Monday, May 30, 2011

When a Cane Corso Becomes a Pit Bull: Tragedy in New York

The New York Daily News reported on Saturday May 28th about the tragic death of a Brooklyn boy mauled to death by the family's Pit Bull. On Sunday, it changed the headline and story, complete with a photo, to identify the dog as a Cane Corso. The headline, which originally read, "Brooklyn boy mauled to death inside his apartment by 'violent' pit bull, chaotic scene follows" was changed to, "Brooklyn boy mauled to death inside his apartment by 'violent' mastiff, chaotic scene follows." (We note the url still includes 'pit bull').

The original first sentence of the story read, "A 4-year-old boy died after he was savagely mauled by a pit bull inside his Brooklyn apartment Friday night, cops and witnesses said."

The revised first sentence now reads, "A 4-year-old boy left alone for a minute by his mother was killed when a family dog savagely mauled him as his two terrified brothers watched helplessly, cops and witnesses said." Not until the seventh paragraph does the story identify the dog as a Cane Corso.

This reporting demonstrates not only that the media is quick to report a dog mauling as being perpetrated by a Pit Bull, but that news organizations will report differently on the same story based solely on the breed of dog involved. If the reporter believes the dog to be a Pit Bull, Pit Bull is in the headline and the first sentence. If the dog is not a Pit Bull, the reporter won't mention the breed until several paragraphs into the story.

Unfortunately, knowing what breed was involved here doesn't help the boy, who has lost his life. Nor does this story demonstrate that Cane Corsos are inherently dangerous dogs. What this story demonstrates is that any breed of dog, in the wrong hands, can be dangerous. There is no doubt this dog demonstrated dangerous propensities before this incident, and the family chose to keep the dog in the home with several young children.

I would like to make a point here about a correlation the sensationalized news story seems to erroneously make. The story reports the "killer dog" reportedly killed the family's rabbit earlier, presumably as evidence that such an act proves a dog to be dangerous to people. Educated dog people know that not to be an accurate assumption. Dogs are prey-driven animals, as are cats (who frequently kill birds and rodents when left to roam). Each dog has different levels of prey drive, but many dogs chase cats, squirrels, rabbits and other small animals, and this instinct to chase and catch/kill small animals does not indicate a dog is a danger to humans.

Certainly a dog CAN be be both aggressive to small animals and to humans, or it can be aggressive to people and not animals, or vice versa. And it is true that SOME dogs may view small children crawling on the ground as prey. Some dogs, not all. Many dogs love kids of all ages at first sight and recognize them to be youngsters of the human variety. Other dogs are more unsure, some are downright frightened of young children and others view them as a potential toys or prey. At any rate, that particular behavior would have been obvious before the mauling if the parents were paying attention and, regardless, it is never a good idea to leave any dog, especially a large one, alone with children (but even small dogs have caused death and serious injuries to young children).

Whenever stories like this make the news, the factors are almost always the same and include a young child left unsupervised with a dog capable of causing him or her serious harm. Often, the family is uneducated about dog ownership and, more often than not, outright irresponsible about owning such dogs. Large dogs are popular as "guard dogs," and those who seek out guard dogs are usually looking for dogs that WILL bite someone (presumably to protect the family's home).

But dog owners should be aware that dogs with a low bite threshold (meaning it takes very little to make them bite a stranger) are also much more likely to bite harm a member of the family.

We don't really know much about what happened other than what the story reports (and this particular news agency hasn't given me much confidence about its dedication to accuracy. However, we do know another child has lost his life because of poor parental supervision.

No doubt, the Cane Corso enthusiasts are disheartened by this story. Is the Cane Corso the next breed to be misused and misbred by irresponsible people wanting a tough, aggressive guard dog? Let's hope not. Too many good dogs and great breeds have been devastated by these dangerous humans.

[Link to the story]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dog Safety Tips for National Dog Bite Prevention Week

May 15-21 is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and in its honor, I'm giving away free tidbits of information to help you and your family interact safely with dogs.

Don't approach a strange dog unless you're willing to get bitten. When you see a loose dog on the street, you may feel the need to round the dog up and try to find its owner. Good for you! Just realize there are RISKS involved in doing so. The dog may be disoriented, frightened, and much more likely to bite in defense than it would had you encountered it at the park playing happily with its owner.

Obviously, not all strange dogs are going to bite. Many are perfectly happy to meet new people. Some will even happily jump into your car in glee at the prospect of going somewhere fun and exciting. But if you do try to play the hero to some lost canine soul, be careful about it. Try to entice the dog to come up to you rather than cornering it (though I did once corner a little dog running in traffic and snatched her up; I did so knowing full well that if I got bit, it would be my own darn fault).

Be mindful of the dog's body language. A fearful dog is much more likely to bite, and fear can manifest in different ways. Ears back, unusual panting, head bowed, shying away, cowering, hackles raised--these are potential signs a dog is anxious or fearful. Use caution!

Dr. Sophia Yin has a free poster for download on fearful dog body language.

Don't tolerate rude or challenging behavior from your dog. Your dog growls if you or your child goes near his bowl, so you learn to leave him alone. Well, guess what. Some day, your dog will have a snack, a toy, or something of value and you won't have your eyes on your child and the dog at all times. Child strays near dog. Child gets bitten. It might be your child or the neighbors or even an adult such as an unwary pet sitter.

Yielding to bad behavior encourages it. The dog growls. You back away. The dog's guarding behavior is reinforced so when someone doesn't properly heed the warning, the dog's only recourse is to yield or bite.

Please don't take this to mean you should storm right up to a dog that's growling to defend its food or toy. If you start with a puppy, make a habit of playing the "trade" game so the dog gets used to you and members of your family trading awesome goodies for whatever he or she has and then giving the original item right back. So, if the dog's eating, stroll casually up and drop in some fresh, warm chicken. If the dog has a toy, show him some steak and let him take it as you take the toy, then give the toy right back.

You can do this same technique with an older dog, and it works nine out of ten times. For that one time, you will need to seek professional help to work on the problem, but in no case should you ignore the behavior or yield to the dog's bad manners.

Supervise all children around dogs, both for the sake of the children and the dog. Kids often hurt dogs, and dogs can easily hurt children. Do both a favor and make sure each is safe from the other. If you can't supervise, contain one is a secure, safe area away from the other (be aware most child protective agencies will likely frown on you crating a child, though most children seem to think they make the best play pens).