Discussion: Are we blinding ourselves to dangerous dog behavior in bully breeds?

Dr. Stanley Coren writes in Psychology Today that we tend to explain away what he describes as “a disproportionate number of dog bite related injuries and deaths [by Pitbull type dogs]” because we love them as family members.  Does his thinking ring true to you?

(Thanks Christine for the link.)

39 thoughts on “Discussion: Are we blinding ourselves to dangerous dog behavior in bully breeds?

  1. He’s an ass. He bases his conclusions on innuendo and media hype. A member of a group I belong to that is battling BSL in Ontario recently confronted him and asked him to back up his assertions about pit bulls and other breeds. He could NOT do so. Unbelievable that this idiot is on Tenure at UBC – the university should be ashamed it has such a pathetic excuse for a lecturer.

      1. Yes, Shirley, ’twas me. I hope anybody who wastes their time reading Stanley’s desperate blog post will stay for the comments, where actual logic can be found.

        Coren likes to make up numbers, which is how he reaches his ‘pit bull’ population ‘statistics’.

        This is my follow-up to Stanley’s “rebuttal”:

        Incidentally, I checked with a friend in the know and in Philadelphia, over 70% of dogs adopted from shelters were considered “pit bulls”. There’s more, but I have no idea where he gets his <1% figure and you can be certain he won't say.

  2. I would say the majority of those breeds are taught to be mean by very sick, cruel people….Michael Vick types….who must constantly prove their “manhood” by their subjection over dogs…and women.

  3. I think what people are blind to is accepting their own personal responsibility when it comes to dog safety, regardless of the breed of dog. People often don’t want to accept that they or their children have put the dogs in bad situations that the dogs were simply reacting to. People generally become victims because of their own poor choices and actions. For example, many children will run up to dogs they don’t know or to dogs they dogs they do know but who aren’t being supervised. And, too many dog owners are still using negative reinforcement training methods with their dogs or not providing any training at all. It’s not about whether a dog is seen as a family member, it’s about us belonging to a society where people want to place blame on someone else instead of accepting responsibility for their own failures, either as a dog owner or as a bite victim who may have provoked the dog.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. And many “shelters” have picked up on that and have created some of the most ludicrous “temperament tests” (in an environment where dogs are already stressed out completely): sticking one’s hand in the food bowl while they are eating (one of my personal favorites) — being one idiotic example. We have abandoned all common sense and doom the animal based on whether or not they like someone sticking their hands in the food bowl (The reaction a dog gives to this particular test can, in some instances, literally kill them.) There was a time when parents taught their children how to react to dogs and how to interact with them. My mother was raised on a farm and when I told her about this “test” she said “That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard! I knew by the time I could talk not to stick my hand in the dog’s dish while he was eating!” My point exactly. And yes, I think bully breeds are quick to draw suspicion because of the media’s negligence in being truthful. Much more “exciting” to read about “Family dog gone Cujo” — but, oh, yes, we forgot to mention that the “family dog” in question was staked out in the yard on a chain, intact, and was never socialized….Human created problems indeed!!

  4. I’m gonna say here what I commented on the article, because it drives me NUTS. The raw data is virtually useless:

    “The problem with statistics like these is that they are virtually useless unless expressed as a rate per population. If there were 100 bites by breed A and 100 bites by breed B last year, the significance of what it says about either breed’s probability of biting is different if there is a population of 1000 of breed A and 10,000 of breed B vs. if there is a population of 10,000 of breed A and 1000 of breed B. If I recall correctly, the CDC even released a report to that effect and has stopped tracking breeds of dogs involved in bites.

    In terms of dog bite prevention, it is far more important to teach people how to correctly approach and interact with dogs of ANY breed, recognize dog behavior and body language, and SUPERVISE children and dogs than to focus on any specific breed of dog.”

  5. Stanley Coren is an idiot. Does anyone remember his “ground-breaking” work on dog intelligence? He is a disgrace to his profession and every time he opens his stupid mouth I wish someone would put a sock in it. JMHO.

  6. I agree with Leigh. People need to manage their pets. It may also be that the number of dog bites reported include a specific set of demographics that is less responsible as a population. My experience has been that responsible pit bull owners, including myself, are very alert to our dogs surroundings and interactions with other people. Everyone I know who owns a pit bull has very friendly and socialable dogs, but is overly protective of putting them in ANY situation that may compromise them. It is because of BSL that we are overactive in our responsiblity. Sadly, a majority of people of a certain income level, etc. are not like that. Bigoted and judgmental? You bet. As are most people about my dog without knowing me or her.

  7. It does not ring true to me on any level. There is a currently a disproportionate number of pit bull type dogs in homes as pets in homes. Just like the 50s with Sheps and Dobies and the 80s with Rotties. When Taco Bell started using the Chihuahua for their commercials there was a rise in Chi ownership and therefore a rise in the bites recorded in some local animal control depts. If people have more babies – there will be more babies with certain health issues.

    Here is the letter I just sent to Dr. Coren – I hope he responds.

    Thanks for posting as always! HUGS !

    Hello Dr. Coren,
    I have read some of your work and much appreciate your studies into the Human Animal Bond. I am contacting you in regard to your article “Dogs That Bite and People That Don’t Listen” People often try to explain away misbehavior in children, dogs, and dog breeds. Published on April 3, 2013 by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C. in Canine Corner

    In this article you stated “As in most large cities in America, pitbulls (defined as American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, and American Staffordshire Terriers) account for less than 1% of the canine population.” I hope you will share with me the statistical facts, their origin, and reference of same that your statement was based upon.

    I would like you to know a bit about me: I am a two time Animal Control Director in two counties in Tennessee. I’ve been in rescue, transport, animal welfare, and advocacy for over 20 years. I am a certified first responder with American Humane and Red Rover. I have a 25 year career in corporate Info Services at a Director level. I am diligent in keeping up with as much quantitative and qualitative information on the human animal situation as I can. I also read published books on theory and professional demographic experiences.

    My experience in these 20 years of working at the ground level with humans and animals, does not mirror your statement on any level. We I have found is the past 10 years, there has been a significant rise in pit bull ownership, adoptions, irresponsible backyard breeding, and therefore strays. The statistics from my two county facilities, as well as those of 3 others here in Middle Tennessee, document that a rough
    average of 20 to 25% of our impounds are pit bull type dogs – or what are called “bully breeds.” These include American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers,American Bull Dogs, Mastiffs, Cane Corsos,Dogo Argentinos, American Pit Bull Terriers and their crosses.

    We have experienced NO rise in bites in the Bully Breed category over any other breeds in my area. Neither have my colleagues in 3 other AC facilities in our area. In fact, statistical research on the subject of what counties or cities have percentages of what breeds as owned pets is sketchy at best. Even cities and counties that do have a dog licensing program do not report on breed because the designation of breed is so esoteric and subject to human failing and discrimination.

    In 2006 the CDC released a qualitative and quantitative study on dog on human bites in America. The stats are here:
    . More than 70 percent of dog bites are from unneutered male dogs
    • A chained/tethered dog is 2.8 times more
    likely to bite than a dog that is not chained
    or tethered
    • 97 percent of fatal dog attacks involved
    unaltered dogs
    • 78 percent of those were not maintained as
    pets (guarding, breeding, etc.)
    • 84 percent of those were maintained by
    owners deemed reckless
    The data did not link breed to animal bites.

    Also of concern to me with the statement “As in most large cities in America” is troubling due to the fact that statistical data is not readily or accurately available on adoptions by breed. And in fact, some large cities have implemented BSL, meaning there would be no statistically valid bite data on this subject. While the fact remains that a bite from a larger breed dog will likely do more damage to a human than the bite of a smaller breed dog, the likelihood of a person not reporting smaller versus larger animal bites is speculative at best.

    As your article has been shared on a national animal welfare group blog -I need clarification of the data you used for the article.

    I am always willing to learn and it is imperative that we all keep current on facts and stats and do not perpetuate hype or speculation. I believe this is critical whether or not we agree with the facts.

    I look forward to your response.

    My sincere thanks,

    Karen Moore Josephson
    Phone included in email

      1. Thank you NKD. I do hope he responds. I have forwarded his article and my letter to three of my friends who are Licensed Mental Health Practitioners and are also dog rescuers. We will wait to see what Dr. Cohen says and then contact the magazine.

  8. As a writer, I always make it a point to note where in any story the breed of dog allegedly involved in an attack is identified. With pit bulls, it’s always in the first paragraph. When the attack involves dogs other than pit bulls, the breed is not identified until 5 to 7 paragraphs later. Apparently it’s not as newsworthy when a golden retriever precipitates an attack.

    1. HI Judith – have you seen the documentary entitled “Beyond the Myth.” The media hype on Pit Bull type dog bites in astounding.

      1. I haven’t as yet. As the guardian of two pit bulls that I know wouldn’t hurt anything – even to defend themselves – I feel the documentary would probably drive me to distraction. However, lest anyone think me a Pollyanna on the subject of pit bulls, my first one was NOT “an ambassador for the breed,” so I was very very careful with him. Nothing ever happened.

      2. Thank you for all do you Judith! The documentary is good – labored – and long. The facts and statistics are staggering. The media hype and the frenzy that law enforcement and people get into about unvetted media “news” is astounding. The saddest part is watching family pets being seized by law enforcement and then of course killed – because the laws changed to BSL. Denver and Florida and Ohio are documented.

  9. I think for me, his parallel between dog lovers and the woman whose son was caught on video surveillance camera robbing a store is just silly. It’s normal for a parent to disbelieve their own child is a criminal. But that doesn’t mean that there are no parents on the planet who would believe that anyone’s child could be a criminal. That seems to be what he’s saying about dogs. It’s not that I am disbelieving that my own pet could have bitten someone, it’s that I can’t believe anyone’s dog anywhere could ever bite someone. That makes no sense.

    It’s especially dumb now that I know the person talking to him was Selma – since Selma doesn’t even own a Pitbull!

    1. He told a few fibs. As you can see in my post, I am standing there holding one of my “pit bulls”. I guess that was artistic licence, as was his claim that I defended the dogs because they are the most abused and tormented – you know I don’t repeat nonsense from our friends in Norfolk, ever.

  10. Regular reader of KC Dog Blog and Brent does a wonderful job of dealing with this sort of “hysteria”. This “scientist” simply is not very scientific – but sounds to me like a “wanna be” expert with a bias against the bully breeds.
    From what I understand, it’s much more likely that certain conditions factor much more heavily into bites than breed – such as those shared by Karen J. In addition, it seems that many bites happen to toddlers and young children who are either unsupervised or live with people who don’t teach them to read the dog’s body language and provoke a bite.
    It saddens me greatly because a good many dogs lose their lives because of this kind of junk science and a media bound and determined to create a sensational story at the detriment to these wonderful dogs.

  11. An interesting however very biased opinion. I like to keep up on this argument and regularly scan the net for articles related to “pit bull” attacks. Oddly enough I have yet to come across even one reputable peer reviewed article on this subject. I have however come across the “study” sighted in this article numerous times and the good Dr is not really telling the complete truth. The dogs in question were identified as “pit bulls” by people who for the most part had no real concept of just what that means. These id’s were anecdotal and there is no actual evidence to back up the supposition that these animals were in deed APBTs, AmStafs, Satffies etc. As far as I am aware there were no follow up reports to indicate that the identifications were accurate. In point of fact the CDC, on its dog bite page dismisses this report as anecdotal and without scientific merit right along with the steaming pile of crap dogsbite.org “study” that is based upon id’s made by newspaper reporters.
    In fact the CDC report clearly states that there is no correlation between breed and bites and that too are unaware of any scientific peer reviewed studies on the subject. If Dr Coren knows of a study that no one else is aware of I for one would be greatly interested in reading it.

  12. WillBoy – we are meeting with Metro Animal Care and Control in Nashville, TN (MACC) on Wednesday of this week to discuss our petition and our tenets – and to work on a progressive partnership with MACC. Our petition is here:

    MACC has killed every single dog THEY label a Pit Bull type for atleast 20 years (that’s how long the current leaders have been in charge). And – they label nearly 70% of their impounds as Pit Bulls. Of course Nashville does NOT have a higher percentage of pit bulls or vicious dogs than any other area! Of course Nashville does not have a higher percentage of irresponsible dog owners than other areas! It is simply a personal breed agenda on the part of the leaders of Metro Nashville Health Department. It won’t change quickly – but we are hoping for change.

  13. Coren is like many scientists who fall into the same trap that most people do from time to time. Scientists should know better than to accept anecdotal evidence but, like most of us, they let their guard down and fall into the mud and play in it occasionally. Face it, due to a number of reasons, incidents involving pit are disproportionately represented in the news. The reality is that pits, pit mixes, and breeds and mixes with no pit in them at all are all lumped together and called pits. Add to that the inability of animal control officers to properly identify breeds and their tendency to label certain physical traits as pit traits even they are not,

  14. Did not finish so adding by replying to my own post:

    And you have the recipe for a breed disaster. Although there is no way to substantively support this claim, it is my belief that more pits, pit mixes and dogs misidentified as pit exist than any other breed and breed identified mix, for example Labs and Lab mixes. And due to the ever increasing expense of and increasing scarcity of other purebreeds and PB mixes, they are growing in popularity. Many other factors, many noted already by a number of pit enthusiasts who have already replied to this article. Coren would be well-served to go get a pit puppy and raise it and learn why so many of us are such ardent supporters of the breed for himself. Raised correctly, pits and pit mixes make absolutely wonderful pets. Alternatively, or first, he should go to YouTube and look at all the vids with pits being wonderful pets and living with children, other pets and even other dog! Imagine that!
    Pits – love them or stay the hell away from those that know them, own them and love them and we know better and aren’t going to put up with that sort of ignorance anymore.

    1. I do not believe Coren is “lying.” The problem is he is expressing, under colour of his authority on some issues unrelated to this issue, an opinion unwarranted by the facts. He is right that people tend to see those they love through rose colored glasses. He errs in assuming that is all that is at play here. Some of us just repeat what others say but some of us researched all the issues related even remotely related to it. We did so because the issue is complex in so many ways. If he were to do so, I believe he would come to a different conclusion. Insulting him is not the way to inspire him to do so. Hitting him with emotion because you feel, having lived with one of these wonderful dogs, that they are good dogs will only garner more patronizing comments. This man thinks he is right and will not change his mind easily. We must intrigue him with facts, give him research to review, and statistics to consider. Some are hard to find, like the number of pits compared to other breeds. Let’s give him the info he needs to understand this is a no brainer.

  15. I don’t even have to read that column.Anytime anybody starts citing hardcore statistics on the number of bites or the populations by breed, there is something rotten going on. We don’t know dog breed populations by breed. We don’t know the rates of serious dog bites by breed, because the information isn’t available.

    Anti-BSL people are guilty of it too. I hate to read things like “Labradors are more likely to bite” or “chihuahuas actually are the biggest biters”. There is no conclusive information to make those sorts of claims either.

    The CDC report is often cited as evidence that pit bulls are the most dangerous breed. However, if one actually reads the report, the CDC clearly discusses the challenges in calculating dog bite likelihood in both the numerator (dog bites by breed) and the denominator (dog breed population), and concludes the breed legislation is not an effective approach to public policy.

    We’d like for the information to be there, and even if it were we would have to investigate the other factors involved. But this isn’t major league baseball. The data just isn’t there.

    1. And focusing on only breed, we miss the most important factors that actually are involved with bites and fail to educate people about those factors.

  16. I don’t have time to pick apart why stats can mislead, but I will point out one thing in the Dr.’s article. The claim that bite victims were as likely to be bitten by a pit bull “like” dog blows away the statistic right there. Did they do DNA tests? Or just look at them? Who determined this and with what criteria. Please identify these breeds and let me know how accurate you are. http://animalfarmfoundation.org/files/32._Guess_the_Mix-_Pit_Bull_.jpg

  17. I have a German Shepard mix and a Pit Bull. The Pit bull is as sweet as can be, The German Shepard mix has attitude issues and can be down right mean sometimes. Out of the 2 the one to be afraid of is the German Shepard Mix in my household. The Pit Bull is a happy, funny , wants to play and eat.

  18. Coren’s article is an example of a psychologist overreaching in his conclusions, based on available data. In fact, he demonstrates in the article the very phenomenon he accuses the (ignorant) general pitbull lover of demonstrating. Remember, he loves his own research so much, he ignores anything to the contrary!

    I’m also a statistician and research methodologist, along with being a behavioral research scientist (profession) and an animal rescuer/rehabber in my “spare” time. There is a known bias with “clinical samples” — which is what you get in hospital studies. There’s the issue of “sample selection” (a self-selected sample, not randomly assigned), and the “extreme” clinical case. Add the problem of then trying to infer to the larger, general population pn the basis of the rare bite incident serious enough to show up at an emergency room. Add the fact that it is a city hospital, with the urban prevalence of “pitbull-type” dogs that prevents counter examples of the “country-popular” breeds like hound dogs, Labs, Beagles, Border Collies, etc.

    Now consider that the breed identity is “self-reported.” And we know, based on good scientific research involving even shelter personnel and veterinarians (who should be even better than the regular public) that identification is unreliable based on DNA analysis. Breed identification by looks is so unreliable as to be meaningless.

    An yet, Coren, is talking about genetics. How can he ignore the DNA?

    There’s also any number of other “confounding factors” like irresponsible owners being irresponsible with their dog around kids, and those more likely to end up in city hospital emergency wards, and maybe the pitbull type dogs being more popular among this subgroup.

    The first rule of good research is you must have valid and reliable measures, particularly if you are going to draw causal inferences. And if you are claiming that breed and aggression go hand-in-hand, time for mapping the canine genome and finding on which strand that “aggression” behavior lies.

    Of course, we know that aggression is an aberrant behavior in dogs. So why are we dwelling on so exceedingly rare even in any case. Last I saw, more people die falling in their bathtubs and being killed in cars.

    A complete waste of time and effort. But, hey, Coren has made lots of money on his unwarranted “scientific” pronouncements regarding dogs — about which he is hardly an expert.

    1. Carol –
      Great post from someone in the scientific know. My Shelter Reform group has been dicing and chopping stats for 7 months for our presentation tomorrow (Nashville Metro AC). We’re fortunate to have a statistician in our group, as well as a biologist/research methodologist, to guide us. Confounders cause major studies to finish without conclusive results. A large enough, clear enough baseline is simply not available in vicious, aggressive, breed studies.

      When knowledgeable people with “letters behind their names” throw out comments like they are fact (but are not) – I consider it abuse of authority. People view scholars as authority figures. Just like they do badges and uniforms.

      When Drs. talk about their experience in the demographics of their patient base – it’s still considered anecdotal. American science doesn’t allow for this to be extrapolated as national evidence. Shame on Dr. Coren. I really hope he responds.

      Thanks for posting. I just “liked” you on Facebook in hopes that we can get to know each other professionally.

      Thank you for all you do Carol.

      1. Karen, glad to see a kindred spirit. True academic folks know that ALL knowledge is temporary and ever-evolving, and knowledge claims only stand up against criticism with solid defense based on sound data and inference. In this case, “ipse dixit” comes to mind — an argumentative fallacy where a claim is based on the fact that the person himself says so, as a so-called “authority,” rather than presenting solid facts/evidence/research to support the claim. You might find Ryan Clinton’s commentary interesting: http://oisforonward.com/2011/08/ipse-dixit-texas-appellate-lawyer/

  19. So glad for the educated responses. I was very sad to learn that Dr. Coren had such a bias against certain breeds as he has always came across as a true dog lover on the TV show he used to have.

    I sent him an email suggesting he contact Brent at the KC Pet Project or someone else doing progressive sheltering who is also concerned about public safety so Dr. Coren can get some real world perspective.

    In part I wrote ‘Because of the areas that have had breed specific legislation (BSL/breed bans) and found it did not improve public safety, and where some ruled it discriminatory legislation, I think it’s extremely important to look at this in an unbiased manner. If this turns out to be a matter of discrimination, those educated about and opposed to BSL should not be subject to ad hominem attacks.

    This is important to me not because I’m a pit bull owner (I’m not) or a drug dealer (definitely not) [a reference to an older Coren article], but because it affects public policy, taxpayers, shelters, rescue groups, donors, shelter animals, family pets and public safety. …I try to encourage progressive programs, services and policies that have proven successful in other communities.’

    I certainly hope Dr. Coren gets out from behind his computer and contacts Brent, but I’m not holding my breath. Perhaps the scientist is too old and set in his ways.

  20. I am appalled to read that “Psyhcology Today” would print an article that isn’t based on factual data. A quick search on “dog bite statistics” would have revealed the CDC study that exhonerated bully breeds from the bad press they have received. That should have made the editors question the validity of the data and reject the article.

    I am ashamed to say I fell into the same flawed data trap, years ago, when the press first began slamming pit bulls as dangerous dogs. One of my daughters wanted to adopt an adorable pit bull puppy.

    I was horrified that, of all the breeds available, she would pick a breed of dog with a terrible reputation. Unfortunately, it was clear that the two had connected so trying to steer her to another dog wasn’t likely to work.

    So, I did some quick temperament testing and found the dog to be exceptionally well balanced, especially considering she was in a high-stress envionment (a shelter). It is hard for any dog to stay balanced in such conditions.

    So, despite my misgivings, I let her adopt the puppy and she turned out to be a really nice dog. Any behavioral failures were due to my daughter’s inability to be consistent in her dog’s training.

    It took a number of years but I eventually came to realize that pit bulls were no different than any other breed of dog. They were actually great dogs if neutered before developing an interest in sex.

    It has been about 17 years, now, since getting our first pit bull. I’ve never had one bite, which is more than I can say for all the other breeds we’ve had during the same time. My latest one (which isn’t supposed to be a pit bull, according to his previous owner) has a mouth soft enough to play with little ferrets.

    Of all the parts of my dog, that worry me, his mouth is way down the list. My poor legs get beat up by his tail and he has really strong toenails that occasionally rake me in play. He puts on a good act, as a fierce dog, but is more of a clown than a guard dog.

    Unfortunately, when he got his intake exam, the shelter vet listed him as a pit bull. It is possible he has pit bull in him, to some extent, but I have no idea how much. However, since our state legislature failed to pass a bill that would have removed the “inherently dangerous” status from bully breeds, I have to get him DNA tested to make sure I can keep him.

    I am hoping, for both our sakes, that he doesn’t have enough pit bull in him to make him a problem with my homeowner’s insurance. It irks me no end that such a sweet dog could be considered a public menace when my tiny dogs are far more likely to bite (as they have repeatedly proved).

    It irks me even more when prominent people, such as Dr. Coren, publish articles, that most people will assume is based on factual data, and add fuel to the roaring fire of lies perpetuated by the popular press. I have no doubt that hundreds more, if not thousands, of innocent dogs will be killed due to Dr. Coren’s study. I can only pray that my newest baby will not be one of them.

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