Hackles raise, pupils dilate, body position changes to a more erect stance, ears perk up, facial twitches begin, and low growling can be heard from people on both sides of this issue. There is such a huge divide between both arenas; it becomes difficult to see answers. As with everything, there are radicals in both groups and always will be. Like my high school chemistry professor Mr. Zetterholm, I would suggest we throw out the best and the worst scores and concentrate on the average, the grey area and use a more common sense approach. It just seems that rarely are the extremes the answer to anything.

Without a doubt, the pit bull has become the center of this debate and for some very good reasons. Don’t misinterpret what I mean by that, because I am a pit bull fan. Some of the sweetest dogs in our practice are pit bulls and I mean gentle licks, mellow, lay on your lap sweet. The only difference between pit bulls and most other breeds is in their anatomy. If I could Photoshop a pit bull and remove its huge masseter and temporalis muscles (jaw muscles), shrink him up, add a long coat of hair I would have one of our yorkies (who like most yorkies think that they are big dogs).

Huge jaw muscles mean powerful bites. In addition, pit bulls bite while thrashing their body at the same time which causes huge amounts of trauma. Even with everything you hear, the pit bull does not have the most powerful jaws. Depending on which study you look at they are behind the Rottweiler, Mastiff, and the German Shepherd. Pit bulls do, however, account for the highest percentage of human fatalities. If you want to look at just bite statistics, you will find many breeds are overrepresented, such as Akitas, Chow Chows, Dalmations, Siberian Huskies, German Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Pinschers and yes even the mutt, heinze 57 is up there.

When I walk into an exam room do I take notice of the breed with respect to being bitten? Absolutely. Is that profiling? Absolutely! It’s called survival. But I also am even much more aware of a dog’s behavior. That is where the likelihood of being bitten lies. Genetics do play a role in dog aggression, but humans virtually mold the result of an individual dog’s behavior. An unneutered, male, guardian breed, not socialized, is a ticking time bomb. Any dog breed chained out, socially-isolated, with no positive human interaction can become aggressive (sometimes by fear response).

Governments have defined “dangerous” dogs in a variety of fashions, including by breed. I have my own personal definition in our practice. I consider any individual (not breed) dog with a tendency or likelihood of biting as dangerous. Even if they have never bitten, they can exhibit the signs that so often ultimately end up in someone getting hurt. Children are at the highest risk for being bitten. We should all be free to take our dogs for walks on leashes, ride bikes, play in yards, hop on pogo sticks without the fear of an aggressive dog coming after us. Even if they don’t bite, they should be deemed dangerous. Why should we have to wait for anyone, especially a child, to be hurt or scarred for life before intervening? 

There should be strict regulations and conditions of owning a dangerous dog that the owner is made responsible for regardless of the breed. Conditions of ownership should include not allowing dangerous dogs in public, muzzling, microchipping, neutering and liability insurance. It defies logic that in so many instances a dangerous dog has a history of repeated offenses before anything is done (sounds like our justice system). Dog bite/dangerous dog legislation should place the primary responsibility for a dog’s behavior on the owner.

One of the most difficult situations that occur in our practice is when a healthy, loved, well-cared for family dog becomes aggressive in the home. Knowingly placing this pet in another home with or without children has moral and liability implications. Sometimes there are no easy answers and we may have to euthanize, as hard as that may seem. I am always supportive of our clients in this predicament because they may have just prevented serious harm to one of their family members. For those of you who have never been in this situation and condemn this, you will never understand. It’s horrible and rarely is it a breed you would consider dangerous. (a Miniature schnauzer last week).

And, yes, there are some dogs that just aren’t “wired right,” to no fault of the owner. Training rarely helps in many of these situations.

Cesar Milan, “The Dog Whisperer”, says that “dangerous dogs are made not born”. Every time I see our neighborhood pit bull walking the circle, I routinely make sure and walk across to get wiggled on and so much sugar that I know our bulldog Remi is sure to scowl even more than he normally does.