The Pit Bull Problem: Bad Dogs or Bad Owners and Bad Laws?

A woman in Washington was badly injured when a pit bull type dog and a pit bull mix breed dog got into her house and attacked her dog, the neighbors dog she was watching and then her. In the ensuing attack Ms. Gorman suffered extensive injuries to her face, arms, breast and upper body.

Apparently the dogs got into her house through a sliding glass door she left open during the night to allow her cats to go in and out. She forgot to secure the door so that it wouldn’t open wider thus allowing the pit bulls to push the door open and gain entry.

Again we can see how people have once again acted irresponsibly and have made it harder for those who own stable pit bull type dogs and take precautions to ensure that their dogs are properly contained.

The details aren’t very specific but it is clear that these dogs were roaming off their property. Further, that the pit bull, Betty, has had prior instances of aggression where animal control had to intervene. This type of dog is atypical for the breed and should have probably been euthanized once she showed signs of human aggression.

The problem here isn’t the breed of the dog as there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of pit bull type dogs and pit bull mixes that live with families as the family pet with no problems at all. The problem is two fold:

  1. Bad owners,
  2. A lax legal system that does not prosecute bad owners, or a lack of laws to prosecute bad owners.

Bad dog owners abound. A bad dog owner is somebody who has a blind spot to their dogs inappropriate behavior. For example, if the dog growls at a person while on a walk the owner might blame the person walking by instead of their dog for an inappropriate display of aggression. Even worse is if the owner then “comforts” their “baby” because of that “nasty person who was probably up to no good anyways.” This kind of thing would simply reinforce the dogs inappropriate behavior. There is a saying, “There is only one perfect dog in the world and every dog owner has that dog.”

Owners need to evaluate their dogs behaviors from an objective perspective as possible. For example, I know that my Rottweiler does not like to have even me crowding her when she is lying down and sleeping. Hugging her while she sleeps is not something that she wants me or anyone else to do. So when she is sleeping I don’t crowd her and I tell others not to as well. Also, she can be quite territorial and when somebody comes to the house unannounced I have to make sure she is calm before opening the door. My American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) on the other hand simply loves people and any and all types of attention, but she wants to attack every other dog other than my Rottweiler. As such my APBT never goes anywhere off leash, she is not allowed to socialize with any other dog, and dog parks are simply out of the question.

The legal problem is also quite serious in that it allows the bad owners to often get off with a slap on the wrist. Even if the victim goes after the owner in civil court if the owner has few or no assets even that might not allow for much of a punishment. And lets face it many of the people who own APBTs and other pit bull type dogs these days are not what you call pillars of the community. In this case though it looks like the owner of the dogs will be facing some serious charges including a felony charge that carries with it a maximum jail sentence of 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

I think this is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be put in place everywhere. If you own a dog and it is human aggressive or trained to attack people you, not the dog, should be the one who is held largely responsible. Often times all that happens is the person pays a fine, allows the dog to be euthanized, and that is about it. Putting in place laws that would hit these irresponsible owners with felony charges that included serious jail time might actually induce people to be more careful in what dogs they choose to own and how they train and treat them.

In short, laws like the one in Washington single out the deed and not the breed and put irresponsible owners on the hot seat. Focusing on the breed is wrong-headed for two reasons. First it can create a false sense of safety when it comes to fatal dog attacks or even severe non-fatal attacks. Second, the real problem are irresponsible owners and a breed ban does not address irresponsible owners, but it does harm responsible owners.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. Snoopy says:

    Dog breeds do not have constitutional rights. People, and their pets, do have a right to live in peace, without fear of the type of incident described here.

    Banning a breed may be overkill, but so what? Far better to take a sweeping action, one that may limit the choice of some dog owners, but not limit any of their constitutional rights, than to rely solely on the prosecution of bad owners, after the fact – after someone has been mauled or killed.

    Banning a breed certainly does help with the underlying problem of bad owners – it keeps dangerous dogs out of their possession.

    And banning the breed does not preclude also having laws in place against bad owners raising other breeds to be dangerous. Nor do I think that the “false sense of security” argument flies. No one is claiming that pit bulls are the only problem – merely the most prominent.

    Nor do I see much real harm to responsible dog owners. There are many breeds of dog that make wonderful pets to choose from. Choosing a family pet that REQUIRES skillful and vigilant training to avoid a disaster is pretty irrational, and hardly deserving of much consideration.

  2. Triumph says:

    Dogs are pests. The Vietnamese have the right idea.

    An appropriate law would restrict ALL dogs from public places in urban areas and, like Steve suggests, have harsh penalties on irresponsible dog owners.

    Municipalities already have scores of laws restricting ownership of various types of animals for reasons of public safety.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    Snoopy,

    Any dog can be dangerous given the right situation so your solutions and arguments are ineffectual and, frankly, stupid. For example,

    Far better to take a sweeping action, one that may limit the choice of some dog owners, but not limit any of their constitutional rights, than to rely solely on the prosecution of bad owners, after the fact – after someone has been mauled or killed.

    Actually you might be on Constitutionaly questionable ground here, although IANAL. Breed bans have been found in some cases to be unconstitutional, not from the perspective of the dog, but from the perspective of the owner. In many cases, IIRC, they violate the constitutional right to due process. A breed ban assumes that my property (the dog) is dangerous irrespective of the individual nature of my property, my own knowledge and training, and care for my property.

    Second, even if you ban breeds X, Y and Z, you can still be bitten, mauled and even killed by breeds A, B, and C. There is virtually no dog of any size that has not been involved in at least one fatal dog attack–i.e. even the tiny pomeranian has at least one fatal dog attack associated with it. Guess we should ban that lest another infant gets killed.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that while we agree on this issue in general, Steve, we may disagree in detail. For example, purebred dogs have, generally, been bred to perform certain kinds of work. Pit bulls were bred to fight dogs. Dog aggressiveness is inbred, part of the breed. It can be reduced and controlled by assidulous socialization and rigorous discipline on the part of the owner but IMO it would be foolish to trust any dog of any breed bred to fight dogs to be friendly with other unknown dogs in non-structured situations.

    My opinion of this entire subject is that people should own dogs whose characteristics are appropriate to their lifestyles. Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, for example, are so bound to water that many breeders have “proximity to water” clauses in their sales contracts. Very, very few people have Toller lifestyles.

    My own breed, the Samoyed, is a very active, work-loving, talkative, notoriously difficult to train, high maintenance breed. We work our dogs, groom them incessantly, and put out the effort necessary to own this great breed. It’s not for people with low energy levels.

    Most of the breeds that people buy for “protection” e.g. Akitas, Cane Corsos, Dogo Argentinos, and so on require owners who are tough, discplined, and tenacious and know what the heck they’re doing with dogs and are dedicated enough to give these dogs the kind of socialization and training they need. Vanishingly few people have those qualities.

    In your several posts on bully breeds you’ve written all the right things that tell me that you’re prepared to be an owner of one (or more) of these great dogs. I wish fewer people had them and more people had Cavs or bichons because that’s what their lifestyles and temperaments are suited for.

    I oppose breed specific legislation for the reasons you’ve listed. I do wish that we had an enforced proctor system of the sort they have in some European countries and that there was some sort of certification or licensing program for owners of dogs of difficult breeds.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    One more thing: in many of the cases I’ve heard about and in this case in particular in which pit bulls have injured people it’s been when the human tried to protect another dog that was being attacked. Intervening in a dog fight is an extremely dangerous and foolish thing to do.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    My wife just made an excellent point: breed specific laws are counter-productive since they discourage good, knowledgeable, conscientious breeders and owners from the breeds in question in favor of scofflaws and quacks.

  7. Steve Verdon says:

    Dave,

    I don’t see where we disagree. I think people should think about their lifestyle and then look into what dog fits that lifestyle. If you live in a high rise apartment with little room, then having a Great Dane is probably not a good idea.

    From reading your post I’d guess you see dog ownership as making a commitment to the dog and to the people around you (neighbors, people you see on your walks, etc.). I couldn’t agree more.

    I wish fewer people had them and more people had Cavs or bichons because that’s what their lifestyles and temperaments are suited for.

    I can’t agree more. Don’t get this dog because it looks cool, makes you look tough or is the new fad dog. Exactly the wrong reasons to own the dog. Same with the rottweiler. Lots of people want them for protection but don’t understand that these are smart, loyal and courageous dogs, but also dogs that can be stubborn, assertive and challenge their owners on occasion.

  8. Richard Gardner says:

    As Steve Verdon knows, I am very familiar with this case as it is in my area, so I’m getting more details that he will.

    I do not feel that I should have to seal all entrances to my house to prevent stray or errant dogs from entering. I have enough issues with manx cats, possums, and ‘coons. (I do not care what you say about possums, I loath them, and I have a manx cat issue, wild ones.). I should not have to seal my house against errant dogs. If I live in the woods, I should have to protect my house against bears and such. I should not have to ensure my screen door is closed against the neighbor’s dogs, ditto my doggie door for my own dog.

    While not relevant, but sure to pull at your heart, is that Ms. Gorman’s dog is an assistance dog, trained to tell when its owner is about to go into a seizure. The dog attacked isn’t just a pet, it is a service dog.

    What we have here is a neglectful owner. It turns out this was NOT the first issue with these dogs

    Since 2000, Pierce County authorities have responded to 16 complaints involving dog problems at the home of the two pit bulls who attacked the disabled woman Tuesday.

    It is the owners wanting a mean dog. It isn’t the breed, it is the owners, though generations of owners wanting a mean dog results in many of the dogs being mean. And some are still good dogs.

    I still blame the owners.

  9. lunacy says:

    I shouldn’t have to secure my house from human intruders either.
    Or mosquitoes.

    But I’d be foolish not to do so.

  10. M1EK says:

    Unless you’re an absolutist who thinks your neighbor ought to be able to keep lions, tigers, and bears in his backyard (with restraints at his, and only his, discretion), you have to yield on the “there IS some difference between species, and logically, even breeds” point. And, “lunacy”, congrats on the appropriate tag.

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    you have to yield on the “there IS some difference between species, and logically, even breeds” point. And, “lunacy”, congrats on the appropriate tag.

    Well actually no. Breed is not really a scientific term and exactly how to you catagorize mixed breed dogs. Consider also that wolves and dogs are the same species, but different sub-species. Clearly we differentiate between sub-species, but breeds? Just because we differentiate at one level of classification doesn’t mean we should at another, at least not without more supporting such differentiation.