The following article by Cary Silver speaks eloquently to the need for a lifetime commitment by responsible, competent dog owners to properly train and socialize their dogs. In concert with the publisher's strongly held personal opinion, this article substantiates the adage "there are no problem dogs; just problem owners."
Peter and Dani Rusnak loved their two dogs; a black poodle namedSheridan and a black labrador called Jake. Each summer, thecouple took the pair on long, scenic romps along Lake Michigannear their home in Evanston, Illinois, U.S.A., and to CentralStreet to mingle with shoppers and to sample croissants. (Yes,even the dogs got a taste.)
"Jake is so laid back, so good-natured," says Peter. "He'll putup with almost anything." Sheridan, on the other hand, wassomewhat temperamental, but considered very intelligent andtrustworthy. "They were both just great dogs," says Dani.
No wonder the couple was shocked when one of their pets bit their18-month-old daughter, Sallyan, in the face. She required 10stitches above her eye. "We heard the dog growl, and then sawblood everywhere," recalls Peter. Sallyan needed plastic surgeryto repair the damage to her eyelid. "We were lucky she didn'tlose an eye," he adds.
The culprit: amiable Jake, the dog they would have least expectedto make such an attack.
The couple quickly found a new home for the labrador; one witholder children. "It was hard to part with Jake," says Peter. "Wecouldn't believe he would hurt a child."
Unfortunately, this scenario occurs far too often throughout theworld. Usually the canine culprit is not a snarling stray, butthe adoring family pet. And the victim is generally not a haplessjogger, but a neighborhood child.
It's a message that is being repeated in different languagesaround the world: the necessity of responsible dog ownership.
Actually, Sallyan was more fortunate than many children. In 1979,eight-year-old Frankie Scarbrough of Hollywood, Florida, U.S.A.,made national headlines when he was attacked by a pit bullterrier who literally ripped off his face. For months, he had towear a latex mask to protect his lacerated skin from infection.Now 25, he has undergone numerous surgeries to reconstruct hisnose, ears, and skin.
In Sydney, N.S.W., Australia, a pet pit bull terrier killed atwo-month-old infant while his mother was doing household chores.She had left the child alone with the dog "only for a moment."
In 1994, four-year-old Tiffany Pak of Fairfax, Virginia, U.S.A.,was playing in her backyard when she was attacked by herneighbor's Rottweiler, who jumped the fence. The girl sustained100 puncture wounds and required 300 stitches.
In Sheung Shui, South China, family members watched helplessly aseight-year-old Liu Wing-yan was attacked and killed by a GreatDane in January 1994. The girl bled to death after being bittenin the neck.
These reports are a chilling testament to what has become agrowing health concern throughout the world. The Centers forDisease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia,estimate that a total of 4.5 million dog bites occur each year inthe U.S alone, with more than 756,000 cases requiring medicalattention.
A well-trained, neuteredRottweiler will probably make a much better pet than a poorlysocialized dachshund.
While there is no international tracking of dog bites, manycountries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Hungary,and the United States have implemented restrictions regarding"dangerous dogs" to stem the attacks.
Dog bites are a major child-health problem in the United States,exceeding the total number of cases of measles, whooping cough,and mumps each year. Dog attacks are also one of the most commoncauses of severe facial lacerations in children. Each year,approximately 44,000 facial bites are reported in the U.S.;16,000 of them requiring plastic surgery.
Yet despite the immense number of physical and psychologicalscars from dog bites, the public seems largely unaware of aserious problem that could exist; literally; in its own backyard.
"Many people have been frightened by the growing media reports ofdog attacks," says Randall Lockwood, vice president of traininginitiatives for the Humane Society of the United States. "Butmost don't see their own dog as a threat."
Dogs may be "man's best friend," but they may also bite the handthat feeds them. Lockwood, considered one of the country'sforemost authorities on dog behavior and dog bites, hasinvestigated more than 3,000 dog bite cases, including 150 fatalattacks.
This is truly a serious public health problem that requires much greaterattention and investment in resources.
"Dog attacks are occurring at epidemic levels," he says. "This istruly a serious public health problem that requires much greaterattention and investment in resources."
The financial and emotional costs of dog bites are staggering. In1984, an 11-year-old girl was awarded a record sum of more than$1 million for physical and mental trauma caused by a dog bite,which has left her permanently disfigured. According to U.S.insurance industry estimates, $1 billion in dog-bite liabilityclaims were paid in 1994. State Farm Mutual Automobile InsuranceCo., the nation's largest home and auto insurer, paid out $58.7million for dog-bite claims that year.
This is not a dog problem; it's a peopleproblem. The major cause of dog bites is irresponsible owners.
But the cost in pain and suffering is even greater. "The tragicpart is that these cases are almost 100 percent preventable,"says Lockwood. "This is not a dog problem; it's a peopleproblem. The major cause of dog bites is irresponsible owners."
The Humane Society has dispelled many of the common mythsassociated with dangerous dogs. The typical perpetrator isusually the family pet; not a stray; and the victims are usuallychildren under the age of 10. Most bites occur while the dog isleashed, fenced, chained, or indoors. Another revealingstatistic: nearly one half of all attacks occur on the street,sidewalk, or alley adjacent to the dog owner's property.
"You are most likely to be bitten by your own dog, or a dog ownedby a friend or neighbor," says Lockwood.
Two other groups most susceptible to attacks are the elderly andthe proverbial postman. In 1994, dogs attacked 2,782 U.S. mailcarriers making their rounds. The Humane Society and U.S. PostalService have joined forces to sponsor "National Dog BitePrevention Week," a public information campaign heldeach June. Last year, the postal service spent $15 million tomail educational material to 125 million households with adviceon how to prevent dog bites.
The other major indicator is whether the dog has been properly socialized and trained.
Over the years, a spate of sensational media reports has focusedon two breeds; the pit bull terrier and the Rottweiler. While itis true that these breeds can be aggressive, CDC statistics showthat the best predictor of whether a dog will bite is whether ithas been neutered. An unsterilized male dog is three times morelikely to bite than a neutered animal. The other major indicatoris whether the dog has been properly socialized and trained.
It's not the breed that makes a dog dangerous, it's the attitudeof the owners. . .
"It's not the breed that makes a dog dangerous, it's the attitudeof the owners," says Lockwood. "A well-trained, neuteredRottweiler will probably make a much better pet than a poorlysocialized dachshund."
Since large dogs are capable of bone-snapping jaw pressures of200 to 450 pounds (91 to 204 kilograms) per square inch (6.45square centimeters), it is critical that they be properlysocialized and trained. (Pit bulls, renowned for their courageand aggressiveness, can clamp down with steel-trap jaws capableof exerting nearly 1,500 pounds [680 kilograms] of pressure;several times that of a German shepherd).
"It is important to set limits with a larger dog, because theycause more damage when they bite," says Lockwood. "Some of thesmaller breeds can be just as aggressive, but they will tear upan ankle instead of someone's face."
It is important to set limits with a larger dog, because theycause more damage when they bite...
In an effort to take the bite out of escalating costs, the U.Sinsurance industry has listed nine breeds that liability claimsshow are at "high risk" for biting, and may require additionalhomeowner's insurance: American Staffordshire terrier, boxer, pitbull terrier, chow chow, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd,Great Dane, Rottweiler, and Siberian husky.
But Lockwood points out that the overall number of bite cases hasremained constant over the years; only the breeds have changed."In 1974," he says, "we saw more German shepherd, collie, andcocker spaniel bites. Today it's the Rottweiler, chow, and pitbull. The dogs are a victim of their own popularity."
...the overall number of bite cases hasremained constant over the years; only the breeds have changed.
One of Lockwood's major concerns is that people today are buyingdogs for the wrong reasons. A USA Today newspaper poll shows that38 percent of all households have a dog because of fear of crime;up from 20 percent in 1981.
"An increasing number of people are buying dogs as weapons,either offensive or defensive," says Lockwood. "In response tothe threat of crime, people are buying dogs for protection,rather than for companionship. That's like having a loaded gun inyour home."
The "Rambo" of the dog world is currently the Rottweiler, aonce-rare breed whose popularity has increased by 70 percent inthe last five years. Originally used to herd cattle and pull milkcarts in Germany, the dog almost went extinct in the early 1900s.Today, American Kennel Club (AKC) figures show it is the secondmost popular breed in the U.S. (The labrador retriever is thefirst.) Another guard dog, the German shepherd, is third inpopularity, while the American Staffordshire terrier has doubledits numbers since 1990.
Breeding protection dogs has become big business. Advertisementsabound for the "world's ultimate guard dog" and "the perfectweapon." Many people are willing to pay as much as $1,500 forthese breeds and $7,000 for professionally trained "guard dogs."Ironically, drug dealers, gang members, and gun runners have alsoturned to these same breeds to protect their illicit interests.
But CDC figures show that dogs may do more harm than good inprotecting the family home. "Over the last 20 years, I've studied150 fatal dog attacks," reports Lockwood. "Only one was an attackon a burglar."
If a homeowner wants protection, the Humane Society recommendsgetting an "image" or "alert dog"; one that appears intimidatingand barks at strangers, but is not aggressive in nature. "Thiskind of dog will be just as effective in protecting property anddeterring criminals," says Lockwood.
Journalists once referred to the popular expression "when dogbites man, it's not news"; but today, prime-time television hasbrought dramatic eyewitness accounts of savage dog attacks intopeople's living rooms. These stories often make front-page news,resulting in public panic, outrage, and million-dollar lawsuits.In response, communities in various countries are imposing what'sknown as "dangerous dog" laws, which ban or impose restrictionson vicious dogs and even on specific breeds.
In England, following a rash of pit bull terrier attacks, thegovernment implemented the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991. Somebreeds, originally bred for fighting and aggression, have beendeemed "dangerous" and banned from import to the U.K. Theseinclude the American pit bull, the Japanese tosa, and twoSouth American breeds, the argentine dogo and filas brasileiro.
Many of these ordinances have beenruled unconstitutional and are under fire from owners who feeltheir dogs are being unfairly singled out because of their breed.
Since the ban, British pet owners are required to have thesebreeds muzzled in public, registered, insured, tattooed, andsterilized. Owners who do not comply with these regulations riskfines and having their dogs destroyed, regardless of theirbehavior. Other countries with similar breed-specific bansinclude Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
In the U.S., some communities still require the owners of certain"high-risk breeds" to have additional liability insurance andmuzzle their dogs in public. Many of these ordinances have beenruled unconstitutional and are under fire from owners who feeltheir dogs are being unfairly singled out because of their breed.
Most recently, the mayor of Washington, D.C., fueled thecontroversy by approving legislation that classifies all pitbulls and Rottweilers as "dangerous dogs," mandating that they bemuzzled and leashed in public. In addition, owners must be atleast 18 years old and have a minimum liability insurance policyof $50,000.
"Never punish the breed; punish the deed."
Nearly 300 communities in the U.S. have implemented "dangerousdog" laws that do not single out specific breeds, but are moregeneric in nature. A popular credo of dog clubs has become:"Never punish the breed; punish the deed."
"I think it is more important to educate the public onresponsible dog ownership than to target certain breeds," saysStephanie Robinson, who tracks canine legislation issues for theAKC. "We have to address the root of the problem."
... it is more important to educate the public onresponsible dog ownership than to target certain breeds...
In developing countries, a major concern of dog bites is rabies,which kills an estimated 50,000 people each year worldwide.According to the World Health Organization, dog bites account for90 percent of all rabies cases in Latin America, Africa, andAsia.
In Latin America, only one in three dogs is vaccinated againstrabies. In Ecuador, rabies outbreaks have prompted the massextermination of thousands of stray dogs in communities such asQuito. The national government has implemented so-called "PoisonBrigades" to eliminate every stray dog in sight.
In Moscow, Russia, a city troubled by political upheaval andwidespread poverty, dog bites have more than tripled in the lastthree years. Thousands of stray dogs roam the streets in packs,abandoned by the poor. In 1995, Moscow's health authoritiesreported more than 40,000 attacks requiring medical treatment.
....It's not the fault of the dogs; it'sthe fault of those who once owned them.
Irina-Grech of the Moscow Dog Lovers Association told a LosAngeles Times reporter: "It's terrible; all these dogs roamingaround in packs, some of them sick or wounded from mistreatment.It breaks your heart because it's not the fault of the dogs; it'sthe fault of those who once owned them."
It's a message that is being repeated in different languagesaround the world: the necessity of responsible dog ownership.
Randall Lockwood points out there are 52 million dogs in theU.S., 15 million dogs in France, and 10 million dogs in England;the vast majority of which are loving, loyal pets. "Dogs provideunconditional love and acceptance," he says. "They are one of theworld's most popular pets, and with good reason. They become apart of your family."
And where are the Rusnaks today, now that the dog-bite incidentwith Jake is behind them? They have moved to a new neighborhood,have a new baby, and are seriously considering buying anotherdog.
The author, Cary Silver, owns a three-year-old Rottweiler and is senioreditor of THE ROTARIAN.