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.


I have to agree with #9: parents are far more dangerous to children than dogs - of any breed, let alone the supposedly vicious ones. Not only are there many more deliberate infanticides than dog killings, we also - unless we're going to credit the dog with the ethical capacity to murder - have to include all those little parental accidents, like backing over your kid 'cause you wanted to drive a big SUV or forgetting that you left your kid in the car on a hot day - something that kills too many dogs as well.


So from what Karen said our daughter should be taken away from us because two of her best friends are our American Pit Bull Terriers that love her and play with her. Responsible breeding and ownership of these so called dangerous dogs plays a big roll in
how they act, it's something I've seen first hand. Also for those that think fighting dogs cannot be rehabilitated into good pets should read about the dogs taken in by Best Friends and BAD RAP (just to name two of many), it shows they just need the right environment, training and love to be good dogs. Breed bans and restrictions make it hard for responsible owners to keep their beloved family pets which is crowding already crowded shelters. As a APBT owner I wouldn't mind paying the insurance to keep my dogs if it stops the bans.


Did I get that number right, 32 fatal dog attacks last year? More people have died of inadequate health care in the time it takes me to write this post than died of dog attacks last year, yet we're spending time on this? Sounds like an emphasis on the wrong side of the Pareto chart to me. Got any data on pig attacks while you're at it? Flying is more dangerous than dogs. Taking a shower is more dangerous than dogs. 82 people died of the choking game in 2008 - over three times the number who died from dog attacks. Perhaps we should outlaw hands?


M I agree with you completely!

george r williams

The problem with banning certain breeds is (as several posters have observed), there is no clear definition. What looks like a pit bull to me may be a Staffordshire terrier. Do we use Justice Potter's definition of pornography (paraphrased), I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

If we can ban dogs on looks alone, what implications does this have for humans?

Aggressiveness, like most traits, can be bred into dogs as well as into human beings. Some people are just bad people; some dogs are just bad dogs. It's breeding, not socialization.

Mandatory insurance is not the answer, and banning a particular breed (however difficult that is) will only create a demand for breeding aggressive traits into other breeds.

Matt Murphy

I rescued a "pit bull" from the Manhattan ACC in 2009. She is spayed. I am a taxpayer and have lived in Manhattan since 1989. The problem with your breed ban is that there are responsible owners like me that would be deeply concerned with someone taking their pets away.

sue hunter

I have a friend who is keeping her daughter's pit bull while her daughter does research in Germany.

Germany does not allow pit bulls into the country.

To me this is very scary, especially when my friend's young grandchildren visit.

I grew up with a pit bull and would NEVER allow one in my house.


My solution: make the animal owner responsible for any action of the animal as if they had performed it themselves (i.e. dog kills someone, manslaughter charges for the owner). No breed or species distinction.

Punned It

Please do not forget that driving many of these problems is allowing for endless breeding and intact dogs - these issues need to be addressed for all domestic pets when you consider the population issues and especially with large aggressive dogs/breeds.

Lastly, on top of neutering/breeding controls. actual enforcement of leash laws in cities would go a long way towards protecting the public at large.

Yvette Van Veen

If one does an internet search for "protection dogs" or "family guard dogs," you can find millions of hits. There are some breeders that intentionally market toward this demographic and it's not difficult to purchase a dog that has been intentionally bred to do a particular job. What happens when these dogs go to homes that cannot handle the nature of the animal? What happens when some of these dogs end up in shelters and perhaps eventually end up in a family home - one that is unaware of what it has been bred for and potentially trained for.

The dynamics are far more complicated. It is easy to ban a breed. But how does that solve the business of creating aggressive lines of dogs? For that matter, why is it legal and unregulated for these dogs to keep getting bred?

No disrespect meant to the respectable breeders. It just seems that anyone can intentionally breed for aggression - regardless of the breed.



I really enjoyed reading this. Congratulations on going a little deepeer on the matter and trying to look at all angles before making a judgement.

Of course the bad owner influences a dog, but I have come to believe (although I have yet to have a case happen to someone in my circle of family and friends) that some dogs are just nuts - even though I am an animal rights advocate.

It does seem that a mix of high insurance, neutering or spaying and muzzling dangerous breeds should help us achieve a balance in this subject.


It is sad that these things happen and more sad that most of the time they can be prevented. Banning a breed seems a bit of an overreaction and will do nothing to encourage responsible dog ownership, which is the real issue here not Pits or Rotties.

I agree with the comment of who would keep a dog that need to be barricaded outside. That is completely irresponsible of the owner, the fact that the baby ended up dying is really the parents fault, not the dog. If the dog was so far gone that obedience training wasn't effective the only option is to put the dog down before it can cause anyone harm.

I also agree with one of the statements from the Nutjob at PETA, an aggressive small dog like a King Charles or something is a whole different story than an aggressive Pitbull. Owning a powerful dog is an enormous responsibility. I disagree with her comment that Pitbulls should be outlawed because it is a 'man made' dog, it seems that she is the one who is naïve. All dogs are 'man made', there is not one pure breed dog that was not specifically developed and heavily influenced by the hand of man.

Also, regardless of what people want to believe there is no breed of dogs that have a genetic predisposition to want to hurt people or other dogs. The term 'Pitbull' is extremely subjective as well, so banning the breed would be next to impossible. I thought the AKC started to recognize Pitbulls as an official breed a couple of years ago but I could be wrong. Either way, the majority of the animals most people would call a Pitbull probably don't fit into the breed standard qualities the AKC recognizes. Which leaves the question of what a PItbull actually is?

I owned a French Mastiff that weighted 130+lbs (a dog like Hooch) for several years until she passed away and for the most part she was a loving, obedient and gentle dog to people and other dogs she came across. However, when in public we still were extremely cautious when approached by strangers and others with dogs. All dogs are animals and even the best trained dogs can be unpredictable or perceive an nonthreatening situation as a threat for whatever reason.

For me to have handled my French Mastiff the same way I handle our French Bulldog, which only weights 30lbs, or similar to the way I handled our Labs growing up would have been totally irresponsible on my part. She (the Mastiff) was no more aggressive or misbehaved than any other dog I've ever had or come across but she was 10x more powerful. Not only that other dogs were more aggressive towards her because they perceived her as threatening. We were doubly cautious, especially at dog parks and other public areas, because we know that if for whatever reason she nipped someone or another dog got into it with her because of her size she would have been perceived as the problem.

The problem here is not the dogs but irresponsible ownership. Banning a breed is only going to create a moving target we will never be able to hit. Say there is a national ban on Pitbulls, within about 10 years, a new breed would be developed to circumvent that ban and we would still be left with the irresponsible owner issue.

Strong dogs are no different than guns, it's them that are the issue but irresponsible owners. On that note I do find it funny that popular sentiment is to ban these dogs because they are the problem but banning guns isn't similarly possible. Could anyone imagine the leader of the NRA coming out and saying handguns are dangerous and should be eliminated?



@9 (noah): brilliant.

Donald Cleary

We should avoid generalizations based on anecdotes. Whatever you may read in a newspaper, or whatever your experience with an idividual dog, there is no scientific evidence that one kind of a dog is more likely to injure a human being than another kind of dog. Further, the natural habitat of the domestic dog is the human community; and we make a serious mistake when we attempt to characterize dogs apart from their relationships with human beings. Public policy should reflect community expectations concerning all dog owners, and hold them all to high standards of humane care, custody and control.


Wait, I think I'm missing something here. Isn't the point of Freakonomics that it uses science, math and data to make points about issues and society? (sorry, long post ahead, but this post annoyed me a bit)

All this blog post contained was opinion and an anecdote about a particularly high strung pit bull the author owned. I'm sure many people could counter with anecdotes about pitbulls they've owned that are so mellow they could have been on tranquilized.

How about some data? There are a couple sites out there that seem to have some. I would appreciate it if this blog could take a look at some of the statistics offered and give an opinion on those!

One fact that seems to emerge is that 'dangerous' breeds don't necessarily attack more humans then other dogs, its just that when they do so the damage is more serious. So even if it turns out that, for example, most Pekineses are actively homicidal, it doesn't matter as much as they're too small to do serious injury to anyone but a small child.

OK, so even if we're only talking about attacks by larger dogs, what about the size of the population? If a hypothetical town contains 300 pitbulls and 20 poodles, and then experiences 5 serious dog attacks, 3 by pitbulls and 2 by poodles, which breed should be banned? Without knowing how many dogs of a given breed are out there how are we to say if they are more likely then another breed to attack?

And finally, I do think you have to consider the 'bad owner' problem. I have seen some statistics that suggest that the breed of dog responsible for injuries changes depending on what dogs contribute to a 'tough' or 'gangster' image by a certain part of society. If you banned pitbulls would dobermans, mastiffs or another breed just take their place? Without looking at the sociological data, I don't think you can say for sure.

Given that unsupported opinions and anecdotes are being slung about in this article may I contribute the following unsupported opinion analysis - pitbulls were originally bred to be very keen to fight OTHER DOGS. I hope even the most ardent pitbull lover would admit that their 'gameness' makes them challenging dogs to own. However, were not bred to be aggressive to people. Uncontrolled breeding by irresponsible owners has probably changed that a bit, but probably not too much for the breed as a whole. However, there are other dogs that have been bred for guarding, war or other dangerous purposes. German shepherds, for example, are now bred to guard against people, not wolves. I would suspect that if breed specific legislation made the dog of choice for the uneducated status seeker switch from a pitbull to another breed that we would see serious attacks on humans go up, not down.

Please, on this issue where there is so much misinformation and strong feelings going around, can we please have something more then the recitation of opinion from a NYT blog? I normally really like this blog, but I'm rather disappointed now.


W Pickard

The problem with anything but an outright ban of dangerous dogs is that anything short of 'none' is a) impossible to enforce safely, therefore b) there WILL be a statistically significant number of attacks of innocents by dogs that are predisposed to fight and bite.

Golden retrievers have been known to nip, and don't attempt to hurt a child that is the 'property' of a Golden - but statistically - Goldens are NOT a problem. Neither are Chihuahuas or Basset hounds - the list goes on. Ban the breeding of problems, and there will be fewer serious attacks on humans.


The attack occurred while the mother "momentarily left the room" and the door had been barricaded with a "washing machine and slab of marble." The dog busted through that in one moment, without any noise? Surely it must have taken a little bit of banging and pushing to get through that - I'm a healthy adult male and while I can move a washing machine by myself it takes me way more than a moment. And that's without the marble slab.


I find it surprising that a blog which espouses the need for research as much as this one is willing to publish and article as controversial as this one based on nothing more than hearsay. I would think that the fact that virtually every rescue organization opposes BSL would be a pertinent fact and get worked in here but no. Or given that it is widely acknowledged that Media reports of dog bites are biased towards bullies (both in that bully bites are more likely to be reported due to sensationalism and because so many breeds are lumped under the non-breed nomer "Pit"), per haps we could turn to the actual scientific studies on the fact, such as this one:

For shame McWilliams, for shame.


A neighbor's Staffordshire attacked our small mutt and would have crushed her neck had the neighbor not intervened in a timely way. Until then, I thought much fear about pit bulls was akin to manufactured hysteria. No longer. As mayor of my community, I had earlier opposed leash laws. That attack--hardly an isolated incident, it turns out--cured me of my naivete.

Eric M. Jones

Hey, maybe nothing needs to be done other than to obey the law and prosecute people for endangering others. We have all the laws needed.

This goes along with "freedom" can do almost anything you want, and "responsibility" gotta pay up or do the time.