According to researchers from Ohio State University, almost five million people (including children) are bitten by dogs each year. They believe that understanding which breeds statistically pose the greatest bite risk could be invaluable information for parents choosing a new family dog.
What they learned is unfortunate news for a breed many dog lovers claim is just a bad wrap put on by sensationalized headlines. Pit bulls statistically pose the highest risk of biting and cause the most damage alongside mixed breed dogs weighing between 66 and 100 pounds with wide, short heads.
This isn’t the first time pit bulls have been on the bad news end of such a study. In the mid-1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted their own analysis of dogs involved in fatal attacks between 1979 and 1996. In that time period, pit bulls were involved in 60 such incidents, which was more than double the number for Rottweilers (29) and German Shepherds (19). In another 13-year fatality report from an organization called DogsBite, pit bulls topped the list once again between 2005 and 2017. This time the statistics were even a little more damning, with 284 people dying in attacks, according to Forbes. That number accounted for 66 percent of total fatalities even though the breed only accounts for 6.5 percent of the total dog population in the United States. The Rottweiler and German Shepherd came in second and third again respectively, with 45 and 20 attacks in that same time period among them respectively. It’s probably surprising to many that a penultimate family dog, the Labrador Retriever, was in the top-10 with nine documented fatal attacks. The rest of the top 10 “most dangerous dog breeds” between 2005 and 2017 according to the DogsBite survey were mixed breed dogs, the American Bulldog, Mastiff/bullmastiff, Husky, Boxer, and Doberman pinscher. It’s a good reminder that no breed is a 100 percent certainty of safety under any and all circumstances. Aside from the fatalities, 28,000 people had reconstructive surgery following a dog attack in 2015, while canine-related hospital stays increased by 86 percent in the 15 years between 1993 and 2008. All these numbers go to show that regardless of the attention that pit bulls get as an attack-risk breed, dog attacks in America — and sadly, fatal ones — are happening more often overall.
To dog lovers, statistics can paint a blurry picture. We want to love and appreciate all dogs unconditionally and we all want to be responsible dog owners. Sometimes those statistics and beliefs or expectations of certain breeds can influence policy, going so far as to instill bans on breeds like pit bulls in some areas. Some of the most fervent of dog lovers would make the argument that it’s nature and not nurture, coupled with preconceived biases that shape these narratives and influence statistics.
A 2015 feature by the Huffington Post pointed out that the term “pit bull” can be used to shift statistics, as it isn’t so much a breed as it is a category of breeds. According to that report, a pit bull in most statistical studies is actually any “blocky” headed dog or a mix of breeds that weigh between 35 and 100 pounds, qualifying more than 30 different actual breeds as pit bulls in this field. The author says that this classification is often made through “visual breed identification,” sarcastically describing the process as “tilting your head 30 degrees to the right or left and guessing based on a few, basic traits and the inability to automatically identify the dog as something else.”
“Based upon the observation of a handful of variable breed-associated physical traits, such as coat color, body size, skull shape and whether the ears or erect or floppy,” they say. “These physical traits are found in many different breeds and are controlled by approximately 50 of the roughly 20,000 genes that create a dog.”
To put things simply, pit bulls, the author argues, get lumped into a much larger grouping of dogs than the breeds that follow it in many of these statistical studies. Katy Blanton, Vice President of Cincinnati Pit Crew, pointed out a similar concern about the recent study from Ohio State University, saying that the bite data we rely upon only explores cases that are recorded in hospitals and emergency rooms. The study also reportedly only looked at facial bites and attacks and further, Ohio State researchers said breed was unknown in about 60 percent of dog bite cases.
Debating over the validity of statistics aside, many owners and prospective owners simply believe in not taking risks. In 2017, nearly 350,000 people were treated at hospital emergency rooms for dog-related injuries. Of those people, 10,600 were children two years old or younger according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“Because we often didn’t know what type of dog was involved in these incidents, we looked at things like weight and head shape,” said Dr. Garth Essig, an otolaryngologist at OSU's Wexner Medical Center and lead author of the study. An otolaryngologist is a specialist trained in medical treatment and surgery for ear, nose and throat issues. We wanted to provide families with data to help them determine the risk to their children and inform them about which types of dogs do well in households with kids.”
“Go beyond the stereotype and you’ll discover a smart, calm, and loving companion,” argues Cesar Milan, dog expert, and outspoken pit bull advocate. “A dog is a dog.
Milan argues that these dogs are no more likely to attack a person than any other breed would be. He argues that it’s the terrier side of the pit bull’s ancestry that influences their aggression, mixed with the breed’s natural physical strength that creates a dynamic personality. His estimation is that educating dog owners about the breed is best for everybody, including the dogs themselves.
“We don’t have a problem with the breed — we have a problem with education. And until we change people’s attitudes, pit bulls are going to have problems. There are more pit bulls in shelters than any other breed, they’re less likely to be adopted, and they’re far more likely to be euthanized.”