August 10, 2007

“Dangerous breeds,” dog bite statistics, and the Merritt Clifton report

Slow news day. [Click to enlarge.]

Part 1: Numbers

Which breeds bite most often? Which breeds do the most damage when they attack?

Don’t ask the Centers for Disease Control.

Breed "is no longer considered to be of discernible value" when addressing dog bite prevention, according to a CDC spokesperson.

The most important factors affecting the odds of a dog bite or attack have always been the ones any dog person can rattle off: Puppy socialization. Training. Pack behavior. The dog's health. The dog's care and condition. Something as simple as never leaving a small child unattended with any dog. Size of the dog: when big dogs bite they generally do more damage than little dogs --- although that's a moot point if you're six weeks old.

If you want facts on dog aggression, read A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention, the AVMA’s groundbreaking 2001 task force report. [You’ll find it in the sidebar, under More Dog Links]. Seminal quote:
Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite.
For the record, the AVMA task force included representatives from the American Veterinary Medical Association; the American Academy of Pediatrics; the American College of Emergency Physicians; the Professional Liability Insurance Trust; the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists; the American Medical Association; the National Animal Control Association; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Humane Society of the United States. There are actual footnotes, too.

Is there a bite report for the footnote-averse? Given the boundless, staggering ignorance that influences so much public debate on the subject of dog bite prevention, you know there is. For those convinced that pit bulls send more people to the hospital than all other breeds combined – because "you never read about Lab attacks in the paper" -- the Clifton report is the go-to reference.

I’m embarrassed for people who cite it. It’s that bad.

Merritt Clifton’s study is actually a list of severe dog bites. The title itself ["Dog attack deaths and maimings"] is misleading, since the list is a compilation of "dog attacks doing bodily harm," including some that are fatal or disabling. Clifton’s only source is the press: specifically, press accounts of dog bites requiring “extensive hospitalization” [never defined, so this might include anything from treatment of sepsis to multiple surgeries] and caused by “clearly identified” animals. [“[T]his table covers only attacks by dogs of clearly identified breed type or ancestry, as designated by animal control officers or others with evident expertise, who have been kept as pets.”] The numbers aren’t organized by year or location, and readers have no way to access the original press accounts and follow-up articles. There is a disclaimer of sorts --- “dogs whose breed type may be uncertain” are excluded, as are police and security dogs and dogs trained to fight --- leading logical readers to assume that the list must include virtually all severe bites by dogs of identifiable breeds.

Clifton’s report never mentions that there is a huge discrepancy between actual hospital records and press accounts of dog attacks --- between relatively objective data, in other words, and highly subjective reporting and editing with an eye to selling papers. The report fails to acknowledge that a number of factors are involved whenever any dog bites. The report includes statements about dog behavior which have no basis in science, and statements about breed-specific traits which bear no relation to the actual history, behavior or modern development of the breed being discussed [in this case, the German shepherd]. Clifton’s concluding statements regarding the inevitability of attacks by certain dogs are impossible to substantiate, and as a result seem simply prejudiced and inflammatory.


Here’s an important CDC number to keep in mind: based on hospital records, each year some 6,000 people in the United States are hospitalized as a result of a dog bite or attack. [From the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: “Of an estimated 333,700 patients treated for dog bites in emergency departments (EDs) in 1994, approximately 6,000 were hospitalized.” I imagine that number has increased, but for the purposes of this post I’ll stick with 6,000.] 6,000 hospitalized each year: not simply treated in the ED, but requiring hospitalization due to the severity of the dog bite or attack.

According to Clifton's report [which, once again, is based entirely on press accounts], during the 24-year period covered by his study there were a total of 2,209 “[dog] attacks doing bodily harm” in the U.S. and Canada. 1,182 of those attacks were by pit bulls and pit bull mixes. (Lumping mixes together with so-called purebreds makes no sense from any standpoint, but Mr. Clifton lumps them together --- so I will, too, again for the purposes of this post.)

1,182 severe attacks by pit bulls and pit mixes in the U.S. and Canada over a 24-year period [according to the Clifton statistics] works out to an average of just over 49 severe attacks by pit bulls and pit bull mixes in North America per year.

If Clifton’s pit bull numbers are correct, and no more than 49 of the 6,000 or so hospitalizations due to severe dog bites in the U.S. each year are a result of pit bull bites or attacks, then pit bulls and pit mixes are responsible for less than one percent of those hospitalizations.

.82%. Eighty-two hundredths of a percent of hospitalizations due to dog bites in the U.S. each year are a result of pit bull bites or attacks, if the press has accurately represented the number of serious attacks by pit bulls and pit mixes.

This might be a good place to mention that the pit bull is one of the most popular breeds [or types] in the country. Using shelter numbers as a very rough means of estimating the number of pit bulls [registered and unregistered] in the general population, even low estimates end up in the millions. A board member of the California Animal Control Directors Association [CACDA] told me in 2005 that only labs and lab mixes are more common in California shelters. On sites like this, out of a total U.S. population of over 70 million dogs you’ll find estimates of 3 million to 10 million pit bulls.

Could the press be failing to report severe attacks by pit bulls?

While I struggle to get my face under control, check out the screen cap at the top of this post. “East Lubbock, Texas: Elderly man shaken by pit bull.”

Terrifying headline. But he wasn’t actually hurt, you understand, just… shaken.

What about other breeds? Let’s take a look. The only state that has attempted to track dog bites statewide by breed, using hospital records, is Texas. The Texas Severe Animal Bite Summaries were posted online by the Texas Department of Health Zoonosis Control Group from 1996 through 2002. No reports have been issued since then, for a couple reasons: the recorded information had never been complete [some counties didn’t report] and the Texas Department of Health believed the numbers were being misused and misinterpreted. (How do I know this? I phoned them and asked.)

Look at blue heelers: in one year, “blue heelers” and “heeler mixes” caused injuries that required six people to be hospitalized in Texas, according to the 2000 Severe Bite Summary provided by the Texas Department of Health.

Clifton seems unaware that the blue heeler, the Australian blue heeler, the Queensland heeler and the Australian cattle dog are all names that refer to the same breed. They are listed separately in his tabulation. In any event, according to Clifton’s list of press accounts, all of them were apparently responsible for a total of just six severe bites throughout North America over the 24 years covered by his study. (If I didn’t know the breed better – and I like heelers – I might assume that only the ones in Texas bite.)

Take chows. [Please. I still can’t process that Jean Donaldson went from border collies to Buffy ;~)] Based on the numbers provided by the Texas Department of Health, chows and chow mixes accounted for 54 hospitalizations in the state from 1996 through 2000.

According to press accounts tabulated in the Clifton report, there were 57 severe attacks by chows and chow mixes over a 24-year period throughout the entire U.S. and Canada.

Or 66 severe attacks, if you count the mixes with “chow” listed last, as in “Akita/Chow mix.”

And what determines the predominant breed in a mix for the purposes of this report? Why does the Clifton report use “akita/chow mix” rather than “chow/akita mix”? And what is a “chox mix”? What is a “Dauschund”? What is an “East Highland terrier”? I live across the river from East Highland, and I never knew they had their own terrier. “Great Pyranees,” “Weimaeaner,” “Fila Brasiero,” “Doge de Bordeaux,” “Buff Mastiff”… Stop, you’re killing me.

As proof of media bias, the Clifton report has value. The media have done a bang-up job convincing the public that only "dangerous breeds" hurt people. Editors in a shrinking market know that it's more lucrative to rail against pit bulls than talk about the importance of puppy socialization and parent supervision and how to prevent resource guarding. Clifton’s list illustrates perfectly what the AVMA Task Force on Canine Aggression calls “media-driven portrayals of a specific breed as ‘dangerous.’”


In Part II of my look at Merritt Clifton’s dog bite study I’ll review his “Analysis.” Clifton writes that misunderstood German shepherds bite often, but only to pull children from harm’s way; that the GSD has developed “three distinctly different kinds of bite” to control sheep, and uses the same bites on people; that chows are not a common breed; that it is the “custom” to dock pit bulls’ tails; and that “temperament is not the issue, nor is it even relevant,” since the great majority of “dangerous breeds” maim or kill whenever they have “a bad moment.”

Stay tuned.


As an addendum, here is an account of a severe dog bite that, like most, received no press coverage.

I heard about the attack from a student -- a friend of the girl who was injured -- and I sent my phone number to the family with a request that the girl’s mother call me if she wouldn’t mind discussing the incident. The girl’s mother gave me the details that follow.

The girl, who was twelve at the time, was staying at her aunt’s house for the night. The families were close and the children all loved the friendly, thirteen year old family dog. That night the girl went into the guest bedroom and reached down to give an affectionate pat to the dog, which was sleeping near the door to the room. The dog lunged up and bit the girl’s face, and didn’t let go. “The dog shook her like a rag doll,” the girl’s mother told me. That tired phrase doesn't sound nearly so hackneyed when it comes from a parent struggling to describe a violent attack on her child.

The girl’s upper lip and part of her nose were torn away, hanging in shreds.

The girl underwent reconstructive surgery at a local hospital where her aunt worked as a nurse. A few days after the attack, the aunt saw the plastic surgeon in a hallway. She introduced herself as a relative of the injured girl and said to the surgeon, “I bet you never saw anything like that before.” The surgeon laughed out loud. “I stitch up five dog bites a week,” he said.

The girl’s mother told me that her daughter’s reconstructive surgery was successful and that no scars would be visible after a few years, though the girl’s lip remained numb: a special concern, since she had played the flute. The dog, a yellow lab, was euthanized.


FrogDogz said...

Hey, stop trying to confuse people with the truth ;)

Sadly, even when you confront some people with hard facts, they will never, ever be convinced.

My Grandfather spent his entire life convinced that Dobermans are vicious, unstable, psychotic killers, in spite of the fact that his sister in law owned four that wouldn't hurt a fly. When he encountered me playing with them, he told me with all seriousness that dogs 'like that' only play so they can find out your weaknesses. He was an otherwise intelligent, rational man.

I watched people on dog lists I subscribe to spouting off about how 'horrible it is that people own dogs like those killers' that Ving Rhames has. Now that it's been pointed out that the dogs are innocent, the same people are still stating that 'even so, those dogs are just vicious and should be banned'.

Stupidity is a tenacious foe to battle. I appreciate all of your writing on these issues.


Luisa said...


As the Straight Dope folks say: "Fighting ignorance since 1973. (It's taking longer than we thought.)"

Every news article seems to have a comment thread these days, and I can't believe how often the Clifton stats are mentioned. People -- you are quoting a report that lists bites by chox mixes and buff mastiffs.

"...dogs 'like that' only play so they can find out your weaknesses." God help me, my oldest pit bull has had ten years to suss out my weaknesses. And to think I've been letting him sleep on the bed all this time...!

BorderWars said...

I don't have any vested interest in Pit Bulls or the Clifton Report (never heard of it until I read this discussion of it being useless), but one thing doesn't work out in your argument.

Your math doesn't make sense. Is the Clifton report only looking at attacks reported in the news paper, and the CDC data only looking at all hospital reported dog bites?

There is certainly a huge difference there, no? The number of hospital reported dog bites must be MUCH larger than the number of newspaper stories on dog bites, right?

Clifton says there were "2,209 dog attacks doing bodily harm" and 1,182 of those were by pit bulls or pit mixes in 24 years. Am I correct in reading that as 2,209 news paper reported dog attacks, not 2,209 total attacks?

So the Clifton report say that more than half of newspaper stories on dog attacks are about pit bulls.

You take this data and say, "49 severe attacks by pit bulls and pit bull mixes in North America per year" and then compare it to the CDC numbers which aren't about news paper stories, but about hospital data.

"If Clifton’s pit bull numbers are correct, and no more than 49 of the 6,000 or so hospitalizations due to severe dog bites in the U.S. each year are a result of pit bull bites or attacks, then pit bulls and pit mixes are responsible for less than one percent of those hospitalizations.

.82%. Eighty-two hundredths of a percent of hospitalizations due to dog bites in the U.S. each year are a result of pit bull bites or attacks, if the press has accurately represented the number of serious attacks by pit bulls and pit mixes."

That makes no sense at all, Luisa, you're literally comparing apples and oranges.

Clifton is saying that he found reports of 2,200 attacks in 24 years. That's 2,200 attacks worth of newspaper stories.

The CDC says that there are 333,000 attacks per year and 6,000 hospitalizations. That's 144,000 hospitalizations over 24 years.

Clifton only has stories on 2,200 stories for 144,000 hospitalizations. That means that the media only writes about 1.5% of hospitalized dog attacks.

That's all it means. It doesn't mean that Pit Bulls only cause 0.82% of hospitalized dog bite victims.

Clifton's data suggests that if the media is not biased in the types of severe attacks they report on, then 50% of attacks are caused by Pitt Bulls.

The media might well be biased, but your numbers are saying that the media reported EVERY SINGLE pit bull attack, reported 1% of other breed attacks, and left 98% of it all unreported.

Not true. They left 98.5% of it unreported, and of the 1.5% that they did report on, half were pit bull related. That's what the numbers say.

Luisa said...

Oy, Christopher --- it would be wonderful if this were apples and oranges, and better still if Merritt Clifton stated clearly in his introduction – shoot, implied – that his stats represent just a fraction of all attacks.

It ain’t, and he doesn’t.

Clifton writes: Due to the exclusion of dogs whose breed type may be uncertain [emphasis mine], this is by no means a complete list of fatal and otherwise serious dog attacks. Attacks by police dogs, guard dogs, and dogs trained specifically to fight are also excluded.

I have trouble imagining that anyone with enough neurons to make a synapse could believe most severe dog bites are covered by the press, but Clifton appears to believe this. The reporters and columnists who cite him certainly seem to believe it. I think he encourages the impression that his report is a comprehensive list of severe attacks “by dogs of clearly identified breed type or ancestry.”

The media’s obsession with pit bulls, on the other hand, is the elephant in the room. The AVMA Task Force on Canine Aggression makes a point of mentioning “media-driven portrayals of a specific breed as ‘dangerous.’” The screen grab at the top of my Clifton post shows an article about a man “shaken” [erm, frightened] by a pit bull. The following line appeared in the San Jose Mercury News this past September: “Santa Clara County Sheriff's deputies investigating reports that two pit bulls chased a two-year-old child found the dogs at home and the child unharmed this afternoon, Sgt. Ed Wise said.” Nothing happened – but an editor made sure the story ran, and with “pitbulls” in the headline. If a pit bull looks cross-eyed at the neighbor’s cat, it makes the news. I wish I were exaggerating.

You will have noted the qualifying phrase: “If Clinton’s pit bull numbers are correct.” I believe they are close. They might even exceed the number of severe bites and attacks actually caused by pit bulls. People with “evident expertise” misidentify “pit bulls” all the time. “Pit bulls” turn out to be Rottweilers, or lab mixes, or border collies. Animal Control officers reported that this dog “was a male pit bull.” Check out the photo:

Not the swan, silly --- the black and white dog in the images link. Looks like a border collie to me, but what do I know.

So yes, I believe it’s entirely possible that Clifton’s pit bull numbers are in the ballpark. The media cover only a small fraction of dog bites and attacks, but they by God print every pit bull [or “pit bull”] story they can get their hands on, and after some twenty years studying the topic I’d bet money that most severe bites by pit bulls and pit bull “types” make the news. If that’s the case, then the math makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Lol, Pit bull? That looks more like a beagle or pointer cross to me... a "Boigle" perhaps? That might explain why it zeroed in on the birds as opposed toantelope or the animals in the petting zoo.

Anonymous said...

My husband is in the army and we travel from state to state every two or three years. We currently live off post and were trying move on post. We were all ready to move, had the paper work filled out, and the very same day a nationwide ban on every military post was sent out for 6 breeds of dogs. One of the breeds was a Doberman, and since we own a Doberman, we can now never again live on post. Since my husband will be in the army for 10 more years this is very upsetting to us. Yes we can live off post, but along with that we give up a lot of convienience - and all because we own a Doberman. I'm looking for people to help me pettition this ban and would like to know if anyone here would want to help?? Just let me know and we can exchange contact info...thanks.

Saerise said...

I was bitten by a labrador about 4 years ago. I was working at a vet clinic, and while he was a frequent patient, no one had deemed it necessary to write his propensity to snap in his chart. So I now have a nice scar on my nose thanks to their lack of responsibility. I have known many pit bulls (including former fighting dogs), and feel far more comfortable in the presence of a pit than with a lab.

Anonymous said...

and the statistics for people prepared defend individual breed should be taken into yet to meet the ' Labradors arent aggressive society' but i seem to read all the while about pit bulls being fantastic pets..for goodness sake open your eyes and ask your self why are pit bulls defended so much..why is there a you think they are picked on by the media for the sake of some journalist decided lets go out and have a go at pit bulls? nah i dont think so..pits alongside other breeds are dangerous dogs ..if for no other reason because of their stature, so be grown up and accept do your cause no good what so ever being in denial.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, 'because of their stature'? I don't think you know what a pit bull is, buddy. A Pit Bull is 18-22 inches in height, the size of your average Springer Spaniel. Although their weight is greatly variable, most weigh between 35 and 55 lbs. Less than many standard poodles. And their jaws are no stronger than other breeds, in fact they are weaker than German Shepherds. This data has been recorded by the U.S. military during the training of service dogs.
And yes, the media likes things that are sensational. First it was German Shepherds, than Dobermans, now Pit Bulls, then it will be the next breed-of-the-week. Just like they report grizzly attacks over black bear attacks, shark attacks over barracuda attacks. And all combined over deer attacks. Deer kill more people than any other wild animal in North America, and your child is more likely to die choking on a marble than be killed by a dog. You personally are 8 times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a dog.
And when a breed ban takes effect, drug dealers, pit fighters, criminals, and toughies turn to other, lesser known breeds to corrupt them for their purposes. In France when pit bulls were banned, drug dealers and gangsters began using guard monkeys instead. The point is that bad breeding and bad ownership can corrupt any animal of any breed. I've seen vicious Golden Retrievers.
A point to consider - among those pit bulls who are bred for pit fighting, it is important to note that they are bred specifically for agressiveness towards other dogs, not towards humans. There are two to three people in the ring WITH them during fights and those people are not injured.
Finally, most 'pit bull' attacks are probably misreported. There are 20 bulldog and mastiff type breeds which are commonly mistaken for pit bulls. The average person on the street does not have the expertise to correctly identify a dog's breed, neither do most law enforcement or animal control officials. There is a lot of lack of knowledge over what a pit bull actually is. Many dogs identified as 'pit bulls' are not pit bulls at all, thus bite statistics are grossly inflated. If German Shepherds were the current terror-of-the-week, you can guarantee that dog attack victims would be identifying every Belgian Malinois, Belgian Tervuren, Bekgian Sheepdog, Dutch Shepherd, King Shepherd,Shiloh Shepherd, dark colored husky or Malamute, Canadian Eskimo Dog, Akita, collie-mix, and borzoi puppy as a German Shepherd.
For the record, I've worked with rottweilers, doberman crosses, pit bulls and pit bull crosses, wolf hybrids, etc, and the only dog that ever tried to kill me was a husky mix.
-former SPCA worker

P.S. Breeds often more commonly mistaken for 'pit bulls' - Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog, American Bulldog, Argentine Dogo, Boxer, Bullmastiff, Bull Terrier, Cane Corso, Dogue de Bordeaux, Fila Brasiliero, Mastiff, Miniature Bull Terrier, Neapolitan Mastiff, Presa Canario, Tosa Inu...

Anonymous said...

This call for breed banning has me very concerned. We know they won't stop with pit's. I am blind and travel with the assistance of a german shepherd guide. My well trained dog has been bitten by three dachtsons, and challenged by countless toy breeds. My previous guide, also a shepherd, had to retire after being atacked by someones pet female golden retriever. The experience left him nervous about wearing his guide dog harness. A coworker of min recently euthanized her springer spaniel. It suffered from something called springer rage? The situation was so out of control tha tthe owners had to bribe their dog with treats to walk around their house at night.

Anonymous said...

I have worked in a humane society for over 5 years. I just have one thing to say. The pitbull is the breed that we euthenize the least of for aggression issues. They are usually the cuddly, playful ones. It is very frustrating that people won't even give them a chance!!!!! Do you want to stop youth violence-Ok then STOP HAVING KIDS!!! Does that sound right to you!

Anonymous said...

I agree. I wish the stats would have lists of small dogs that bite or are agressive. I have seen many small dogs bite, and snarl at people but since they are small and cause minimal to no damage that makes it ok. Regardless of the breed people need to take responsibility for the training, socialization and control of their dog, not blame it on the breed.

Anonymous said...

We were all ready to move, had the paper work filled out, and the very same day a nationwide ban on every military post was sent out for 6 breeds of dogs. One of the breeds was a Doberman, and since we own a Doberman, we can now never again live on post. Since my husband will be in the army for 10 more years this is very upsetting to us. Yes we can live off post, but along with that we give up a lot of convienience - and all because we own a Doberman. I'm looking for people to help me pettition this ban and would like to know if anyone here would want to help??

takeing care of dogs

Anonymous said...

NIce article and interesting comments. Pit Bull (and "TYPES") are now banned in Australia. Yes, there were some attacks on both people and animals. Statistically speaking Pits did not even rank in the top ten responsible for bites on people.
I can remember another sensationalistic tv report which showed footage of two dogs being hauled away after attacking a person. I sat there absolutely gobsmacked when they showed a PURE AUST KELPIE and a CATTLE DOG X!
One poor disabled guy had his english staffy cross seized by a power mad Animal Ranger (Usually uneducated morons who can't get a job anywhere else) who declared the dog "A PIT BULL TYPE'. This ended up going to the court system over a period of 11 months (Yes,The Local Council hasn't anything else to do with ratepayers money). Fortunatley, justice prevailed it was thrown out of court and labelled a waste of taxpayers money and time and the said Ranger was given a right bollocking.
DAngerous territory blaming a particular breed when MOST situations are caused by morons who shouldn't own a dog in the first place.

Bea said...

The only times I've ever been attacked by dogs, it was by small breeds. The most memorable (and terrifying) being perpetrated by a Lhasa Apso. I went to a friend's to work on a high school history project. The owners knew their dog was unstable and usually took precautions to remove the dog to "Gran-gran's" house when they had company to prevent bites. That day, for some strange reason, they thought it would be okay not to. The dog went for my throat twice that afternoon.

I have never trusted the smaller breeds as much since. I don't think they are inherently bad, just spoiled by their owners. Small breeds tend to get special treatment that larger breeds just can't get (like being carried around). I'm no specialist but, it seems it would have an effect on a dog's perception of it's status in the family "pack". That's my theory, anyway. Someone, please correct me if I'm even a tiny bit wrong. :)

Booklass said...

I really hope that that lab was not euthanized because of that one incident? Yes, the attack was vicious, but if the dog had been startled, say, because it had been asleep and a stranger suddenly turned up in the dark, then it is not totally uncalled for that it would have reacted. One never suddenly awakens a sleeping dog, hence the old adage to just let them lie. Many dog bites can be directly traced to human stupidity or ignorance, not just to aggressive dogs.

Danielle said...

Good article, thanks.

Canada is making a bold, indirect step towards this problem: keeping Fox News off of public airways.

I've got one question. Why did you use shelter numbers to extrapolate to nations population of pit bulls? Obviously, pit bull numbers are overrepresented in shelters. I know that a nation-wide database is lacking. One of the best things that could be done to resolve some of the controversy surrounding dog bites from bully breeds would be to have a more encompassing, non-purebred counting, national registry.

Nevertheless, incorporating other less-than-perfect sources of dog breed populations would be better than solely using animal shelter figures, yeah?