Statistics, Pit Bull Bites & Community Safety

Dog Bites and Pit Bulls
In December 2013, The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) published the most comprehensive multifactorial study of dog bite-related fatalities (DBRFs) completed since the subject was first studied in the 1970s. It is based on investigative techniques not previously employed in dog bite or DBRF studies and identified a significant co-occurrence of multiple potentially preventable factors. The researchers of this study found that in 80% of the cases the breed of the dog(s) could not be reliably identified. In addition, in only 18% of the cases could the researchers determine that the dog was a member of a distinct, recognized breed, as opposed to being mixed-breed.

Dr. Victoria Voith of Western University and the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program conducted a survey in four different shelters of four different staff members identifying the primary breed of 30 dogs per shelter, a total of 16 staff and 120 dogs. Here were some of the results:

  • As determined by DNA testing, 25 of the 120 dogs were “true” pit bulls and 95 were not pit bulls.
  • Shelter staff identified 55 out of the 120 were pit bulls, 30 more than identified as pit bulls by DNA testing, an error rate of approximately 33%.

However, although shelter staff identified more dogs as pit bulls than identified by DNA testing, they also misidentified 40 of the 120 dogs:

  • Only 20 of the 55 dogs identified as pit bulls by shelter staff were identified as “true” pit bulls by DNA testing, a false positive rate of approximately 25%.
  • Shelter staff missed identifying 5 of the 25 dogs identified as pit bulls by DNA testing, a false negative rate of approximately 4%.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is the organization responsible for keeping track of and reporting on dog bites. In discussing the CDC report “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998,” the latest report issued by the CDC with a focus on bites by breed, the CDC said the following:

“A CDC study on fatal dog bites lists the breeds involved in fatal attacks over 20 years (Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998). [This study] does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic. Each year, 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs. These bites result in approximately 16 fatalities; about 0.0002 percent of the total number of people bitten. These relatively few fatalities offer the only available information about breeds involved in dog bites. There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.”

In discussing this report, the CDC identified two problems with determining a rate of fatal human attacks by dog breed. The first is that it is nearly impossible to determine how many of one particular breed exist within the United States or within any given geographic area of the United States. The second is that it is also nearly impossible to define any dog by breed based on sight alone.

The U.S. National Safety Council has collected data on the likelihood of being killed by a dog of any breed, as well as the likelihood of being killed by other risks. As of 2016, the U.S. National Safety Council showed that the chances of dying as a result of a dog bite are 1 in 112,400. To put that number into perspective, you are twice as likely to die by a hornet, bee, or wasp sting than as a result of a dog bite, a chance of, 1 in 63,225.

If sound research and statistical data show that rates of injury and fatality by breed is incredibly unreliable, then why do communities continue to see Breed Discriminatory Legislation (BDL) or Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) as a solution or safety measure? Much of that reason can be attributed to media coverage.

Media Bias
For more than two decades, Karen Delise has been researching dog bites and how the media reports them. She is the founder and Director of Research for the National Canine Research Council and her background includes 29 years of service with the Suffolk County, N.Y. sheriff’s office and a degree in Veterinary Science Technology. She is the author of “Fatal Dog Attacks: The Stories Behind the Statistics” and “The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression.”

Delise correlates much of society’s views on pit bulls to the way that media outlets report on dog-related incidents. In an interview with Dogtime.com, Delise stated “with the exception of the Diane Whipple case in San Francisco in 2001 [which involved dogs of the Presa Canario breed, also known as Canary Mastiffs], I have not seen a single dog bite-related fatality attributed to another breed of dog that has generated the amount of news attention given to incidents that are reported to involve pit bulls. A related and disturbing phenomenon is the reporting of “pit bull attacks” in which no injury resulted. I have in my files over 100 cases where the media chose to report an encounter with a “pit bull” that had not resulted in any injury, while incidents involving other kinds of dogs that did result in serious injury received no coverage at all.”

In the past, the media’s disproportionate attention to stories citing pit bull bites and the inaccurate reporting of events involving pit bull type dogs led to multiple states enacting BSL or BDL. Thankfully, the last few years have shown a huge improvement in the way that legislators choose to uphold public safety. In May of 2016, Arizona become the 20th state to enact anti-BSL laws and there are more cities and states following suit. Click here for a more in-depth look at BSL and how the times are changing for the better.

So, now that we know breed specific information is unreliable, what can we look at?

A good place to start is author and educator, Janis Bradley’s Policy Paper, “Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions“. Bradley joined the NCRC as an academic liaison and to oversee NCRC research projects. The 2014 policy paper builds on the original 2006 edition with additional studies, statistics and examples of effective policies to address the issue of injurious dog bites. It takes an informed, common-sense, realistic look at the incidence and risk factors involved, and makes specific husbandry and policy recommendations to improve public safety and animal well-being.

Guidance and Education is Key
The CDC, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), National Canine Research Council (NCRC), and American Bar Association (ABA), among other national welfare animal organizations, all point to a community-based approach to uphold the safety of community members from dog-related incidents. The NCRC identified the three factors most common in dog bite related injuries and fatalities:

  • Dogs kept as resident dogs vs. dogs kept as family dogs. Click here for a PDF on the difference between resident dogs and family dogs.
  • Dogs that are unaltered, i.e. not spayed/neutered
  • Owners who had abused or neglected their dogs, failed to contain their dogs, or failed to properly chain their dogs

The NCRC identified children as the most at risk of being bitten by a dog. Among children, the rate of dog-bite related injuries is highest for those 5 to 9 years old. Children are also more likely than adults to receive medical attention for dog bites.

To help reduce the number of dog bites, Love-A-Bull believes in a twofold solution:
1) educating owners about responsible dog ownership and
2) educating people, especially children, about how to interact safely and respectfully with all dogs.

Both steps are vital to assisting in dog bite prevention. Click here to see the top 7 things Love-A-Bull believes will put you on the path to responsible dog ownership.

The number one thing that we, as an organization, cannot stress enough is the importance of adult supervision whenever there is interaction between children and dogs. All dogs have the potential to bite and it’s up to you as the parent, guardian, or adult to ensure that both dogs and children have safe and respectful interactions with each other. The ASPCA lists a fantastic resource for children and pet parents in regards to dog bite prevention.

So many times, we hear “my dog has never shown any signs of aggression before.” Dog trainers and researchers know that dogs do not bite without cause. Understanding dog body language is a key way to help avoid being bitten. Know the signs that dogs give to indicate that they’re feeling anxious, afraid, threatened, or aggressive. The following is a video of a situation from the view point of a child and then from the view point of a dog. This video helps illustrate why children so often get into situations with dogs which may result in a bite:

In addition to educational programs within the community, Love-A-Bull also believes that dangerous dog laws should be focused on the actions or inaction of the owner, rather than on the breed of the dog. The ASPCA has proposed breed–neutral laws that hold reckless dog owners accountable for their aggressive animals. Some of these proposals are:

  • Enhanced enforcement of leash/dog–at–large laws, with adequate penalties to supplement animal control funding and to ensure the law is taken seriously.
  • Laws that prohibit chaining or tethering, coupled with enhanced enforcement of animal cruelty and fighting laws. Studies have shown that chained dogs are an attractive nuisance to children and others who approach them.
  • Laws that mandate the sterilization of shelter animals and make low–cost sterilization services widely available.

To read the ASPCA’s full proposal, click here.

Steffan Baldwin said it best, in his blog “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics Behind Dog Bites”:

“We will never live in a world without dog bites or risks, nor will we ever live in a world without irresponsible people. We can, though, live in a world where dogs are judged as individuals and by their actions rather than their appearance, and owners are held accountable for the actions of their dogs.”