Fact checker: What's so scary about pit bulls?

Pits in the news and info on Breed Specific Legislation.

Postby pitsnok » July 20th, 2011, 2:12 am

Thanks to google+ I stumbled across this really great article!


The claim
Northern Nevadans should be especially fearful of pit bulls.

The background
Nevada Humane Society and the Reno Gazette-Journal held a contest where readers shared stories of adopted pit bull type dogs whom they’ve loved. A few readers complained, saying pit bulls are vicious and should be banned.
A typical letter came from S.C. Freed of Reno:

“The risks posed by pit bulls are a matter of common knowledge and frequent discussion. Pit bulls are a particular danger. … At a minimum, every person adopting a pit bull should be furnished with the following: ‘WARNING: This dog is one of a breed known to the state of Nevada to pose a danger to small children, the elderly and other dogs.’”

In a second letter, Freed tells of a pit bull mauling a service dog in Arizona and states “The preponderance of the anecdotal evidence is against you and you need to modify your position to better serve the community.”

One prominent source used to criticize pit bulls is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on dog bites from 2000 that looked at 238 dog-related fatalities over 24 years. It found that 32 percent involved pit bulls or pit mixes.

But the CDC adds a disclaimer warning the study does not — and there currently is no accurate way to — identify which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.

Another common source about pit bull dangers is Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People newspaper.

His latest report claims that there have been 173 fatalities from dog attacks over the past 28 years and 47 percent involved pit bulls or pit mixes.

But Clifton’s research covers less than 2 percent of dog bites requiring hospitalization and relies only on reports in the media, which have been shown to emphasize pit bull attacks over those by other breeds.

There are bite sources in Nevada that may shed light.

In 2005, the Nevada Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Health Planning and Statistics released “A special report on dog and cat bite injuries and costs in Nevada, 1999-2003.”

The report says breed is not important when analyzing bite statistics and “singling out one or two specific breeds for control may result in a false sense of security, and often ignores the true scope of the problem.”

It reported that a far better bite predictor was whether a dog is male and unneutered; these accounted for 3 out of every 4 bite incidents.

Bobby Smith, field supervisor for Washoe County Regional Animal Services, agrees that breed is not helpful in evaluating the danger posed by a dog.

However, by state statute, his agency is required to investigate every dog bite report and list a breed.

The purpose is to help track rabies cases. Bite reports come from animal control, hospitals and the Washoe health department. A bite is defined as the skin being broken, which includes full-on maulings down to a dog turning his or her head and accidentally scraping your skin lightly with a tooth.

Smith said he and his staff did not have time to hand-tally bites by breed. But, he said, Fact Checker was welcome to do so.

After a couple of hours of tedious counting, an analysis was made from just over 1,000 Washoe County animal bite reports for the last fiscal year.

And the No. 1 biter of humans in Washoe County? Cats. They accounted for 13.6 percent of reports.

Here are the numbers by dog breed:

» Pit bull type dogs such as Staffordshire terriers and American pit bull terriers accounted for 13.4 percent of bite reports

» Retrievers such as golden and Labrador: 9.7 percent

» Chihuahuas: 7.8 percent

» Medium herding dogs such as Australian shepherds and border collies: 6.9 percent

» German shepherds: 5.2 percent

Small terriers including Jack Russell, rat, Boston, Yorkshire: 4.5 percent

Does this prove pit bulls are the most frequent biters? To declare so, it must be shown that they make up a larger percentage of dogs in Washoe County than their percentage of bites.

Before trying this, we’ve got to switch percentages. The ones above represent the percentage among all animal bites including those for cats, ferrets and even pigs (there was one pig bite reported last year).

Looking at just dog bites, pit bull types accounted for 18.6 percent of reports.
Next, it needs to be determined how many pit bulls live here. If they’re the most popular breed, then having the most bite reports is to be expected. Unfortunately, there is no dog breed census.

Washoe animal control manager Mitch Schneider said regarding dogs taken in by his agency, “If our impounds are reflective of our community — and there’s some evidence to support that — then those numbers may be as good a gauge as we can get.”

Impound stats by primary breed show that pit bulls make up about 17.3 percent of dogs, retrievers 15.8, Chihuahuas 9.5, medium herding dogs 6.5, German shepherds 5.8 and small terriers 4.5.

So pits are 17.3 percent of the impounds and 18.6 percent of bites, or the bite rate is 9.3 percent higher than their impound rate.

If impound data is reflective of general population (a big if), this seems to show pits are a bit more dangerous than their population would predict.

Schneider disagrees. He said irresponsible people gravitate toward pit bulls and that dogs with poor socialization skills, little training, and running at large or chained get in more trouble so he would expect pit bulls’ bite rate to be higher than it is if they were more dangerous.

Chow chows, by comparison, have a bite rate more than twice their impound rate.
“As an officer or a private citizen, give me a pit bull any day over a chow chow, a German shepherd or a Rottweiler,” said Schneider, who trained dogs for years, specializing in aggressive ones.

He added, “If you want to look at anecdotal evidence, talk to people who deal with pit bulls daily. We see 5,000 dogs every few years, and you won’t find anybody on my staff who thinks pit bulls are aggressive.”

Hundreds of pit bull type dogs are adopted out each year by Nevada Humane Society yet Smith couldn’t think of a fatality involving a dog attack, let alone a pit bull, in the 4½ years since he’s been here.

The last prominent Washoe County attack was last year in Spanish Springs when a dog went after a woman’s two little dogs — one was killed, the other injured — and her arm was ripped open. The attacking dog? A boxer.

Twenty-seven dogs are registered as dangerous in Washoe County; three are pit bulls.

It’s also worth noting that the Netherlands had a ban on pit bulls for 15 years before repealing it in 2008 after concluding the ban did not decrease dog bites.

The verdict
No good evidence has been presented by critics of pit bulls about their excessive danger to Northern Nevadans.

If one uses media reports to determine rates of danger — as pit bull critics do — then over the past decade in Washoe County, you’re more likely to be killed by your own mother than a pit bull.

Truth Meter: 3

Dog photos: The images, clockwise from upper left, show a bulldog, a boxer, a Presa Canario and an American pit bull terrier.
~Brittany, Degan and Harlow's mom

"It is true that Pit Bulls grab and hold on. But what they most often grab and refuse to let go of is your heart, not your arm."
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Postby iluvk9 » July 20th, 2011, 7:34 am

Damn cats! :giggle:
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Postby pitsnok » July 20th, 2011, 9:58 am

A follow-up article the author wrote:

I wrote a Fact Checker column about pit bulls that appeared in Sunday's paper and Tuesday online (read it here). Parts were cut for length and I've had a few comments since so a follow-up seemed appropriate.

The gist of the story is that after the recent pit bull contest, a few readers wrote in to say that we shouldn't be celebrating pit bulls, we should be banning them because they are a special danger to Northern Nevadans. So I looked into it and found that the Nevada Department of Health and Nevada Department of Agriculture put out a report in 2005 on cat and dog bites saying that breed is not a significant determiner of bites. And then I went down to Washoe County Regional Animal Services and went through about a 1,000 bite reports from the last physical year and counted how many there were for each breed. Cats were the No. 1 biters of humans; among dog breeds, pit bulls and pit mixes were tops with about 18 percent of dog bites.

Of course, this statistic is meaningless unless we know the percent of pit bulls and pit mixes among the general population in Washoe County. For instance, if they make up 36 percent of the populution but only 18 percent of the bites, then they have a low likelihood of biting. There is no good census of dog breed population here, but Mitch Schneider of animal control said that impound rates are likely close. Pit bull type dogs are impounded at a rate of about 17 percent so pitties would seem to be slightly more likely to bite than their impound rate would suggest. But Schneider said he didn't agree because so many pits are adopted by irresponsible people, he would expect their bite rate to be much higher if they were truly a danger.

So that's the summary. Now for some other points.

But what about that pit bull attack in Texas?

This is actually a horrible argument by critics of pit bulls. Most of the emails I received from pit haters gave zero real examples of pit bulls but just said "everybody knows" they attack a lot. One person mentioned a case in San Diego of a woman mauled by a pit bull, and one mentioned a service dog in Arizona being mauled. So, gee, if you've got to go hundreds of miles away to find a single case of a pit bull attack when the Nevada Humane Society adopts out about 400 a year right here in Washoe County, clearly pit bull attacks are rare.

Without even trying, I could give you a examples not from San Diego but from right here of heterosexual parents abusing and killing their children. Does that mean we should ban heterosexual parents from raising children? Cherry-picking a few cases over many years that support your point of view is called confirmation bias, and it leads people to think things that aren't true because they only notice the examples that support your view and ignore the ones that don't.

Yes, you may have even known of a pit bull who was dangerous (or been mugged by a Latino teen or seen a ghost or had Jesus visit you via a Walmart receipt or had the 49ers lose because you forgot to wear your lucky shirt) but that doesn't mean your experience was representative or real. If you had your car broken into by a white kid (as has happened to me twice), do you think all white people are a danger and we need to protect ourselves against them? (Or black people or illegal immigrants or Canadians?) Can you even be sure that it was a pit bull who attacked you? About 20 breeds are often misidentified as being pit bulls and so media reports often wrongly attribute attacks to pit bulls. Take this quiz and see if you can identify the pit bull. Given that hundreds of thousands of pit bulls engage hundreds of thousands of humans every single day in the United States, these anecdotal examples not only don't support the view that pit bulls are dangerous, they show how rare they are so that's why it's news when attacks happen.

But what about all the media reports about pit bull attacks?

The claim that pits must be dangerous because of all the media reports is one of my favorite arguments. It's almost always made by people who, on every other topic, say they don't trust the media but on this one thing that happens to support their preconceived opinion, the media happen to get it right. This is another example of confirmation bias.

Anyway, the media is NOT trustworthy on this, and I would single out television media for particular criticism. Here's an excerpt from my original story that was not used in print, about how the media exaggerates pit bull attacks and plays down those by other dogs:
One report by the pro-pit bull group National Canine Research Foundation looked at how four similar dog attacks over five consecutive days in 2007 were handled in the media. Three involved dogs who were not pit bulls. The three non-pit bull attacks generated four stories total in the local newspaper; the pit bull attack generated 230 news reports in local, national and international outlets, including MSNBC, CNN and Fox.
Don't pit bulls have locking jaws?

A couple of people wrote in to ask about whether pit bulls have locking jaws, which would make them a special danger. No, they don't. Dogs are dogs and have the same jaws. Here's a quote from Dr. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia:
The few studies which have been conducted of the structure of the skulls, mandibles and teeth of pit bulls show that, in proportion to their size, their jaw structure and thus its inferred functional morphology, is no different than that of any breed of dog. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of "locking mechanism" unique to the structure of the jaw and/or teeth of the American Pit Bull Terrier
Problems with breed profiling

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting article in the New Yorker about how problematic racial profiling is, not because it's morally wrong but because it doesn't work. He explained how if Arab males are profiled, those coordinating attacks with just switch to Caucasian females to carry bombs (as indeed happened), thus profiling gives us a false sense of security.

He used the analogy of the problem with profiling pit bulls as somehow inherently dangerous. They're not but people who want dangerous dogs pick them and so that makes them seem dangerous. In the past, Dobermans, German shepherds and Rottweilers were used by thugs who trained them to be mean and they had the bad reputation as dogs no one should ever get because they'll turn on you. In other words, if you ban pit bulls, irresponsible people will switch to another breed and the same amount of attacks will occur, only now you'll have a false sense of security because there are no pit bulls.

He listed what were far better indicators of bite propensity than breed (I quoted the Nevada health department saying the same thing). Here's the summary I wrote, inspired by his article:
If breed is not a good indicator of a predicting whether a dog will bite, what is?

A 1991 study in Denver is instructive. It compared dogs with a history of biting humans to dogs with no history of biting. Breed was not found to be a significant factor, but a number of other factors did stand out: biters were 6.2 times more likely to be male than female, 2.8 times more likely to be chained than unchained and 2.6 times more likely to be intact than neutered.

These would indicate that rather than banning breeds, there are benefits to be found in promoting spay-neuter, alternatives to chaining and teaching children how to avoid dog bites since they are the most frequent victims of bad attacks.
But I was harmed by a pit bull

Let's say you or your dog or someone in your family really was hurt by a pit bull. That is sad and not good. It happens. I don't want to diminish the pain that you've suffered but this is an important discussion and it's important to note that strong powerful animals, especially ones who are poorly socialized or trained, can be dangerous. In a populous community, bad things happen. People get in car accidents and choke to death on chewing gum and accidentally electrocute themselves. We've got to look at the numbers to determine risks. Here's a passage cut from my original story for space reasons:
In 2000, there were 26 fatalities from dog attacks in the entire country. So let’s say 13 of those were from pit bulls and then let’s compare that danger to some other dangers from that year, based on accident statistics from the National Safety Council.

A bathtub would be 26 times more likely to kill you than a pit bull, using the most negative (and discredited) figures against pit bulls. You’d be 50 times more likely to die falling out of bed or off a recliner than to be killed by a pit bull. Or, begging for a story of just this topic, you’d be four times more likely to be killed by hot water than a pit bull.
In other words, yes, pit bulls can be dangerous but, relatively speaking, not so much. And again, they aren't naturally dangerous. There's nothing in their DNA that makes them more dangerous than any other big dog.

If pit bulls are more dangerous than the average dog their size, I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up. When I do, I’ll change my position but until then, they seem sweet and relatively harmless unless encouraged to be otherwise.

Any other angles you think I might've missed? Please comment below. In the printed story, I used only one example of a place that banned pit bulls only to repeal the ban years later because it was found not to decrease bites but I've got a half-dozen more if anyone wants them.

I think I love this guy.
~Brittany, Degan and Harlow's mom

"It is true that Pit Bulls grab and hold on. But what they most often grab and refuse to let go of is your heart, not your arm."
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