The Making Of A Dangerous Dog

The Making Of A Dangerous Dog – responsibilities of owners and breeders

Pamela H. Sacks

Early this year, 33-year-old Diane Whipple was returning to her apartment in San Francisco after grocery shopping. In her sixth-floor hallway, she had the misfortune to encounter Marjorie Knoller, who was trying to shepherd two 120-pound presa canario dogs back into the apartment she shared with her husband, Robert Noel. One of the animals responded to Whipple’s presence with a vicious and ultimately fatal lunge. The presa canario went on to rip off her clothes and spatter her blood all over the walls until authorities arrived and repeatedly fired tranquilizer darts to end the attack.

Soon after the mauling, its bizarre circumstances began to emerge. The dogs’ owners, both lawyers, had obtained them through a prison inmate whom they had adopted. Law enforcement officials learned that the dogs may have been part of a scheme to produce fighting animals for guarding illegal drug labs in Mexico. Whipple, as it turned out, was the victim of a creature that could be inspired to become a killing machine.

The glare of publicity following the attack highlights a problem that has, ironically, grown along with the role of dogs in our lives. An estimated 55 to 59 million dogs live in U.S. households, more canines per capita than in any other country. Yet experts say that many people have no idea how to successfully coexist with man’s best friend. Although fatal attacks are rare, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 4.7 million people are bitten each year, 800,000 of them seriously enough to require medical treatment. When a dog feels threatened, becomes frightened, or has been encouraged to be aggressive and then draws blood, the tendency is to focus on the animal alone. The Whipple tragedy, however, underscores what experts have long sought to impress upon the public: when a dog turns dangerous, the blame nearly always must extend to the owner as well.

“One of the real problems is that people go into the relationship with unrealistic expectations and a lack of knowledge of animal behavior,” says Carter Luke, vice president for humane services at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). When serious problems ensue, the owner’s solution is often simply to give the dog away.

An increase in reported dog bites may be linked to a change in public attitude. Studies show that 40 percent of owners are more interested in obtaining a canine for protection than as a family companion. Some even view the dog as a weapon, so they choose a large and muscular breed. In these cases, it is not uncommon for the animal to be tied to a post and kept isolated, unsocialized, and untrained. “If you walk into a shelter today, you see a huge difference compared with 20 years ago,” Luke notes. “You see mostly pit bulls and rott-weilers and some German shepherds and Dobermans.”

Both genetics and environmental factors influence the making of aggressive dogs, and people have had a hand in both. Over the centuries, dogs have been selectively bred for certain traits, such as hunting, speed, herding, and aggression. As a result, hounds have sharp eyesight or a keen sense of smell, herders a strong work instinct, and toy breeds a penchant for affection.

The pit bull-mastiff type, with its powerful square head, thick neck, and exceptionally large jaw muscles, was bred for fighting and guarding. A dog with these characteristics is more likely to attack quickly and forcefully in defense of its territory and owners, according to veterinarian Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the animal-behavior clinic at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Massachusetts. “In a dog 60 to 100 pounds, with a Big set of mashers … and with a high prey drive, a light goes on: `Bring it down, bring it down.'” says Dodman, author of Dogs Behaving Badly. The pit bull is a cross between the bulldog, once used for bullbaiting, and terrier types–a mix that has created a tenacious shake-and-tear style of bite. The rottweiler was bred to zealously guard cattle on the way to market and to protect the purse on the return trip. The presa canario–a cross of the bardino majero, an extinct Spanish breed, and the English mastiff–is typical of dogs engineered to fight other animals.

It is not surprising, then, that pit bulls, rottweilers, and similar breeds inflict a proportionally large share of bites and account for many of those causing serious injury. In fact, an analysis prepared by researchers at the CDC, the Humane Society of the United States, and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) shows that, between 1977 and 1998, pit bulls and rottweilers were responsible for more than half of the 238 fatal attacks on humans.

Nevertheless, AVMA researcher and veterinarian Gall C. Golab emphasizes that no breed is inherently vicious and that, conversely, any type of dog can be dangerous if bred or trained to be fierce. What is more, fellow veterinarian Ilana Reisner points out, some kinds of dogs have gained a propensity for biting because of careless practices. The American cocker spaniel, for example, once sweet and docile, was bred indiscriminately when it became popular, and problems with health and temperament resulted; it soon gained a reputation for snappiness and instability.

The statistical analysis of attacks bears out the views expressed by Golab and Reisner, who is a behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Since 1975, people have been killed by dogs belonging to more than 30 breeds, including dachshunds, golden retrievers, a Yorkshire terrier, and a Labrador retriever. In recent months, a Pomeranian and a Lhasa apso have joined the list. For this reason and others, Reisner is uncomfortable with generalizations. “We all know extrasweet pit bulls and rotties,” she says. “I know quite a few golden retrievers who are unpredictable and aggressive to their own families.”

Given the significant role that genes play in determining nature, experts urge anyone thinking about getting a dog to first consult with a veterinarian, trainer, or behavioral specialist. “If someone says to me, `I have a one-year-old child and I want a rottie,’ I wouldn’t say that’s the ideal breed,” Reisner says. No matter what, animal professionals stress that once the pet is selected, behavior will depend largely on whether it has been properly socialized and trained, the state of its health, the environment in which it lives, and the actions of the people it encounters.

Research has shown that the stage for a dog’s future relationships with people, other animals, and its surroundings is largely set in the first 12 weeks of life, when it is most receptive to learning. Kelley Bollen, a behavior consultant with the MSPCA, says that during this time a puppy should be walked through crowded streets on a leash, ride in the car, visit a veterinarian’s office, and be introduced to other dogs. She suggests taking along a small bag of treats, which can be used to help an approaching stranger become a fast friend. Because fear is the most common reason for biting, this is also the time to make the pet feel comfortable with being picked up or groomed and even tolerate being pushed over or having its tail pulled, notes Bollen.

The puppy should learn to adjust to having its food and toys removed. Competitive games, such as tug-of-war, should be avoided; a rousing round of fetch is the perfect substitute. Among other things, these steps will help childproof your pet–an important step, since more than half of bite victims are youngsters. No matter how tolerant the dog, however, experts warn that a child should not be left alone with it. “Children are curious. They don’t sense the cues that an adult might,” says Julie Gilchrist, a CDC pediatrician and epidemiologist who participated in the study on fatal maulings. “They want to play roughly. They scream. They run. These are all appropriate for a child but can be agitating to a dog not accustomed to being around children.”

In addition to early socializing activities, owners can take other steps to keep canine aggression in check. Spaying or neutering can reduce the likelihood of dog bites for a variety of reasons. Neutering decreases dominance-aggression in males and reduces their urge to roam and fight. It may also reduce aggression in females, and a spayed pet won’t attract strange dogs that may be aggressive to her owners or contribute to the overpopulation problem, which results in more strays on the street. And basic-obedience classes should be viewed as an essential component of the young dog’s life. The exposure to other canines is crucial, and the puppy’s ability to follow a few basic commands–“come,” “sit,” “down”–is invaluable in maintaining control.

The list of don’ts is easily as long.

A drive along any city street or country lane leaves no doubt that nowadays many people assume a dog is content to spend hour after hour tethered to a backyard chain. But the dog is a social animal whose proper place is generally with the family. Reisner warns that if a pet is left isolated and lacks stimulation, it will become a “natural defender” and start barking as a means of self-expression. Yet too much freedom can bring problems, warns Dodman. While many bites occur when an animal is unleashed and away from home, the most common scenario for an attack features a dog running loose on its own property. The precautions? Build a fence, make the pet part of your life, and keep the dog on a leash when there’s a stranger to be greeted.

Both Luke and Golab emphasize that the responsibility to build an environment that promotes healthy interaction extends from the individual pet owner to the community at large. It is not unusual for governmental leaders to push animal-control issues to the bottom of the agenda until a high-profile attack occurs. As officials seek a quick fix, they sometimes call for a ban on the kind of dog involved. The pit bull is an example, having been the frequent target of such measures over the last 15 years. According to Scott C. Giacoppo, an MSPCA law enforcement officer, the breed is favored by gang members and drug dealers, who often abuse their dogs to develop muscle-bound engines of intimidation. Thus pit bull laws have been perceived to offer a dual benefit, tempering outlaw elements while promoting safety. But breed-specific legislation, Giacoppo and others caution, represents a flawed methodology. For one thing, anyone desiring an aggressive dog can simply select a genetic cousin with similar traits. “The pit bull is the breed of choice today,” Giacoppo remarks. “Tomorrow it could be another breed.”

In Luke’s view, a far more effective approach is to enact ordinances that hold owners accountable for their dogs and establish serious penalties for violators. The City of Boston, for instance, strengthened its law after two dog attacks within a week during the summer of 2000. The rules state that once a dog is declared dangerous, the owner must keep it in a special enclosure at home; when it is off the property, the animal must be muzzled and on a short leash. Local officials can require spaying or neutering, along with training. Failure to comply can bring heavy fines.

As towns and cities adopt varying regulations, animal-welfare officials continue to seek common ground. Four years ago the AVMA appointed a 14-member task force composed mainly of physicians, veterinarians, animal behaviorists, and lawyers to devise a general approach to dog bite prevention. The committee’s report calls for input from numerous individuals and agencies in the community, the formation of an advisory council to craft ordinances, better reporting and tracking of dog bites, and a public-education program on canine behavior. Golab, who is assistant director of the AVMA’s Division of Education and Research, is heartened by the early response to the report, which has been published in the association’s journal, distributed to federal and state public-health agencies, humane societies, and shelters, and posted on the AVMA’s Web site. Within the first week, 500 requests for copies poured in.

A gradual change appears to be taking place in American society, boosting legislative and enforcement efforts. Randall Lockwood, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, notes that more than a dozen men and women across the country stand charged with murder or manslaughter in connection with fatal dog attacks, including the lawyers who kept the dog that killed Whipple. “This emphasizes that these most serious cases are almost invariably the result of negligent human behavior,” says Lockwood, who served on the AVMA’s task force and also worked on the study of fatal maulings.

Lockwood sees some encouraging signs. When a pit bull tore off a child’s ear not long ago in Washington, D.C., he expected headlines calling for a ban on the breed. Instead a news story focused on an increase in the animal-control budget. “That’s exactly what’s needed,” says Lockwood. “I think the message is finally beginning to sink in.”

At the same time, no one should lose sight of the impact our individual actions can have when it comes to the making of dangerous dogs. “Dogs instinctively want to please,” Gilchrist says. “The important thing is to get people on track to set them up for success.”


Most of the time dogs bring joy into our lives. Millions are reliable family members we trust to romp with the children or enjoy a game of fetch in the backyard. So it may come as a surprise to many animal aficianados that 50 percent of all dogs will have “some kind of aggressive encounter with a human in their lifetime,” according to Kelley Bollen, an animal-behavior consultant for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The best approach, for dog lovers and others, includes a portion of care and a portion of understanding.

“If we don’t educate people on how to read dogs and how to behave around dogs,” says Bollen, “there will continue to be bites.”

Signs of canine aggression include:

* standing very still, almost frozen (this indicates the dog is angry or scared);

* staring directly at you (this is a threat; avoid direct eye contact with such a dog);

* raised hair on the back of the dog’s neck;

* ears flattened to the dog’s head or an erect, forward-pointing posture;

* a tail held high in the air, either very still or stiffly wagging, or tucked between the legs;

* showing teeth, growling, or barking directly at you.

If a dog starts to attack you:

* never run, stand still. If knocked over, lie still;

* protect your face and stomach with your hands and arms;

* do not scream, though you can yell “help” if you think someone is close enough to hear you;

* if possible, give the dog a piece of clothing or another item to bite onto, and slowly walk backward to get to a safe place.

Owners need to take signs of aggression very seriously. “When a dog learns that biting works to remove a source of fear or anger, he is more likely to use this strategy again in the future. If your dog has bitten, seek professional help,” advises Bollen.

Pamela H. Sacks is a contributing editor for Animals.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group