Breeding Killers?

A Pitt bull seized in a raid in Yonkers, NY.Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times A Pitt bull seized in a raid in Yonkers, NY.

A few days before Christmas, a Houston woman placed her 3-month old girl in a baby swing and momentarily left the room.? In her absence, one of the family’s nine dogs – a 150-lb Rottweiler – broke through the back door of the house and attacked the infant.? Out of precaution, the mother had barricaded the back door with a “washing machine and slab of marble.” It was of no use.? EMS reported that the girl’s chest was covered with deep lacerations. She died an hour later.

The story is horrific beyond belief. But it happens more than you’d think. In 2009, there were 32 fatal dog attacks in the United States. Some of these “canine homicides” were random – consider the attack on a German professor and his librarian wife in rural Georgia by 11 dogs. But even a cursory glance at the reports confirms a pattern: victims were usually children, the dogs were usually intact males, the attack took usually place at home, and – most controversially – the offending canines were usually (75 percent of the time) either pit bull terriers or Rottweilers.

Whenever such a tragic incident happens, the question inevitably arises: should something be done about these breeds? Legally speaking, most states already have an answer to this question: no. Breeds generally don’t matter when it comes to most pet legislation. Instead, states typically apply “dangerous dog laws” on a case-by-case basis irrespective of the type of dog. The owner of a dog determined to be dangerous – and the breed can range from a teacup Maltese? to a Bull Mastiff – is subjected to a series of regulations (muzzling, neutering, etc.) that, should the owner disobey, could result in the forfeiture or death of the companion animal.

But – with pit bulls and Rottweilers exploding in popularity – many interest groups are seeking broader regulations.? Hence the strong push to ban breeds altogether (especially pit bulls), or to at least legislate their ownership more stringently than other breeds (this is called “breed specific legislation,” or BSL). The city of Denver outlawed pit bulls in 2005. A year later, Ohio enacted BSL by requiring owners of pit bulls to take out a $100,000 insurance policy and keep the dogs in a cage.? Support for both breed bans and BSL is widespread. Even PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) supports a pit bull ban. Its president, Ingrid Newkirk, shocked many PETA followers when she declared that, “an unpredictable Chihuahua is one thing, an unpredictable pit another.”

Newkirk has some rabid bedfellows–many of whom she’d presumably want to keep at arm’s length. When a woman was nearly killed by a pit bull in Lynn, Mass., last March, the local paper exploded in anger: “Pit bulls by their nature are ferocious animals. They are attack dogs-and they attack often. They love violence and mayhem. They enjoy mauling people they do not know.” Not very PETA-like, this assessment. But the editorial pretty much echoed the sentiments of Newkirk, who noted that pit bulls were “a human concoction,” an animal “designed specifically to fight other animals and kill them.” Anyone who argues against their banning, she concluded, was “naive.”

Rottweilers are coming under a similar kind of scrutiny.? Along with pit bulls and Dobermans, Rottweilers were banned from New York City housing projects in 2009. In 2010, the Long Island town of Rockville Centre disallowed owning Rottweilers (it was later overturned).? The East Texas community of Van is considering a ban of pit bulls and Rottweilers after a non-fatal attack on a two-year-old girl last Halloween.? Kenmare, North Dakota banned Dobermans, pit bulls and Rottweilers in 2008. There’s an entire Facebook page dedicated to ending the ownership of Rottweilers in the UK.? Point being, many people living in many places would prefer to see the Rottweiler go the way of the Dodo bird.

The strongest argument for banning breeds is that certain breeds (i.e., pit bulls and Rottweilers) have been bred so relentlessly to fight that, even in the hands of responsible owners, they’re instinctively prone to dangerous behavior. Professor Alan Beck, head of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, explained in an interview, “Are dogs that spontaneously herd, point, or dig genetically predetermined to exhibit their behavior? Yes. The behaviors that facilitate fighting, including not needing a provocation, are also genetically predetermined.” Nature, in Beck’s assessment (and many others’), cannot be overcome by nurture. Thus, the breeds should be discontinued.

Those with more faith in nurture, however, oppose breed bans and, in some cases, all BSL as well. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) rejects breed bans (but supports the forced spaying and neutering of pit bulls) on the grounds that, in President Wayne Pacelle‘s words, it’s unfair to owners who care for “well-socialized, well-behaved pit bulls.”? From another angle, but clearly supporting the nurture argument, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2006 New Yorker piece that, “The dogs that bite people are, in many cases, socially isolated because their owners are socially isolated, and they are vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog.” In other words, as opponents of breed bans are quick to insist, “there’s no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner.”

This last comment, though, strikes me as deeply flawed.? I’ve personally cared for four companion mutts in my adult life and, while three of them have been remarkably sweet pets, one (a pit bull mix named Le Roy) was something of a hell hound. No amount of training or socialization helped him in the least. Le Roy was genetically hardwired to be anxious, aggressive and defensive. Not only did he get me sued, but he nipped several friends and family members. Mercifully, he died of cancer at the age of six.? But when he did so, I found myself, despite the havoc he wreaked in my life, heartbroken. (On the very few occasions that he did manage to behave, he became “Le Roi,” and seemed momentarily proud to be thusly called.)

Every time I think about Le Roy, I feel sorry for him. I feel this way because, deep down, I know he wasn’t in the least bit responsible for his erratic predilections to canine violence. And it is for this reason — the fact that dogs are to such a large extent a “human concoction” — that I think getting rid of an entire breed is fundamentally unfair to the individual dogs within that breed, many of whom defy their genetics to become wonderful companion animals. It’s not their fault that we’ve bred to them to fight.? It isn’t their fault that humans, for whatever ignoble reason, have rendered them inclined to lash out in order to satisfy our perverse notions of entertainment and safety.

That said, we’ve done what we’ve done. Perhaps the best compromise solution is therefore to seek a middle ground between dangerous dog legislation and breed bans.? Perhaps Ohio was on the right track when it stipulated high insurance policies and caging requirements. Maybe if, in addition to these measures, we required certain breeds to be muzzled in public (or when in the presence of children), banned certain kinds of people (convicted felons, owners of dogs with a history of biting, etc.) from owning dangerous breeds, and banned certain breeds from highly dense urban settings, we’d take a small bite out of this big problem.


Why on earth would anyone keep a dog--of any breed--that one feared enough to barricade a door with a washing machine?


The greater issue than breed is the difference in how dogs are managed and raised... most fatalities to infants are completely, and I mean completely, preventable... with training, education and teaching dogs how to be "family dogs" rather than "resident dogs".


It seems that if we had the proper owner-liability structure, this wouldn't be an issue.

Also, "pit bull" isn't a breed. It's usually used to describe bull terrier mixes, but can be pretty vague.

Ian Kemmish

You don't mention that pit bulls have been banned in the UK for some years. With hindsight, what happened next is not so surprising. Those who would have owned pit bulls have instead turned to breeding Staffordshire bull terriers for aggression. Once you start banning breeds, you're in an arms race.

Presumably the optimal solution is to ban owners rather than dogs, but there are obvious difficulties with that, too.


An insurance requirement would be a good thing. Last summer my wife was out jogging, and an unsupervised pit bull ran from a house and bit her, ran back into the house, then ran out and bit her again. Big medical bills and long term physical and psychological damage. The owner, it turns out, is a meth addict with no homeowner's insurance. The cost of suing the owner is far greater than anything we would recover in a civil case. No other laws govern the dog's behavior or the owner's responsibility here in California. Big loss for us, and no consequences for the dog or the owner.


Sadly, uneducated owners that don't fix their dogs early (which, for males, cuts back on testosterone and helps get rid of the vicious tendencies) and actually get them for their stereotypical fighting capabilities are the root cause of the problem. I have a Rott mix at home, and he is a big teddy bear, and I've met many, many other similar gentle giants. I've read that Rotts were originally drafting dogs that could pull a ton or two on a wheeled wagon. A lot of what is written in Freakonomics shows that people only change their behavior when presented with the appropriate incentive/disincentive. If we could enact spay/neuter laws, outlaw the breeding of these breeds (which would eventually make it a moot point), require owner training/education for these breeds, and enact draconian punishments for anyone who breaks such laws, this would stop. Unfortunately, the US is way too soft on crime, too protective of our "freedoms" (even for ignorant people), and too political for a simple and effective solution to ever come forward and work.



Listen to the owners of pitbulls who attack, maim and kill. It's always the victim's fault. The dog was being harrassed,teased, intimidated by another dog. It was a fluke, my dog would never hurt anyone. Anyone housing a dangerous breed with an infant should be brought up on child endangerment charges even before the animal goes berserk, which it is genetically programmed to do.

Jonathan Leard

The problem is that the disincentive isn't nearly strong enough. The dog is put down? Who cares, the owner? They'll get another. The owner is responsible for the actions of the dog and should be punished as if they themselves carried out the acts.

That's why owning a pet is called a responsibility. Because YOU are responsible for YOUR pets.


"But it happens more than you'd think. In 2009, there were 32 fatal dog attacks in the United States."

In 2006 there were 72 million pet dogs in the U.S. In 2009 and 32 killed a human. That's one fatality per 2.25 million dogs. On average, there are 584 infanticides in the US (according to That's about 1 per 500,000 people. So parents are at least 4-5 times more likely to kill their children than the family dog. And that's assuming all 32 fatal dog attacks were against children. We should be giving custody to the pit bulls.


I'm often struck by the number of news-reports of such sad fatalities where the dog is set up in resource-competition with a small child in an enclosed space. It's not a situation where people are just bad animal owners with breeds that are horrible choices in a negative-feedback loop, but these people are very poor parents.

Breed bans rarely work well because these "bull terrier mixes" are not defined well (as MangoPunch points out) and people with poor social skills will find a way to get the powerfully aggressive dog they seek.

To pick up further on Gladwell's point about social isolation, I often encounter single, seemingly intelligent, women who own or desire to own powerful dogs like this for protection. Rarely do I see them being willing or able to manage such dogs. Often they've been simply physically incapable of restraining the living weapon they've created.

Dogs in dense urban environments can be very successful and enhance the sociability of their owners. Both dog and owner need to be socialised. I always encourage new dog owners to join up with the informal collections of dogs and humans that can be found around many large and small urban parks. Unfortunately most of the isolated owners who have problem dogs by choice or circumstance will choose to be isolated whether they're in a city or rural environment.



This might be one time to let the 'market decide': Require insurance on ALL dogs. The insurance company will figure out the relative danger between a Dachshund and a Doberman and charge accordingly.

Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team

Are personalities inherited genetically or is it due predominantly to enviorment?

The Dog World lends us valuable insight. If I see a Golden Retriever or Labrador walking down the sidewalk, I can assume it is a friendly, eager to please and a pet-able dog. I will be correct 98% of the time.

If I see a pit bull or rotweiler, I know to be wary, keep my hands in my pocket and perhaps cross the street to avoid the animal. They can be vicious, aggressive and prone to biting.

Based on breed type and appearance, I can associate particular personality types and friendliness.

Yes I am using racial profiling or stereotyping--but it is a valuable and practical tool. And it is accurate. I still have 10 fingers despite being a dog aficionado.

Call me a Canine Racist.

Tommy Salami

Perhaps you should begin the article stating you are a failed dog owner of a vicious dog that happened to be part pit bull, as a disclaimer.

SUVs cause more damage in accidents when owned irresponsibly, but as much as I'd like to see them exterminated, they are passionately defended. I'd rather see licenses proving you've been trained to raise a dominant dog required, than see pit bulls, rottweilers, or any breed exterminated due to human irresponsibility.

Dr Duck

"...deep down, I know he wasn't in the least bit responsible for his erratic predilections to canine violence."

I sympathize, but...

No dog is ever 'responsible' for its behavior, good or bad. Responsibility in the sense you've used it is a moral concept, or a legal one. It cannot apply to non-humans.


Regulations that force you to cage or muzzle pit bulls (or pit bull mixes) in public are not the answer. The problem with dog aggression and the overpopulation of pit bulls in cities and our shelters is far more deep rooted than problems with a particular breed and is truly a social problem. I would argue that hand guns are more dangerous than dogs, and they are still legal. What needs to change is the stringency of laws (and the ability to enforce them) regarding requirements for the proper care of animals - including animal treatment/abuse. The problem with dangerous dogs and fighting dogs is fundamentally one of too much violence in many of our communities.

I personally foster dogs for a an animal rescue here in Missouri, and have taken care of many pit bulls and pit bull mixes. I would love for their to be a mandatory spay and neuter law not just for pit bulls, but for most dogs - such as requiring a license to breed. I think that when we focus on the breed of dog, rather than the fundamental problem of violence, animal abuse, and dog fighting, then we are missing the entire problem as a society.


Eric Grant

Banning the breeding and selling of target breeds (and/or requiring their sterilization, with the enforcement of heavy fines for owners who don't comply) would reduce their population over the course of about a decade, without requiring a cull.

You'd still have the problem of people who want vicious dogs, but the likelihood of someone unintentionally winding up a with a dog with aggressive instincts would be greatly reduced.


So theoretically, if we were to apply the idea above to humans, we would be talking about different races, rather than breeds....we could compile a bunch of statistics to prove a case that one specific race poses a greater threat than others. Thus allowing us to create restrictions and unequal, yet "just" treatment for those people.

Sounds a bit like something we have already dealt with in this country. When will people understand that gross generalizations regarding any living creature are not accurate. Every living being on this unique.

For all of your "Ban fans" (including the author) I suggest you read What the Dog Saw, by Malcom Galdwell....

As the proud owner of a "pit bull", I implore all of you to find a better, more positive cause for your time and efforts...there are plenty.

Ben D

I'd love to see more hard research on this, rather than just opinions.


I think it's silly anytime someone makes the "there are no bad dogs, just bad owners" argument or uses a obscure case of a Daschund attack as a counterpoint to the Pit-bull/Rottweiler debate. These are aggressive dogs, plain and simple. I like Ohio's approach (mandatory insurance).

If you had a toaster oven that you knew could overheat at random times and burn down your kitchen or home unless you quickly ran over and pressed a series of button to disable it, would you keep it? A responsible owner who chose to kept it could potentially stop any disasters from happening but what happens when you let that toaster out of your sight? Or maybe in the care of a child who does not know the proper way of disarming said oven?


I used to agree with the premises of the author, that was up until I actually spent some time around pit bulls and rotweillers. Both breeds are lovable and, based upon my personal experience, are great family dogs. But keep in mind people: since you are singling out certain breeds, I would place presser canarias at the very top of the ferocious list. Other larger breeds that tend to be a bit "skittish" and do a lot of biting are: labs, boxers, greyhounds, chow chows, Akitas and many in the terrier family. So there.