Sunday, November 19, 2006

Note to Self: Engage Brain Before Writing

Thanks to all who provided wonderful comments on the previous post. First, let me say this will teach me to post hurriedly and late at night. I wrote my first reaction on this study, and I left out my own reservations (not to mention most of my critical faculties). In consequence, I missed the mark I was aiming for by an embarrassingly wide margin. The commenters, on the other hand, hit the bull's-eye in their criticisms.

For the record, over the years I’ve owned a German Shepherd, a pit-bull mix, a Siberian Husky, and a Great Dane—all of which have been named on one list or another as “aggressive.” All of them are/were wonderful dogs. I’m a veterinarian in small animal private practice in an area with a high population of pit bulls, AmStaffs, and other breeds included on these same lists. I love spending time with my patients; they are, almost without exception, sweet-tempered, gentle dogs, and their owners are responsible and caring people.

I'll try to explain my intent more clearly. Simply, I was glad that, finally, someone was looking at irresponsible dog owners as a major contributor to the problem of dog attacks. I have gotten so frustrated with media coverage that focuses exclusively (and often inaccurately—but more on that in a future post) on the breed of dog involved. In my experience, dangerous dogs are created by irresponsible owners. But the media, and knee-jerk legislation like breed bans, ignores owner accountability. I want the current hysterical media focus on dog breeds to stop. I want the focus instead to be held on the owners. I want irresponsible owners to be held accountable--NOT the dogs!

It’s clear that this did not come across in what I wrote.

From the comments: “…one must be very careful NOT to overinterpret the results of the study cited. The "not very nice" people who want aggressive dogs probably can attribute their entire dog-education to the media, which tends to get hysterical about certain breeds… It would behoove those who carry out and publish studies, as well as those who read them, to understand what exactly the data show. In this case, the data show nothing more than the fact that "not very nice people" have bought into the myth of "dangerous breeds."

I agree, and these are issues I failed to address.

“…in an animal that was not TAUGHT to be outwardly aggressive, it will not show aggression unless it feels itself or it's people are being threatened.”

With very rare exceptions (mostly having to do with medical problems) this is absolutely true. We see this often in the veterinary profession. Animals that react aggressively to us are attempting to defend themselves. This is a normal and natural reaction. The animal perceives us as a threat and is acting out of a very rational fear. It then becomes our job to alleviate that patient's fear and minimize its stress. Labelling an animal “bad” for this behavior is ignorant and worsens the situation, instead of resolving it.

Irresponsible owners who want to have a "bad-ass" dog will encourage, train and reward aggressive behavior. This can and does occur regardless of breed, but the point I (so poorly) tried to make is that this kind of person often chooses a breed with a reputation for aggressiveness.

“Would one assume that if a certain brand of cereal was found in a certain percentage of pantries of child abusers that every person whose pantry contained that brand of cereal is an abuser? To draw this conclusion would be erroneous, but it could certainly make a study that would make an interesting article. Let’s use common sense, and stay away from pigeon-holing society with erroneous labels.”

Beautifully expressed and again, I agree. By citing the study in the way that I did, I ended up painting a very wide swath of people with a very damning brush. This was carelessness on my part. It was not my intent.

My intent was to say that dog attacks are a problem of irresponsible ownership—not a problem of breed. If one wants to reduce the number of dog attacks, one must address irresponsible owners. Breed bans don’t do this. Breed bans only promote ignorance.

I am writing a follow-up post with more thoughts on breed bans, but I wanted to respond first to all those who took the time to comment. I apologize for the carelessness with which I threw together the previous post, and for the offense it caused. I appreciate the time you took in your responses, and the clarity and goodwill with which you expressed yourselves. I hope I have expressed myself a little more clearly here.

Thank you.

1 comment:

Walter Rowntree said...

When I read your original post I didn't see anything controversial since I could tell where you were coming from and what you meant, but after I read the first comment and then re-read your post, I thought, "Uh, oh! She has really opened a can of worms here and is going to get socked."
I am reminded of what happened 10 year ago when my aging father decided to do his estate planning. He aked my CPA brother for advice and things went very badly between them. When my brother e-mailed my father he just wrote what was in his own head, instead of writing for what was in my father's head. i.e. He failed to ask himself, "How is the READER going to interpret this." When my father read the e-mails, he simply interpreted it straight, instead of running it through the "What did the writer INTEND to communicate" filter. He ended up being certain that the greedy child's sole purpose was to get his hands on daddy's riches. I ended up forbidding them to e-mail each other and instead had them e-mail me so I could interpret and re-write for the intended audience. This eventually resulted in an estate plan, though I think father is rather distrustful of brother to this day.
It goes to show the importance of writing from the perspective of the reader. At least when delving into subjects of high emotional content.