Monday, September 17, 2007

Ban the Deed, Not the Breed

I’m on a roll tonight.

Apparently, when somebody today punches the “be very afraid” button, Americans turn into total cowards (known in the dog world as “fear biters”). We abandon all discretion, give up our powers of discernment, and nail whatever moves.

As on the wiretapping and war-making fronts, Americans are struggling with our fear factor in the matter of dogs, and here again, panic has set in.

Just as half the country (it seems) supports racial profiling and expelling every undocumented worker in the country, so half supports exiling dogs of so-called “dangerous breeds.” (Bizarrely enough, it may not be the same half.)

That is what happened in Denver, when that city passed a comprehensive ban on dogs known as “pit bulls.” No exceptions and no allowance for the fact that there’s no such breed but several breeds that look kind of like a “pit bull.” If it’s a case of mistaken identity, that’s too bad. Worse still, there was no “grandfather clause” to protect highly socialized family dogs with not so much as a growl on the record. When the ban kicked in, animal control officers ripped all registered “pit bulls” from their owners’ arms, took them away, and in most cases, exterminated them. (Note the irony: Only the dogs of responsible owners are registered with animal control. The problem, however, is with irresponsible owners whose dogs are never registered.)

Anyway, no such thing as innocent until proved guilty for “pit bulls,” and, increasingly, any breed perceived (key word: perceived) to be “inherently dangerous.”

Maybe Michael Vick has done at least one good thing in his sorry life, inadvertently though it may be. His “celebrity” involvement in dog fighting has hiked the “pit bull” into mainstream consciousness and not just as a brute. As an unwitting victim.

Maybe the Vick dogs will get it through the fear-seared brains of breed banners that it’s not the breed, it’s the deed.

Maybe now, anybody with two brain cells to rub together will see that vicious dogs are made. And if they are made, this must mean that they aren’t necessarily born dangerous.

I think there are two reasonable caveats: (1) Dogs from lines bred for fighting are dangerous, regardless of breed. And (2) breeders who can’t document the sound temperament and good health of several generations of their stock should not be patronized. It doesn’t really matter which breed. This is just common sense.

The issue, clearly, isn’t breed. It’s always irresponsible owners, and responsibility begins with the breeder. We already know the drill. Abused children grow up to be abusers. Abused puppies grow up to be dangerous to their families and to others.

Since terms like “backyard breeders” and “puppy mills” are tough to define and seen as code words for partisans in a bigger war, let me put it this way: Responsible breeders test for health and breed for temperament. This is expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes heartbreaking, but it is the cost of doing business for responsible dog breeders.

People who do not test for health (see the diseases common for your breed) and cannot certify the temperament and stability of their dogs back through several generations (temperament generally means situation-appropriate behavior, with emphasis on restraint and non-violence) should not be patronized. Period. Caveat emptor.

Some say that’s not sufficient. Punishing the deed, they say, is too late.

Not in the context of US law, it isn’t, and for good reason. Murder laws punish murderers. In other words, even though we know that there’s a vastly higher incidence of murder among humans than of fatal attacks among dogs, we don’t ban all humans based on that incidence. We “ban” (incarcerate) only the humans who actually commit murder. The approach means that some people are killed, but it also means that innocent people (most of us) aren’t unjustly punished.

It’s a trade-off that civilized people have chosen to make. In my world, the logical parallel is that banning entire breeds is just not something a civilized people chooses to do.

Clearly, the culprit is the irresponsible, cruel, and ignorant dog owner. The incentive for breeding or owning a dog from a dangerous line varies from person to person. Such incentives may sometimes point to probable offenders, and thus to deterrence. Drug dealers want turf protection. Gamblers want bloodlines, champion dogs, and winnings. Ordinary, garden-variety people want protection for threatened residences. Education may work for some of the latter. Patrolling and criminal investigation may work for the former.

Those are the directions to pursue. Educating the public about breeds and their distinct needs, and about what responsible dog ownership entails, is imperative. Subsidizing shelters and spay/neuter clinics, and enlisting the world of dog professionals to help in public education and training and obedience clinics, and branding dog fighting and dog abuse as traits of cowards are the paths that a civilized society could take to address the phenomenon of dangerous dogs.