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

2007 - Fatal Attack Facts and Figures

2007 was a banner year for dog attacks. 2006 had been a record for the US with thirty-one fatalities, but we beat that in '07.

Here is the full update on the thirty-three fatal attacks by dogs in the US over the year 2007. Look through the list, and then we will talk about what we see.

1 - 1/12 – San Antonio, TX: 10 year old girl-Pit Bull-male-intact-chained.

2 - 1/16 – St Louis, MO: 69 year old woman-German Shepherd-intact male-not chained.

3 - 1/24 – Richmond, VA: 6 year old boy-2 Rottweillers-intact females-not chained.

4 - 1/29 – Escambia Co, AL: 18 month old girl-Rottweiller-intact male-tethered.

5 - 2/16 – DeKalb, GA: 2 year old girl-1 Pit Bull mix, 1 Boxer X Bullmastiff mix-intact male, female pregnant-not chained

6 - 3/20 – Friendswood, TX: 50 year old woman-1 Catahoula X American Bulldog mix, 1 Golden Retriever-intact males

7 - 3/23 – Combine, TX: 2 year old girl-2 Pit Bulls-intact male, female with puppies-chained.

8 - 4/23 – Dorchester County, SC: 18 month old boy-Pit Bull-female intact-chained but in laundry room.

9 - 5/13 – San Antonio, TX: 90 year old man-2 Pit Bulls-intact male, pregnant female-not chained.

10 - 5/25 – Ft. Meyers, FL: 71 year old woman-unknown-loose dogs

11 - 5/25 – El Paso, TX: 95 year old woman-Doberman, German Shepherd-both intact males-no chain

12 - 5/26 – Savannah, GA: 3 year old boy-1 Pit Bull, 1 Pit Bull mix, 1 Terrier mix-the two males, intact-not chained

13 - 6/17 – Connorsville, IN: 63 year old woman-Chow-neutered male-not chained

14 - 6/29 – Deltona, FL: 62 year old woman-Pit Bull-intact male-not chained

15 - 7/12 – Carroll Co, GA: 5 year old girl-Rottweiller-intact female-chained

16 - 7/23 – Cookeville, TN: 11 month old boy-2 Siberian Huskies-intact-no chain

17 - 7/29 – Bath, NY: 6 year old boy-Pit Bull-intact-chained

18 - 8/16 – Minneapolis, MN: 7 year old boy-Pit Bull-intact-chained with puppies in basement

19 – 8/18 – McMinn County, Tn: 15 month old boy-stray female mixed breed-intact with puppies, newly acquired with fresh puppies

20 - 8/ 31 - Dallas Texas: 3 year old boy-Pit Bull-intact male-not chained

21 – 9/14 – Warren, MI: 4 month old girl-Rottweiler-intact male, previous bite-not chained.

22, 23 - 9/13 – Iosco Township, MI: 56 year old woman, 91 year old man- 4 American Bulldogs-all intact-no chains

24 - 9/25 – Boger City, NC: 2 year old boy-(2) German Shepherds-chained-intact males

25 - 10/2 – Middleburg, FL: 42 year old woman-(2) Pit Bulls-neutered males-no chain.

26 - 10/7 – Parumph, NV: 73 year old woman-8 wolf hybrids-all intact, one female in season-not chained

27 – 10/15 – Pontotoc County, OK: 65 year old woman-mixed breeds- (5 to 7), breakdown unk. Loose pack.

28 - 11/01 – Phoenix, AZ: 4 year old girl-American Bulldog-male-neutered-not chained.

29 - 11/03 – Killeen, Texas: 11 year old boy-Pit Bull-intact male-No chain.

30 – 11/13 – Knoxville, TN: 21 year old woman-Pit Bulls-1 male, 1 female in estrus with puppies-all intact-not chained.

31 - 12/13-Dorchester County, SC: 2 year old boy-Pit Bull-intact male-chained.

32 – 12/17 – Rabun County, GA: 61 year old woman-Pit Bull-male-chained.

33 – 12/25 – San Bernadino County, CA – 45 year old woman-unknown pack of loose dogs.

Looking at the numbers here, a few things jump out. Twenty-six of thirty-three involved intact animals. Fifteen of thirty-three involved Pit Bulls. Ten of thirty-three involved chained animals. Does that mean intact Pit Bulls are chained up and waiting to kill? Not hardly.

What I see these numbers indicating, based on my on-scene investigations, is that irresponsible owners tend not to spay and neuter, tend to chain their animals out for extended times with little or no socialization, and that Pits are currently popular with owners who maintain their animals with less wisdom and care than most of us. Once again, it's the two-legged problem behind the four legger that precipitates the problems.

I also have to point out that eighteen of thirty-three were kids, all eleven or under, mostly under three. If ever there was proof of the need to supervise children with dogs - ALL DOGS - this should be it. Don't expect the DVD player and video games to keep them safe. Pay attention and be a parent, not just a piece of furniture.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Canine PTSD in disaster and war

Happy 2008 everyone! Along with my good wishes to all, two and four legged, I have a bit of a different post today.

Recently I was talking to friend and author Julia Szabo, who's great blog is at (and of course ) about dog aggression, and the case of the Blackwater mercenaries shooting the NY Times compound dog Hentish came up. For those who have not read the story, a dog named Hentish, who lived in the compound occupied by the NY Times in Baghdad, allegedly attacked a bomb detector dog used by the Blackwater operatives in Iraq. The mercenary handler then shot and killed Hentish.

There is relatively little solid information about the incident, but Julia asked about the likely behavior of a dog living in or around a military-style compound in a war zone. To answer that I had to back up almost three years to the animals I dealt with in New Orleans post-Katrina and a dog that I worked with for a time after the animal airlift from Lebanon that happened in the wake of that recent Mid-East flare-up.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is well defined in humans. According to the NIMH website ( ), “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”

Although the literature is less definitive about the presence of PTSD in companion animals, the dogs that I observed on the streets after Hurricane Katrina exhibited symptoms that seemed to be a canine analog of human PTSD. These animals were depressed, lacking in normal affect, startled easily, agitated, and shy of human contact. More importantly, some of these animals exhibited generalized aggression.

An aggressive response in such stressed animals is not surprising, nor unobserved outside disaster situations. Many dogs, especially those who are under- or un-socialized, default to an aggressive display when frightened or exposed to a novel situation. The destruction of homes and evacuation, even death, of the human population of New Orleans was certainly frightening and novel, even to the best socialized of pets.

What did this mean for the dogs of Katrina? In my case, I set up a quiet treatment area, apart from the hustle of the rescue operations. The dogs got personal attention, most often after I built a working relationship through the use of non-verbal communication signals (body language is the basis for about 95% of inter-canine communication – NOT “whispering”, ESP, or other nonsense!) and let the dogs know they were once again safe. They were then introduced to other friendly, non-threatening humans and gradually returned to a ‘normal’ environment.

Did this ‘cure’ the dogs? Absolutely not. Many of these animals have had lasting effects, physical and behavioral. Some, such as Winnie (my Katrina Pit Bull rescue), still show fear during storms. Some have shown varying degrees of suspicion and aggression towards humans. Some have recovered exceptionally well.

Another personal observation, directly applicable to Iraq, was Rudy. He is a German Shepherd mix that was rescued from the bombing of a shelter in Lebanon. He was place in a home here in the US, but began showing aggression towards humans. A delayed reaction in stressed and traumatized dogs is not uncommon; some of the dogs from Katrina only started to show symptoms after they had been removed from the ‘war zone’ and had started to adapt to their rescue. Rudy showed just that delay.

As time went on he showed increasing sensitivity to loud noises (gee, ya think?) and became spooky and likely to give an aggressive response with minimal non-verbal warning signals. He trusted me, but even my daughter, a very dog-savvy teenager, did not trust him.

Rudy’s issues were too much. He was eventually transferred to a safe, permanent shelter where the handlers are skilled and accustomed to difficult animals. He will live out his life safely and in peace, but sadly is unlikely to ever transition to being a family dog. The reason? Lasting PTSD.

What does all of this have to do with Hentish and Iraq? The situation with Hentish just illustrates the many casualties of war. Blackwater claims that Hentish attacked a bomb dog to the point that the handler had no choice but to fire. I find it difficult to believe that this was the first time that Blackwater had ever swept the NY Times compound for explosives. I certainly agree that a bomb dog is a valuable resource that should be protected, but I question the skill and planning of the handler that allowed an unknown dog to approach closely enough to his working dog to actually become a valid threat. Meanwhile, Hentish was killed as a result of behavior that was fully preventable, and may well have been nothing more or less than a manifestation of the war zone he was living in.