Monday, March 6, 2006
The other weekend we were up at Sibley, one of the jewels of the trail-crossed necklace that is the East Bay Regional Parks system. There were a lot of dogs at the trailhead -- plus, I should say, a lot of dog owners. It seems that 5 p.m. is considered prime walking time for many dog owners, because when we had been at the same trailhead two hours before: zip doggies.
There were lots of breeds. I am a little behind on newly fashionable dogs, having stopped paying attention in the era of the collie, the poodle and the cocker spaniel. But there were undoubtedly shiatsus and kickapoos and Venusian ridgebacks milling about waiting for their owners to collect the distinctive blue New York Times wrappers so useful for upscale sanitation techniques.
So there were three dogs. Two were going north and one was going south. There were also three leashes and three owners. One of the two northward-facing dogs made a move to investigate, if that is the word I mean, the southward-facing dog. The owner of the southward-facing dog pulled the leash abruptly, glared at the owner of the other dog and said, "Please, no. He doesn't do well with dogs on leashes." She was frantically handing treats to her dog, hoping to distract him from the proposed social interaction.
So my question is: If the dog doesn't do well with other dogs on leashes, why bring him to a known nexus of leashed dogs? I am glad that nothing untoward happened, but clearly it could have, which might very well have led to injured dogs, angry owners, several fistfights and a protracted lawsuit. Is there some sense of entitlement involved? Is the dog consulted? "Hey, Sparky, let's go to a gathering place of all those animals you hate!" I'm not buying it.
All of which put me in mind of a recent article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. He was talking about, among other things, aggressive dogs, and in particular the reputation that pit bulls have as being particularly dangerous. He made three interesting points.
First, although most people believe that most social phenomena, when graphed, result in a sort of bell-shaped curve, the incidence of violent dog behavior (and, by the way, renegade cop behavior) has a sort of hockey-stick-shaped curve, with a few dogs accounting for an overwhelming number of the cases, and most dogs having not a single blemish on their records.
Second, in a recent 20-year study, pit bulls were not responsible for a majority or even a large minority of the attacks on human beings. Dobermans, rottweilers, German shepherds, Great Danes -- they all have black marks on their records. Remember the French woman who had the face transplant? The dog that mauled her was a Labrador retriever.
But further massaging of the data yields something even more interesting. It's not the dog that's dangerous, it's the dog owner. "In about a quarter of fatal dog-bite cases, the dog owners were previously involved in illegal fighting. 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. The junk-yard German shepherd -- which looks as if it would rip your throat out -- and the German-shepherd guide dog are the same breed. But they are not the same dog, because they have owners with different intentions."
The problem is that there is no method by which we can ban certain people from owning dogs -- and, given everything, there is no likelihood that there will ever be such a law. There are constant efforts to ban specific breeds, but, according to Gladwell, they miss the point. Gladwell describes a large-sample experiment done by a Georgia group called the American Temperament Test Society: "A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund."
All of which flashed through my mind that afternoon at the Sibley trailhead. It was a moment in time, hardly an incident at all. But we have all seen things that turned bad unexpectedly and rapidly, so rapidly that no one had time to react effectively, and what had been just a walk in the park became the worst day of your life. If we're the smarter species, probably we should think about this stuff a bit more.
Should you take your pet to a place where it will feel nervous and fearful, or to a place where it will feel serene and secure? Is that a hard question?