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.

Jim