Q I have a 5-year-old pit bull, Daisy, who is the absolute sweetest dog alive. Our cat is her best friend, and if my husband and I so much as raise our voices, she retreats from the scene. She loves children and greets them by rolling on her back and wagging her tail.
We adopted her from a local rescue organization when she was about 8 months old. She has never shown the slightest aggression, and she allows anyone to take her toys, bones, and bowls of food from her without a problem. I am now pregnant, and the closer I get to my due date, it seems, the more people express concern about her being around a child. We feel that how they are raised is more important than their breed. What do you think?
A. Lets look at the statistics first. A recent study indicated that between 1982 and 2012, 426 people were killed by dogs in the United States and Canada. Of these deaths, 233 (54 percent) were caused by pit bull attacks, while pit bulls comprise only 4 percent to 5 percent of the dog population.
Eighty one (19 percent) were cause by Rottweilers, which make up about 2 percent of the population. Interestingly, doberman pinschers, another breed often singled out as dangerous, and comprise about 1.5 percent of the population, were responsible for seven (1.6 percent) deaths in a 30-year-period.
In that same period, there were 3,394 cases reported where a dog attack resulted in bodily harm, of which 2,235 (65 percent) were caused by pit bulls. Most breed statistics indicate that the likelihood of a child being the victim is about double that of an adult.
Not so for the pit bulls, whose attack rates are similar for children and adults. Apparently, they are not afraid of things larger than themselves, which fits for a breed designed to attack bulls and bears. Disturbingly, according to the same study, the situation is getting worse, with about 70 percent of serious injuries and deaths due to pit bull attacks occurring in just the past 10 years.
We are willing to accept that pointers point, herders herd, retrievers retrieve and terriers terrorize because that's what they were bred to do. You don't need to train a beagle or bloodhound to follow a scent. So why would we assume we can ignore the breeding that went into the creation of a pit bull.
Dogs are descended from wolves, which are pack animals, and as such, they display certain behaviors that are consistent with pack society. When wolves vie for status in the pack, they will challenge each other. When one has clearly gained the upper hand in a fight, the other submits and the victor stops the attack. Neither is typically harmed. This dominance and submission has been bred out of pit bulls such that many, not all, will not yield, even when seriously injured, and the dominant animal will not stop the attack even after the other has yielded.
Life has gotten harder for the breed lately. States such as Maryland have passed ordinances that basically state that if a pit bull bites someone, the guilt automatically falls on the owner regardless of surrounding circumstances. Many insurance companies will not cover new shelters that adopt out pit bulls, meaning that they are automatically euthanized upon admission. Older shelters are not typically affected by this policy. Landlords are increasingly barring pit bulls, as their insurance companies will not cover them.
While I do not feel that pit bulls are completely a product of their environment, they are not independent of it. This breed is largely owned by individuals who exploit and encourage the breed's aggressive attributes. They often are used as a prop to convey a macho image or as watch dogs, and, unfortunately, they still are widely used for illegal fighting.
These dogs are generally not spayed or neutered and are poorly socialized. The result is an overpopulation of untrained dogs and, given the breed characteristics, of course there are going to be problems and terrifying statistics.
Now take a pit bull with a docile character, like Daisy, and place her in a loving, nurturing and disciplined environment. I do not feel that a situation rises much above the baseline danger inherent in mixing dogs and children.
No dog should ever be left unattended with small children, and as nice as Daisy is, ignoring her breed would be at your child's peril. Temperament aside, she is still a powerful animal who could inflict serious injury on a child with little effort.
Take reasonable precautions. Never have a child around your dog's food, bones or toys. Don't allow a child to climb on a dog or kiss their faces. Prevent children from approaching a dog quickly or when sleeping. An adult should always be in control and actively observing when a child is with a dog. Daisy and your child can safely grow to be best of friends, provided you have a safe and well-supervised environment for them to interact.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.