Dismissing dangerous dog behavior––or blaming the victims––disregards public trust
SPRINGFIELD, Missouri; PHUKET, Thailand––Superficially, the dog-versus-human conflicts raging in Springfield, Missouri, where breed-specific legislation is at issue, and in Phuket, Thailand, where few dogs have any evident breed-specific traits, could scarcely look more different.
Pit bull attacks are the problem in Springfield: 38 in three years, including almost all of those the city health department has rated at the top two levels of seriousness using a five-level evaluation system developed by behaviorist and veterinarian Ian Dunbar, with the sixth level being that the victim dies.
Chasing is the issue in Phuket
Pit bulls have been banned in Thailand since 1991. Despite lax enforcement of the ban, the only pit bull attack in Phuket known to have risen to level 4, 5, or 6 seriousness on the Dunbar scale occurred in February 2013.
Free-roaming dogs chasing bicycles, motorbikes, scooters, three-wheelers, other vehicles, and pedestrians are the problem in Phuket, where large dogs of any sort are seldom seen.
Most dog advocates and most people concerned about “dog menace” might agree that recent potentially deadly incidents for both humans and dogs in Springfield and Phuket included substantial elements of irresponsible human behavior.
Irresponsible advocacy kills dogs, too
But while dog advocates tend to blame either the owners of specific dangerous dogs or ––all too often––the human victims of dog behavior, irresponsible advocacy behavior as well as irresponsible dog ownership contributes much to “dog menace” on either side of the world.
Along the way, irresponsible advocacy behavior contributes to dogs getting killed. Either dog advocates, owners and street dog feeders rationalize dangerous dog behavior––and their personal contributions to it––until there is a catastrophic accident, often ending in one or more dogs being killed to protect human and animal safety, or people feeling threatened and cornered respond to perceived dog menace with deadly force, including complaints resulting in impoundment for dispatch.
Springfield pit bull ordinance at risk
Pit bull advocates celebrated in Springfield on November 20, 2017 when city clerk Anita Cotter certified that on petitions turned in by opponents of a newly enacted ban on acquisition of new pit bulls included at least 2,269 signatures from registered city voters. This was more than enough to force the city council to either repeal the ban or put it before the voters in an April 2018 municipal election.
The ban opponents had submitted 7,883 signatures, but only enough were counted to equal 10% of the ballots cast in the most recent municipal election, plus a small margin for error.
“City council has 30 days to take action,” explained Alissa Zhu of the Springfield News-Leader. “Cotter told the News-Leader that council will be considering two separate bills — one to repeal the pit bull ban, another to send the issue to a ballot. Council is expected to make a final decision on December 11, 2017.”
Enforcement of the pit bull ban, which was to have begun in January 2018, has now been indefinitely suspended.
The ban was approved by the Springfield city council by a 5-4 margin on October 2, 2017, about six months after mayor Ken McClure, who favors the pit bull ban, was elected by a margin of more than two-to-one over council member Kristi Fulnecky. Fulnecky leads the opposition to the ban.
“The ban would have grandfathered pit bulls registered before the January 1 deadline,” reported Zhu. “The effort to repeal the pit bull ban does not affect special restrictions on pit bulls, which have been in place for about a decade. Pit bull owners are required to spay or neuter their dogs, keep them muzzled and leashed in public, pay an annual registration fee, and have a microchip inserted under their pit bulls’ skin.”
Owner blames everyone but self
Among the 38 recent Springfield pit bull attacks, the chief catalyst to the pit bull ban was a July 17, 2017 incident in which two pit bulls belonging to a neighbor either jumped or broke through a fence to attack Evy and Lane Atwell, ages four and three, respectively, as they played in a wading pool under supervision of their mother, Christin Atwell, in their own back yard.
All three were injured, suffering at least 15 bites among them before the children’s father, Travis Atwell, heard their screams and came running with a gun.
The pit bull owner, who was not identified, alleged to Paula Morehouse and Lance Green of KY3 News two days later that maybe “another neighbor not involved in the attack ‘didn’t want me to have my dogs, so they let them out.’”
Morehouse and Green noted that “From the vantage point of a neighbor’s yard, there are visible gaps and lower fence sections where the dogs lived.
“Just giving them love” and stitches
“Once the animals were free from their backyard,” Morehouse and Green continued, “the owner’s statement said the dogs were probably playing with the toddlers and ‘the kids provoked them,’ while the pit bulls were ” just giving them love.’”
While the attitude that the victims were to blame for their own injuries appalled much of the public, boosting the Springfield pit ball ban––which had already been introduced––to passage, the unsubstantiated notion that the pit bulls were “probably playing,” just “giving them love” in turn helped to rally support for the recall petition.
Best Friends Animal Society lobbyist Ledy Van Kavage expressed a similar view in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Fifth Estate documentary “Pit Bulls Unleashed: Should They Be Banned?”, aired on September 22, 2017.
“I don’t know if the child was crying”
Asked about the March 2013 death of 14-month-old Daxton Borchardt, who was torn from the arms of babysitter Susan Iwicki and killed by two pit bulls familiar to both of them, hand-raised by Iwicki from puppyhood, Van Kavage intimated that perhaps the attack occurred because the child was crying.
“I don’t know if the child was crying,” Van Kavage said.
Fifth Estate host Mark Kelley’s look of incredulity that anyone might suggest a dog who kills a baby for crying is nonetheless a safe dog for children probably mirrored the looks on the faces of much of the audience, pit bull advocates excepted.
The Soi Dog Foundation
But the belief that dogs can do no wrong is hardly exclusive to pit bull advocates, and also appeared in a November 24, 2017 e-mailed appeal from the Soi Dog Foundation of Phuket, Thailand.
Formed in 2002, headed by British expatriate John Dalley since 2004, the Soi Dog Foundation has been at the forefront of extending low-cost, high-volume spay/neuter service throughout Thailand, especially in Phuket and Bangkok; providing animal care after disasters, beginning with the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and continuing through many episodes of regional flooding; and in interdicting the export of dogs from Thailand to dog meat markets in Vietnam and China.
Long technically illegal, the dog meat traffic was rarely interdicted until the Soi Dog Foundation began taking in all dogs impounded from the traffickers in 2012.
Two years later, in 2014, Dalley and the Soi Dog Foundation joined representatives of the Animals Asia Foundation, Change for Animals Foundation, and Humane Society International in helping to broker a deal to suspend transborder dog traffic among Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia for five years, as part of an international rabies control agreement.
Ignored own formula for success
For fifteen years the Soi Dog Foundation has achieved unprecedented success by recognizing that achieving progress for street dogs requires simultaneously reducing or eliminating the problems that street dogs cause for people. Eradicating rabies, for example, reduces fear of dogs. Sterilizing dogs reduces the numbers of dogs roaming at large, susceptible to rabies and other diseases that may pass from dogs to humans. Encouraging people to adopt and take personal responsibility for dogs also helps to reduce the street dog population.
Yet the Soi Dog Foundation electronic appeal of November 24, 2017 made light of the most dangerous common behavior of fed dogs who are allowed to run at large: not spreading rabies or leptospirosis or any other disease, not mauling people, but rather chasing people and vehicles, whose distracted drivers may steer into danger or slam into obstacles while trying to avoid the dogs.
Not “innocent game”
“Dear Soi Dog Supporter,” wrote Dalley, “When little Mia pursued a motorbike down the street, to her it was just a fun game of chasing wheels. It’s an innocent game for many street dogs in Thailand.”
Overlooked was that the “fun game” and “innocent game” is often anything but fun for the humans on the other end of it, especially those who are killed or badly injured when a motor vehicle swerves out of control.
“If the rider had slowed down or stopped the bike,” Dalley alleged, “Mia would have stopped too. Game over.”
But the riders of bicycles, motorbikes, scooters, three-wheelers, other open vehicles, and pedestrians under pursuit by a dog, for that matter, have no way of knowing that the dog giving chase is going to stop, or is not rabid in a rabies-endemic nation.
Dalley went on from there to assert that the motorbike rider “sped away, returning later that evening under cover of darkness” to attack the dog Mia with a machete.
But Dalley had no actual evidence for any of that. There were no witnesses to whatever happened to Mia, and indeed was no reason to suspect that anything happened to her other than what often happens to dogs who chase vehicles: they get clipped by the sharp inner edge of a fender, a running board, or some other part, that hits them across the head or back at vehicular speed.
“Mia didn’t understand that some humans don’t like dogs chasing their bikes and that these same humans don’t understand that it is not them who is being chased, but the wheels of the bike,” a distinction which makes no difference whatever to the person who is in danger of falling off, or of colliding with other people and vehicles, or the pursuing dog.
No matter what the dog’s motive, the chase is potentially deadly to all concerned.
Biker was supposed to stop & train the dog?
Continued Dalley, spinning the fiction further, “The evil bike rider had no interest in learning how to stop Mia chasing his bike. Mia was found by a kind lady who contacted us. She said she’d seen Mia chasing motorbikes before and suspected that somebody had attacked her as a result.”
So what Dalley actually described was the suspicion of someone without forensic experience, who found an injured dog and offered speculation about it, without considering the simpler, more obvious explanation for the observed phenomenon.
Pretending that dogs chasing vehicles––and/or pedestrians––is an “innocent game” is as inherently irresponsible and ultimately dangerous to dogs themselves as is denying the uniquely dangerous proclivities of pit bulls, as recently detailed by the Pit Bull Federation of South Africa, should one need a pro-pit bull source for facts that ANIMALS 24-7 has been pointing out since 1982.
Chasing is NOT normal street dog behavior
Equally irresponsible and dangerous, to dogs and to humans, is pretending that chasing vehicles and/or pedestrians is normal street dog behavior. Authentic street dogs don’t waste their energy chasing what they can’t catch and eat, specifically rats and mice, or grab and run away with before another street dog grabs it.
Instead, real street dogs mind their own business, as their ancestors have done since the dawn of civilization, letting humans, vehicles, hoofed animals, poultry, and even cats go on about their business, until and unless human behavior changes the “social contract” by which dogs and humans normally co-exist.
While fed dogs often defend the location where food is provided to them, authentic street dogs without regular feeders wander, scavenging food wherever they find it.
Feeding changes behavior
Mia and other alleged street dogs who chase what they cannot eat are dogs whom someone has been feeding, without taking full responsibility for how feeding the dogs changes their behavior.
The gist of it is that dogs kept outdoors as quasi-pets do not have to worry about conserving energy. They can afford to chase the inedible just for entertainment, and as an exercise in defending territory, not usually a concern for dogs who are not fed by someone.
An expatriate member of an online discussion group formed by the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) described this behavior from direct experience in 2011, after she began feeding three street dogs near her then-home in Ahmedabad, India:
“I don’t know if it was the extra calories and nutrition, or a sense of territoriality that they developed, but they began chasing cars and motorcycles. One of them was hit and killed. The other two continued their chasing and caused a general nuisance. Perhaps one was the ring leader who spurred the other two on. Perhaps the chasing was born of the extra energy combined with a stronger attachment to the location of the feeding. I don’t know. Nevertheless, there you have it.”
“Wait 10 years & dog will settle down”
But other participants in the discussion saw no problem in the behavior.
Another FIAPO member recalled a street dog she began feeding and eventually adopted, who “used to escape and go after cyclists and other vehicles, and twice jumped out of our car to chase goats. By the time she was 10, she settled down,” meaning that everyone else in the neighborhood, including the goats, put up with frequent aggressive chasing for a decade.
Suggested another, “Dogs chase vehicles. It’s common. There are ways of rectifying the same. Get a trainer or be a trainer yourself. Stand there and when dog runs, immediately correct the dog by shouting loudly and rebuking the dog. Let the local people feed this dog once and things will improve.”
That advice obviously will not immediately help anyone whose first knowledge of a dog comes when the dog gives chase, who has to find a solution at vehicular speed, amid traffic.
“Only” four of 19 dogs chase cyclists
“I insist on feeding street dogs. Only around 4 of the 19 I feed know that they’re supposed to chase cyclists because they’re being fed by me,” said Chennai dog advocate Anjali Sharma.
On that very day, June 24, 2011, Sachin Dravekar reported in The Times of India that “two-wheeler rider Utkarsh Najpande, a resident of Telecom, Nagar, received serious head injuries while trying dodge a pack of stray dogs chasing his two wheeler around 1 a.m. on Ring road. He hit a road divider.”
For Najpande, as for thousands of other victims, being chased was no laughing matter.
No safe response for cyclists
Neither is there a usually safe response that potential victims can be taught. While a person on foot can sometimes turn on a dog and chase the dog back, or spray the dog with a repellent, for a cyclist to look back at a pursuing dog could be fatal, and all too often is.
Stopping to confront or try to placate pursuing dogs can also be very dangerous: if a dog is aggressive dogs, or rabid, the dog can be in full attack on the person before the person can dismount from a two-wheeled or three-wheeled vehicle.
The practical as well as legal onus for preventing dog/human incidents involving vehicles and/or pedestrians is on the people who are responsible for the dogs, either as owners or as feedings.
If a dog chases anyone, it is time to ensure that this behavior stops, either by feeding the dog elsewhere or taking the dog into a confined existence, inside a home or at least behind a secure fence––but not merely tethered, since tethering tends to increase canine territoriality and reactivity, making a dog more dangerous instead of safer.
Sacrificing public trust on the altar of dog worship
The fundamental issue, in Springfield, Phuket, India, or anywhere else, is that effectively advocating for dogs requires ensuring that dog owners and feeders are dissuaded from creating a public nuisance or safety risk that leads to dogs being exterminated.
Trying to establish and implement public policies that inhibit impoundment and euthanasia of dangerous dogs without first stopping the human behavior that causes “dog menace” to proliferate is to sacrifice public trust on the altar of dog worship––which will make dogs the ultimate casualty.
Victims, including dogs, die in dead earnest
To do this, dog owners, street dog feeders, and advocates must discard personal notions and perceptions about what is a public nuisance or safety risk to others. A dog owner, street dog feeder, or advocate may not be afraid of a bite, or a traffic accident resulting from dog behavior, or be concerned about stepping in dog poop and suffering broken bones in a fall, but what matters is what everyone else at potential risk thinks.
Critical to realize is that the motives of a problematic dog also have no relevance to the victim. Even if a dog is only “playing,” the child getting mauled by a pit bull who broke through a fence for “fun” or the bicyclist swerves in front of a truck while trying to avoid a charging dog will be killed or maimed in dead earnest.
And usually the dog will soon be dead too.