August 13, 2007

Pit bulls, dog bite statistics, and the Merritt Clifton report

"Our bad: two Rottweilers, actually, and they were malnourished and abused. Whatever." Top-notch reporting there, WTKR.

Part II:
Clifton’s “Analysis”

In Part 1 of my look at Merritt Clifton’s study of dog bites [“Dangerous breeds,” dog bite statistics, and the Merritt Clifton report: Numbers] I showed that Clifton’s tabulation of press accounts is incomplete, inaccurate, badly edited and misleading. Readers have no way to access the original news stories and follow-up articles; breeds of dogs aren’t accurately recorded; and there is a huge discrepancy between press accounts of dog attacks and hospital data.

Clifton follows his list of severe bites with a brief section of comments on selected attacks. No footnotes or links are provided: in fact, there are no citations anywhere in the report.

In the Analysis section Clifton writes:
The tallies of attacks, attacks on children, attacks on adults, fatalities, and maimings on the above data sheet must be evaluated in three different contexts. The first pertains to breed-specific characteristic behavior, the second to bite frequency as opposed to the frequency of severe injuries, and the third to degree of relative risk.
In other words, Clifton is turning his back on everything known about the cause and prevention of dog bites, and is choosing instead to evaluate severe bites and attacks on the basis of “breed–specific characteristics”: an approach with no grounds in science, and one that has been discredited and rejected by the CDC, the AVMA, veterinary behaviorists, trainers, humane organizations and ACOs.

Neither Merritt Clifton nor I nor anyone else can speak about any breed’s “bite frequency,” or compare “bite frequency” to “the frequency of severe injuries,” because no one knows how often dogs of any breed bite. It is possible, for instance, that most pit bull “bites” are nips or bruises, and that none of those bites are recorded by the press because the bites cause neither real injury nor concern. No one knows. No one knows how often dogs of a particular breed bite or what percentage of those bites are severe, and no one knows the number of dogs of each breed in the overall population. Bite frequency and relative risk are impossible to determine.

These facts are evident, or should be evident, to anyone. As the AVMA task force on dog aggression states:
Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite. Invariably the numbers will show that dogs from popular large breeds are a problem. This should be expected, because big dogs can physically do more damage if they do bite.
The AVMA task force needed less than a paragraph in its Community approach to dog bite prevention to kick the Clifton study to the curb, but I’m going to spend a bit more time on his Analysis section. Frankly, it’s such a train wreck I can’t look away.

Clifton’s comments are in green --- mine are in red.

Of the breeds most often involved in incidents of sufficient severity to be listed, pit bull terriers are noteworthy for attacking adults almost as frequently as children. Numbers again: Clifton doesn’t know how often pit bulls bite children or how frequently they bite adults. He has no idea how often they bite at all. No one does. This is a very rare pattern […] What pattern? Without knowing anything about a biting dog’s health, care or condition, its quality of ownership, victim behavior and so forth, there are no patterns. Captain Arthur Haggerty, a well-known dog trainer, wrote that in cases where a pit bull bites, the owner almost always has a criminal record. That might be a pattern worth investigating. Pit bulls seem to differ behaviorally from other dogs in having far less inhibition about attacking people who are larger than they are. Which pit bulls? Out of the country’s three million or more pit bulls, which ones “differ behaviorally”? Mr. Clifton, meet Mr. Gladwell. Once again, Clifton refuses to acknowledge that other factors may be involved when a pit bull bites: abuse, starvation, life on a chain. They are also notorious for attacking seemingly without warning, “Notorious?” According to whom? Barring health problems and/or abuse, all dogs exhibit a pattern of negative or abnormal behavior before a bite. a tendency exacerbated by the custom of docking pit bulls' tails so that warning signals are not easily recognized. Where on earth is it “the custom” to dock pit bulls’ tails? Seriously. Is there any substantiating evidence for this statement? Because no one docks pit bulls’ tails. Ears, sometimes --- tails, never [unless the tail is injured]. Thus the adult victim of a pit bull attack may have had little or no opportunity to read the warning signals that would avert an attack from any other dog. How many of the pit bulls involved in this list of attacks had docked tails? “We have no idea”? I thought so.

Rottweilers […] seem to show up disproportionately often in the mauling, killing, and maiming statistics simply because they are both quite popular and very powerful[...] A “large, popular breed,” in other words --- as opposed to those notorious pit bulls with their rare behavioral patterns.

German shepherds are herding dogs, bred for generations to guide and protect sheep. Please. German shepherds are show and companion dogs, and no, they have not been bred for generations to work sheep. For the last century they have been bred for conformation; for police work and protection sports; and to be pets. Most modern GSDs have as much “herding instinct” as a bulldog, and based on what I’ve seen at AKC “herding trials,” as much talent on stock. In modern society, they are among the dogs of choice for families with small children because of their extremely strong protective instinct. How does he know? They have three distinctively different kinds of bite [I can’t believe I’m reading this]: the guiding nip, which is gentle and does not break the skin; the grab-and-drag, to pull a puppy or lamb or child away from danger, which is as gentle as emergency circumstances allow; and the reactive bite, usually in defense of territory, a child, or someone else the dog is inclined to guard. The reactive bite usually comes only after many warning barks, growls, and other exhibitions intended to avert a conflict. When it does come, it is typically accompanied by a frontal leap for the wrist or throat. Unbelievable. There is not a shred of evidence for these statements, and I’m speaking 1) as a former owner of both American-bred and Schutzhund-bred German shepherds, and 2) as one with a fair amount of literature in my possession relating to this breed. If German shepherds are bred for any sort of bite, it’s the full-mouthed protection-sport bite, and that same type of bite is admired by the relatively tiny but dedicated group of GSD boundary-style herding enthusiasts here and in Germany. “Three distinctively different kinds of bite”? I thought I’d seen it all after reading a few years’ worth of AKC Gazette breed columns [“Collies must have an oblique eye set in order to scan the horizon for sheep”], and then something like this comes along. The “three different bites” concept has nothing to do with the millions of GSDs in North America and even less to do with the realities of stockwork. Seriously, where did this “three distinctive bites” business come from? Is it from the Gazette? Enlighten us. Because it sounds as if it was made up out of whole cloth.

Because German shepherds often use the guiding nip and the grab-and-drag with children, who sometimes misread the dogs' intentions and pull away in panic, they are involved in biting incidents at almost twice the rate that their numbers alone would predict: approximately 28% of all bite cases, according to a recent five-year compilation of Minneapolis animal control data. Yet none of the Minneapolis bites by German shepherds involved a serious injury: hurting someone is almost never the dogs' intent.

Again: I can’t believe I’m reading this.

GSDs “are involved in biting incidents at almost twice the rate that their numbers alone would predict” --- because they are trying to lead or pull children out of danger? There is nothing to support this claim: zero, zip, nada. And what’s up with the reference to Minneapolis AC data? Is this a “Look! Something shiny!” gambit? Because in Clifton’s own study, GSD attacks result in a higher percentage of maimings [60%] than pit bull attacks do [55%]. And yet -- again with no supporting evidence –Clifton states that when German shepherds bite, “hurting someone is almost never the dogs' intent.” He knows all the GSDs in the country, apparently, and reads their minds, too.
In the German shepherd mauling, killing, and maiming cases I have recorded, there have almost always been circumstances of duress: the dog was deranged from being kept alone on a chain for prolonged periods without human contract, was starving, was otherwise severely abused, was protecting puppies, or was part of a pack including other dangerous dogs. None of the German shepherd attacks have involved predatory behavior on the part of an otherwise healthy dog.
Neither Clifton nor [as far as anyone can tell] the press accounts he tabulated see fit to acknowledge “circumstances of duress” when a pit bull or other breed bites. Apparently pit bulls are never chained, never turned loose or abandoned to run in packs, never abused, always well fed and correctly socialized --- unlike those misunderstood German shepherds.

Seriously, it’s unbelievable – unconscionable – that anyone writing about dog attacks would fail to acknowledge the abusive conditions surrounding most pit bulls that bite, and yet make such a raft of excuses for another breed, claiming, “There have almost always been circumstances of duress.” Is this intentional, or simply drawn from the press accounts themselves? Either way, the lack of objectivity is remarkable.

Clifton goes on to stress “the need for some sort of strong breed-specific regulation to deal with pit bulls and Rottweilers,” and chastises the “humane community” for refusing to see that adopting a pit bull is no different from adopting a mountain lion. He states that pit bulls and Rottweilers should be strictly regulated “if they are to be kept at all.”

And that’s just stupid.

Ban all dogs over 30 lb, and children (and adults) will still be maimed and killed by dachshunds and cocker spaniels. But the statement that will make knowledgeable, informed dog people beat their heads on rocks is this one:
Temperament is not the issue, nor is it even relevant. What is relevant is actuarial risk. If almost any other dog has a bad moment, someone may get bitten, but will not be maimed for life or killed, and the actuarial risk is accordingly reasonable. If a pit bull terrier or a Rottweiler has a bad moment, often someone is maimed or killed--and that has now created off-the-chart actuarial risk, for which the dogs as well as their victims are paying the price.

I think Clifton wants very much to say, “They’ll turn on you.” But a dog with a good temperament won’t do that. If your dog is elderly and confused, suffering from a brain tumor or seizure disorder or terrible thyroid problem, or is injured and in pain, he may bite regardless of a terrific temperament. Dogs aren’t robots. But dogs with good temperaments don’t turn on people. They don’t have chainsaw-massacre “bad moments.”

Dogs with unsound temperaments? Especially if they are unsocialized, untrained and badly managed, everyone around them is always at risk.

The bulk of dogs that bite are somewhere in the middle. One may have a sound temperament but was never socialized to children. Another may be a nice dog whose resource-guarding habit was never addressed. Some have just had all they’re going to take, like the Dalmatian who bit a boy that jumped from his bed onto the sleeping dog. And because children are small, many of these injuries are terrible.

“Bad moment” isn’t a scientific term. It’s a euphemism for something only “those breeds” do. It implies that no one really has to worry about “safe breeds,” and the trouble with this particular implication is that “safe breeds” already send hundreds of thousands of children – and adults -- to hospital emergency rooms each year. The choice of phrase reflects all the misleading, inaccurate figures and statements that make the Clifton report such a hot mess: another sad measure of the general public’s “boundless, staggering ignorance about dogs.”


Anonymous said...

I'm laughing so hard I can hardly see to type this.

Well done! You are one funny lady....

Social Mange said...

Terrific article! I love your analysis of Clifton's nonsense. Now, if only some people would get a second synapse and fire a neuron...

Anonymous said...

I just experienced an unprovoked attack on my dog on a leash by a pit bull, 20 yards from my residence. It was not a "bite" it was an extreme mauling, without warning. It could just as easily have been one of my two boys (7 and 10) who were a couple feet away and witnessed the traumatic struggle as I tried to beat off the dog who had finally clamped down on my dog's leg like a bear trap.

I am disgusted by all the double speak used by people defending any breed of dog that has been bred and selected for attack and a death grip bite.

One time is too many. get real people.

Luisa said...

I am terribly sorry that some careless idiot let his dog get away from him, and even sorrier that your dog was attacked. But generalizations won’t change the fact that the great majority of pit bulls never bother anyone. And other breeds also attack and cause serious harm.

As Bad Rap says, supporting stereotypes is so 1950s.

Anonymous said...

The stats on how many maulings and deaths (of pets and people) were committed by PBs who had NEVER shown any aggressive tendencies before is all the more reason to not trust the breed EVER.

Labs swim, Beagles follow their nose, PBs bite and shake until the victim STOPS MOVING.

Think of it this way: Leopards purr and you can even teach one to use a litter box... but a leopard will never, ever be a house cat. It will be the most gentle, cuddly, loving pet... until one day it isn't. PBs are like that.

You can try to cover it up with "we don't know how many dog bites there are because some are not bad enough to be reported" is silly. Who cares about little nips on the ankles? Not fun, sure, but totally different from having a PB kill your leashed dog as you walk your neighborhood. Declaring the dog dangerous after-the-fact is too late. Ban PBs and other dogs that statistically attack and maim and kill pets and humans more than other breeds.

Luisa said...

Dear Anonymous One -- You have no "stats." An authentic, non-anonymous dogbite expert at the CDC explains: "If anyone says one dog is more likely to kill," that person is talking out of his ignorant, cowardly, anonymous elbow.

OK, what Dr. Gilchrist really said was, " - that’s not based on scientific data." In other words, Anonymous One, you're making your "stats" up. They're a fantasy of your fevered, anonymous imagination.

This anonymous behavior is 1) profoundly dishonest and 2) not helping the tens of thousands of people hospitalized as a result of bites and attacks by non-pit bulls each year in the U.S.

I'm glad to publish your anonymous falsehoods, though. The public can only benefit from reminders that "statistics" like yours don't exist, and from the sobering fact that at last count over 60,000 people were hospitalized in the U.S. in a single year as a result of dog bites. Most victims were children. Most of the dogs involved were resident dogs or dogs the children knew.

These guidelines are infinitely more useful than hate- and fear-mongering, if your hope is to save children and small pets from trauma and injury. "[Laws] banning breeds will not make you safer, and the illusion that they will do so is dangerous to humans and unfair to dogs," says Dr. Karen Overall. She’s an expert, Anonymous One. You’re just a dishonest little troll.

Lex said...

Dear Anonymous,

It's very sad your dog was attacked. I hope she recovers. However, dog aggression and human aggression are two totally different things.

Historically when pitbulls were fighting other dogs in a "pit", it was imperative that their handler be able to handle them while in the middle of a fight. Any dog that turned and redirected aggression onto their handler was euthanized. Pit bulls were specifically bred NOT to be human aggressive. Yes, they can be dog aggressive, but please do not confuse the two.

You are angry and sad about your family dog being hurt and that's understandable. But your mistatements do not do anyone any good.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing to light the inaccuracies and outrageous conclusions Mr. Clifton tries to draw based on incomplete and inaccurate data.

Moses Lake, WA is proposing breed-specific restrictions be added to their current dog ordinance after a child was attacked by a "pit bull" (cannot confirm actual breed...but that is what the newspapers are saying). They are basing a lot of their decision on the Clifton study.

Please contact them and urge them to adopt tougher enforceable laws that target dog behavior and not appearance. They will be voting on the ordinance change 11/25/08.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent, informed review of Merritt Clifton's "report" - thanks! I would laugh, but sadly, many supporters of BSL cite Clifton and subscribe to his brand of lunacy. It seems that no one knows how to think critically any more .. it's so much easier to have the media tell them what to think.

Anonymous said...

Your comments make me laugh....if pit bulls are known to be dog is a fact that they are widly used in dog fighting....they are frequently used as a guard dog....

Why would we not want tighter controls on Pit Bulls. When I was young lad...I fought a was my dog...and he kicked my butt...he was a 40 pound lab/collie mix....he was going after a mouse in the house and he dragged me from one room to another trying to kill that mouse...people have no idea the power of an animal....and this was a small boned...small muscel dog....imagine what a pit bull could do at 55 pounds coming at you....

Doing Good said...

I'm so glad to see educated people speaking out and giving the facts about these breeds. I think people should know about how many of the "bad breeds" are doing good in there community. Such as K-9 good citizens training, therapy dogs, and drug sniffing dogs. We own 1 lab/pb mix, and 2 pb. All three of our dogs came from a rescue and all of the are either working on or have there K-9 good citizen. Which alows us to go into hospitals and nursing home and visit the sick and elderly. Also I was shocked that a resent article was recently about Michelle Vicks PB and most of the have there K-9 good citizen. I was so excited to see this "bad breed" reading with children and being "good citizen". I have always said " A dog is only as good as there owner".

Shane said...

Thank you for the great explanation of some of the reasons that report is so ridiculous. It is sad that people feel the need to come and spout off even more myths, but at least it's an opportunity to provide rebuttals for the more open minded who may read this in the future.

Animal Lover said...

Animal Lover

As stated any dog can bite. I would venture to say more small dogs bite. I was bit once by a neighbors Chihuahua. Not much damage. However, when a larger dog bites more damage can or may be inflicted. As a nurse I once had to do wound care on a child attacked by the family Rottwiler. It was pretty ugly. The child was fighting with his sister in the yard and the pet was protecting her. That dog was put down. It's a very sad situation. Bottom line is pet owners need to be responsible for training their pets and family. And some peoople don't deserve to have pets.
Please spay or neuter your pets and be an advocate to stop animal cruelty.

Anonymous said...

In an encounter more than 15 years ago I was shocked to find that Mr. Clifton was hopelessly opinionated and uninterested in the experiences and viewpoints of others--hardly qualities of a professional journalist. I completely stopped reading his output. Others should do the same.

Kerstan said...

Finally...I'm am glad to see the truth emanating from another website! Any dog can bite. Any dog can be dangerous if not properly trained, socialized and/or cared for. All dogs are naturally "aggressive" to an extent, such as gaurding territory. This is why we even domesticated wolves in the first place, was to have them protect our territory and hunt. Also, "Pit Bulls" have never and were never bred to be a guard dog. Ha. Another myth floating around. Clifton is a complete idiot. I really cannot believe how he even can't think the way he does.

Social Mange said...

Oh, for the chance for me to have a "bad moment" on Clifton....hehehe. And I'm only tote bag sized...

Anonymous said...

Poking holes in bite statistics, especialy the Clifton Report always amuses me lol

Elaine said...

There was a news story released today about a pit bull killing its owner today in the San Francisco bay area. I was looking at the comments posted to the news article on SF Chronicle and was appalled by the overwhelming number of negative comments. I see pitties all the time with responsible looking owners, and thought that there must be a large number of people who would log on and come to defend the breed. I was sad to learn that wasn't the case, and decided I needed to post a comment with a convincing argument.

Apparently hardheadedness comes with ignorance. You just can't reason with them. In all my frustration (I literally could not sleep), I came across your post, and I must thank you for helping to spread the truth in your light-hearted, humorous way. I hope one day pit bulls will be seen again as the loyal and loving dogs that they are.

Colourful Medusa said...

Lassie, I'm surprised you didn't mention (or maybe it wasn't in the report when you reviewed it) the death attributed to "a leashed Pit Bull running after it's owner pulling a person behind it, and both the dog and the person on the lead getting hit by a train. Unless "pulling people in front of trains" is another one of those Pit Bull specific traits that I'm unaware of.

It would be better if the public in general had a better idea of how statistics really work (or don't work in some cases).

Anonymous said...

Clifton is without Merritt.

Anonymous said...

is this thread still monitored at all ?

Aspie Girl said...

Nothing against German Shepherds, but why the heck is Clifton so in love with them?

Aspie Girl said...

My classmate's relative, a little boy, was attacked by a German Shepherd. The attack was unprovoked, the dog woke up from a nap, and ran over to the little boy and attacked him.

"One time is too many." That's true. But it's true regardless of breed.