Opinion: Dangerous dog debate dangerously short on facts

  • 19/04/2016
An American pit bull terrier puppy licks his owner's face (Reuters)
An American pit bull terrier puppy licks his owner's face (Reuters)

By Jade Alexander

The current discussion about "dangerous dogs" is dangerously short on facts.

If Duncan Garner is getting death threats from dog owners, should these people be allowed to have a dog in the first place?

What should be discussed is that the dogs involved in these attacks have several things in common -- but those common factors have nothing to do with their breeds.

It's worth noting that "pit bull" is not a single breed, but a classification that includes the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and sometimes the American bulldog.

If all "pit bulls" were to be "eliminated", as Mr Garner calls for, do people realise how many beloved, well-behaved, well-cared-for pets that would include?

What all the dogs involved in recent attacks do have in common is that they were not registered, microchipped and/or de-sexed. There is no evidence that any of these dogs had been subjected to any formal training or proper socialisation with other dogs or children.

They were all allowed near young children without responsible supervision, and some of the dogs had been the subject of multiple previous complaints.

I am an animal science graduate, dog trainer, animal activist and dog rescuer. I work in dog training and safety and have a special interest in how children and dogs interact.

In my experience, the dog attack debate and demonisation of pit bulls misses the point entirely.

My experience has taught me that many children (and adults) lack fundamental knowledge of dog behaviour, and this knowledge is rarely learned in the home. It is clear that we are all being failed in a basic area of public safety, resulting in people being maimed and dogs killed due to completely preventable situations.

The solution is two-fold; we must teach dog knowledge and dog-handling skills from childhood, and remedy our woeful enforcement of dog-related legislation.

Children should be taught about dogs in standard school curriculum, as we do water safety and defensive driving. As a nation with high dog ownership, it is irresponsible to leave our children vulnerable because they haven't been given this opportunity to learn.

I am speaking to an organisation entitled BARK, whose primary goal is to reduce dog attacks on children, and this is the place to start.

We won't get anywhere if we fixate on breed. This is a human problem, not a dog one. We have the laws in place but we're not enforcing them, and then we blame and kill the dogs, and medics and police have to clean up the mess.

By way of evidence, Mr Garner seems to forget that in 2015 alone there were reported attacks in New Zealand by 149 German shepherds, 28 Australian cattle dogs, 47 border collies, 70 labrador retrievers, 114 rottweilers, 28 Jack Russells, 41 fox terriers, five chihuahuas, 12 huntaways and 566 other purebred dogs.

On the legislation front, no one should be allowed to be in possession of a dog that is not registered, microchipped or de-sexed.

By law there has to be a fence around every swimming pool in the country. Why are all dog owners not held to the same standard as swimming pool owners?

Remove the dangerous, irresponsible owners and you go a very long way towards eliminating dog attacks.

In the pit bull discussion it's often overlooked that other dog breeds have strong natural instincts. Every dog has the potential to be dangerous.

Dogs need hierarchy and positive discipline, but humans get it wrong all the time. We have domesticated dogs that are bred out of control (inbreeding is common among many breeds in New Zealand, thanks to puppy mills), abandoned, neglected, untrained and vulnerable.

Then we persecute them when they understandably attack.

There is a typical PR cycle in relation to a given dog breed. Once it is portrayed publicly as "dangerous", "protective" and "tough", the type of person who responds positively to those traits will seek out the breed and then cultivate it to meet the stereotype.

Take music videos or gang imagery -- a tough, thuggish human is accompanied by a tough-looking pit bull type. It makes sense, in that if a particular breed is marketed as the accessory of "toughness", dogs of that breed are going to end up in the wrong hands, with the type of owner who leaves their dog untrained, unregistered, unsupervised and poorly cared for.

It is up to the owner to be dedicated and bring their dog up right, with proper control. High-energy dogs such as terriers are more expressive and need their owners to go the extra mile.

Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson -- just the names of a few who own or have owned a pit bull.

There are not enough qualified dog owners for all the dogs in New Zealand. No dog brought up in the right environment will be prone to attack -- quite the opposite.

I am devastated for the children who have been attacked, sustained injuries and are often left with permanent scars. Not only have they suffered terrible -- and preventable -- physical and emotional trauma, they will probably be deathly afraid of dogs for the rest of their lives, and never know how amazing dogs can be, nor what wonderful friends and companions they make.

I have been around many dozens of pit bulls and they are some of the most intelligent, highly motivated to please, and loving dogs I've encountered -- in the right hands.

Why aren't photos like this shown in media?

Opinion: Dangerous dog debate dangerously short on facts
Opinion: Dangerous dog debate dangerously short on facts

Jade Alexander is an animal science graduate, dog trainer, animal activist and dog rescuer who works in dog training and safety.