Thursday, December 22, 2011

Save some lives-Support Florida Animal Rescue Act

Here in Florida we are fortunate to have new legislation pending that will save animal lives.  The bill, called the Florida Animal Rescue Act (SB 818), provides clean, clear legislation that accomplishes two simple, but essential things: 1) it guarantees Rescue organizations access to animals at shelters that would otherwise be killed, and 2) it demands transparency for all animal shelters regarding how many animals they take in, how many they place, and how many they kill.  Neither of these are currently provided for in Florida Statute.  This deficit allows shelters to kill animals that Rescue organizations are willing and able to take, and allows shelters to hide the ugly reality of their true kill rates.
As a former open admission county Animal Control Shelter Director I fully and completely support this bill.  I commend Senator Mike Bennett of Bradenton for introducing this, and equally thank and commend the many legislators in both Houses that are co-sponsoring this and its companion HB 597.  Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for supporting these bills and giving the animals of Florida a fighting chance.
Some may think that such legislation is unnecessary.  “After all”, they think, “shelters already work with Rescues and others to place as many animals as possible…don’t they?”  Sadly, they don’t.  As illogical and counter intuitive as that seems, during my tenure I saw far too many other agencies that either had no desire to cooperate, or were openly antagonistic, to Rescue involvement. In my own agency it took a substantial amount of time to build trust with Rescues that had been previously rebuffed.  I also struggled against those who begrudged the time, effort and resources spent trying to place and return animals to owners.  After all, “catch ‘em and kill ‘em” had always been the way.  There was no need to change.
Some parties are already lining up to protest and obstruct the passage of these bills.  An organization on which I formerly sat on the Board has publicly come out opposing the legislation.  The excuses are the same old routine always trotted out against progressive change: “It costs too much.  It takes too much work.  It is hard.  It isn’t the way we have always done it.”
Below I have presented their objections and have detailed the claims that many of the opponents have made and my answers to their specific points.
The specific objections noted:
  • These bills require local animal control agencies to create a registry for animal rescue groups and offer animals to these groups prior to euthanizing them. While well-intentioned, this will create severe unintended consequences, including: There will NOT be a cost-savings under this bill; rather, there will be a significant cost incurred. For each animal sheltered by a local agency there will be up to $45 additional cost to house animals during the required holding period. To comply with §823.15, FS shelters will have to invest approximately $175 per animal for shots and sterilization before they go to another shelter or rescue. For a small shelter that takes in 100 animals a year that could be a greater cost than their entire operating budget for the year.
            This is incorrect.  There is no requirement for additional holding days; the legislation provides simply that the shelter notify their list of Rescues no less that 24 hours before euthanizing an animal and allow the Rescues to make contact and arrange pickup of the animals within two days of contact.  The total maximum time period required is three (3) days-and State Law already demands that shelters hold the animals taken in as strays for three (3) days.  The easy method here would be for an agency to simply send an email of incoming animals soon after intake (Say at the end of each business day) and let the entire hold run during the mandatory 3 day stray hold. This legislation does not require ANY additional holding-it can all run at the same time.  No additional days-no additional costs.  This statement also fails to mention that the shelter will be able to charge its full adoption fee to any claiming Rescue, thus recovering the same costs as if they had adopted the animal normally-just faster.
            Further, the citation of FS 823.15, claiming that the shelters will have to invest approximately $175.00 per animal for shots and sterilization before transfer is incorrect.  FS 823.15 provides that “all dogs and cats sold or released for adoption from any public or private animal shelter or animal control agency…by either (emphasis added)…(a) providing sterilization by a licensed veterinarian before relinquishing custody of the animal; or (b) Entering into a written agreement with the adopter or purchaser guaranteeing that sterilization will be performed within 30 days or prior to sexual maturity.” (emphasis added).  This section also provides that “Any fees or court costs used for the enforcement of this paragraph are the responsibility of the adopter”. It further states “All costs of sterilization pursuant to this section shall be paid by the prospective adopter…”   This places the alleged $175.00 on the receiving shelter or rescue and allows the releasing shelter to recover any and all costs for enforcing this provision.  None of this alleged $175.00 is the responsibility of the shelter releasing the animal(s) to the rescue groups.  There are no additional costs.   
·         Animal control officers will go from spending most of their time caring for animals and addressing community issues to spending most of their time doing paperwork. The burdensome process will increase both labor and supply costs that currently are dedicated to the animals.
            There is no extra paperwork to consume the Animal Control Officers’ valuable time.  A shelter should already have a functioning system of intake and accounting in place.  The only extra effort will be a simple batch email to the established list of Rescues once a day.  That is all.
  • This burdensome new process will create overcrowded conditions in shelters due to increased holding requirements. To address this issue many, if not all, shelters will reduce the local holding periods to account for the mandated increase – meaning owners will have three fewer days to reclaim a lost pet before it is available to the public and rescues. In some cases this reduction will be from 5 days to 2 days, but in many others it will go from the current 3 days to no days.
            As stated above there are no extra holding periods.  The Rescue notification and response period can be incorporated into the already-required legal holding period.  If this means that agencies are intending on reducing their holds below the level required by State Statute they have bigger problems than alleged overcrowding.
·         There are very limited exceptions where euthanasia can occur – diseased animals cannot be euthanized unless they are “irreparably suffering”, meaning that parvo, ringworm, and other diseases will spread through shelters infecting currently healthy animals, leaving them unadoptable, creating undue suffering, and increasing the medical and labor costs to the local shelter.  
            Untrue.  The only restriction on euthanasia is that the animals must be offered to Rescues first.  If the Rescues do not claim the animal in the time listed then the agency is free to dispose of the animal as they see fit.  This legislation does not require the warehousing of animals or any increased holding time. 
  • There are no controls in place to ensure that the animal rescue groups are legitimate, meaning that shelters will not be able to weed out hoarders or animal testers.  Very little information can be asked of the rescue groups.  They don’t even need a place of business in Florida.  Like the problem of ‘pill mills,’ Florida will become known as the place to get animals without any scrutiny. Animal testing labs that currently breed their own animals or pay a high price to acquire animals will now have a new resource in Florida. This will bring undue negative publicity to the State.
                This is an issue that has always existed with rescue groups, and for which there is no current prohibition in State Statute as it stands.  The proposed legislation requires that the organization have a 501(3)c Non-Profit designation (currently not required under State Statute) and that the Rescue may be required to provide background checks on its personnel (also not currently required).  Instead of lowering the requirements for Rescues to pick up animals (there are none in Statute) it established two important benchmarks.  And as far as whether the Rescue is local or out of area: Oh, the horror!  Instead of killing an animal in a local shelter there might be an alternative.  Some Rescue might, at their expense and using their resources, adopt an animal SOMEWHERE ELSE!   Please.
·         This bill unnecessarily restricts local animal control agencies in their operations.  Many shelters have vastly improved their local programs, all without interference from state regulation.  This bill puts that progress at risk and would almost certainly lead to overcrowded, diseased conditions. Some of the shelters have already taken euthanasia rates from 85% or more down to 35-40% with locally based initiatives. These programs may be at risk because the bill will require holding animals that may never be taken from the shelter and it may deteriorate working relationships with known and professional rescues that will no longer be willing to work with shelters that allow anyone claiming to be a rescue to get animals.
            The proposed legislation takes no control from local agencies-it simply requires them to try and place or transfer animals before they kill them.  Yes, many agencies have reduced euthanasia rates substantially.  This legislation will not affect those agencies because they are already doing what is needed.  Known and professional rescues should welcome this legislation as another opportunity to do their jobs with agencies that have heretofore not been willing to work together.  And again, there is no mandate for additional holding periods.
  • Mandating a restrictive program with no flexibility will cost taxpayers money and lead to less humane conditions for animals. This bill creates additional unfunded mandates upon the local governments by increasing costs unnecessarily.
            There are no unfunded mandates in this bill.  The cost of the establishing the registry can be as little as a donated three-ring binder with copies of the Rescue organizations’ 501(c)3 papers.  That is how my agency handled it voluntarily-and it worked just fine.  Other than that three-ring binder there are no costs as I discussed above.

The email broadcast went on to list the following talking points.  I have addressed each of those below.
Myth: You can drop your pet off at a “no-kill” shelter any time if things do not work out.
Fact: “No-Kill” shelters have limited room and resources and turn away needy pets that are deemed unadoptable. Most “No-Kill” shelters require appointments for surrendering a pet and many of these shelters charge a fee to take your pet. Sadly, nearly all of the turned away animals are abandoned or taken to another shelter where they may eventually be destroyed.
This has nothing to do with the proposed legislation.  It is further untrue-there are No-Kill Shelters that are open admission municipal agencies and who accept unrestricted drop-offs.  This is an attempt to divert attention from the legislation and to create an artificial “Ugly Reality vs No-Kill” debate were it does not belong.
Myth: There is no overcrowding problem.
Fact:  In one major Florida city from 2001-2010 there were 282,661 pets that entered animal shelters. Of those, 97,259 pets were returned to owners or found new homes. In that same period, however, 185,402 were euthanized. In 2010 there were 304,074 households – meaning nearly one in three households adopted a pet from a shelter, yet nearly 2/3 of the animals in that city were euthanized. Every household would have had to adopt an animal over that period of time for “No-Kill” to have been accomplished. Statistically ½ of all households desire to own a pet – so every household wanting a pet would have had to adopt 2 additional pets into their household over this 10 year period.
Yes, there are a lot of animals.  This has no relevance to the proposed legislation.  The issue of the number of animals homeless is better addressed by such strategies as low- or no-cost spay/neuter, responsible pet ownership education, etc.  This is just an attempt to confuse the issue and set out a fog of allegation and misinformation hiding the true issue: should a shelter have to make a minimum effort to try and adopt or place an animal before the kill it? 
Myth: “No-kill” shelters offer a humane way for unwanted pets to live out their natural days.
Fact:  Pets being warehoused in “no-kill” shelters are confined to cages for weeks, months or even years. These caged animals become more withdrawn, depressed or aggressive everyday, reducing their chances of being adopted. This practice is considered by humane groups such as PETA to be a far worse fate than traditional shelters. In several documented cases these animals suffer needlessly and die in inhumane manners because the shelter became overwhelmed with the animals being kept for long periods of time.
This is an issue long debated and off topic in this discussion.  Differences in opinion about the “humane” state of No-Kill shelters are appropriately the subject of other debate, but have nothing to do with this bill.  And by the way-citing PeTA as an authority regarding humane treatment of companion animals is ludicrous. Their Virginia shelter killed 97% of all its animals in 2010.

Myth: “No-Kill” shelters offer a cost savings over traditional shelters.
Fact:  The average cost to prepare an animal for adoption is estimated at $175 per pet. Additionally, it costs $10-15 per day to care for the animals. “No-Kill” shelters often rely upon the public shelter to pay for the services required for sterilization/adoption and housing before taking them to place in new homes. While it may look as if the “No-Kill” shelter offered a savings it is simply that they shifted the burden to the public shelter.
This is an exaggerated overstatement of costs.  Vaccinations for a pet amount to less than $10.00 for a full set (if purchased in bulk as most shelters do).  Spay/neuter costs vary, but are significantly less than listed, especially when conducted by an in-house program.  This also ignores the fact that the public shelter transferring an animal to a Rescue, under the proposed legislation, will collect its full adoption fees covering their costs-if not actually making money. There is no “shift” of any rescue organization’s costs to the public sector.
Myth:  Public shelters are the only ones that euthanize animals they take in
Fact:  Many “No Kill” shelters turn animals over to the local animal control agency for euthanasia or they have private veterinarians perform the procedure so they can maintain their “No Kill” claim.
If this is happening please refuse to “massage” the paperwork, document it and report the FRAUD being perpetrated.  I know as a former Animal Control Agency Director that I was asked to do this once-and refused.  I would not be party to fraud.  I assume that other Animal Control Agency heads (at least the ones I know) are of equal integrity and will refuse to cooperate with this kind of sham.  Again, this does not impact the proposed legislation.
Myth:  “No Kill” shelters are all working to resolve their local pet issues and adopting out all types of cats and dogs.
Fact:  Many “No Kill” shelters actually look outside their local area for more “desirable” pets to place for adoption. The typical mixed breed brown or black dog is too often not taken by these shelters because they are difficult to place due to a lack of public demand. The same is true of adult cats, especially black cats and orange tabby.
This is another argument being presented to fog the issue-this legislation has no effect on local adoptions-OTHER than to make it possible for Rescue organizations to step up and take in animals that they have room for WHEREVER they might be.
Myth:  “No Kill” shelters will always take a good animal that needs a new home.
Fact: Nearly all “No Kill” shelters are limited admission shelters (meaning that they will only take animals when they have available space). These shelters turn away thousands of animals per year due to lack of space. Additionally, these shelters must remain in business by producing revenue so they often limit the kinds of animals they take by what they know will be adopted quickly to generate operating revenue. This leaves bigger pets, common mixed breeds and those animals that have lower demand to be the burden of the open admission shelters that ultimately have to euthanize some of these animals.
The allegation that No-Kill Shelters are ALL limited admission is incorrect.  There are open admission shelters that are documented No-Kill Shelters.  In this context the question is off-topic.  These allegations, true or otherwise, have no bearing on the legislation at hand.  This is a distraction.
            Those of you who know me personally know that I am a pragmatist.  I recognize the harsh realities of life, and have a great appreciation for the difference between reality and fantasy.  This bill sits solidly in the realm of the real world.  This is a practical, workable, and efficient method to begin the task of reducing needless euthanasia in Florida, and indeed across the nation. 
Please join with me in supporting this legislative action to save animal lives in Florida.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lennox and the DDA-conclusions and an idea.

There is an epidemic in the UK these days.   Dogs are disappearing from yards and porches, vanishing from parlors and kitchens.  Children’s companions and family friends taken away, more like 1984 than 2011.  No, these are not targets of the Thought Police, but nearly as insidious-they are victims of the Dangerous Dogs Act.

These animals are being taken because they “look” dangerous.  Not because of behavior.  Not because they have bitten and disfigured some poor child.  Just because they have a certain “look” that dooms them to imprisonment and, too often, death.

In the classic movie “Casablanca”, Claude Rains tells his officers to “round up the usual suspects” after a shooting, and they do.  In 1941 in French Morocco, balanced before the onslaught of the Nazi war machine, that may well have been de rigueur.  In Britain, 2011, that is unacceptable and must stop.

The names of the seized are common, but the list is growing.  Lennox.  Miley.  Simba.  These have become the “usual suspects” and are being rounded up faster than we can track.  All the while, the House of Lords has recognized the failures of the DDA and has proposed legislation revoking the power of the police and animal wardens to seize an animal just on looks.  Yet, as the measure works through the Parliament, seizures are continuing.

When challenged by families, the provisions of the DDA allow the animals seized to be held, incommunicado, while the process grinds slowly along.  The initial ‘evaluations’ done are not evaluations of behavior-they are conducted with a tape measure and a checklist.  Is the dog broad of head?  Does he have wide shoulders?  Does he have straight legs?  As I have pointed out in a previous column, the standards applied to the prohibited physical type apply to many dogs, purebred and mixed heritage.  If I shave down a Komondor or Puli is it suddenly a Pit Bull?  They are both strong, broad skulled, straight legged and wide shouldered breeds.  Can a haircut make a difference between banned and non-banned?  If so, then the standard for judgment is terminally flawed.

We have discussed Lennox extensively.  Blue has been liberated, thanks to a good decision by a wise magistrate.  But let’s look at two more on the hot seat right now.  According to reports, Miley is a 15 month old mixed breed that police seized despite the fact that Miley has not been reported aggressive.  Miley simply “looks wrong”.  Miley has not bitten, threatened, or otherwise shown bad behavior.

Simba is similar.  Simba’s crime is to have been running loose on several occasions.  This I understand-a dog must not be allowed to run loose.  Especially repeatedly, despite the owners excuses for the transgressions.  But the onus here falls on the owner, not the dog.  If the dog is loose-cite the owner.  If it is repeated, fine them more.  As I have done in the past, establish legislation that states if a dog is repeatedly loose and the owner unresponsive after proper notification, take civil seizure of the dog to have it rehomed to a more responsible owner.  But don’t just kill the dog because the owner is incompetent.

I also have to question some of the official evaluations of the dogs given in custody, particularly the ‘evaluation’ of Lennox.  Lennox has been examined by two independent behaviorists, and found to be not a threat.  One less than adequately qualified person has termed the same dog “the most dangerous dog they have seen”. Their evaluation is at best suspect.  If I lay hands on a dog that I truly want to fail a behavioral evaluation, I guarantee that I can push hard enough to get some sort of negative response from the dog that will justify the result I want.  We have had evaluators here in the US that have done so repeatedly, some of which are famous for finding “flaws” that give excuses to destroy animals.  Archimedes supposedly said “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”  I would edit that to say give me time to work and a lever (of provocation) and I can make any dog-or honestly any animal-display aggression.  The idea of ‘evaluating’ an animal by pressing it long and hard enough to get a defensive response is cruel and ridiculous.  But that is exactly what is happening with some evaluators, and that is unprofessional and unconscionable.

Where does this leave us-and the dogs in limbo in the UK?

Miley should be simply returned immediately, with apologies to the owners.  “Oops-we messed up.  Here’s your dog.  Go home and have fun”.

Simba is another issue.  If Simba has been a nuisance by getting loose, then cite the owners.  Make them responsible for their conduct, and correct them by whatever means is locally and legally available.  Remember, their failure is not the dog’s failure-punish the right end of the leash.

For poor Lennox?  Ultimately, I am a pragmatist.  I am so sorry, Caroline and Brooke, but in Lennox’s case there is not likely a fairly tale outcome.  There will not likely be a Prince, or a Princess, sweeping in on a fair steed to spirit him back home to live happily ever after.  The case has gone too far and has muddied too many waters.  Even if he is to return home the possibility of a problem looms too large-no one can live under a microscope for the rest of their lives, especially a dog.  He, a family member, or some well meaning friend, may make an otherwise minor mistake that will result an express trip back to the dock and onto the euthanasia table.
Or, knowing human nature as I do, some not well meaning person scrambling for their fifteen minutes in the spotlight may allege Lennox has committed some aggressive act, with fully the same result.

Frankly, the local dog wardens will be hamstrung and unable to so their duties no matter what happens if Lennox goes home.  If Lennox lives a perfect life and yet is the victim of an attention seeker, the wardens will be under severe pressure to act politically, not professionally.  And if Lennox, perhaps as a result of his imprisonment and isolation, truly does bite someone, the wardens will again be vilified and blamed. 
So, although my heart is torn for you Caroline and Brooke, and for Lennox, most likely your poor lovely boy can’t go home again.  Lennox has become famous, and fame is often its own prison.  Just ask your favorite movie star what it’s like to try and pop to the store for a few items.
Lennox doesn’t deserve prison, either at the hands of the Belfast Council or in the glare of an unrelenting spotlight.  But he does deserve a chance to live out the rest of his days in peace, within a family unit.  So for Lennox, the best we may be able to hope for is that he is released into the custody of a responsible and caring rescue group, that can provide resources to help him recover from his trials, and who can place him in a secure, safe, and understanding home where he can live unthreatened by unreasonable discriminatory laws. The Belfast Council can feel satisfied that they have done their duty by removing such a “serious threat” from their bailiwick.  Everyone lives almost happily ever after.  Except Caroline and Brooke.  Except the rest of us. 

It then becomes incumbent on the rest of us, dog owners and non-dog owners, to repair this broken system, a system wherein the good nature of a dog is ignored and the measuring tape decides life or death.  Where creatures are summarily judged and executed because they have the “wrong” look.

So how do we fix the issue?  I have a few suggestions. 

First and foremost, define Dangerous by specific, quantifiable, express action of the dog, not the owner.  If the dog has bitten, evaluate that bite objectively.  Dr. Ian Dunbar, DVM  PhD (London University), has established a clear and quantified Bite Assessment tool for evaluating the severity of dog bites.  I have taught and used that tool across North America.  It grades bites by specific criteria and is behaviorally linked to the intent and likely severity of the attack.  Establish clear rules in law that give consistent consequences for dogs based on the bite; if a dog, unprovoked, inflicts a Level 5 bite to a victim, it is Dangerous.  Clear and consistent-whether a Puli or a Pomeranian.

Provocation is often already litigated in a jurisdiction civilly.  Use that civil definition-but evaluate the provocation with a full understanding of how the dog sees the event, not how the humans see it.  Dogs are not humans in little furry coats.  Understand their non-human world view and learning history, and use that to see whether an incident was provoked in the dog’s world.  Apply that to the incident at hand after a full, detailed investigation.

Correct, and punish where appropriate, the human actions that lead to dog problems.  If a dog is loose and a nuisance, punish the owner.  If the owner is unrepentant or unresponsive, step up the punishment.  Provide for the seizure of a dog from a noncompliant owner after successive corrective tries so the dog can be relocated and placed in a responsible home.  Provide legislative authority to ban irresponsible owners from replacing one nuisance animal with another.  But focus enforcement action on the owner, not the dog.  Things (and in this case dogs must be lumped in as things) cannot be legislated; effective legislation addresses human behavior.

Finally, if a human has created through negligence or deliberate bad acts a truly dangerous animal, especially if that animal has injured or killed another human, prosecute fully and send the human to prison.  In those rare cases the dog should, for practical and legal reasons, be destroyed-but the person responsible for the evil manipulation of a gentle and forgiving animal into a marauding monster must be punished to the maximum allowed by law.

We have an opportunity.  The House of Lords in the UK have recognized the deficits in the British DDA.  Across the world we have the chance to change laws from irrational, hate based excuses to discriminate against whatever “look” we find objectionable at the moment to clear, behavior based practical and enforceable laws that will truly increase public safety and improve our treatment of the canine companions that have stood by our sides for tens of thousands of years.  Let’s take that opportunity and make the right choice.

Monday, October 24, 2011

More on Lennox-and breeds in general

The latest news from Belfast indicates that Lennox has, for the moment, been given a reprieve with a new appeal.  Lennox, the dog under death sentence in Belfast, Northern Ireland for looking like a prohibited breed, has had me thinking more about the issue of breed more than usual.  And as I petted Parker, my Curly Coated Retriever, while he sat at my feet, it struck me: we are doing the whole thing backwards!

To set up the situation; Lennox is a dog that never showed bad behavior towards anyone-other than barking a bit at the invaders that came into his home, a behavior that is normal and expected from nearly any dog-he simply looks like what Northern Ireland considers a dangerous breed.  To verify this the dog wardens reportedly took out a measuring tape, checked Lennox’s head, body length, and leg length (which would have been nearly impossible if he had been at all aggressive), and pronounced him prohibited, based on comparisons to a written breed standard.  They then seized him and have ordered his death, claiming that his physical attributes, as measured by a tape, have determined that he is dangerous and a threat to society.  Oh, and that moment of barking.

The problem here is that the process of breed standard use is meant to go completely the other way around-including the issue of temperament and behavior.

If I go to a dog show with Parker, the first thing I must have is proof that he actually is a Curly Coated Retriever.  This identification is typically based on registration, with documentation of his parentage back many generations.  This gets us in the door.  Then, he is examined by a judge and that judge compares him to the written breed standard to see if, as a Curly Coated Retriever, he compares favorably (or not) to that breed standard.  He is also compared to the other Curly Coated Retrievers in the ring, who have also been compared to the written standard, to see if he is the best representation of the breed at that show on that day.  He may then be compared to similarly excellent members of other breeds to be judged as to which dog most represents the ideal example of their own breed to determine Best in Show.  All of these dogs are also observed for their behavior in the show setting, as aggressive or dangerous behavior is never permitted, no matter how beautiful or physically adhering to the standard the dog may be.

This particular scenario takes place in the rarefied atmosphere of the dog conformation show, but it directly applies to the real world too.  We meet a dog and we ask his owner what “kind” of dog he is. We ask about his personality, we watch his behavior, and then we use this information to make predictions about the dogs’ nature, suitability as a pet, and honestly whether we think he is a good example of that “kind” of dog.

But with Lennox, and so many others, we are going the wrong way.  We look at the physical form of the dog, apart from behavior and personality, and try and guess which breed the dog most resembles.  Then we make personality and behavior assumptions based on that guess.  In the case of Belfast, they took some measurements and then, without regard to the actual parentage of the dog, and without any regard for the dog’s individual behavior or observed temperament, made a guess that resulted in the seizure of the dog.

First off, this makes huge assumptions that the physical form of the dog (phenotype) must of necessity accurately reflect the breed (genotype), without allowing for gradations between perfect specimens.  This also assumes that physical form defines the dog’s behavior.  Have a largely white dog with black spots and short hair? Must be a Dalmation…unless of course it’s a badly bred English Setter.  Or a pale Catahoula.  Or a Jack Russell/Pointer mix.  You see how well that goes. 

In the real world, we may meet a friend with a new dog.  When we ask what “kind” of dog it is, they may tell us “Oh, this is my new Chihuahua, Peanut.”  We see that Peanut is a bit bigger then we usually find in Chihuahuas, and we may note that, but we don’t run out, get a tape measure and say “Oh no-Peanut is thirteen inches at the shoulders, and Beagles are thirteen inches tall, so Peanut is obviously a Beagle and will run after rabbits!”

This mistaken application of physical attributes to determine behavior, as ridiculous as it sounds, is exactly what is happening in the UK and other places with breed-based laws.  They are attempting to use a dog’s physical attributes to assign projected behavioral traits.  For instance; in this twisted world, a dog that a dressmakers’ tape says has a wide head, broad shoulders, and powerful musculature must be a “Pit Bull” or other forbidden breed.  Yet I doubt, with all due respect and regard, that the Kennel Master at Sandringham Kennels would tolerate a dog warden with a tape declaring that Her Majesty’s Labrador Retrievers were “Pit Bulls”, even though they are broad (and handsome) of head, muscular and fit, and are wide shouldered so they can swim and work efficiently and with grace and style.

Contrast the following parts of breed standards for Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Labrador Retrievers, as published (and copyright to) The Kennel Club of Great Britain:

“Strongly built, short-coupled, very active; broad in skull;”
“Short, deep though with broad skull.”

“Smooth-coated, well balanced, of great strength for his size. Muscular, active and agile.”
“Good-tempered, very agile…broad and deep through chest and ribs; broad and strong over loins and hindquarters.”

“Jaws strong, teeth large, with a perfect, regular and complete scissor bite, i.e. upper teeth closely overlapping lower teeth and set square to the jaws.”
“Jaws and teeth strong with a perfect, regular and complete scissor bite, i.e. upper teeth closely overlapping lower teeth and set square to the jaws.”

Ideal examples of each of these fine breeds will have the above traits.  Examples of dogs of these breeds should, according to the standards, possess the following behavioral temperaments”

“Intelligent, keen and biddable, with a strong will to please. Kindly nature, with no trace of aggression or undue shyness.”
“Highly intelligent and affectionate especially with children.”

Quickly now, which is which?  Which of these potentially may be labeled a “Pit Bull” type dog and banned, and which one is known around the world as one of the finest of the waterfowl retrievers?  Can’t tell from this?  Exactly.  That is my point.

Now let us depart from the company of Her Majesty’s finest and our Best in Show Staffordshire Bull Terrier and go down the breed scale towards home pets and general doggie companions.  These fine specimens of breeds may look clearly separate at the apex of their “type”, but down the genetic lines, even though they may still be clearly Labradors or Staffies, their looks may begin to approach one another; a bit coarser head here, just a bit oversized there, one family having a bit shorter snout than the other…and sooner or later we may have a serious problem distinguishing poor examples of either breed-even though they are related directly over time to the once stellar examples.  Where-and when-do we start drawing the line?  When does a badly bred Labrador become essentially indistinguishable from a badly bred Staffordshire Bull Terrier?

And to get back to our original concern, when does behavior become less Lab-like and more Staffie-like, or vice versa, as their appearances converge?  And more to the point, is there really a predictable difference anyway?

In my time training, working with problem dog behavior, hanging around dog shows, and investigating attacks, I have found Labradors that won’t retrieve, Pointers that hate birds, big brave German Shepherds afraid of the vacuum cleaner, and even French Bulldogs that don’t snore (well, not as loudly…).  Individual differences in dogs are as critical as individual differences in people.  That is why some dogs are a threat, just like some of the people that I used to arrest.  Individual behavior is affected by individual learning history, individual talents and preferences, and ultimately individual choices.

My advice to the officials in the UK, and wherever else breed bans and regulations are being proposed or enforced: Forget what the dog looks like, or is supposed to look like.  Life is not a dog show, and there are good and bad physical specimens of every breed and type out there.  Forget what the ideal good-or ultimate evil-example is supposed to act like.  The individual range across breeds is far greater than the commonalities within breeds, especially when you get away from the ideal example.  Not all Best in Show Labradors can hunt.  Instead, develop Dangerous Dog regulations that regulate and address specific, quantifiable behaviors regardless of appearance.  Bad Old English Sheepdogs should be held to the same standard as bad Anatolian Shepherds.  An evil little Jack Russell Terrier can be just as dangerous as a psychotic Tibetan Spaniel.  Address individual dog behavior, and more importantly, address the functioning of the responsible human.  Now there’s your dangerous breed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Evaluations" and the tragedy of Lennox

Over the last few months I have watched the case of Lennox, a dog seized for having the “wrong” looks, as it has unfolded in Belfast, Ireland.  Lennox was seized, not for behavior, but because he has a particular physical structure.  He looks like what Ireland terms a ‘restricted breed’-a Pit Bull.  He is neutered, has obedience training, is properly vaccinated and was legally licensed-yet he was summarily seized and has been condemned to die.  As I have watched Lennox’s case, and his impending death sentence, several things have sparked my attention. Not only does the issue of destroying this animal solely based on his looks appall me, but I am particularly concerned by the "evaluation" of Lennox that the Council and Court is depending on to make a determination of his level of threat to society.

To begin, Lennox has been held for over a year in a shelter facility.  He has been deprived of his normal social contacts-his family, has had limited exercise and interaction outside his kennel, and has even been, according to some reports, medicated with amitriptyline.

Two dog behaviorists have evaluated the dog to date.  I understand both have weighed in that Lennox is not a dangerous dog.  The videos and evaluations have shown Lennox to have substantial control of his behavior, that he is a sociable and pleasant animal despite his long isolation and confinement away from his home, and that he showed clear restraint when one evaluator pushed him into a trapped area in a threatening manner.  At that crisis point Lennox did the only thing that makes sense to a dog; he lunged, with no contact, in order to communicate clearly that he was frightened and felt threatened when he had no where else to retreat.  He did the equivalent to a human raising their voice when other means of communication fail.

This speaks volumes for this individual dog.  Despite everything that has happened to him he still shows restraint in his behavior and a desire for human social contact.  He still displays clear bite inhibition.  He still responds appropriately to social cues.  This is also despite the conduct of these evaluations in a restricted shelter environment.

Yet these two evaluations are being ignored by the Court.  Instead, a third evaluation is being used as the litmus test for Lennox.  This third evaluation was conducted not by a behaviorist, but by a police dog handler.  As a retired police Lieutenant I have known a number of canine handlers-and the trainers that prepare the dogs before police get them.  I have participated in the testing and evaluation of police dogs before their training.  And I can say this-police canine handlers and trainers are special, valued and talented persons-but they are not behaviorists.

A police dog is a special animal.  Only about ten percent of the candidates are chosen.  They need terrific drive, huge levels of trainability, and a great desire to work in tandem with a human handler.  They must be brave enough to go in where no person or animal reasonably should, yet must be able to instantly disengage when ordered to, despite inertia and provocation.  They must not be aggressive, as anger would interfere with the ability to disengage at need.  They must also be able to use nearly human levels of discrimination to understand when they must self-deploy to protect their handler, yet must recognize the difference between a violent suspect and the approach of an innocent child.  We ask so much of them-and they give it all willingly, sometimes to the death.

Police dog handlers and trainers must be highly skilled to get this level or performance.  But that skill is limited to the task at hand.  Police handlers do not address behavior problems of other animals-they are focused on the training, maintenance and development of their special charges.  These handlers conduct obedience work with their dogs as part of the control mechanism, but do not diagnose or treat problems that range from house training to nuisance barking.  They do not treat, or particularly evaluate, aggression issues.  If a dog exhibits aggression in training it is eliminated as unsuitable.  An aggressive or "mean" dog is a risk to the Department, the handler, and the public.

Even Animal Control Officers may be deficient when evaluating what is a "dangerous" dog.  They encounter animals that are usually not at their best, often threatened or injured, and frankly do not get the behavioral training necessary to make the decision between treatment of repairable behavior and that which is clearly dangerous.  They can say whether a dog's behavior, in a specific incident, meets the legal definition of "dangerous" in their jurisdiction, but often fall far short of being able to diagnose whether this was truly dangerous aggression or was a storm brought about by a collection of predictable, reasonable animal behavior added to human failing.  In the case of Lennox the dog warden's job was in some ways too easy; did Lennox look like one of the "usual suspects"?  He did, so the case was closed, even though Lennox never had a chance to speak.

Assessing dog aggression, and evaluating whether a dog is "dangerous", even when presented with clear criteria (which do not exist in this case) is a job best left to those familiar with more than just whether a dog is physically able to bite.  Any dog can bite-they have teeth.  A competent evaluator must understand the psychological issues behind the multiple behaviors we lump together as aggression.  Is the dog territorial?  Is the dog a resource guarder? Is the dog fearful? Can the dog adapt to novel and potentially scary situation while maintaining an acceptable level of composure? Is the dog responsive to human signals, and is the dog able to signal its own intentions clearly?  Does the dog have the inter-species social skills needed to peacefully coexist in a multi-species social environment?  Those are the questions that need to be asked before determining if a dog's behavior is "dangerous".

Having a police dog handler evaluate Lennox for his suitability as a patrol or detection dog would be appropriate; it would be having a skilled technician and trainer choosing whether Lennox would make the cut as a working dog.  We would not ask the police trainer to evaluated Fire Department equipment, even though he might like the red suspenders.  To have the police handler evaluating Lennox as a behaviorist is a disservice to the dog-and the handler. 

And the worst part of this?  The case is no longer about Lennox.  It is about rules, it is about discrimination, and finally about egos.  Problem is, the bruised egos will heal-but when Lennox is dead, he is de

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Death in India

Recently I was asked to render an opinion on an alleged dog attack fatality in Bangalore, India.  The basis of the case was that a child, a two and a half year old boy named Sandeep, was found dead on the side of a road, mutilated.  His throat showed what appeared to be bite marks, his left leg was amputated, and significant tissue was missing from the leg between the knee and what would have been his hip.  A horrid sight, and a horrid way for any child to die.

The reason I was consulted was that local interests had questions about the investigation, and the probable manner of poor Sandeep’s death.  The police ruled that the death was due to dog attack, but other parties felt that there were issues that should have been investigated more closely.

The dogs in question that inhabit the streets of India are termed Native Indian dogs or INDogs, formerly called pariah dogs.  They are the native feral dog breed that inhabits India, and have done so for centuries.  They range around 25 inches at the shoulder, and weigh an average of 30 to 45 pounds-about the size of a Border Collie.

The parties involved sent me the full file; crime scene photos, the police report, the autopsy report.  And as I sat down to dig through the information and digest the terrible scene, several things struck me as inconsistent.

Since the release of my report other opinions by alleged “experts” have appeared looking as far afield as blaming “imported Pit Bulls”.  Partly in response to these other opinions I have decided to open up the book on the investigation, and my concerns, and let you all have a look at the evidence.

To begin, the story related to the police was as follows:  Sandeep and his family, migrant workers from the Bihar province of India, had traveled for work to the city of Bangalore.  Sandeep’s mother was pregnant and due, and so she was a patient at a hospital in the Bangalore suburbs.  While she was a patient Sandeep, his father and his uncle were allowed to sleep in the secured basement of the hospital, a fairly common arrangement in India where many cannot afford a hotel room while they await the treatment of a relative. 

During the night Sandeep, his father and uncle went to sleep.  When the father awoke before dawn he found Sandeep was missing.  The father told police that he began to search the area for Sandeep, but was unsuccessful.  About two hours latter, after sunrise, Sandeep’s mangled body was discovered 700 meters (for US residents, that is almost half a mile) up a city street, piled at the edge of the road where garbage is commonly abandoned.

The police arrived and photographed the scene.  The child was taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsy.  A cursory autopsy was conducted and the finding was, “Yep-the dogs did it”.

If you have followed me for any time you already know my position on making broad assumptions without a detailed investigation.  Certainly, a quick look at the crime scene and the paperwork seemed to support the idea that the local roaming INDogs dogs had attacked and killed Sandeep.  This would not be the first case of that happening.  But as I looked at the collected information things started to bother me.  The facts presented just didn’t add up.

Although there were a number of concerns, all listed in my full report, I want to concentrate here on details of the specific injuries present, and how they relate to each other and the case overall.

The first injury was the clearly visible scalping of the child.  In dog attack cases removal of part or all of the victim’s scalp is relatively common.  Partial removal of a scalp has occurred in many cases of children and adults, including the case of Mary Bernal of Florida in 2006.  Dogs that attack the head and face of a victim can easily remove chunks of torn scalp.  A clear example of dog-torn scalp injury can be found in the classic reference work Bitemark Evidence, edited by Robert B.J. Dorion (Marcel Decker Publishing, New York, 2005), pages 316, et al. 

Torn scalp-that is the key here.  Dog attacks that remove chunks of scalp show torn, ragged edges.  In the photos of Sandeep, his scalp is cleanly cut in a straight line longitudinally.  No tears visible, no tooth marks, no ragged edged flesh.  All of those indicators are familiar in dog attacks.  The flesh of the scalp is thin (as anyone who has ever busted their head in a fall knows), but when assaulted by teeth it tears unevenly, not in a clean, straight line.  That is unlike Sandeep, whose scalp wound is clean and straight, more consistent with a sharp object such as a knife-or a vehicle fender. 

But I did not make a conclusion from a single cut.  The next inconsistency was the severance of Sandeep’s left leg.  His leg was detached completely from his body.  Again, limb severance is not unknown in dog attacks, especially in children.  But the leg was detached just below the head of the femur, the large bone in the thigh.  That was visible because the flesh between the top of the thigh and approximately half way to the knee had been cleanly and evenly removed in a neat circle.  There was no visible torn tissue, no ragged bits as one would expect from dogs ripping off flesh.  And an examination of the upper exposed surface of the femur shows an angular, straight break in the bone, similar to the type of mark that a physical tool, such as a sharp metal object would have caused.  This expose bone does not show any clear marks of gnawing or a ragged break. 

This wound is difficult on two grounds.  First, I have seen limbs stripped of muscle and tissue in dog attacks.  Several of them have involved the consumption of the flesh.  Yet these have all shown ragged, non-uniform removal of meat, not the clean, circular pattern shown on Sandeep.  For a simple illustration, look at how your pet dog cleans off a large bone.  The dog takes the easy, removable bits first and then, with time, goes back and eventually picks the bone clean.  The dog does not evenly, progressively, remove each bit in a careful circle and then slowly move on to the next bit.

This is slightly consistent with an injury termed “gloving” where flesh, for instance, on a finger, is pulled off sharply by a dog (a common dog bite) that encircles the finger with his teeth and pulls away, much as you would remove a glove from your hand.  Yet gloving by a dog here would require that the dog encircle the entire top of the leg (after amputation, of course), take it almost knee-deep into the dog’s throat, then cleanly pull directly backwards stripping a clean tube of muscle and skin backwards.  With no dangling bits.  The wound at the hip is also surprisingly clean and even, not what I would expect from extended tearing in the removal of the leg by dogs.

Further, when a dog breaks a bone as large as a femur (thigh) they typically crush and crack the bone in pieces.  Sandeep's thigh bone was cleanly cut.  The location of the break is also unusual-just below the top of the bone, immediately before the joint and the ball end of the femur.  If dogs had simply ripped off the leg the most likely result would have been to tear and shred the flesh around the joint until they could pull the leg free from the socket, including the head of the femur, not to try and break the strongest part of the bone.  This tearing off of the leg would have required a substantial force, and a strong grip on the lower leg, but deep, full dentition gripping injuries are glaringly missing on the visible surfaces of the lower leg, inconsistent with the leg being ripped off by dogs.

The lack of visible blood, both on the exposed bone and the surrounding intact tissue is another concern.  Ripping a limb off results in a lot of blood.  Yet there was minimal blood visible on the skin or the bone, or under the body, an indication that the majority of the bleeding happened other than where the body came to lay.

For other concerns, please read the full report.  To summarize, the injuries, physical evidence, irregularities in the autopsy, positioning of the body on the roadside, and other circumstances bring the simple verdict of “death by dog attack” into question.  As a retired police officer I have seen both deliberate homicides and traffic crashes that could have produced all of the injuries in this case that are inconsistent with canine predation, and that could have easily combined with scavenging to give the scene presented.

My conclusion in this case is that there are a lot of unanswered questions.  None of these issues alone eliminate dogs as the cause of death-nor do they prove it.  They collectively cast doubt on the initial assumption.  I don’t know exactly how Sandeep died.  I am sure that it was violent and that Sandeep deserved a better investigation than he got.  I am certain that there was dog scavenging involved, a behavior fully consistent with observed behavior of native and other dogs in India and other places where sanitary disposal of waste, including hospital waste, is common.  And I am fully convinced that the damage in this case done by dogs does not require the mysterious importation of “Pit Bulls” into India.  I strongly suspect that there was more to this case than “Yep, the dogs did it” as was assumed, probably involving human action that could range from a deliberate attack to a hit and run traffic crash.  But Sandeep’s family will never have the closure of knowing for sure what happened to their son.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dangerous Dog Evaluations

One of the tools that an investigator of bites and fatalities can use is a behavioral evaluation.  Behavior evaluations, and there are many of them, have different designs and purposes.  Some claim to be predictive of adoption success.  Some are comparisons of various temperament factors.  Some are puppy tests intended to predict the best puppy for showing, or obedience, or field work.  Some claim to determine the best dog for bite or protection work.  Some seek to find the best dogs for drug and detector work.

They are useful tools, but the value-and limitation-of those tools must be considered when evaluating a dog’s behavior.  First off, I have issues with those who claim certain tests are predictive of adoptive success, or of predicting how the dog will, or won’t, behave in the future.  To me, the purpose of a temperament test is not to predict what the dog might do someday. It is an assessment of what the dog is doing right now. It is also a tool we can use to help figure out what may have led a dog to make a behavioral choice in the recent past.  Predicting what might happen is a skill best left to the seers and prophets of the world.  The interaction of environment, training, owner skill, relationships with other animals, potentially diet, possibly (but only remotely in my view) vaccines, and a host of other factors large and small conspire to affect a dog’s future behaviors in ways we are only beginning to understand. This conspiracy of influence makes prediction the guess in the dark that is has been for as long as human memory has existed.

But as investigators we are asked to evaluate dogs, and to make recommendations from that evaluation.  To do so effectively we have to ask ourselves before we test “Why are we testing this dog?” and “What is the intended outcome of this test?”  We have to have a goal in sight, a purpose in mind.

When I am asked to test a dog after a bite, or to evaluate a potentially hazardous dog, there are things I am not doing.  I am usually not looking to see if this particular dog is good material for adoption. I may not be looking to see if this dog can be “saved”.  During an investigation I am evaluating a dog to find out what, in the dog’s behavior, may have contributed to the incident at hand.  I want to see what triggers the dog has, how she responds to various stimuli.  I want to see if there are particular sensitivities.  I want to understand how this dog interacts with and perceives the world.  I want to get a sense of what makes this individual dog tick. 

A behavioral evaluation is NOT is a contest between human and dog to see who can intimidate who.  It is not a battle of wills.  It is not to see if the evaluator can get submission from the dog or bully it into reluctant compliance.

Neither is an evaluation a contest to see who can “handle the baddest”.  No responsible evaluator should be trying to rack up points in some bizarre contest to see how nasty a dog they can manage.  Frankly, bite scars from evil, aggressive dogs do not impress me; all the bites I have received have been because I made mistakes.  These mistakes were usually from not paying attention and missing clear warnings that the dog was about to react with a bite.  Bite scars may be a part of the business, but they are marks of times we failed.  That failure is serious, because failure on an evaluator’s part not only results in injury to the handler, but in many jurisdictions is a death sentence for the dog.

So what is a behavioral evaluation?  A behavioral evaluation for a dog is a map, a documentation of everything about that dog’s behavior at that time and in that place, noted fairly and with understanding of what dogs are.  It should be a picture of the world from the dog’s eyes.  In the case of a bite investigation, the evaluation lets me review the road signs of the long, strange trip that led to the situation at hand.  How did the dog’s past, the owner’s actions, the surrounding environment, and even the dog’s diet, add up to place us where we are?  To quote Arthur Conan Doyle, what was the curious incident of the dog in the night time?  What did he see?  How did he come to act as he did?

In some circumstances I evaluate a dog to see what path rehabilitation might best take, with potential recommendations to be considered in matching the dog, as it behaves presently, with treatment and/or placement options.  I see these evaluations as similar to the scholastic and psychological testing done by school systems on children identified as having learning or behavior deficits.  Schools no longer, thankfully, look at children with problems and label them as “stupid” or “bad”.  Instead, they test them to find their strengths, and weaknesses, behaviorally and intellectually.  The school then uses these tests to tailor the child’s learning program to address the deficits.  If there are psychological difficulties, the school works with the parents and medical experts to treat these issues so the child can succeed as well as that child has the ability.

Dog evaluations for rehabilitation should, in my view, be the same; a tool to find deficits, and a way of mapping out rehabilitation by identifying the issues.  Unfortunately, some use the testing of temperament to be a live-or-die test, choosing to cull those that fail to meet the sometimes artificially determined objective on a certain day in a certain environment.  That is not my method.

At this point I am going to hijack my own column here and lead into a serious question: the question of rehabilitating a dog identified as having critical behavioral problems, particularly those involved in human focused aggression or that have been the product of dog fighting.

In my view this breaks down into two questions: can we rehabilitate dogs with serious problems, and should we rehabilitate those dogs.

The first part is pretty easy to answer.  Many dogs, just like people, can be rehabilitated with time, talent, and dedication.  Not all, but lots of them.  Fighting dogs can largely be re-conditioned to, over time, accept the presence of other dogs.  Look at the success of most of the dogs from the Michael Vick fighting case.  Some of these have gone on to be therapy dogs, assistance dogs, and general ambassadors for the breeds involved. Others, although not so successful, are safely living out their lives with a combination of wise management, patience, and devoted support.

When it comes to dogs involved in fatalities or serious aggression against humans, the issue is a little more clouded.  With non-fatal attacks there may be a possibility of successful rehabilitation-provided the legal liabilities in releasing these dogs are not insurmountable.  These dogs often require long term, careful management to insure that no on e else is injured.  Most people, frankly, don’t want to accept that sort of responsibility-and many are unable even if they want to.  If they are the original owner they may have set the dog up for the problems it has, so there may be a serious need to retrain not just the dog but the human.

In the case of fatalities, the legal problems usually do prevent the dogs’ release; no government agency is going to be willing to accept the liability that one of these dogs presents.  Even if the dog is released to a skilled rehabilitator or sanctuary, any future incident involving the dog pretty much guarantees that someone, somewhere, will try and sue the releasing agency.  That cost is usually too high.

Another problem when we look to see if these animals can be rehabilitated is access to qualified trainers and adequately prepared sheltering.  Rehabilitation is far more than just parking a dog somewhere that it can be securely held.  These dogs require long, skillful deconditioning, and retraining, to be acceptably safe in society again.  Thus, a dog with serious aggression issues cannot just be popped into your local dog trainer for fixing.  The person must be competent with aggressive animals, and willing to take on the often long-term project.  These folks are few and far between.  Not all trainers are qualified, and even some board certified Veterinary Behaviorists are less than comfortable working with a dog that has severe human aggression issues.  All of these folks deserve to be compensated for their time, expertise, and willingness to risk their own safety to try and save a troubled dog.

Then we have the should issue.  This takes in the questions of whether it is better to save a single dog than to use the same resources to save, say, ten dogs.  Or a hundred dogs.  Dogs are no more interchangeable than children, and our society does its best to address the problems of each and every child-but dogs are, well, dogs.  We do not, as a society, value a dog as highly as a child. Is that morally, ethically right?  Here we pass clearly into an area beyond my limited expertise, but the fact remains-dogs are property.  And in this case there is a lot of property; some more attractive, some easier to deal with, and too much of it in need of help.  Shelters have to make heart-wrenching decisions as to who lives and who dies.  Who gets the Veterinary care needed, and who has to be destroyed. Rescues have to choose just which dogs to save-and which ones they have to turn their backs on today.  Should we spend hundreds, or thousands, of dollars rehabilitating a single dog, or should we spend the resources on tens, or hundreds, of other dogs just as deserving?

To summarize the should question we have to think; are we morally proper in trying to rehabilitate difficult, or even dangerous dogs?  That is a personal decision for each of us, but many would say yes.

Should we expend the resources to do so, especially since resources are precious-as precious as a dog’s life?  Is there an able and willing (not necessarily the same thing), qualified person to work with the dog?  Does this person have space or time to work with the dog?  Are there the financial resources (money) to pay this person for their time, effort, and skill?  And finally, practically, and most heartbreaking-do we devote a large chunk of resources to save a single dog, or should we look to save as many dogs as we can with the same money?  I no longer run an Animal Control agency or a shelter, so I no longer have to make those decisions.  To those who do: that is the worst decision you make on a daily basis.  I have been there.  I feel for you.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Aggression and breed-my thoughts

Today I want to talk a bit on the subject of breed and what is loosely termed vicious propensity.  There are supposed experts that claim breed nature is overriding and that certain breeds are naturally violent.  Most of this ire is aimed at the complex of breeds that are popularly known as Pit Bulls.

Notice I say the complex of breeds.  The dogs that most critics identify as Pit Bulls are rarely registered American Pit Bull Terriers.  They instead consist of Staffordshire Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers (yes, the Spuds Mackenzie dog), American Pit Bull Terriers, and assorted mixes thereof.  They also lump in other breeds like the Cane Corso, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasiliero, various Mastiffs, newer breeds such as American Bulldogs, sometimes Old English Bulldogs, even Boxers, Great Danes and generic mixed breeds. 

Those who demand that “Pit Bulls” be banned or regulated don’t seem to discriminate between these often very different breeds or mixes.  They are all “Pit Bulls’ and are all therefore dangerous.  Reasons cited by these breed ban proponents usually include several myths that science has disproved.

First of these is the “locking jaw” of Pit Bulls.  I can say from personal experience, locking jaws do not exist.  I have disassembled the skulls of “Pit Bulls’ that have killed humans and that mechanism simply isn’t there.  But don’t take my word; there has been a scientific study that verifies this.  In Do Pit Bulls Have Locking Jaws, Dr. Al W. Stinson sets this one to rest.  There is no physical device or mechanism in the jaws of any of these breeds, or any domesticated canine for that matter, that “locks” the jaws of the dog in any position, open or closed. Any perception of a “locking jaw” is simply the product of training and reinforcement of holding behavior, a behavior that can be taught to any dog.

The next myth cited is the “horrible power” of the Pit Bull bite.  This has also been debunked by research.  The latest of several studies was published by National Geographic, an organization not noted for defending vicious dogs.  In Dangerous Encounters Dr Brady Barr conducted a series of tests of the strength of bites of dogs and other species.  This study backed up several others that found that Pit Bulls have middling bite strength, somewhere between Labrador Retrievers and Germans Shepherds. 

This makes sense if you look at the physics of bite force.  Force applied, according to physics, is a direct result of two factors; the length of the lever that is used to apply the force and the force applied (MA=d1/d2 where MA=mechanical advantage, d1=the effort arm and d2=the load arm).  The force applicable by a specific lever depends on the breaking strength of the material the lever is made from.  Bone, the material jaws are made from, has a breaking strength, as can be attested to by anyone that has ever broken a bone-or particularly their jaw.  Length is easily determined.  By measuring one can easily see that the average German Shepherd has a bit longer jaw than the average American Pit Bull Terrier.  Apply the physics and the truth is obvious.

The third myth that opponents point to as proof that these dogs are violent is their supposed “vicious propensities”. When asked to show proof that the dogs have vicious propensities they point to attacks.  But when asked why the attacks happened they point back to “vicious propensities”.  It is circular logic that determines nothing.  No further behavioral analysis is done as to what triggered the attack.  Claims are made that the dog “just went off” and therefore no trigger was needed.  Yet in my observation and experience, dogs rarely ever just “go off”.  There is almost always a back story.  That back story is what a full investigation must look to unveil.

If the vicious propensity theory was true it would, of necessity, apply to all dogs of the affected group.  No Pit Bulls would ever earn American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificates.  None would ever be granted status as Therapy Dogs.  None would be used as Guide Dogs, Service Dogs, Search and Rescue dogs, drug detector dogs, or simply kept as family companions.  Facts indicate strongly otherwise; dogs of the various breeds lumped together as Pit Bulls perform all of these tasks and more.  My observations have shown me that individual differences in dogs far outweigh breed-wide behavioral assumptions.  Yes, retrievers overall fetch more reliably, pointers tend to point birds better than, say, Malamutes, and St. Bernards drool; but I have seen Dachshunds point, Papillions retrieve, and Huskys that would never drag a sled.  Individual differences are primary, just like people.

Don’t get me wrong; Even though I have been accused of being pro-Pit Bull, I am not an advocate, apologist, or promoter of any breed.    On the other hand, on some occasions I have been accused of looking to find evidence confirming that a dog was nasty just because it was a Pit Bull.  When I explain that I only follow the evidence, some have had serious reservations that maybe, under close examination, I might find something that does verify the claims of the anti-whatever crowd.  Or maybe a specific attack might give those opposed to Pit Bulls ammunition to use against the dogs. 

 I don’t defend Pit Bulls or any other allegedly “inherently dangerous” breed.  Neither do I condemn them.  The facts of every case have to be addressed, up front and accurately, wherever they lead. Just like in humans, there are good and bad individuals of every breed, race, ethnic origin, profession, etc.  Pick a group-there are some bad ones.  There are probably even bad Nuns (I mean apart from the writings of Neil Gaiman).  So when it comes to Pit Bulls, the fact is-there are bad Pits. And good Pits. Just like any other dog. When investigating bite cases we can’t make assumptions based on generalization.  We have to look at the evidence in an attack, and go wherever the evidence takes us, even if the evidence takes us where we would rather not go. I believe, based on my observations and experience, that there is only one breed that is inherently vicious: and it walks on two legs.