PROVINCETOWN — The Independent’s July 9 front-page story on the effects of the coronavirus crisis on dogs, “Pandemic Is No Treat for the Four-Legged,” fell into a common and unfortunate trap in newspaper reporting on dog bites.
The article states that, on June 18, “a three-year-old girl was bitten by a pit bull while visiting family in Wellfleet.” The story notes that two other dog bites had been reported already that month, but the breeds and details of those other incidents were not featured. Why? I suspect that it was because they lacked the sensationalism that reporting on a “pit bull” carries.
A March 2010 analysis of newslibrary.com (which aggregates reports from more than 4,000 news outlets) by the makers of the 2012 documentary Beyond the Myth found that, when a pit bull is involved in a biting incident, the words “pit bull” are in the headline of the news story 68 percent of the time. If the bite is by a non-pit bull type breed, it appears in the headline only 8 percent of the time. So, when a malamute seriously bites someone, the headline usually reads “Dog Bites Owner” — not “Malamute Bites Owner.”
In this way news outlets create a bias against the breed in readers’ minds.
Another significant error in reports of this kind is that there is actually no such breed of dog as a “pit bull.” The dogs that are often referred to as pit bulls are in fact usually one of four different unique breeds that are incorrectly lumped together. The result is that any dog with a short, shiny coat and a blocky head is called a “pit bull.”
A November 2015 study published in Veterinary Journal found that these breeds are incorrectly identified by professionals 60 percent of the time when there is a DNA analysis of what the dog really is. The difficulty in accurately identifying the breed is one of the reasons the Centers for Disease Control, which gathers dog-bite data, stopped collecting breed data on fatal dog bites after 1998. The frequent incorrect identification of dogs involved in bites has led to an accumulation of incorrect data, particularly online, that unfortunately people still use to inappropriately label a dog as a threat because of the way it looks.
We speak a different language than dogs. To live with them safely in society, we need to learn to communicate with them. More than three-fourths of all dog bites are by the family dog, because we fail to educate ourselves on how to do this. Study after study has proved that irresponsible ownership is the driving factor in dog bites, not the breed.
Every dog bite and its consequences are traumatizing, no matter what the circumstances. Reports of dog bites should investigate why they occur: often it is a lack of respect for an individual dog’s history, a failure to manage a dog’s known behavioral limitations, and a lack of education on communicating with the species.
Excellent resources exist: thefamilydog.com (a great website on dog behavior for beginners and kids); pitbullinfo.org; Beyond the Myth, available on Amazon Prime; and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Dog Bite Prevention, found online.
Sadie Hutchings, DVM, practices at the Herring Cove Animal Hospital in Provincetown.