In mid-August 2006, a group of so-called “dog advocates” joined together for the 2006 Canine Legislation Conference. This was the first conference to devote its entire agenda to “breed-specific legislation,” or laws that target dogs like pit bulls. In case you have not guessed it, they don’t want such laws enacted. (For the full story, see C. Sheehan, Dog groups seek to sway legislation, Chigago Tribune.)
They favor a different approach, which they call “punish the deed, not the breed.” They would like all people to have the freedom of keeping any dog they want, without restriction, until the dog harms a person. This rule of theirs would apply to all people and all breeds of dog, no matter how much damage and human suffering may result.
I do not favor breed bans, but I do favor breed restrictions. In other words, I do not believe that banning the pit bull will end the dog bite epidemic, while I feel strongly that keeping the big, powerful dogs away from the wrong people will greatly help to keep our streets safe.
Imposing breed restrictions would mean that not everyone would be allowed to have a big, powerful dog. And big, powerful dogs would not be allowed to live and go anywhere they want.
For example, people who chronically disobey leash laws would not be allowed to own Great Danes, mastiffs, pit bulls, akitas, Chows, Rottweilers and a host of other breeds that must not be allowed to run unfettered along crowded city streets. Similarly, convicted drug dealers would not be allowed to own such dogs because they are too often turned against police in the course of criminal activity.
The point I want to make here, however, is that only one group (the dog advocates) is getting organized. The other group (the people who have been attacked by dogs or who fear it) is not even slightly organized.
The danger is that only one side of the story will be told in the press, only one position will be advanced in the legislature and city council, and only one explanation will be given to the public. The group that goes to conferences and learns to be media savvy will be in a better position to influence politicians. Shouldn’t people who want reasonable dog safety laws also have a voice?
I believe in hearing all sides of a story. If dog advocates are banding together to tell their side, don’t we need to hear from the “other” side too? But we are not hearing from the victims or even the experts on canine aggression, and as a result the public is getting a distorted idea about the causes of dog attacks.
Every time a person is mauled by a dog, the news articles contain quotes from people who say that the attack was an “accident,” an “unpredictable” incident, that came out of the blue. This is usually hogwash. The same types of people are getting mauled — children under age 10 and seniors. The attacking dogs are most often chained and unneutered males, in a pack, and either pit bulls or Rottweilers. And many of the attacks start out as an assault on another dog and then escalate to the mauling of a person.
The American Veterinary Association put together a Task Force on Canine Aggression several years ago. It concluded that these attacks usually involve a dog that came from an aggressive breed or aggressive parents, the dog was not socialized or trained properly, the dog’s early experiences promoted aggression, the dog was in bad health, or the behavior of the victim was provocative. Breed and actual parents of the dog are a factor, but only one of several.
Despite all that is known by the real experts, the dog advocates keep getting their mantra in the news — it was “unavoidable,” “unpredictable” — rather than the real truth.
I am concerned, in short, about the over-simplification of this issue. Saying “punish the deed not the breed” is a fine approach, but it is not the whole story. There is more to it than that. A dog bite is, after all, something that a dog does, and there are some dogs that have been doing it all too often and with horrific results.
If only the “dog advocates” speak out, the media will carry only one side of this story, which is that dog attacks are like lightening striking. No, dog attacks result from a lot of factors that our community leaders must address.
Who is to make that demand for equal coverage, for broader coverage, for deeper coverage of this issue? Which group will take the laboring oar and demand more analysis, more action? Who will speak for the victims and the next victims?