Treatise on canines

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You know, the best friend I ever had was a dog
It sounds like a cliche unless it's happened to you
Some days that dog was the only reason I even got out of bed

-Dan Bern, "Estelle"

Tonight, I am moved to share my feelings about dogs.

First, a bit of history. I grew up around a lot of dogs. I hated them. I wasn't scared of them (except for my continuing phobia of Boston Terriers, but that's another story for another time), I just didn't like them. They were smelly, they were slobbery, and I just didn't get what was so cool about them.

These dogs came into my life in various forms. The household I grew up in included an Airedale (Sissy) when I was a small child and later was home to a Fox Terrier mutt (Spike) and a Border Collie (Missy). My grandfather on one side bred and raised Boston Terriers. My grandparents on the other side had a Pit Bull (Rowdy). My dad and stepmom had a Black and Tan Hound mutt (Shiloh) and a Malamute/Husky (Sheba) when I was a kid, then later had an Akita (Kuma) and a Rottweiler (Kahn).

Kahn was my stepmom's dog. He was an abused dog she rescued from the city pound when he was about 18 months old. He weighed about 115 lbs. And he was the single most gentle creature I have ever had the privledge of knowing, regardless of species (and certainly regardless of breed). Even though I didn't like dogs, I liked Kahn.

I have been attacked by dogs twice, neither time serious. The first was the meanest fucking Boston on Earth, when I was a little kid, the second was a Chesapeake Bay Retriever when I was 13 or so. Neither of these experiences endeared dogs to me, but neither caused any type of phobia. The Chesapeake was trained to be aggressive towards people; I have no fucking clue what was up with the Boston.

Fast forward a few years, Mark and I meet and fall in love and all that jazz. It becomes clear that as soon as responsibly taking care of one is an option, Mark will be getting a dog, regardless of what I think about it. If I want to be with him, a dog is part of the package. He grew up with two Golden Retrievers who were family members, both of whom died early in our relationship. He loves dogs. So I decide I can deal with having a dog, as long as I don't have to walk it and it doesn't lick me.

So we start looking for a dog. One of my conditions right off, which Mark has no issue with, is that the dog has to be a rescue dog. This is because my core belief is that human beings have absolutely no right to be breeding dogs. I don't think they should have been domesticated in the first place, and since they were, I think we have a responsibility to take care of the ones that are around "accidentally" before we force them to make any more. But more on that later.

The first rescue dog Mark wanted to go and meet was this big-ass black and tan mutt. I wasn't impressed with the picture, but I agreed to go meet him. Whatever.

And that's when I met Chance.

When we met him, Chance's name was Champ. He was estimated to be somewhere between a year and two years old. He had been unceremoniously dumped at the local kill shelter by his family. The explanation was that they had gotten him as a puppy and didn't realize he was going to be so big, and they couldn't handle him. Or something. We later learned, from a fortuitous meeting with someone who had known his first owner and recognized him, that his "life" previous to being dumped at the pound was to be chained in the backyard.

So he came to the pound. A very large (103 lbs at that time) animal with no training and no social skills. That meant a short wait to be killed, as he was considered low adoption probability. Had the amazing folks at Blue Dog Rescue not taken a chance on him, and taken it quickly, he almost certainly would have been put down. The shelter were Chance was "puts down" (just using a euphemism for it doesn't make it OK) 48 animals per day, 5 days per week. A few of these are animals that are very sick, or have what have been identified as unalterable behavioral issues. Most of them aren't.

Having heard this story, I was already warming up to the dog idea before I ever met Chance. Then I met him. He was being walked by his foster mom's 10 year old son. The boy was completely blind. Chance, a huge dog with bully breed markings (he is listed on his papers as a Rottweiler/German Shepard--I don't think that's his exact breed makeup, but it's close enough) and absolutely no training, was leading him. With an amazing grace and perception I never could have guessed possible, Chance stepped out of the way when the boy was going to run into him, he led the boy around obstacles, it was amazing.

He was similarly gentle and fantastic when we took his leash. We were sold. We had our home visit the next day, and Chance stayed at our house for the weekend for a pre-adoption "trial."

During our trial period, things were mostly great. And then Chance bit Mark. He was chewing on a bone, Mark walked too close to him, and he bit him. It wasn't much of a bite--it didn't break the skin, it was a warning, not an attack. But we were scared. So we called Lisa, the woman from whom we got him, and told her.

She told us she'd come get him immediately and that he was no longer an adoptable dog under the rescue's rules. They would take him back, but if we gave him back, he'd be put down. It was that simple.

Well, I couldn't do that. So we enrolled in an obedience course, stopped giving him chew bones, and hoped for the best.

And he was good at obedience training. He learned to sit, to stay, to lay down, to shake hands. For a few weeks, it seemed like things would be OK.

Then one morning I was walking him, and out of nowhere he charged a pedestrian. He pulled the leash out of my hands and ran at a man walking towards us on the street. He did not hurt the man--the guy fell down backing away from him, scared shitless (and I don't blame him), but Chance never even touched him. As soon as he fell, in fact, Chance came right back to me. But a passerby called the police, and it was quite the ordeal. A few days later, he barked at a small kid that came up to pet him. Again didn't touch her, but scared her plenty.

So, as responsible dog owners, we had to do something. It was either get rid of Chance or try something a bit more intense than a Humane Society obedience course. And even though at this point I honestly was scared he might hurt someone, there was no way I was going to give him up to certain death. So we went to a behavioralist. And started training. And worked really fucking hard for about a year, spent a shitload of money, and broke him of the antisocial habits he learned from his first owners.

Technically, and even in the eyes of the Austin Police Department, who have him on record due to the day they were called, I have an aggressive dog. I have a dog who, by virtue of his size and how he looks, makes people cross the street on a regular basis. I have a dog who most probably keeps people from visiting my house. I also have a dog who is a certified Canine Good Citizen and a dog I would trust completely with any child (and do trust with my favorite child). I also have dog who is my best friend on earth, who I know would lay down his life for me at any moment. I have a dog I would do anything for. I have a dog I prefer to most people. I have a dog who is a part of my family--more than that, a dog who made my family.

It is feasible that breed-specific legislation could apply to my dog. It probably wouldn't, as Pit Bulls are the horrible dogs de jour and Chance resembles a Rott, but it's not infeasible. It's not infeasible that the government could tell me not only that I have to carry liability insurance on my dog, or that I can't live in a school zone because of my dog, but even that I just plain can't have my dog. Not because of anything he has done, but because of his breed.

No, that's not OK with me. It's not OK with me on a personal level, as I'm not giving up a member of my family because some small-minded people have decided he's scary; and it's not OK on a political level, because dogs (ALL breeds of dogs) are creatures that we created and we have a responsibility, as a society, to take care of them. Getting rid of them (which, let's be honest, means killing them) if and when they become inconvenient for us is not morally acceptable.

I'm not saying that the specific animals who attack people should not be put down. By the time a dog attacks a human being (I'm talking a real attack here, not the warning bite Chance gave Mark), it quite often is to late. But here are the facts about dogs attacking human beings:

1. It doesn't happen very often. There are approximately 20 fatal dog attacks per year in the U.S. Approximating 20 deaths per year in a dog population of 53 million yields an infinitesimal percent of the dog population (.0000004%) involved in a human fatality (http://www.fataldogattacks.com/). For purposes of comparison, approximately 73 people per year are killed by lightening strikes (http://www.crh.noaa.gov/product.php?site=JKL&product=PNSJKL.0506201442).

2. Breed is not a good identifying factor in dogs that attack. What are good identifying factors?

1. Function of the dog - (Includes: dogs acquired for fighting, guarding/protection or image enhancement)
2. Owner responsibility - (Includes: dogs allowed to roam loose, chained dogs, dogs and/or children left unsupervised, dogs permitted or encouraged to behave aggressively, animal neglect and/or abuse)
3. Reproductive status of dog - (Includes: unaltered males dogs, bitches with puppies, children coming between male dog and female dog in estrus)(http://www.fataldogattacks.com/)You'll notice that these things are all under human, not canine, control.

3. Nearly all cases of of fatal dog attacks could have easily been prevented with responsible dog ownership.

Why am I only talking about fatal cases? Well, mainly because that's what I could find stats on. Stats for attacks in general are notoriously untrustworthy, as only a small percentage of dog attacks are reported, and attacks by small dogs (yes, those happen!) are almost never reported. I think this sums it up pretty well:
A study performed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the CDC, and the Humane Society of the United States, analyzed dog bite statistics from the last 20 years and found that the statistics don't show that any breeds are inherently more dangerous than others. The study showed that the most popular large breed dogs at any one time were consistently on the list of breeds that bit fatally. There were a high number of fatal bites from Doberman pinschers in the 1970s, for example, because Dobermans were very popular at that time and there were more Dobermans around, and because Dobermans' size makes their bites more dangerous. The number of fatal bites from pit bulls rose in the 1980s for the same reason, and the number of bites from rottweilers in the 1990s. The study also noted that there are no reliable statistics for nonfatal dog bites, so there is no way to know how often smaller breeds are biting (http://www.healthypet.com/library_view.aspx?ID=16&sid=1).

Regardless, more and more places in the United States are passing breed specific legislation (you can check and see if there is any in your area here). Why? Ignorance and fear. Will it help? No. Will it get more dogs like Chance killed? Absolutely.

So what is the answer? Some people think Good Dog Laws are sufficient. I don't. I think that using the impetus the occasional, media-hyped dog attack fatality brings to actually deal with this problem at its source is a great idea. The source I think should be dealt with? Breeders.

In all but a very few cases, dogs that attack are dogs with irresponsible owners. How do these owners get their dogs? More often than not, they get them from breeders. Reputable dog rescue organizations take the time to make sure their animals are going to a good home before they adopt out--and why wouldn't they, as they have no financial incentive? If you are using your dogs for profit, though, you lose this impetus.

As I may have already mentioned (yep, this is getting long...), I don't think intentional dog breeding should be legal at all. I think we should deal with the dogs that are here unintentionally before we go encouraging them to make more. But that's a hard sell. What may be an easier sell, and what I think would ultimately help with the issue of aggressive, human-attacking dogs, is making unlicensed dog breeding illegal. If you had to be licensed to breed and sell dogs, and breeding for aggression or selling to people who are going to train dogs to be aggressive were punishable (by fines and loss of license, say), there would be a financial impetus towards responsible ownership.

No, this would not solve the whole problem, but I am firmly convinced it would do more to help that any breed ban (besides being a fuckload more humane, both towards the animals themselves and towards the people who love them).

7 Comments

Put down the arseholes who train dogs to fight each other, if anyone.

I think your idea about requiring licenses to breed dogs is absolutely a good idea. When I was a kid, we had two Shar-Peis that we got for dirt cheap from a local breeder. This person had obviously only bred for the appearance of the dogs--the wrinkles--,because they were plagued with other problems. The first dog died of kidney failure when she was 3 years old. The second dog had major animal aggression issues and was, in general, a little punk. If this had been a responsible breeder, s/he would have been breeding not just for good looks, but also for good health and behaviour. The first dog was dead, and after I went to college, my mom took the 2nd dog to the pound. I must admit that, as you feared, you haven't sold the idea of eliminating dog breeding altogether. But I would definitely go for requiring licenses for dog breeding. When we were looking into getting cats, I looked up some local catteries and was surprised that they required a long and extensive adoption process for their cats. One of the criteria was that, under no circumstances, would they sell to a person who was buying the cat as a gift for someone else. And there are responsible dog breeders who do the same. But people like those who sold us our Shar-Peis for $100 each should be put out of business.

We had to go through an extensive process to get our second dog, a Great Pyrenees from a Pyr rescue group. This included a home visit. It wasn't quite as extensive as the process for adopting a child (there was far less notarizing, and I didn't have to be fingerprinted for the FBI database again, etc.), but still . . . it wasn't the sort of thing someone with a "wild hair" to get a dog would likely put up with--and that is probably the point. I think if breeders were more controlled and sales/adoptions more controlled, a lot of these problems would be reduced.

" (I'm talking a real attack here, not the warning bite Chance gave Mark)" That's where you and I differ. I don't think there's any such thing as a "warning bite". A growl is a warning, imo, and a bite is a bite. Mark is a grown man. If Chance had done the same thing to a child there would have been much more damage.

I suppose, Dana. And that is, of course, the way the rescue sees it, which is why they would have had him put down. But I am completely convinced we did the right thing by giving him another chance. I don't think that a dog who has had no socialization and has been neglected putting his teeth on someone, without breaking the skin or even leaving a mark, when he thinks they are trying to take away his food is really a mark of anything, or very surprising. I also don't think that now that he's in a secure home he'd do it again (and we've tested about a hundred times to make sure of that). However, even though I completely trust Chance, there is absolutely no way I'd let a child near him while he is eating anything. As far as I'm concerned, that's just irresponsible.

I think one needs to be careful with dogs around kids in general, not just when they're eating. In the end, the dogs are animals, no matter how much training, socialization and love they've had. I love Gorm, but frankly, I don't fully trust him around the kids. It's an acceptable risk, but I never forget that it is a risk, and position myself accordingly.

Thanks for the great post about Chance and breed bans. By the way, have you heard that Blue Dog is selling 2006 calendars now? They look great and would make a great gift if you still have holiday shopping! :)

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