Pit bulls dogged by controversy
LENOX -- This isn't a story about a pit bull attack. It's about three pit bulls who didn't attack.
Bill and Sue Lyon had a visit at their Lenox home recently from their son, Channing. With him, he brought his wife, Emily, their 6-week-old baby, and two pit bulls. Already living in the house are the Lyons' 6-year-old daughter, a 10-year-old English mastiff, and a 6-month-old pit bull.
The timing was interesting with their visit coming just a few weeks after three pit bull-type dogs were charged with brutally attacking a 9-year-old Pittsfield boy in a hallway of his housing unit. One of the three dogs was since euthanized, while the two others were sent out of state.
Following any such attack, the community typically launches into a public debate over the dangers and charms of pit bull-type breeds.
The Lyons followed the ongoing discussion with interest.
"These are good dogs with good owners, that's the difference," said Channing Lyon of Kittery, Maine.
With the whole family relaxing in their living room one recent Saturday, the three pit bulls playing at their feet or lounging on their laps, they reflected on their dogs and on the breed in general.
They wonder why deaths and maulings attributed to pit bull-type dogs are heavily reported by most media outlets, while attacks by other breeds rarely make headlines. And acts of kindness and heroism by pit bulls are rarely reported -- one notable exception being the story of the Boston pit bull named Lilly. She had a leg severed while tugging her unconscious owner out of the path of a speeding train in May.
Bill Lyon noted that if someone tried to ban his dogs, he would seek reconsideration of such a ban.
"They're perpetually smiling, eager to be with you and eager to please," he said. "They're living creatures with great hearts, great minds and a bad rap."
Colleen Lynn doesn't see it that way.
Lynn is the founder of DogsBite.org, a website that tracks statistics regarding dog attacks and legislation limiting or banning specific breeds of dog, with a focus on pit bull types. She is an Austin, Texas-based Web designer.
She is also the survivor of a pit bull attack. And while she contends that a vicious dog is the result of both upbringing and genetics, that isn't the point.
"The argument isn't that all breeds are capable of dangerous behavior," Lynn said. "The argument is about the degree of damage this dog breed [pit bulls] inflicts compared to other dog breeds. Not all pit bulls are going to attack, but when they do, they will inflict grave damage. The results are disastrous."
Lynn said she's never met a pit bull through friends or acquaintances that she became friendly with. She did recall the incident in which she was attacked by a pit bull while she was jogging in Seattle on June 17, 2007.
It leaped on her chest, bit down on her raised right arm and started dragging her down the sidewalk before it let go. To this day, Lynn has no idea why the dog attacked her, and no idea why it let go.
A few months later, she started developing the website.
A 2009 report issued by DogsBite.org shows that dogs from 19 different breeds took part in 88 mauling deaths during a recent three-year period -- pit bull types were involved in 59 percent of the attacks. Rottweilers were the next highest with 14 percent.
There are about 4.7 million dog bites in the U.S. every year, according to statistics posted by the American Humane Association, with about 800,000 bites requiring medical care. DogsBite.org statistics shows that dogs that bite are 6.2 times more likely to be male, 2.6 times more likely to be unneutered or unspayed, and 2.8 times more likely to be chained to a stationary object.
On her website, Lynn supports breed-specific legislation as a measure to reduce the number of dog attacks. More than 650 U.S. cities and towns, according to the website, have rules that "target pit bulls and several other dog breeds due to the unreasonable risk posed by them." Lynn said many of the rules result in reduced rates of dog bite incidents.
Lynn is complimentary of a measure in San Francisco which requires that pit bull breeds be spayed or neutered. Within 18 months of its January 2006 implementation, Lynn noted, the rate of pit bulls being impounded declined by 21 percent, shelter counts of pit bulls in residence dropped by two-thirds, and pit bull euthanizations fell 24 percent. She also cited Little Rock, Ark., which requires owners of pit bulls to obtain a potentially dangerous breed permit, a city license and a window sticker yearly to prove the dog is sterilized and microchipped. The city also outlawed tethering any dog to a stationary object.
"Pit bull attacks were cut in half in one year in Little Rock," Lynn said.
But Denver's ban of pit bulls in 1989 has been especially contentious, and has enjoyed mixed results, although it has withstood several legal challenges.
According to a report issued by the National Canine Research Council, after the Denver ban was enacted, its citizens continued to suffer from higher rates of dog bites than residents in communities without any breed-specific legislation.
"Dogs cannot be characterized apart from people," the report said. "At the heart of any public safety issue involving dogs is the need for responsible pet ownership. There is no scientific evidence that one kind of dog is more likely to injure a human being than any other kind of dog. In fact, there is affirmative evidence to the contrary."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a number of other agencies conducted a study which showed that of the 710 dog bite-related deaths between 1979 and 1998, pit bull types were involved in the most at 167. German shepherds were next with 118.
According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, program director of the Animal Behavior Department and professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, although pit bulls may be among the top breeds involved in fatal attacks, they're not even in the top five of breeds for frequency of biting humans. "The most frequent biters are German shepherds, chows, golden retrievers and cocker spaniels," he said.
Dodman also noted that although any fatal dog attack is tragic, they number fewer than 30 per year. But there are roughly 300 million people and about 80 million dogs interacting every day in the U.S. He described the frequency of lethal dog attacks as "very rare." To put that in perspective, he added that there are about 13,000 homicides every year.
"So you are far more likely to be killed by a human than by a dog," Dodman said.
Dodman acknowledged that pit bull breeds were bred to have a "committed bite -- they just don't bite very often. Pit bulls can be wonderful, gentle pets, even shy."
He said the best way to reduce dog attacks is by requiring potential dog owners to answer a simple, 10-question test to apply for a dog license, much like the test required to get a drivers license.
"A dog that is well-adjusted won't bite, and their owners know that they always need supervision," Dodman said.
Back in Lenox, all three of the Lyons' pit bulls were adopted from shelters or rescue groups, have graduated from obedience training, have been exposed to plenty of other dogs and people so they know how to be social, and have been neutered or spayed.
These are all factors cited by canine experts and shelter officials as something owners of any type of dog should do to be sure their new pet is well-behaved and happy. Some owners don't make the effort.
Channing Lyon indicated the two pit bulls lounging on his lap while he said, "It's just so frustrating. You want to have everybody meet these guys, because you only hear about the bad ones, which are in the minority."
The three Lyon pit bulls have obvious charms.
Chloe, the black pit bull belonging to Bill and Sue Lyon, is 6 months old and loving every minute of it. She still thinks she's a lap dog, even though she's nearly full grown.
Finlay, the gray 6-year-old, Channing Lyon said, is "a good boy. He's just a goof." Finlay is known for "drive-by licking" -- which is when someone is sitting on the couch and he'll walk by and give them a kiss and just keep on walking.
Roxy, 8, is black, white and brown. She is "fun-loving, smart and adventurous," said Emily Lyon. "We call her the mama bear. She always has to be involved in what we're doing at all times."
When he takes his dogs for a walk, Channing Lyon said, he can see the fear in the eyes of passersby.
"I encourage them to come over and meet my dogs," he said. "It's fun to see them do a ‘180' and change their view when these guys start licking their hands."
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Tips for dog safety
- Do not pet a dog without letting him see you first
- Do not lean your face close to a strange dog
- Do not tease a dog, especially if it is chained
- Do not startle a sleeping dog
- Do not bother a dog that is eating
- Do not disturb a dog that is caring for puppies
- Do not turn your back on a dog and run away