By Erin McCormick and
San Fransisco Chronicle Staff Writers
This article was from the Sunday, July 3,
2005 edition of the San Fransisco Chronicle newspaper.
In the wake of a horrific streak of bloody maulings,
pit bulls have gained a reputation as the country's deadliest dogs.
But experts disagree about whether pit bulls are inherently
more dangerous -- or just the latest breed in vogue among irresponsible
dog owners. After all, German shepherds killed more people than
any other dog in the late 1970s, when many people favored the breed
for its fierce reputation. Then, for two years, it was Great Danes.
Rottweilers topped the list of killer dogs through most of the '90s,
according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control. Now it's
And even those rankings are based only on the rarest
of dog attacks -- the couple dozen each year that kill.
Much less is known about which breeds are most likely
to cause nonfatal bites, which send an estimated 1,000 people to
hospital emergency rooms each day around the country. There's no
central reporting agency that tracks the estimated 4.7 million U.S.
dog bites each year. And smaller studies present conflicting results
for which breeds are the most dangerous.
"If we're just focusing on dog deaths and we're
just focusing on pit bulls, we're missing the point," said
Florida dog trainer Jim Crosby, a national expert on dog aggression.
The lack of reliable data could make it more difficult
to figure out how to draft effective regulations to keep the public
safer from dog bite injuries or which breeds to focus on. In the
wake of several pit bull attacks, including the one that killed
12-year-old Nicholas Faibish on June 3, San Francisco officials
are supporting state legislation to give them the authority to crack
down on that particular breed.
"I've got a pit bull problem," said Carl
Friedman, director of San Francisco 's Animal Care and Control department,
which responds to dog bites in the city. Friedman points out that
most of its hearings on aggressive dogs involve pit bulls.
State law bars cities and counties from targeting
specific breeds. But a bill sponsored by Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough,
would let cities restrict breeding of certain breeds, or force owners
to spay or neuter the dogs to make them less aggressive. Still,
despite the recent wave of publicity surrounding pit bull attacks,
the number of fatal dog maulings has remained fairly constant --
averaging around 20 per year in the United States for decades. Indeed,
you're more likely to be struck dead by lightning than killed by
But the breed responsible for the fatalities has changed.
Lately, pit bulls have been the main culprit, accounting for 45
of the 145 fatalities since 1999, according to a Chronicle analysis
of dog fatality data collected by the National Canine Research Foundation.
Rottweilers ranked second with 25 attacks. Other unexpected breeds
have killed people, too. For instance, a tiny Pomeranian mix climbed
up on a bed and killed a 6-week-old girl in Southern California
in 2000. Because fatal maulings are so rare, some dog experts say
it's unfair to blacklist an entire breed based on a few vicious
"You can't base your assumptions about a whole
breed's behavior on three or four dogs," said Karen Delise,
founder of the National Canine Research Foundation, who has conducted
extensive dog fatality studies.
While even their defenders concede that powerful breeds,
like pit bulls and rottweilers, can kill more easily than miniature
poodles or cocker spaniels, many insist the deaths have more to
do with fads in ownership than problems with the breed itself.
"In the early to mid-1990s, rottweilers became
the tough-guy dog," said Crosby . "They were the macho
dog to own amongst people who were not particularly responsible
owners." Now it's pit bulls, says Eric Sakach of the United
States Humane Society. Sakach said some people are specifically
breeding pit bulls for fighting and aggression, which in turn can
lead to more deadly attacks.
Kenneth Phillips, a Southern California lawyer who
has devoted his career exclusively to dog bite cases, says all kinds
of dogs bite -- not just the ones people think of as dangerous.
Indeed, some of the most severe injuries his clients
have faced came from dachshunds. "If they bite you, they just
rip off your face," he said.
Another limitation with dog bite statistics is they
generally do not take into account the popularity of the dogs: One
breed may account for more attacks than another, simply because
the breed is more common.
The American Kennel Club, which registers about 1
million dogs a year, says it has the best data available to rate
the popularity of America 's 74 million dogs. But it doesn't register
mixes or undocumented dogs, which account for half of dogs, by AKC's
And it doesn't consider pit bulls to be an official
breed at all. So no one knows precisely how many pit bulls there
are nationwide -- let alone which breed accounts for the highest
number of attacks per dog. "Dog bite statistics are not really
statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that
bite," warns a report from the American Veterinary Medical
Association. "Invariably the numbers will show that dogs from
popular, large breeds are a problem."
Meanwhile, some insurance agencies have compiled their
own lists of vicious breeds, based on claims. Allstate Insurance,
for instance, won't offer homeowners insurance to Californians who
own any of eight types of dogs: pit bulls (American Staffordshire
terriers), akitas, boxers, chow chows, Dobermans, rottweilers, Presa
Canarios and wolf hybrids, plus any mixes that include the breeds.
"They are the dogs that generate the most lawsuits,"
said spokesman Rich Halberg. Nationwide Insurance compiled a similar
list, though it doesn't include akitas or boxers.
Company spokesman Joe Case, in Columbus , Ohio , said
the carrier consulted the CDC's fatality study, but thought it was
critical to consider the insurer's own experience handling reports
of other serious dog bites.
"Not every dog attack results in a fatality,
but it could result in an insurance claim being filed," said
Case. Unlike Allstate, Nationwide will still sell policies to owners
whose dog completes the American Kennel Club's "Canine Good
Citizen Program," which includes a test to make sure the dog
is well behaved.
Delise, who studied dog fatalities dating back to
1965 for her book "Fatal Dog Attacks," has identified
numerous patterns in the most serious attacks. She argues that the
patterns are more important than the breed.
For instance, dogs kept on chains or for protection
posed a much bigger danger than family dogs kept in houses. Most
deadly dogs were males. Only a minority of dogs had been spayed
or neutered. Many cases involved owners who neglected or abused
their dogs, she said.
In one case, the owner had previously been reported
for beating his dog with a hammer. Another involved a dog that was
starving to death on his chain. By far the majority of those who
died from dog attacks were children -- usually unsupervised. A scenario
that comes up again and again in the data is the toddler who wanders
up to a dog chained in a backyard when no one is watching.
Several infants, left on a floor or bed, have also
been killed by a family dog.
In one case, a German shepherd killed an infant by
picking it up and carrying it to his family in the living room in
what may have been a friendly gesture.
Delise said only a tiny number of dog attack fatality
cases -- perhaps two or three each year -- are freak accidents in
which a seemingly nice dog goes bad.
Others are either aggressive dogs or abusive owners
who create accidents waiting to happen. Or they involve a cascade
of mistakes, such as an owner failing to neuter a dog, ignoring
a previous aggressive incident and then leaving an unsupervised
child with the dog. "Once in a while, the dominoes line up
and somebody gets killed," Delise said. "But statistically
it's such a small number."
* Spay/neuter your dog. This reduces aggressive tendencies.
* Never leave infants or young children alone with a dog.
* Train and socialize your dog.
* Seek professional advice if the dog acts aggressive.
* Advise children to avoid approaching unfamiliar dogs.