Vet Ethics: Can we justify generalisations?

Following the heart-breaking death of Ayen Chol, a young child from Melbourne who was mauled by a dog widely reported to be a pit bull crossbreed, there has been both new State legislation and intensified public debate about dog breeds and breed-types.

Of late the excitement has been around the pit bull terrier or American pit bull (the breed has several names). The breed now generates much anger and fear. People have variously called pit bull terriers a wretched breed, a menace to society, sharks on legs, unsuitable dogs for pets, dangerous by nature, and ticking time bombs. It has been said that this type of dog has no right to exist and should be eradicated from our midst.

Some of these voices are knee-jerk, but others arise from people with experience of dogs and of science, including leading members of our profession. Also, the assumption that we can make a range of empirical and evaluative judgements about a whole breed or breed-type is a very natural one to make, and it bobs up persistently. In what follows I will simply offer a few reflections on this assumption.

Suppose someone calls pit bull terriers “wretched”, meaning it as more than a factual claim about characteristics like strength and measurable temperament. Our first reaction may be that this is the kind of judgement that suffers from anthropomorphism. We may think that it takes a human category – that of being wretched – and mistakenly tries to apply it to non-human animals. Surely, some may say, this is an error. It is true that what we have here is a concept used to appraise or judge the behaviour of human beings. However, it does not necessarily follow from this that the concept of being “wretched” cannot be applied meaningfully to dogs in a modified but still related way. That is too large a case to discuss here; I simply draw attention to the seeming irresistibility of this sort of language.

Under the entry for wretched, the dictionary gives us: of bad quality, contemptible, hateful. A wretch is what is miserable and reprehensible. In this sense of “wretched”, the wretch is a creature of flawed, pitiable, and/or bad character.

Let us then imagine the worst kind of canine wretchedness. Suppose that a certain kind of dog is irredeemably savage; that it enjoys seeking out and mauling human beings, not for self-protection or food, but for enjoyment and pleasure. Further suppose about this dog that no training or behavioural modification can ameliorate this powerful trait of vicious desire.

While we do not (any more) call large, wild predators horrible or wretched, even though many could despatch a grown human being far more proficiently than any dog, the sort of mythical canine I have just described does seem to live up to the media hype about canine bloodlust. Apart from such extremes, there is certainly an attitude – apparently wide-spread if you trust some surveys – that regards pit bulls, or perhaps rottweilers or mastiffs and so forth, as inherently “of bad quality” or character.

The late philosopher, animal trainer, and poet Vicki Hearne strongly defended pit bulls and other breeds from the media horror stories, and from general misconceptions. This did not stop her from thinking that certain individual dogs (and horses) could be “real curs”, or genuine rogues. (I do not know what she would have said about terms like “wretched” or “contemptible”. She may well have thought that, especially when unqualified, their public use implies an uncompassionate tendency to blame and persecute the animals for the way they are.)

There are generalisations about breeds or dog types that are apparently true, others that are arguably sound, and still other generalisations that are debatable or untrue. If it is claimed that all pit bulls are irredeemably nasty then the generalisation is demonstrably false. Is it even accurate to say that as a breed they are unpredictable and dangerous?

And should that be true, isn’t it a good reason to phase out the breed, just as, rightly or wrongly, we prohibit the import of the Dogo Argentina and the Japanese Tosa? Are pit bulls just untrustworthy?
It won’t do as a reply here to say that pit bull terriers, like some other dogs, are a so-called fighting breed (which is true) and have been in an historical sense bred to show “gameness” and power (also true). Hearne points out that the very qualities that enable the American pit bull often, but not always, to be what she calls visionary fighters – qualities like persistence, relative indifference to pain, focus, tenacity, quiet but sharp awareness and attention, a kind of predictability – are ones that can contribute to character features like loyalty, discerning protectiveness, and trustworthiness in respect of human beings. These qualities can therefore point in a direction opposite to wretchedness.

Many people worry that it is the pit bull’s combination of great strength in body and jaw, and their so-called fighting dog behaviour qualities, that makes them a greater risk in general to children, adults, and other dogs than, say, the King Charles Cocker Spaniel. There seems to be little reason to deny that this concern is indeed a concern, while remembering that it does not only apply to pit bull terriers (some non-pit bulls, no doubt, are less predictable than some pit bulls, and could teach many of them a thing or two about fighting in the pit). Also, any breed may have certain lines which are notable for behavioural tendencies which perhaps should be selected against. Vicki Hearne, it must be said, believed strongly that only certain people should have certain dogs and certain breeds of dog, and that the American pit bull is “in many ways a tremendous spiritual responsibility”.

The other part of this debate about targeting particular canine breeds, in word or in deed, is the question about what is helpful and what is not.
This is the question which has led to the slogan, in essence backed for some time by behaviourists and veterinary organisations, of “deed not breed”.

The aim is to find out what works best to protect the community – not what works here and there, but what is the best policy to adopt. The question is empirical and requires attention to the best science. And, as behaviour specialists such as Robert Holmes have argued, we do not even have at this stage a good grasp of what the main causes of dog attacks and bites really are.

SIMON COGHLAN