National Post The Dog (Bite) Days of Summer

National Post - Thursday August 1st, 2013

Behaviourists (and I) call the cluster of breeds imbued with a genetically-endowed propensity for impulsive aggression – such as the mastiff, Cane Corso, Dogo Argentina and others - “pit bull type dogs.”

Earlier this month my esteemed colleague at the National Post, George Jonas, wrote a reminiscent column about irascible dogs.

Dogs are a suitable topic for the dog days of summer, and – considering the additional time spent out of doors by children with exposed limbs – dog bites an even more timely theme. But, little did Jonas know, not being immersed as I am in the bizarre world of canine politics, that he committed an enormous faux (ahem) paw in his ruminations.

The two dogs Jonas singled out as particularly ill-tempered were Soossee, a bitch “of uncertain breed,” but definitely containing some mastiff blood, and Muki, a Rottweiler hybrid, who bit him when he was a child, in the course of a dog fight Jonas attempted to break up.

Later in his column, Jonas remarks: “Startle a Spaniel and it may cost you an upper lip; startle a Rottweiler and it’s likely to be an arm and a leg.” He is not wrong, but nowadays it is considered caninely incorrect to “stereotype” any breed, even though stereotyping is just another word for genetic line breeding.

A mastiff is a larger version of a pit bull, and Rottweilers are first cousins to pit bulls. The genetic history of both the mastiff and the Rottweiler is rife with “impulsive aggression,” a consistent, often deadly trait, for which the pit bull (sometimes known by its image-laundering alias of American Staffordshire) is the poster canine. Many dog behaviourists (and I) call the cluster of breeds imbued with a genetically-endowed propensity for impulsive aggression – such as the mastiff, Cane Corso, Dogo Argentina and others -  “pit bull type dogs.”

Most dogs will not attack humans under normal circumstances. Of those that have attacked humans, 70% are mixed-breeds, and 30% are purebreds. There are about 400 breeds of dog. Of them, only 44 are statistically represented in attacks on humans. Of the 44, pit bulls and Rottweilers account for 75% of the total actuarial risk for injury since 1982. When you get into the highest-damage categories of maulings, maimings, dismemberments and dog bite-related fatalities, it can truly be said that pit bulls and Rottweilers own the field.

So Jonas did not distinguish the mastiff and Rottweiler hybrids out of malice. The malice encoded in those dogs’ genes created the high probability that they would exhibit memorably bad behaviour.

Which brings us to the question of what to do if you are the victim or the witness to an attack by dogs like these. Pit bull type dogs do not just “bite,” as normal dogs do. They grip and tend not to let go. As they grip, they rend their way through flesh to the bone. Pit bulls have not earned the sobriquet of “land sharks” for nothing. Photographs of pit bull maulings bear a sickening likeness to shark attacks.

It is never a good thing to intervene in any dog-on-dog fight (as George Jonas learned the hard way), but especially dangerous to put your hand anywhere near the mouth of a fighting dog, in case he redirects his murderous ferocity onto you. Once engaged, gripping dogs almost never react as normal dogs do to commands or painful blows to the head or body with sticks or baseball bats. Even bullets, unless they hit the brain or heart, can be fruitless in the case of pit bulls, as many policemen can attest. Either they don’t feel the pain as normal dogs do, or they feel it but their drive to fight to the death overrides it.

One thing you can do if you’re desperate to stop the fight or attack is to lift a gripping dog’s hind legs high into the air. He can’t turn on you and he won’t be able to sustain his attack very well, even if he doesn’t let go. At least it allows for his owner to leash him while he is immobilized.

Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People News, is the world’s leading investigative journalist/historian on the subject of fighting dogs. He strongly advises against hitting a gripping dog on the head with any object, as it won’t deflect the dog, and will likely serve only to drive the teeth further into the flesh. Pepper spray – illegal for citizens to carry in Canada – is not the best choice, as one has to get very near the dog to be effective, and the fumes spread with the breeze. In any case, according to Clifton, it is only successful about 40% of the time.

Clifton’s rather surprising weapon of choice is a fire extinguisher, which has a success rate of about 70% with pit bulls. Unlike pepper spray, with a fire extinguisher, you can stand farther back and aim with precision. The spray suffocates them if they don’t let go. Obviously you won’t have a fire extinguisher handy in the normal course of a day’s outdoors activities, but in the U.S., of 123 fatal or maiming attacks on children in 2013 so far (120 of them by pit bull type dogs), 47 occurred on public streets, but 49 of them occurred at home. In those cases, a child’s life or limbs could have been saved by deployment of a handy fire extinguisher. Clifton always has a fire extinguisher in his car, a prudent idea that can’t do harm, and may prove useful in any number of scenarios.

Not a cheery-beery topic, but the sobering fact is that because of misleading propaganda put out by the pit bull advocacy movement and Rottweiler fans, pit bulls are growing in popularity as pets; as a result, maimings of humans by pit bulls in North America have gone from 35 in 1992 to 184 in the first six months of 2013 (equal to all of 2012).

The bottom line: Don’t intervene in a dog fight between normal dogs, as the fight will almost certainly resolve swiftly with relatively minor damage to either dog. Keep your own dogs, and especially kids in your care far, far away from pit bulls and Rottweilers (and in Canada to unleashed Huskies, whose track record for risk is problematic, often for geo-cultural reasons, a topic for another day).

Most important for your own safety and that of the humans and animals you love: Don’t believe a word of the propagandist (pit) bullshit you hear and read. Fighting dogs really are high-risk dogs you should never “rescue” or buy.