More about Our Changing View of Dog Attacks

Over on Facebook, Jay posed this question about my last blog post:

But at the same time, ``fight´´ dogs are being scrutinized as potential threats. Here in Denmark many apartments will not allow them, certain dogs must be muzzled, and owners of certain species are not allowed to continue breeding their dogs. In your research, do you find that ownership of these dogs has increased or simply the coverage?

My answer is that the coverage definitely affects ownership of the different breeds. To take only one example, we know that German shepherds became much more popular in the 1960s after viewers saw TV coverage of the race riots--specifically, they saw white cops using the dogs to attack black citizens. Of course, not everybody who bought a shepherd was a racist, but that sort of discomfort about race and violence continues to play a part in choice of breed. What shifts, really, is our cultural stereotypes of the breeds. Across decades, we’ve seen the idea of a macho dog change -- Dobermanns, Rottweilers, pit bull terriers, and others have at different times been perceived as dangerous to outsiders and therefore valuable for the safety of their owners.

That doesn't make things any simpler, because all dogs are the same species. The different breeds aren't as distinct as they seem. It’s true that fighting dogs are bred for traits that make them more dangerous; particularly, breeders try to eliminate the natural tendency to retreat when injured. An animal with a diminished sense of self-preservation can do a lot of damage. In that sense, the macho dogs of today tend to be more dangerous than the relatively healthier and more intelligent macho dogs of earlier decades. But few dogs are purebreds; and the breeds, no matter how careful the pedigree, only have tendencies, rather than predictable traits. (In fact, purebreds in general tend to be less mentally stable than mongrels, because the purity of traits comes from inbreeding.) Laws aimed at particular breeds tend not to work well, because the definition of each breed is subject to manipulation. For example, if the law says you can’t breed rottweilers, you can breed a mix of Rottie and mastiff. Or you can say you are; how is a cop responding to a complaint supposed to know the difference? In various parts of the US, this tactic allowed unscrupulous breeders to get around restrictions on wolf-dog hybrids.

Dog-fighting, and breeding dogs for fighting, is nothing new. You can find references to it in Mark Twain, for example. But the attitude toward it was very different. For one thing, there was no secret about the racial motive for owning tough dogs. White settlers would explicitly say that they obtained a particular dog because it reacted strongly to “Indians.” I don’t know how it is in Denmark, but in the US I’d argue that we still have a lot of racial tension that, rather than being openly talked about, is sublimated into issues like this dog thing. Another difference between us now and in the days of our grandfathers is that it used to be acceptable for the average citizen to shoot or poison a dog that endangered people. The owner might not like it, but if the shooter could show that the dog was threatening children or livestock, law and common opinion supported him. I realize this sounds unpleasant to the modern ear, but it’s just how things used to be. In Darwinian terms, selection worked against dogs that threatened humans inappropriately. . . at least, humans of the same race. That’s no longer the case.

Violence against dogs in general used to be far more acceptable. There have always been people who loved dogs, but I’d say the idea that they were personal property to be disposed of as one saw fit was much stronger up until a generation or two ago. In books from a century ago, I find references to boys torturing dogs to death as an ugly act, but a normal one. Nowadays, of course, the prevailing view is to see violence against pets as perverse, a symptom of incipient serial murder.

Because each person was entrusted to protect his own family and stock, there was far less emphasis on the pet-owner’s responsibility for his animal’s actions. A surprising example of this fact crops up in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” That’s the one in which mysterious murders turn out to have been perpetrated by an orangutan. Once the truth comes out, the owner doesn’t get in any trouble, because it’s clear he wasn’t in on the actual violence and didn’t train the ape to perform it. It’s just fiction, of course, but the attitude is authentic to the era (mid-1800s).



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