Thursday, January 23, 2014

Genius of Dogs

Revised: September 23, 2014; 22:03 GMT

Dear Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods,

Thank you for writing The Genius of Dogs (GOD). A previous SRUV post, Canine Cognition, expressed our admiration for your book. That post references only a brief passage in GOD. Now we would like to address a part of your book we previously ignored.

In Genius of Dogs you make a number of statements we question; these statements all fall between pages 208 and 213, in the section titled "The Aggressive Breed Myth." We recoil from the word "myth" and never use it in SRUV. We believe the pit bull advocacy movement has full ownership of the word, and its use evokes advocacy; that's exactly what transpires in your book. We bring your attention to specific passages below.

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Pit bulls are not a specific breed, but the general name given to three breeds -- the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American pit bull terrier (although the AKC does not recognize the American pit bull terrier as a breed).
GOD, p209
SRUV: This is not correct. According to Pit Bull Rescue Central (PBRC):

These breeds are essentially the same dogs but have been bred for different purposes and/or size standards since the mid 1930's. Some are even dual registered (i.e., registered as an American Pit Bull Terrier with the UKC and as an American Staffordshire Terrier with the AKC). . . . . How can we tell the difference? We can't, really.1

In addition, the different names are apparently irrelevant to the kennel clubs when it's a matter of getting more registration fees. This dog, for example,2 is cross-registered as both an APBT and AmStaff:

You will find numerous examples of cross-registration for yourself by simply browsing through pit bull breeder sites.

"Pit bull" also refers to a range of other pit bull/mastiff cross breeds and all the mixes that result from interbreeding. Legal definitions of pit bull which include a wide range of breeds and cross-breeds have withstood court challenges in many states. (View or download Omaha's legal definition.)

Many advocacy organizations continue to intentionally confuse the issue of breed identity; one senior executive of HSUS went so far as to claim there is no such thing as a pit bull (here and here). More reasonable pit bull advocates admit there is little or no distinction, and many fighting breeds and pit bull-mastiff crossbreeds are aptly called pit bulls. Your joining in this chorus of misinformation seriously undermines the credibility of your excellent work in GOD.
* * * * *

Occasionally, there is such a horrific attack that the public outcry leads to a push for quick-fix legislation.
GOD, p210
SRUV: Pit bull attacks on humans (as well as on more vulnerable animal companions) are not occasional. A human was killed by a pit bull every two weeks during calendar year 2013. Last year 407 pit bull attacks caused disfigurement or loss of limbs. That's more than one a day and twice as many disfiguring attacks as the previous year. The term quick-fix legislation is a pejorative term, on a par with panic policy making or knee-jerk reaction, all of which are used derisively when referring to Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). The "Panic Policy-making" argument has been around since Moses, despite the years and years of work that legislators have invested in designing effective public safety legislation. Your words are an insult to the many animal welfare advocates who work for public safety legislation that protects our more vulnerable animal companions.
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The problem is that it is unclear if the pit bulls involved in the attacks are actually pit bulls.
GOD. p211
SRUV: People know pit bulls when they see them. This was confirmed by a recent ASPCA study conducted by Dr Emily Weiss, where the staff at the Richmond SPCA . . . were quite good at breed identification — correctly identifying 96% of the dogs in the study.3 This new report is in direct contradiction with the Voith study, which is endlessly cited by pit bull advocates. The Weiss study, a larger and more rigorous study, included both pit bulls and non-pit bull mutts. Voith, with her small sample of 20 mixed breeds, did not include any pit bull type dogs. While it may be difficult to distinguish between different kinds of mutts, people can distinguish between mutts and pit bulls. Voith's study was designed to achieve the desired results and consequently she's a hero of the advocates. 

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Any dog with short hair, medium build, and a broad face might be called a pit bull.
GOD, p212
SRUV:  This is an unsubstantiated claim. Pit bull advocates may claim that mutts are often mis-identified as pit bulls, but there is no study showing that this has happened. Much of the time the opposite happens: following an attack pit bulls are intentionally misidentified as mixed breed or unknown breed. Many attacks that should be attributed to pit bulls are instead attributed to "mixed breed" when they are easily identifiable pit bull crosses.
* * * * *

In a 2009 study, researchers looked at how seventeen different adoption agencies classified breeds. Two-thirds of the time, the adoption agency said the dog was predominantly a breed that was nowhere in the dog's ancestry.
GOD, p211
SRUV: Back to the Voith study again. GOD provides citations for nearly every study you refer to, except the Voith study which you neglect to cite, and with good reason. See Letter to ASI Pt 4.
* * * * *

. . . the most aggressive dog toward strangers and other dogs was the dachshund.
GOD, p213
SRUV: This is just pure silliness, and beside the point. We responded to this in our response to Alexandra Horowitz (see Canine Cognition). For yet another perspective on the ATTS test see here and here. Talking about dachshunds is, well . . . , absurd when we're considering fatal attacks on humans.
* * * * *

The rate of deaths from these bites is very low, and only 1 in 3.9 million dogs ever kills anyone.
GOD, p213

SRUV: This argument has begun to show up on pit bull advocacy sites and it demonstrates a depraved indifference to the victims who have been fatally mauled. (See Animal Ethics)  When tossing about numbers in this manner you are diminishing the significance of those deaths. Here is one for your consideration:

Jordyn is one of at the 25 human fatalities caused by pit bulls in calendar year 2013 which you dismiss. If we had twenty five people die from any other animal attack, the country would be outraged and put an end to it immediately. Your use of the "fewness" argument is an example of how pit bull advocacy leads our culture into uncharted ethical waters.
"The Aggressive Breed Myth" is an anomaly in Genius of Dogs. The material in this section consists of a compressed catalog of pit bull advocacy memes that have been available on the internet for years, and appears to be the only section of the book that is not original, as if it were written by someone else and dropped into the book. The arbitrary nature of this section is so conspicuous that it feels alien to the rest of your material. There is no obvious reason why a section advocating for pit bulls would be considered compatible with Genius of Dogs. The information in this section is misinformed and the decision to include it must be considered an error.

The Editors

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On January 14, 2014, SRUV sent a draft copy of this post to Drs Hare and Woods, requesting comment. We are herewith publishing the letter with minor changes.

1   PBRC: Is a Staffordshire Terrier the same as a Pit Bull?
    See also FAHS Amstaff mix or Pit Bull mix.

2  This image is from Diane Jessup's page What is a 'real' pit bull?

3  Bully This—The Results Are In, ASPCA Professional Blog
   See also: ASPCA Professional Blog If it looks like a duck

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

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

Google News: Today's pit bull attacks

See also: 
Canine Cognition