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Tuesday, June 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist
Champions of killer dogs shouldn't make animal policy


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On April 24, two dogs mauled and killed 8-year-old John Streeter in a Vancouver, Wash., backyard. Streeter's death was a horrible but not unique event. About 14 Americans, half of them children, die every year in dog attacks.

What really shocked some observers, though, was not the behavior of the canines. They did as nature commands. Rather, it was the viciousness of "animal lovers" who tore into the local Humane Society for euthanizing the killer dogs.

One woman threatened to cut the nonprofit group out of her will. Several letter-writers blamed the 8-year-old for trespassing in the dog owners' yard, which was not the case. Young Streeter had been playing with the owners' children.

Were these people nasty or just ignorant? Perhaps they believed, incorrectly, that every dog can be rehabilitated — especially this photogenic pair of bull mastiff and German shepherd mixes. Or did they think that the Humane Society, dedicated to saving stray animals, was killing dogs for no good reason? Who knows? These people have gone rabid, and one thing is clear: They have no business making animal-control policy.

"If a dog kills a person, the dog should be put down," declares Nicholas Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at the Tufts University Veterinary School. "It is not a social message. It's a savage attack designed to be lethal." And it could very well happen again.

Many attacks occur when dogs are in groups of two or more, and a child is running. "The movement alerts some primordial drive that spreads, and they almost can't help themselves," explains Dodman, who wrote the dog-psych classic, "If Only They Could Talk: Stories About Pets and Their People" (Norton).

And yes, genes make some breeds far more dangerous than others. Every three years, Massachusetts compiles a list of dog breeds that inflict fatal bites. The top three are inevitably pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds.

Rottweilers were originally bred to guard the money of peasants returning home from the city of Rottweil in Germany, so their fierceness was prized. Staffordshire bull terriers and pit bulls were programmed to deliver a full crushing bite to the noses of bulls. "They're locked and loaded," as Dodman puts it.

Sheep dogs, on the other hand, are bred for an "inhibited" bite. "A sheep dog who bit a sheep down to the bone was shot," Dodman notes.

So communities that regulate or ban certain breeds have science on their side. Denver and Cincinnati, for example, have outlawed pit bulls. And a bill before the New York legislature would classify certain dogs as "deadly weapons."

Responsible leaders must constantly face the wrath of badly informed dog "advocates." In 1997, the American Kennel Club published a new edition of "The Complete Dog Book," which innocently listed 40 breeds considered dangerous for children. The outcry was such that the club apologized, recalled 10,000 copies of the book and had the list removed.

"Breed profiling" is now the Great Satan for some dog defenders. That refers to insurance-company policies that deny coverage to homeowners who possess certain breeds — or who don't have the dogs securely fenced in. A bill introduced in the California State Assembly would have forbidden insurers to issue blanket bans on breeds. (Fortunately, it went nowhere.) The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opposes breed profiling.

But Dodman defends the practice. "The insurance companies have no ax to grind," he says. They base their decisions on actuarial statistics showing that certain breeds in certain homes are a recipe for trouble and the cause of lawsuits.

The Humane Society for Southwest Washington refused to cave in to the mass protests, but it did indulge its critics to an unseemly degree. Responding to the anguish over the dogs' deaths, chapter head Phil Olson said: "I think it's great that people care. I really do."

He further explained that "for an animal, a quiet, gentle death is better than a bad life." And that unlike other animals that are euthanized, these dogs had a last meal of Chicken McNuggets.

That's nice. Let's invite the champions of killer dogs to live in a neighborhood terrorized by drug dealers and their snarling pit bulls. Perhaps they'd like to bring their children.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

Copyright 2004, The Providence Journal Co.

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