Saturday, January 4, 2014

Canine Cognition

Revised: Jan 5, 2014; 14:15 GMT
Revised: Jan 6, 2014; 01:45 GMT
Revised: Jan 6, 2014; 14:38 GMT
Revised: March 13, 2014: 16:29 GMT
Revised: September 23, 2014: 18:02 GMT

"We have learned more about how dogs think in the past decade than we have in the previous century," write Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods in the opening pages of their book The Genius of Dogs. This is an auspicious beginning, one certain to make inquiring readers continue. The three books mentioned on this page are examples of the new learning. They illustrate not only the genius of our baffling, always surprising canine companions but the genius of some of those now writing about them.

The authors of all three books do their best to avoid the quagmire of canine aggression, but fail. Inevitably, each of the authors are pulled into the vortex of the most troubling issue facing those who study dogs today.

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What is considered aggressive is culturally and generationally relative. German shepherds were on the top of the list after World War II; in the 1990s Rottweilers and Dobermans were scorned; the American Staffordshire terrier (also known as the pit bull) is the current bĂȘte noire. Their classification has more to do with recent events and public perception than with their intrinsic nature. Recent research found that of all breeds, dachshunds were the most aggressive to both their own owners and to strangers. Perhaps this is underreported because a snarling dachshund can be picked up and stashed away in a tote bag.
   ~ Horowitz,1 footnote pg 53
Ms Horowitz is the most wary of the three authors on the subject of aggression. She refers to the subject only once, a passing reference in a footnote.

It appears that the point of this incidental footnote is to go on record with (not one but) two of the most tiresome pit bull advocacy arguments. The first is that thugs will always chose the dog that's currently thought to be the most ferocious, and pit bulls are merely the unfortunate recipients of this unwelcome attention.

This popular argument begs the question of which breed really is more dangerous. Dobermans enjoyed their moment as most feared canine, as have GSDs and Rottweilers. All the fear and publicity and posturing aside, which dog really is more dangerous? It isn't even close. While Dobermans may be intimidating they've killed only 7 humans in the last 30 years while pit bulls have killed 257; Dobermans just weren't bred for killing. GSDs have killed 15 humans in 30 years (in the low 20s if counting crossbred GSDs) and Rottweilers have killed in the low 80s in the last thirty years. This isn't an argument worth having.

Her second argument, the aggressive dachshund argument, is a cartoonish way of addressing pit bull aggression, as if we can compare the aggression of pit bulls to that of a dachshund. Yet the ATTS results (which Ms Horowitz refers to) are one of most common arguments of pit bull advocates. When talking about pit bull aggression we aren't comparing the number of snarls and nips; we're considering the actuarial value of attacks which cause disfigurement and human fatalities. And we're talking about the individual lives lost and ruined. This too is an argument we shouldn't be wasting our time on. We hesitate to say this because, excepting this single lapse, the rest of Ms Horowitz's book is uniformly intelligent.

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Breed specific laws based on appearance as opposed to bad behavior are doomed to fail in protecting the public because it is difficult to judge a dog by her cover. What breeds contributed to the genetic makeup of this dog? Because of his facial markings, most people think this dog is the offspring of the female Rottweiler he shares a backyard with. He is actually the son of Mystique and another village dog -- both of whom look nothing like Rottweilers.
   ~ Hare and Woods,2 photo caption facing pg 179
Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods have written a book that justifies our love of dogs. We have yet to discover a book that holds more promise for the next ten years of canine studies, or is more of a pleasure to read.

But Hare and Woods also fall prey to one of the great canards of pit bull advocacy: that Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is unenforceable because pit bulls are difficult to identify. Pit bull advocates presumably are able to identify the dogs they advocate for.

All the happy crossbreeding going on has produced millions of mutts of unknown provenance. It is impossible to know the genetic composition of every mutt, but when the dog in question is a pit bull we do know it's a pit bull.

Well written legislation based on legal definitions of physical appearance effectively limits pit bull attacks. Denver and Miami-Dade both passed ordinances restricting pit bulls in 1989; neither city has experienced a pit bull fatality since their bans took effect. In fact they may be the only major cities to avoid pit bull fatalities in the last 25 years. During the same period 18 people were killed by pit bulls elsewhere in Florida and over 250 humans were killed by pit bulls in the US. Is further proof required that BSL is effective?

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. . . the existence of 70 million dogs inevitably means: politics. The politics were vicarious -- it was people who are arguing about dogs and making decisions and judgments about them -- but that rendered them, if anything, even more intense. . . .

The dog world is aflame with conflict. Breeders battle humane organizations. Pit bulls, the most common dogs in urban animal shelters and also in dog maul statistics, are the subject of a long-running debate and legal struggle as to whether nature or nurture produced their problems . . . . And no one knows just how dogs will be produced in the future, what the rules will be, and who should be in charge.

The fierceness and impacted rage in some of these disputes suggested to me they were about something else, and they are: the politics of dogs are a reflection, distilled and distorted, of the politics of people. They're surrogates for our own conflicts, being fought by conservatives and radicals of many stripes, all trying desperately to put their own ideological stamp on the future of dog.

   ~ Homans,3 pp. 16-17

Pit bulls no doubt get a very bad rap -- raised properly, they are as sweet as any other dog.
   ~ Homans, p. 220
Homans tries in vain to avoid the issue of aggression but he too is drawn into the vortex; he claims, indirectly, in a single sentence on page 220, that pit bull aggression is the result of bad owners rather than an inherent trait. Mr Homans, like so many others before him, cannot avoid the nature/nurture quagmire.

It's difficult to fault the author when he has written such an engaging book. All three of our authors appear to have made their advocacy claims in a perfunctory, off-hand manner, as if they were obliged to say something about pit bulls: a footnote, a photo caption, a sentence slipped in out of context at the end of a book. For all three authors, their pit bull advocacy moments are all drawn from the canon, and in each case it is virtually the only time in their respective books that their creative genius has failed them.

We can be grateful to Mr. Homans for confronting the larger issue; in the early pages he notes that pit bulls are a political issue. This is an insight of great moral courage. We have suffered through four great conflicts during our cultural wars: abortion, gun rights, immigration, and gay rights. Now we may be embarking on our fifth. The politics of dogs are a reflection, distilled and distorted, of the politics of people. Like our previous cultural wars the problem of pit bulls is intractable because it crosses social, economic, gender, and educational boundaries, and because our convictions are based on faith. Which means that, much like the previous culture wars, the pit bull wars, at least for the moment, seem impossible to resolve.

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1 Inside of a Dog
by Alexandra Horowitz
Simon & Schuster, Inc; 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, 2009

2 The Genius of Dogs
How dogs are smarter than you think
by Brian Hare, Vanessa Woods
Penguin Group; 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014, 2013

3 What's a Dog For?
The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend
by John Homans
The Penguin Press; 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014, 2012

How Dogs Love Us
A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain
by Gregory Berns
New Harvest
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116; 2013
(not reviewed but recommended)

The authors with their dogs:

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SRUV uses the definition of "pit bull" as found in the Omaha Municipal Code Section 6-163. As pit bulls are increasingly crossed with exotic mastiffs, Catahoula Leopard Dogs, black mouth curs and other breeds, the vernacular definition of "pit bull" must be made even more inclusive.

Sources cited by news media sometimes refer to "Animal Advocates" or sometimes "Experts." In many cases these words are used to refer to single-purpose pit bull advocates who have never advocated for any other breeds or species of animals. Media would be more accurate to refer to these pit bull advocates as advocates of fighting breeds.

Similarly, in many cases pit bull advocates refer to themselves as "dog lovers" or "canine advocates" and media often accepts this usage. The majority of these pit bull advocates are single-purpose advocates of fighting breeds.

Statistics quoted on SRUV are from the nation's authoritative source for current dog attack statistics, the 30+ year, continuously updated Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada.
View or download the current PDF

2014 Year-end report of dog attacks
   Animals 24-7; January 3, 2015
32 years of logging fatal & disfiguring dog attacks
   Animals 24-7; September 27, 2014
How many other animals did pit bulls kill in 2014?
   Animals 24-7; January 27, 2015

This page may also include information from Dogsbite &Fatal Pit Bull Attacks.

Google News: Today's pit bull attacks

2014 Dog Bite Related Fatalities on Daxton's Friends
Index of canine fatalities on Daxton's Friends