Tuesday, July 27, 2010

listing out warning signs - a media first?

The situation with last week's dog fatality in Concord has been unusual because of the dog owner's willingness to talk candidly on camera about the circumstances that led up to the deadly attack on his young grandson. If you've been avoiding the news, you'll be encouraged to know that the media has been dutifully reporting that one or more of his dogs had been offering "warning signs" that were ignored. It's a new day when this kind of information comes to light on the heels of such an emotionally charged story. Because some of the signs that are being listed have the potential to be misapplied to other dogs in perfectly healthy situations, we wanted to highlight them here before we move away from this sad topic.

  • The dogs' owner - Steven Hayashi - has admitted that one or more of his dogs killed the family chihuahua. Killing a small animal in the home is not necessarily a 'sign' that a dog is troubled or on his way to harming children. (Raise your hand if your dog ever cornered a squirrel in your yard or grabbed a gopher at the park). It does indicate however that the owner is unaware of dog behavior and has been far too lax in managing his animals. Toy sized dogs can't be expected to stay safe mixing with a group of young, pent up dogs - especially without supervision.

    EDIT And, as is so often the case, more info surfaces from this tragedy: According to news sources,Mr. Hayashi later confessed that, in addition to showing aggression towards the young children in the home, his dogs had killed a pet Akita that stepped into the same garage where Jacob was killed. Things were clearly out of control in that home.

  • Keeping intact dogs is not necessarily a sign of an irresponsible owner. Many show and working dog homes live perfectly safe lives with multiple, well-managed, intact dogs. However, letting intact dogs run loose together and allowing accidental, unwanted litters is hugely irresponsible.

  • Keeping a dog in a garage is not a sign of an irresponsible owner unless the dog lives full time in the garage, away from the family. Dogs learn appropriate behaviors by interacting with people from an early age - with kids especially. The most well balanced, well socialized dogs get opportunities to spend structured time indoors as cherished members of the family..."family dogs." Keeping multiple resident dogs that are largely unsocialized to people so close to young children is terribly irresponsible. It’s also irresponsible to neglect the exercise needs of young, growing dogs. Under-exercised, under socialized, pent up dogs are not going to act like happy, trustworthy pets.

  • Having more than one "pit bull type dog" is not a sign of being irresponsible. A good leader can manage a bigger group of dogs and keep everybody on their best behavior. I'm having visions here of Cesar Milan walking his huge pack of dogs ... But, consider some of the dog walkers you see on the trails, or the rescuers who balance multiple dogs at home without incident. However - allowing a situation where unsocialized, pent up dogs can trigger into pack aggression is the sign of an incredibly reckless dog owner.

  • Pack aggression - where two or more dogs gang up and attack a victim - is not a breed specific behavior. Sadly, dog pack attacks factor into a handful of the 30 or so dog related fatalities that happen in this country each year and they can include any breed type of dog. Oberlin, Ohio just had a sad case last month involving what was reported to be several large mixed breed dogs. Even small dogs weighing less than 27 pounds have participated in killing people, according to a 1983 study "Attacks by Packs of Dogs Involving Predation On Human Beings," by Borchelt et al., published in the journal "Public Health Reports." It's not happy reading, but worth the understanding. According to the Borchelt study, "The past history of the social interactions of dogs with people in a variety of circumstances is probably an adequate predictor of whether these dogs are inclined to bite someone." In other words, if dogs aren't socialized to people properly (ie, they're kept as resident dogs in garages or yards instead of as family pets) they're more inclined to revert to unruly and sometimes dangerous pack behavior when the situation presents itself.

    After a horrible fatal attack involving a pack of dogs in GA last year, Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University and an expert in pack behavior, explained that when pack mentality takes over "they do insane things that they would not do" under normal circumstances.

    Again ...not a breed specific behavior. Skeptics can visit the link that shows two of the dogs involved in the GA incident. news: cnn

    The ASPCA tells us that "Aggression is the most common and most serious behavior problem in dogs. It’s also the number-one reason why pet parents seek professional help from behaviorists, trainers and veterinarians."

    Unfortunately, Mr. Hayashi didn't seek professional help for his troubled pack of dogs, even when he knew at least one dog (Kiwi) was - his description - "aggressive." If only we could go back in time and find a way to red flag him about the warning signs that were spelling disaster in his home. In memory of Jacob Bisbee, animal welfare advocates have an obligation and a responsibility to try even harder to bridge the gaps between communities so we can be the resource inexperienced dog owners and their families need us to be.

    More info on warning signs and behaviors that warrant quick, proactive solutions listed here on the ASPCA's website

  • __________

    For More Reading

    Brent Toellner's blog - KC Dog Blog - is always a good source for the nitty gritty on dog bites and fatalities.

    Malcolm Gladwell's article from the New Yorker on breed profiling. Troublemakers

    The Pit Bull Placebo in a free downloadable PDF from the National Canine Research Council.


    Dianne said...

    This is a superb write up. Wow. Maybe we can turn a corner on this tragedy. I also think its worth reminding people that dogs, wolves, and coyotes share mitochondrial DNA and can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. What does this mean? They are pretty much the same species. And while I do have a great picture of me in Alaska with 3 wolf hybrids, there is a skeptical look on my face.

    Emily Smith said...

    He also said "I thought pit bulls had a bad rap" - past tense. This man, like many pit bull owners whose dog has attacked, feels betrayed by pit bull advocates. He did many irresponsible things, but he felt it was okay since he was told pit bulls were perfectly safe and were like other dogs. He has learned the hard way that pit bulls have the rap they have created for themselves.

    Brent said...

    It has been nice that the local media has been covering this and bringing these other points to light. It's a start. They did this in the Memphis incident last week as well.

    Unfortunately, only a small number of the couple hundred media outlets that picked up the story are covering the follow-ups, and none are providing the detail that you provided -- but at least there is effort to provide the right information...which is a huge first step.

    Donna said...

    Emily. I'm betting he's going to say a LOT of things about pit bulls now that he's facing jail time, and I wouldn't doubt that his defense looks for jurors that fear the breed. It's the easy out. The mythology of pit bulls as a dangerous breed will always be used in situations where an irresponsible home has allowed a tragedy to happen..."It's not really my fault. It's the breed." His attorney will have a more difficult time with this defense though since his gabby client has already admitted that he knew at least one of his dogs was troubled... hence, the charge of knowingly keeping a menacing animal (singular). These types of reckless owners are exactly why pit bulls have gotten a bad rap. But none have outlined their self created train wreck as eloquently as this one.

    Donna said...

    Brent. I meant to link your blog to this piece last night because you've done a painstaking amount of work helping people, including me, learn about the recipes that go into these disasters, no matter which breeds are involved. I ran out of steam but will edit that in this morning. I also want to go look at the Memphis case now. Thanks for the heads up.

    J.M. said...

    Emily Smith,
    I`m curious.How do you explain serious attacks and fatalities(rare by any Breed/type) by other Breeds/types to yourself?Is your concern only with pit bulls or dogs alleged to be pit bulls by the Media?

    PBOforlife said...

    Thanks for the great write-up. It's amazing to me that people don't think they need to train/watch their pets. They are no different than children in that regard. You wouldn't leave a group of small children by themselves and hope for the best. It always reminds me of cases where kids have done something seriously wrong and their parents trying to say they didn't see any signs....are they blind?? It's time for people to be responsible for their own actions and quit blaming the other guy or in this case, the dog. You are responsible for what your dog does, so protect him and yourself.

    Diane said...

    Excellent write up.

    You touched nicely on two major sources of irritation:

    1. Dog owners who do not understand that prey drive and dog-dog dynamics are not the same as aggression towards humans.

    2. Multiple dog owners who do not understand the first thing about pack dynamics.

    Karen said...

    Donna, when rescuers (or just responsible owners) have multiple dogs living in their home: Do they commonly crate dogs when they aren't around to supervise (ie: when everyone packs it in for the evening)?

    Donna said...

    HI Karen

    It depends on the dog(s). Most rescue groups (of all breeds) use crates when no one's around to supervise since a constant flux in personalities needs to be managed. And of course the new dogs usually don't know the house rules and/or may pester the existing dogs, etc. We currently have 3 foster dogs in our home. The adult female is no longer crated because our dogs have accepted her, but her puppies are -- so they don't pee all over my house. When we leave for long periods, we separate so my older girls don't have to share their kingdom with a newbie. It's just basic common sense stuff based on whatever the personalities are like.

    Linda said...

    I live in western Nevada, just the other side of Lake Tahoe in Minden. We were out for dinner last night at a brewery near our little airport. A gorgeous brindle male pit was wandering in the parking lot, hanging out by the door of the restaurant.

    I'm proud to say that everyone who saw him greeted him with affection and a friendly voice - I didn't see anyone shy away from him. The waitresses brought out water and various people made sure he had food (I gave him the dog biscuits I keep in the car). He was incredibly healthy, friendly, and handsome! One of the waitresses planned to take him home with her overnight and post flyers... she already has a pit at home and loves the breed. She has a kennel in her yard and was well-suited to take him.

    He clearly was someone's pet. He was neutered, well fed, and knew some commands. And did I mention friendly? What a character!

    I wish we could have taken him, but our older boy, Jack, is a bit frail from his lymphoma and chemo treatments, so we weren't a good fit.

    I hope he finds a great home, and I wouldn't be surprised if the waitress keeps him. But it made me so happy to see that no one shied from him, no one had a negative word for him, and everyone was eager to pet him and give him treats.

    Slowly but surely, things will change...

    Anonymous said...

    I would love to have someone address the fact that he said he got one of the dogs from a shelter un-spayed, and that she was pregnant....Anyone know if there is any truth to this?

    Donna said...

    Agreed anon. We were contacted by a reporter who is looking into that and she confirmed that intact dogs are being sold from the Lake County shelter. That adds a whole new layer of trouble to this already troubled situation, doesn't it? I want to wait until her column comes out before commenting on that. There's only so much forehead slapping we can do in one day!