Montreal Gazette by Theresa Bianco 11 May 2015

As an advocate of responsible pet ownership, I was deeply disturbed by a recent report about a case involving a man whose pit bulls attacked a woman (“Dog owner convicted of assault over pit bull attack,” Montreal Gazette, May 1).

The woman, who was tragically left with permanent physical and psychological scars, was not the only victim. The two pit bulls paid the ultimate price for their owner’s idiocy and complete lack of responsibility; the report notes that they were euthanized after the incident.

In calling his dogs, the owner in effect was responsible for terrorizing and seriously injuring another human being — and now the dogs are dead. What is sad is that these dogs are dead for being “good dogs,” for obeying their master’s command.

And the owner? He gets a mere 18 month jail sentence, of which he’s likely to serve a fraction, and a three-year ban on owning a dog.

One wonders how different the penalty might have been had he stabbed the woman himself. And who is going to follow up on his case to ensure he doesn’t put any other dogs and humans at risk? Probably, no one. There were already two euthanasia orders issued against the dogs for previous bite incidents that had clearly fallen through the cracks. Bans and court orders don’t mean a thing if not enforced.

Some might argue that having two “dangerous” pit bulls off the streets is a good thing. But stories like this one perpetuate the myth that pit bulls are inherently dangerous. Research suggests otherwise. Biting is a behavioural problem, and it is not breed specific. A recent review of emergency room visits due to dog bites among Canadian children found that several breeds were responsible. And the percentage attributable to pit bulls was much lower than that for certain other breeds, such as Rottweilers and German Shepherds. Even when it comes to fatalities due to dog bites, one cannot pinpoint a specific breed as the sole cause. Researchers in the U.S. reported that dogs belonging to more than 30 breeds, including Yorkshire Terriers, have been responsible for fatal attacks on people.

In addition to recognizing that dog bites are not breed specific, we also need to appreciate that biting is a behaviour that can be corrected through proper training. Euthanizing dogs that bite is an extreme and often unnecessary measure. The message it sends is that such dogs are beyond repair, and this is not necessarily so. Dogs can be rehabilitated, even those treated horribly and trained to be aggressive. Some of the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s infamous dogfighting club now work as therapy dogs in hospitals and with children. If those dogs were able to bounce back, just about any dog can.

The judge in the pit bull case, Nathalie Fafard, is quoted as saying that “dogs are unpredictable animals.” In fact, research shows that dogs are very predictable. They send very clear signals about what they like and don’t like. The trouble is that we are terrible at reading the signs and even worse at respecting them. If a dog is communicating “don’t come near me” through barking, growling, flattened ears or a sideways stare, and we insist on interacting with that dog, we are likely to get bitten. And it won’t be the dog’s fault.

Admittedly, reading the signs would not have helped the woman who was attacked by the pit bulls. She did not choose to put herself in harm’s way, the dog owner did. He’s the one to blame in all of this. Not the woman, not the dogs. Just him.

Theresa Bianco is a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at Concordia University.