Ah, pit bulls, the dog breed most associated with the unexpected act of mauling children to death. Statistically, it’s true. “Pitbull” as a breed range has the most attacks, injuries, and deaths associated with it.
But for all the data and anecdotes, there is no shortage of people willing to defend the breed, attempting to rehabilitate its reputation with their own anecdotes, poor attempts at probability and statistics, attempts to justify and explain behaviors, and of course, cute dog pictures.
Yes, there are other dog breeds that harm people. Yes, how one raises and treats a dog has an impact on how the dog behaves. Yet what all the stories about dogs mauling children have in common is that the owner (reportedly) did not expect the dog to attack.
The problem with pit bulls is a problem with how people treat dogs in general: they anthropomorphize them. That is, they view them as somehow human rather than animal. Or they think of them in an object-oriented “tabula rasa” manner, where the dog is putty to be shaped, rather than a thing with self-actualizing instincts and capabilities.
Dog breeds exist due to the selection of traits. Some of those traits are physical, others behavioral. Dogs, in other words, are bred for a purpose. It is, therefore, dangerous to assume a dog bred for one purpose will be able to be used for another purpose like water filling a new container. Pit Bulls (and similar breeds) are bred to be aggressive fighters and hunters, and they have instincts and physical capabilities to go with those purposes, including outstanding bite strength.
Like guns, dogs are tools. A handgun has no destiny that includes killing anyone, but it can be used to that purpose; in fact, people buy handguns specifically because of those capabilities. And yet, there are families that buy “guard dog” breeds (not just pits, but pits are a great example), and then treat them like a corgi or shi-tzu. This is like letting a child play with a handgun as if it is a toy. Small dogs are called “toy” breeds because, unlike their larger brethren, they really are toys, not tools.
My Maltese is a rescue with a host of bad behaviors that my wife and I have to work to minimize. She’s food aggressive, so we have to keep our children away from our dog during certain times. However, if we fail in that control, our 8-pound dog is physically incapable of doing any serious harm to our children. The worst she can do with her tiny mouth is a shallow scratch. She’s a toy, like a rubber-band gun.
A Pitbull is different. Unintended death and serious injury occur because the owner does not act as if the dog is:
- Capable of killing or causing serious harm
- Has built-in tendencies that will allow the dog to use its capabilities
Rescue dogs seem to me to be even more dangerous, because the second is less known and controlled, and added to by uncertain treatment in the hands of the original owners. Keep all this in mind when you pick a dog for your family. Don’t over-humanize the animal.
This reminds me of the scene in “Grizzly Man” where the Native American man is interviewed. He says that animals aren’t people, that they need to be respected and treated for what they are: instinctual creatures capable of great harm.
Really is the best way to think of it.
Well said. I really like your comparison of letting kids play with a handgun.