Small Pieces of Fact Can Misinform

I was thinking about this on my walk this morning. I met someone who owns a mastiff. He told me about how people are afraid of the dog even though it only ever tries to love people. This made me think of the stereotype around pit bulls, and how people walk out into the road to avoid walking past Kelly when she’s walking one of our pit fosters. I couldn’t think of why people would think of him as threatening. He has a gimp leg, and one look at his face will tell you that he doesn’t have a brain in his head. I thought about this while I was finishing my walk, and realized it’s groups that take small bits of incomplete information and pass it off as fact. Take dogsbite.org for instance. They publish a dog bite study that they pass off as fact even though I find it to discredit itself in its own introduction. I only mention dogsbite.org because it is the group I was thinking of this morning. This can be found other places especially in politics.

Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada September 1982 to June 25, 2010

Compiled by the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE from press accounts since 1982, this table covers only attacks by dogs of clearly identified breed type or ancestry, as designated by animal control officers or others with evident expertise, who have been kept as pets.

First off I’ve never heard of any valid study that is taken as a complete truth based on media reports. They also say that it only covers dogs of clearly identified breed type or ancestry determined by animal control officers or others with evident expertise. Yet these experts failed to identify some of the breeds which means they could be wrong about the others. It also means that the breed determinations weren’t based on DNA testing. This for me is a large red flag. I personally have not met a animal control officer, shelter worker, rescue worker/volunteer, dog trainer, or any other person that claims they can identify every breed in a dog. The words I hear most associated with a dogs breed are ” Our best guess is…”

Due to the exclusion of dogs whose breed type may be uncertain, this is not a complete list of fatal and otherwise serious dog  attacks; but there have been very few qualifying attacks by dogs of uncertain ancestry in recent decades.

First off they admit to not including all dogs in the study. Even if there are few qualifying attacks not including these attacks makes the data set incomplete, and less valid.

The ‘%/dogs” column states the percentage of each breed of dog among 3.2 million classified ads listing dogs for sale at web sites during the first half of 2010. Similar data has been collected in many previous years, but has not previously been included in this table. If a percentage is not listed for a breed or mix, it either appears to be too low to calculate or too difficult to isolate from other variants of the breed or mix.

I also can’t understand the idea of basing breed percentages on classified listings; because these dogs aren’t in their “permanent” homes which means they may not be an accurate representation of dogs actually in people’s homes. Would you base population statistics on the members of dating websites? They’re also based on ads only for the first half of 2010 which means that dog bites from 1982 are based on unclear population percentages from the first half of 2010. If this is the case how do they control for popularity of breeds over the years before 2010? It also doesn’t include mixes that they couldn’t identify thereby making the data set even more incomplete.

There is a persistent allegation by pit bull terrier advocates that pit bulls are overrepresented among reported dog attack deaths and maimings because of misidentifications or because “pit bull” is, according to them, a generic term covering several similar types of dog. However, the frequency of pit bull attacks among these worst-in-10,000 cases is so disproportionate that even if half of the attacks in the pit bull category were misattributed, or even if the pit bull category was split three ways, attacks by pit bulls and their closest relatives would still outnumber attacks by any other breed.

The report and their website both show an obvious bias toward pit bull. This bias is also apparent in the fact that they include the breed “Pit mix unknown” which by their standard shouldn’t have been included. I have yet to see a mix that doesn’t have some dominant traits of one breed or another. So the inclusion of this even though it’s only 4 attacks skews the data even further.

Another issue I noticed while writing this is that the “dogs X victims” column and the “individuals” columns don’t always match. Take the pit mix unknown breed that I mentioned before the columns are Number of Victims: 4  Children: 2  Adults: 1 Deaths: 0 which doesn’t add up. You can’t add 2+1 and get 4.

The Lost Dogs

The Lost Dogs is a  really interesting look into the Michael Vick dog fighting case. I have taken a lot of interest in the case of the last while because of my work with animal rescues. Most of my interest comes from the negative stereotype associated with pitbull type dogs, and the number that were saved. Only one of the dogs from the operation was put down. She was bred to the point that she was aggressive towards humans.
Jim Gorant does a good job of telling the facts without much if any bias, and has extensive research documentation to back up what he’s written. That is one of my favorite thing about the book. For dog lovers and many sports fans this is a touchy subject and many things from the case could easily be sensationalized for one audience or the other, so it’s nice to see something that’s not skewed for any one audience and focused on presenting the facts. The only thing that isn’t based on fact in the book is when Gorant tries to tell portions of the story from the dogs perspective.

With all the information in this book the thing tha surprised me the most was actually in the introduction. Gorant is talking about the original article he wrote for Sports Illustrated, and the ~488 letters the magazine received about the story.

The second complaint was more troubling. In its simplest incarnation it usually went something like this: “Why does it matter, they’re just dogs?” The more verbose in this camp might elaborate: “People are dying and starving every day and we’ve got bigger problems. No one cares if you kill cows or chickens or hunt deer. What’s different about dogs?”
The Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant

I can’t understand this line of thinking, but I’m not the average person. I’m around anywhere between 3–10 dogs at any point in the day and usually sleep with 2+ in my bed at night, but I think that Gorant does a great job answering that question.

The answer, cobbled together from all those readings and conversations, took me back to the beginning. Men first domesticated dogs more than ten thousand years ago, when our ancestors were hunting for their meals and sleeping next to open fires at night. Dogs were instant helpers in our struggle for survival. They guarded us in the dark and helped us find food by day. We offered them something, too, scraps of food, some measure of protection, the heat of the flames. In an article about the origin of dogs that ran in the New York Times in early 2010, one expert on dog genetics theorized that “dogs could have been the sentries that let hunter-gatherers settle without fear of surprise attack. They may also have been the first major item of inherited wealth, preceding cattle, and so could have laid the foundations for the gradations of wealth and social hierarchy that differentiated settled groups from their hunter-gatherer predecessors.”

Certainly, as man rose in the world, dogs came with us, perhaps even aiding the advance. They continued to guard us and help with hunting, but they did more. They marched with armies into war, they worked by our side, hauling, pulling, herding, retrieving. We manipulated their genetic makeup to suit our purposes, crossbreeding types to create animals that could kill the rats infesting our cities or search for those lost in the snow or the woods.

In return we brought them into our homes, made them part of our families. We offered them love and companionship, and they returned the gesture. From the start it was a compact: You do this for us and we’ll do that for you.

Our relationship with dogs has always been different than it has been with livestock or wildlife. The only other animal that comes close is the horse, which has undoubtedly been a partner in our evolution and a companion. But a horse can’t curl up at the bottom of your bed at night, and it can’t come up and lick your face when you’re feeling down. Dogs have that ability to sense what we’re feeling and commiserate. There’s a reason they’re called man’s best friend.
The Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant