Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

So much to be thankful for. Not least of which, for all of you who visit me here. Happy Thanksgiving! I’m spending my holiday writing, answering the call of the deadline. I love to write, so this is no hardship--and anyway, that deadline is one of the biggest things I'm thankful for! (since it means that my new book already has a home...kind of like a puppy who's already been adopted, but is too young to leave mama just yet.)

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.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Like Owner, Like Dog?

Vicious dog attacks, resulting in serious injury or death of a person, have increased to the point that many people feel “something” must be done. Unfortunately, the “something” too often results in knee-jerk reactions. Ban all pit bulls! Problem solved—right?

Not entirely. Because there’s more to this problem than just the dog.

Are certain breeds at higher risk for aggression? Absolutely. But in the hysterical-media coverage of dog attacks, the question hardly ever asked is: What kind of person owns a dog like this?

Recently, though, a team of researchers did ask that question, and they’ve uncovered some interesting answers. According to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (which, BTW, how sad is it that such a journal even has to exist?), owners of aggressive dogs are often—brace yourselves for a shock—not very nice people.

Specifically, this is what the study found: Of 355 dog owners, every single one who owned a breed at high risk for aggression had been found guilty of breaking the law at least once. Offenses ranged from traffic citations to “serious criminal convictions.”

When the study looked at owners of aggressive dog breeds who also had been cited for failure to license their dog, 30 percent had at least five criminal convictions or traffic citations.

The criminal record rate for owners of licensed, low-risk dogs? One percent.

One of the study’s authors, Jaclyn Barnes, says: "Owners of vicious dogs who have been cited for failing to register a dog (or) failing to keep a dog confined on the premises ... are more than nine times more likely to have been convicted for a crime involving children, three times more likely to have been convicted of domestic violence ... and nearly eight times more likely to be charged with drug (crimes) than owners of low-risk licensed dogs."

This is one reason I’m leery of breed bans. A breed ban doesn’t address the fact that certain people are drawn to owning aggressive dogs. And if you think such people must all be drug dealers, or others of that ilk, think again. One of the worst dogs I ever dealt with was a 125-lb Rottweiler owned by a seemingly nice suburban mom. Plain and simple, this person just liked having a bad-ass dog. The fact that the dog snarled at her own husband was, she believed, proof that the dog loved her—and she encouraged it. Take away all Rottweilers, and I’m convinced she’d immediately select another high-risk dog and train it to be a bad-ass. Unfortunately, she's all too typical of this kind of owner.

For too long, the spotlight has been solely on the dogs behind the dog attacks. This study begins to shine it where it really belongs: on the dog owners. Solve that problem, and breed bans won’t be necessary.
There’s more to the breed ban controversy…but I’ll save that for a future post.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Barbaro: A Champion, Still

Against long odds, the fractures in Barbaro’s right hind leg--sustained during his running of the Preakness Stakes--have healed.

On November 6th, veterinary surgeons removed the cast from Barbaro’s right hind leg. For the first time since May, no replacement cast was put on.

According to Barbaro's head surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, a long road still lies ahead. Back in July, Barbaro’s left rear foot developed laminitis, a serious, potentially fatal inflammation. As a consequence, he lost most of his left rear hoof wall. Although the final outcome is still uncertain, the good news is that the hoof is slowly regrowing.

The team of veterinary surgeons, technicians, and support staff at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center deserve kudos and a standing ovation for bringing Barbaro this far. I understand their caution. And yet, I believe this gallant horse will, ultimately, claim victory. On that day, look for a picture of Barbaro here: cast-, splint-, and bandage-free, at liberty, grazing grass in bright Pennysylvania sunshine.