Judge the Deed, not the Breed


Jill Kessler-Miller, BA, CPDT-KA, CDT, Dog Bite/Behavior Expert

And, more importantly, what led up to it. 

I often receive calls asking me to opine on the inherent dangerous nature of certain breeds of dogs (i.e.- American Pit Bull Terriers or Rottweilers). Attorneys are often both surprised and annoyed when I tell them no. Instead, I advise looking into the stewardship of the dog, whereupon neglect of the animal is usually found. Lack of responsibility towards a dog’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being, possibly combined with a dog’s inherent breed tendencies, is always the true culprit in dog bite cases As an example, all dogs have a natural, genetic predisposition to protect their territory. If you ask a reasonable person about this trait, they’ll say ,“Yes, of course.” So when does it become a problem? When someone gets hurt. Do some dogs have stronger protection traits than others? Yes. But is breed a deciding factor of danger? No. 

When does breed type come into play? Well, I can tell you if it’s an American Pit Bull Terrier (often called by the misnomer “pit bull”), the answer should be zero people-aggression. You read that right—zero. Their history as fighting dogs did not allow for it: any stranger had to be able to handle the dog at any time. Your opponent washed your dog prior to a fight, a referee examined and had to be able to reach in during a battle without a dog turning to bite, and the dog had to tolerate handling and stitching up afterwards without so much as a wary look. The breed is known for their love of children. Are they animal aggressive? Yes, they sure can be. But people? No, absolutely not. I consider aggression towards people to be an aberrant behavior in the breed. 

When I’m approached with a dog bite case, I want to know: 

Was this an indoor or outdoor dog? Dogs involved in bites are usually outdoor dogs, confined to small areas, often dirty, lacking of appropriate shelter, devoid of any type of toys or entertainment, and usually have an overdeveloped sense of territory. These dogs are often unfortunately also suffering from a long list of veterinary medical issues as well. 

Was the dog tied-up or chained? Tethering increases aggression, and is illegal in many cities, counties and in the entire state of California. Chaining increases isolation, frustration, and the likelihood of being forgotten, leading to issues such as starvation and lack of human interaction. 

Was the male/female and spayed/neutered? Intact males are responsible for 89% of all dog bites. Males will protect pregnant females or females in heat. Females in heat or with puppies can be more aggressive. Breeding dogs do not tend to be nice, family dogs. 

How much positive social interaction did the dog have with humans? I want to know if the dog has been taught that people and children are good. Bored dogs tend to be menaces in their yard, barking, lunging, pacing. The frustration and boredom easily channel into aggression for many dogs, no matter what the breed or mix. 

What opportunities does the dog have to get off the property? Having positive experiences with people in many types of situations is how a dog learns that the world is a safe place, while receiving continued guidance, handling and exposure. 

What has been the medical care of the dog? Many dogs involved in bite incidences have been denied medical care, which is grounds for animal cruelty. They often have joint problems, pain issues, eye infections, skin infections, parasites, anemia and suffer from dehydration and starvation. Sometimes, there is no shelter from the elements for the dog. All of these factors indicate animal cruelty, stemming from the owner’s treatment of the dog as an inanimate object, and not a sentient being or family pet. 

These are just a few examples of factors to take into consideration when weighing the merit of a dog bite case. Once this data has been collected, breed type may be pertinent if said treatment exacerbated aggressive behavior. 

A dog’s behavior is, ultimately, the responsibility of the owner. Examining how the dog was—or was not– cared for will provide much more concrete information about the dog than its breed. By judging the deeds of the owners, and not the breed of the dog, there is an opportunity to make people responsible for their actions relative to the well-being of their pet. The dog, after all, is only a by-product of its environment, and the quality of that behavior is incumbent upon the owners.

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