zero tolerance dog bitesIt has been accepted that dog bites have become too frequent and too violent to be ignored. The statistics support the view, first articulated by Attorney Kenneth Phillips in 1999, that there exists a "dog bite epidemic" in the United States. There are differences of opinion, however, as to which dogs are too dangerous, with some members of the public even refusing to accept that there is any such thing as a "dangerous dog." Upon close look, the debate often is about how to talk about and deal with dangerous dogs and their owners, and will remain inconclusive until basic agreement can be reached about the nature, quality and scope of information about dog attacks.

The most-cited nationwide survey of dog bites is now 15 years old. It established that in the mid-1990s there were approximately 4.7 million dog bites in the USA per year. Since that time, there is evidence that the number of bites has grown faster than the number of dogs. (Unless otherwise noted, see Statistics for details about all of the figures quoted in this section.)

For example, in the 1980s and 1990s there were about 17 fatalities in the USA per year, but the years 2006 through 2010 saw more than 30 per year. These incidents are referred to as "canine homicides," meaning deaths of humans that were inflicted by dogs. Although homicides are extremely rare, they are significant because they are investigated closely, and a good amount of detail often is reported, enabling experts to form opinions about a variety of issues pertaining to dog bites.

The most recent dog bite study was conducted by physicians and consisted of a review of 82 cases at a level 1 trauma center. Where the breed of dog was identified, the researchers concluded that attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs. Bini, John K. MD; Cohn, Stephen M. MD; Acosta, Shirley M. RN, BSN; McFarland, Marilyn J. RN, MS; Muir, Mark T. MD; Michalek, Joel E. PhD; for the TRISAT Clinical Trials Group, Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs, Annals of Surgery (April 2011, Vol. 253, Issue 4, pp. 791–797).

The website DogsBite.org is a thorough, up-to-date source of news and opinion about bite cases and death cases involving dogs. It's 3-year study of such incidents concluded that from 2006 to 2008, pit bull type dogs killed 52 Americans and accounted for 59% of all fatal attacks, and that pit bulls and rottweilers (combined) accounted for 73% of these deaths. 

Along the same lines, a report by Animal People found that, of 264 canine homicides from 1982 to 2006 in the USA and Canada, a total of 65% of the deaths were caused by pit bulls, Rottweilers, Presa Canarios and their mixes. (Merritt Clifton, Dog Attack Deaths and Maimings, US and Canada, September 1982 to November 13, 2006, click here to download.) An older study published in the Journal of Pediatrics reported 109 fatalities from 1989 to 1994 in the US, with 37% inflicted by pit bulls and Rottweilers. (Sacks JJ, Lockwood R, Hornreich J, Sattin RW. Fatal dog attacks, 1989-1994. Pediatrics 1996; 97:891-5.)

The foregoing studies establish that pit bulls and Rottweilers clearly are dangerous if judged by the damage that they inflict when they attack people. (Footnote 1.) It should be noted, however, that an apparently exhaustive study of canine homicides arrived at entirely different conclusions, and made a strong case that "addressing the issue of severe and fatal dog attacks as a breed specific problem is akin to treating the symptom and not the disease." Karen Delise, Fatal Dog Attacks: The Stories Behind the Statistics, 2002, self published (apparently no longer available), and The Pit Bull Placebo

Because of the perception that certain breeds are inherently dangerous, many Americans are of the opinion that these breeds need to be eliminated. That also has been the view of many segments of industry and other nations. The insurance industry and airline industry have attempted to exclude certain breeds because of their potential for harm, and a number of European nations have banned certain breeds of dog. (See Breed Specific Laws.) The courts have confirmed that certain breeds are inherently dangerous, although the legal result of having a dangerous dog is inconsistent from case to case and state to state. Many state legislatures have issued declarations that establish there is an epidemic but have not put the responsibility on any one breed. (Footnote 2.) There are many who even have begun to fear that dogs generally may someday be judged unfit to be our companions.

A close look at the dispute over dangerous dogs, however, leads to the conclusion that the disagreement often is about how we talk about them, what makes them dangerous, and how we should curtail the danger. Many believe that we should not talk about a dog as being dangerous, but rather the owner being dangerous. Others say that no breed is inherently dangerous, and that we should regard a dog as dangerous only if it has behaved in a dangerous manner. Many strongly resist any proposed solution that would involve any distinction whatsoever among the breeds. The approach advocated by Attorney Kenneth Phillips and most experts is multi-focal, in recognition of the fact that there are many causes of the dog bite epidemic, requiring many corrective measures. (See Preventing Dog Bites.)

The debate about dangerous dogs will not end until there is some agreement as to the nature, quality and scope of information about dog attacks. The diversity of opinion among the experts is based in great part upon disagreements about which studies, data collection methods, and other fundamentals are reliable. Until the basic facts are resolved, the conclusions will be different and the arguments will continue.