Having been a veterinarian for so many years, I was convinced that I could tell if a dog was potentially dangerous. Dangerous dogs fall into two categories: those that are flat-out aggressive and those that’re fear-biters. To their credit, fear biters usually only bite once or twice since they’re simply trying to get someone to leave them alone. Aggressive dogs are a completely different matter. Aggressive dogs have a need to dominate anything that they feel is threatening or challenging them. Aggressive dogs must be taken very seriously. That’s why, whenever I have to interact with an aggressive dog, I always treat the dog with the greatest respect. With an aggressive dog, I’m careful to never look the dog directly in the eye as that’s frequently perceived as a threat. I also work to keep my demeanor very calm as all dogs, especially the dangerous ones, are really good at picking up fear and anxiety. Having had so much experience with all kinds of dogs over the years, I’d simply convinced myself that I’d learned how to identify the ones that were potentially dangerous.
A few years after selling my veterinary clinic in Camarillo, California, I moved to San Francisco to share an apartment with my daughter on 7th Avenue in the Sunset district. My daughter and I would routinely walk over to a video store on 9th street, returning home along Lincoln Way which bordered Golden Gate Park. At a Victorian house a few doors down from the video store, my daughter and I had gotten to know two adorable Pit Bull puppies named Rex and Ella, watching them grow up for almost a year. Rex and Ella were extremely sweet and out-going, never once showing any signs of aggression or shyness. In my mind at the time, there was no question that these dogs would grow up to nice, non-aggressive dogs.
One afternoon as my daughter and I rounded the corner on our way home from the video store, we were shocked to find several emergency vehicles parked in front of the house where Rex and Ella lived. The entire area was cordoned off with yellow police tape. It never even crossed our minds that the scene had anything to do with Rex and Ella but, sadly, it did. Apparently, Ella had recently gone into heat but she hadn’t yet reached the place in her heat cycle where she’d allow Rex to breed her. As a result, they’d started fighting every time Rex tried to breed her.
On the day in question, the mother and wife of the household, Maureen Faibish, decided to run some errands but, instead of taking her twelve-year old son, Nicholas, with her on the errands, she put Nicholas in the basement with some snacks and videos, telling him not to leave the basement until she got back. Clearly, Mrs. Faibish had some concerns about leaving Nicholas alone with the dogs as she actually went so far as to prop a shovel against the basement door in order to keep Nicholas and the dogs apart.
No one will ever know exactly what happened that day but when Mrs. Faibish returned a few hours later, Nicholas was upstairs in a bedroom dead. He’d sustained severe facial and head injuries from being mauled by Ella and Rex. When the police arrived, Ella was so aggressively barring the front door that she had to be shot so that emergency personnel could get in. Rex was quarantined and eventually euthanized. Mrs. Faibish was jailed and charged with felony child endangerment though the charges were later dropped.
The thing that completely freaked me out afterwards was the fact that I’d never once pegged Rex or Ella as being potentially dangerous dogs. I was amazed that I hadn’t been able to detect even the slightest indication that either of these dogs would kill a twelve-year old boy, much less a boy that they’d grown up with. From that moment on, my perception of dangerous dogs was forever changed.
When I started writing this book, I researched the number of dog bites in the United States. Shockingly, there are 4.5 million people bitten by dogs every year and one in five (885,000) of those are so severe that medical attention is required. In 2012 alone, more than 27,000 people underwent reconstructive surgery as a result of dog bites.
Sadly, the number of deaths from dog attacks in the United States has steadily increased over the past several years, mostly as a result of the increase in the popularity of Pit Bulls. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the average number of deaths due to a dog attack was seventeen while, in the past six years, the average has been thirty-one. In a study done by Merritt Clifton, the editor of Animal People, who analyzed dog attacks from 1982 until 2006, it was found that 74% of the attacks were by Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Presa Canarios and their mixes. He noted that “if almost any other dog has a bad moment, someone might get bitten, but will not be maimed for life or killed.”
It’s important for people to understand that it’s not how a dog is raised that determines whether the dog is going to be dangerous or not, it’s the dog’s genetics. This is an extremely hard concept for people to wrap their minds around. People can’t seem to stop themselves from believing that a dog can be raised or trained such that it won’t bite. Certain trainers and animal behaviorists such as Caesar Milan perpetuate this myth. Tragically, these trainers love to make owners feel like they (the owners) are the problem: that once an owner is trained and properly instructed, their dogs will no longer pose a threat to the safety of the family and others. I equate these kinds of trainers to lion tamers. No one in their right mind would think it wise for a lay person to get inside a lion cage with a lion after only a few lessons! It’s just as insane to think that the average person can be trained in a few lessons to safely manage a dangerous and unpredictable dog.
Successful dog trainers (and lion trainers) have gone through years of training on how to deal with dangerous animals. It also goes without saying that most successful trainers were born with natural talent. A certain amount of natural talent is essential in becoming an expert in any given field. Considering these facts, it shouldn’t be surprising that Caesar Milan is able to handle almost any dog he comes in contact with BUT that doesn’t mean that someone without his experience and talent is going to be able to do the same thing (even with some training.) No matter how much training an owner or a dog is given, there is no way to guarantee that the dog won’t bite or hurt someone someday.
Many years ago, a Labrador Retriever was rushed into my veterinary clinic in Camarillo, California by two police officers. The dog had been so horribly beaten by its owner that one of its legs had been broken. Yet, the most incredible thing about this dog was that, even though he’d clearly been badly mistreated, he never once growled or offered to bite even though he was in excruciating pain (just moving the dog in and out of his cage made him cry out.) Now, it doesn’t mean that the dog wasn’t completely terrified of people because he was: any sudden movements or simply walking up to his cage would cause him to tuck his head and curl up into a ball, even occasionally urinating on himself out of fear. But never once did he try to bite.
That would have been a completely different story if that dog would have been a Chihuahua! Most Chihuahuas would just as soon bite you as look at you (even without the excuse of being in pain!) That’s simply how Chihuahuas are: they don’t want to be messed with and, if you do, they’re going to bite you! The wonderful thing about Chihuahuas is that they’re never going to kill you!
The most aggressive dogs in the world are that way because they’ve been selectively bred to be aggressive: to guard or to fight. Aggressiveness is a built-in part of their DNA and, as a consequence, they’re going to respond aggressively to the various stimuli in their lives. Pit Bulls, for example, were bred in England to attack (and to continue attacking) large animals such as bulls and boars until those animals are either subdued or killed. That’s simply the breeding that’s at the core of the Pit Bull breed. It doesn’t mean that Pit Bulls can’t also be friendly and loving a lot of the time but, if something does set them off, their DNA is going to encourage them to go for the kill.
There’s no way that any of us could be prepared for a dog that’s sweet and loving 99% of the time but who suddenly goes crazy and seriously injures or kills someone. If a dog is behaving well, how could any of us ever anticipate that he might someday attack?
That’s why it’s so critically important that we’re extra, extra careful when children are around large, powerful dogs. We need to stay vigilant for any signs that the dog might be getting ready to flip. If there’s ever any question at all about a particular dog’s temperament, DON’T CHANCE IT: DON’T PUT A CHILD IN HARM’S WAY.
When it comes to aggressiveness in people, the correlation between DNA and aggression is still not definitively defined. Research is a lot more difficult in people than it is in dogs since we can’t manipulate the breeding of people in the same way that we can with animals. In animals, it’s been conclusively demonstrated that aggression and tameness is genetic. As discussed in Chapter Two, biologist Dimitry Belyaev’s demonstrated that, in just nine generations, he could selectively produce tame, friendly foxes from a line of foxes that were completely wild. In the same way, he selectively bred foxes that were so insanely aggressive and fearful that they’d attack the bars of their cages in an effort to get at any humans that came near them. The results of those studies were published in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic in an article called “Designing the Perfect Pet.”
Studies of identical twins raised apart seem to imply a connection between aggression and DNA but science hasn’t yet been able to clearly identify or map out the genes for aggression. It’s not difficult to speculate about the connection between aggression and DNA in people since we’ve all seen people who were intensely aggressive and who’d been intensely aggressive all their lives. Aggression can’t easily be written off as only being caused by environmental factors since some people fail to be aggressive even when they’ve raised in an aggressive household and, similarly, other people are intensely aggressive despite the fact that they’ve been raised in a non-aggressive household. When science finally figures out the genetics behind human aggression, it won’t surprising to discover that people are highly aggressive and dangerous as a result of their DNA.
As there are many dangerous people and dogs in the world, we all need to foster a bit more paranoia. In these modern times, many of us have learned to rationalize and write off our gut feelings. Instead, we look for excuses as to why our feelings are telling us what they’re telling us. If we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones, we must make a conscious effort to re-establish a healthy connection to our intuitions and gut feelings. These feelings are there specifically to warn us about the potentially dangerous individuals that come into our lives. Listening and actually acting on the information our intuitions are sending us is the only way to prevent tragedy, especially when many dangerous individuals are extremely good at hiding their dangerous intentions.
When it comes to being around potentially dangerous dogs, none of us want to make the same mistake that Mrs. Faibish made when she fatally underestimated the dangerousness of her Pit Bulls. As tragedy happens in the blink of an eye, we simply must not have potentially dangerous dogs in our homes and we must not allow our children go to homes where potentially dangerous dogs live.
Countless children have been injured or killed by a babysitter’s dog and even more people than that have been injured or killed when they visited a family member’s home or went there to care for the dogs. A woman I spoke to years ago at an East Nashville veterinary clinic once told me that her son was continuing to pressure her about going to his house to feed his three Pit Bulls when he was out of town. She told me that she was terrified of the dogs. And, even though she’d told her son the same thing, he persisted in discounting her fears, telling her she was simply making a big deal out of nothing. I told her that it was vital that she trust her gut feelings and that she should never go to her son’s home alone to feed the dogs.
Being mauled by a dog has surely got to be one of the most horrendous experiences that can ever happen to a person. That’s why we must all take every precaution possible to protect ourselves and our loved ones from that fate.
I’d like to ask everyone reading this to please take a moment and go to www.dogsbite.org. The only way for us to fully grasp the seriousness of the dangerous dogs in the world is to read stories about them. When you go to the website, scroll down to the section near the bottom of the home page where there’s a list of recent years that’s highlighted. Click on any given year and you’ll find the pictures and stories of the people killed in that year. Though it’s horrifying and heartbreaking, it’s the only way to truly get our eyes opened to the reality of the situation. We all need to know how dog attacks happen and how, by the time someone’s screaming, it’s too late.
Most people simply aren’t aware of how many people are injured and killed by dogs every year. Even dogs that have been a member of the family for years can inexplicably do something horrific.
Here a few of the stories from the www.dogsbite.org website:
Brayden Wilson, 10-weeks old, was savagely killed by his family’s pet pit bull in the Red Bird area of Dallas. Just before the attack, the boy and his father were inside the home when the father stepped outside to turn on the sprinkler system. When he returned, the pit bull was attacking the infant who was in a bouncing seat, according to police. As the father struggled to pull the dog off the baby, the mother returned home and walked in on the scene. The pit bull bit her twice when she tried to intervene. The father managed to grab the animal by the neck and haul it outside, where he shot the dog twice, killing it. The child was rushed to Children’s Medical Center where he was pronounced dead. The child’s grandmother, Willetta Tate, said the family had owned the pit bull for 8-years and it had grown up with two other children in the household, 8 and 11-years old. “It’s just unexplainable,” Tate said. “You just don’t get it when you’ve had the dog so long, I don’t know what could have happened. I don’t know,” Tate said. [source citations]
Porsche Nicole Cartee
25-years old | Spartanburg, South Carolina
Porsche Nicole Cartee, 25-years old, was brutally killed by her family pit bull. The male dog, named Spike, had been with the family for 10-years. On August 22, the pit bull “just snapped” and began attacking Nicole’s mother, according to authorities. When Nicole tried to rescue her mother, the pit bull turned on her, killing her. The dog also attacked Nicole’s sister who was in the home. Nicole was dead when first responders arrived. Animal control director Jamie Nelson described the scene as “horrific.” Nicole’s mother was hospitalized with serious injuries; her sister was treated on scene. Patrick Powell, Nicole’s boyfriend of 10-years, said the two had recently separated, but were planning on reuniting. Powell said the dog had a history of violence; it had attacked Nicole’s mother two months earlier. The mother, however, blamed the incident on a stray dog, Powell said. A male cousin confirmed the previous attack to the media, but said the injuries were minor. Authorities found no previous attacks on record. [source citations]
11-months old | Oneida County, New York
Carter Hartle, 11-months old, was killed by the family pit bull, according to the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office. Carter and his three sisters, ages 7, 10 and 12, were playing with the dog in the living room when it suddenly attacked the baby. The mother, 32-year old Lisa Cittadino, turned her back momentarily then heard screams from her children. When she saw the dog attacking her baby, she tried to get it to release its jaws. Once it did, she called 911. The baby was rushed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica, where he died due to facial and neck injuries, deputies said. The family dog, named Diesel, had never shown aggression since joining the family 2-years ago, Cittadino said. The family had raised Diesel as a puppy. The Verona Dog Warden, Susan Gardinier, seized the dog and placed it into quarantine. The dog was euthanized at the family’s request. Afterward, Gardinier identified the dog as a 2-year old pit bull-sharpei mix and said that “[pit bulls] are bred to latch on, to hang on, and that’s what they do.” [source citations]
4-years old | Sherman Township, Michigan
Kiyana McNeal, 4-years old, was killed by a dog she had known less than an hour. The child’s mother, Jacey McNeal Wolkins, had been searching for a new family dog after her previous dog died of cancer. The new dog arrived on October 23, 2016 — a man from Illinois drove his doberman-type dog to their home. The former owner stayed with Kiyana and her mother for 30 to 45 minutes, as they got acquainted with the new dog, then departed for Illinois. About 5 minutes after he left, Jacey called the man for unknown reasons and asked him to return, according to family members. Before he returned, the dog attacked Kiyana in the neck as she tried to give the animal a dog biscuit. The man returned while the dog was attacking Kiyana and her mother was struggling to get the large dog away from Kiyana. He carried the child outside and began CPR on the little girl. Emergency responders tried to resuscitate Kiyana, but she died on scene. No charges were brought and the dog’s previous owner was never named. [source citations]
Isaiah Jacob Franklin
6-years old | Huntington, West Virginia
Isaiah Jacob Franklin, 6-years old, was fatally attacked by a family pit bull in his home in the 2600 block of 9th Avenue in Huntington. Scanner traffic reports at the time of the attack indicated Isaiah suffered severe injuries to his head and neck and the dog remained aggressive when first responders arrived. He was transported to Cabell Huntington Hospital where he died of his injuries. Family members said the 3-year old male pit bull, named Tiny, belonged to his mother’s boyfriend and that it attacked the child without provocation or warning. Two adults where in the room with Isaiah as he finished up playing a video game when the dog suddenly attacked; his mother was in the next room. The dog had been living in the household for about a year, according to his mother. Photographs of the dog posted to social media showed the dog was unneutered. The family also owned a female pit bull that was uninvolved in the attack. Both dogs were taken into custody by animal control. No charges are anticipated. [source citations]
This is the story of Nicholas Faibish, the boy killed by the Pit Bulls I watched grow up:
Nicholas Faibish (12-years old | San Francisco, California)
Nicholas Faibish, 12-years old, was left alone with the family’s two pit bulls. When his mother returned, she found her son covered in bite wounds, his face badly mauled and a hole in his scalp. Paramedics tried and failed to resuscitate the boy at the scene. Police officers said the boy put up “a hell of a fight.” The pit bulls had been with the family for about a year and a half. The boy’s parents had been trying to breed them. At the time of the attack, the female pit bull was reportedly “in heat.” Nicholas had been left alone in the basement that day. For unknown reasons, he left the basement and interacted with the dogs upstairs.The next year, Maureen Faibish went on trial for felony child endangerment in the death of her son. On the day of the attack, Faibish took her daughter to a school picnic and left her son alone in the basement with a plugged toilet. She instructed the boy not to leave the room. Earlier in the day, the male pit bull, Rex, had bitten the boy twice. Prosecution argued that Faibish recklessly ignored signs that Rex would attack her son if left alone. The jury deliberated for two days and failed to reach a verdict. On July 31, 2006 a mistrial was declared. Four months earlier, the City of San Francisco began enforcing a mandatory pit bull sterilization law. [source citations]
These stories help us to remember that even though a large powerful dog is well behaved 99% of the time, that doesn’t mean that it can’t have an off moment where it severely injures or kills someone.
Whenever I try to explain to an owner that I’m concerned that one of their dogs seems like it might be potentially dangerous, I’m almost always told one of two things: that I’m wrong (as the owner tells me how the dog lets the kids do anything to it) or that the dog won’t have a chance to hurt the kids because the parents are keeping an eye on the dog. To start with, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate a dog attack. Secondly, by the time you’re trying to get a dog off of a child who’s being attacked, the child is already seriously injured or dead. That’s why we must take extra precautions to keep children safe around large, powerful dogs:
- Don’t let toddlers poke and prod a large dog. Dogs, like humans, live by a pecking order and, if a dog gets irritated, it can lash out at a child just like it would another dog.
- Don’t let small children be chased by large dogs. This action mimics hunting behavior in dogs and might trigger a dog to suddenly go from playing to attacking.
- Don’t play games with large dogs in which the dogs are encouraged to lunge at people. Playing rough can unexpectedly escalate into a dog attack.
- Don’t let children be near dogs when they’re eating. This should go without saying but I saw the most unbelievable video recently of a four-year old little girl who was in the kitchen with six male Pit Bulls. She was instructing the dogs to sit and stay, making a point of the fact that they all had to be sitting nicely before she fed them. Once the dogs were all sitting and waiting obediently, she scooped up a large bowl of dry food and poured it on the floor in front of her. She then told the dogs “okay!” and the dogs immediately moved forward, all starting to eat at the same time. The whole time this was going on, the little girl’s mother was doing a running commentary in the back ground, saying that this was proof that Pit Bulls can be trusted. Yet, the truth of the matter is: no one can predict the behavior of any animal all the time. There are flukes and variables in life that cannot be anticipated just as Siegfried and Roy discovered when they were doing their tiger show in Las Vegas. It’s incredibly irresponsible and reckless to take chances with a child in this way. The little girl doesn’t know any better as she’s simply doing the bidding of her mother. There’s no way that a four-year old child can fully comprehend the possible consequences of her actions in a situation like this. All it would have taken is for one of those Pit Bulls to act out and that little girl would have been caught in the middle of six fighting Pit Bulls.
This kind of recklessness comes from the belief that so many people have that dogs won’t bite if they’re raised and trained properly. All dogs have the potential to bite. Biting is how dogs express themselves: it’s how they interact with their pack so as to establish a pecking order; it’s how they play; it’s how they protect their turf or themselves from other dogs; it’s how they kill for sport or for nourishment. We can’t afford to be naïve about the fact that dogs bite for many reasons, that there’s no way for anyone to predict with 100% accuracy how a dog will behave in any given situation. Just because a dog behaved well yesterday under a certain set of circumstances doesn’t mean the dog will behave well today under those same circumstances. Behavior simply can’t be predicted with 100% accuracy. That’s why we must take every precaution possible to make sure that we’re never in the position of having to look back and say, “If only…”