Friday, February 16, 2001

Clamping down on vicious dogs

Rottweilers overtake pit bulls as most-dangerous dog,
bringing new calls for restrictions

By Mike Pulfer, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and Dave Ferman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

        Seven-year-old Catalina Guajardo was attacked Dec. 17 by four Rottweilers in Princeton, Texas, north of Dallas. She survived but required more than 600 stitches. The same week, Thailand banned the import of Rottweilers after the death of a 3-year-old girl.

        Attacks by dogs are rare — but can be devastating, even deadly. Breeds such as the Rottweiler, pit bull, Chow Chow, German shepherd and Doberman are perceived as aggressive and potentially dangerous.

        Because of recent attacks, Rottweilers have emerged as Public Dog Enemy No. 1.

        During the 1990s, Rottweilers replaced pit bulls as the deadliest dog in the United States. The breed accounted for 33 deaths between 1991 and 1998, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). That was 31 percent of all fatalities attributed to dog attacks.

        Pit bulls, the most deadly dog of the '80s, killed 21 people during the same period. In the Tristate, pit bulls are the only dogs named by specific breed in local vicious-dog laws. In fact, according to Ohio law and Cincinnati ordinance, a pit bull is — by definition — a vicious dog.

        Some municipalities around the country have enacted breed-specific legislation, often banning Rottweilers as well as pit bulls.

        “I'd say there's been at least a 50 percent increase in the number of communities that have tried to do this in the past five years,” says Gail Golab, AVMA assistant director. Bob Duffy, executive director of the American Dog Owners Association (ADOA), estimates the anti-Rottweiler movement has surfaced in at least 100 communities nationwide.

        Both Rottweiler and pit bull supporters say society shouldn't be so quick to blame the dogs for the increase in attacks. Negligent owners, they say, are the main reason dogs act aggressively.

        The controversy surrounding the dogs, they say, should not be seen so much as “Rottweilers: friend or foe?” Maybe, they argue, it's more of a question of “Who let the dogs out.”

Popular breeds

        Among all the dogs registered in Hamilton County last year, three of the breeds that have been labeled aggressive — Rottweiler, German shepherd and chow — are among the top 10 raised.

        Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes says the county registered 2,075 Rottweilers in 2000, which earned seventh place in popularity for dog breeds. German shepherds were in second place with 6,039 registered. Chows were insixth place with 2,188 registered.

        Of the other breeds, there were 789 Dobermans (21st place) and 431 pit bulls (37th place) registered.

        Rottweilers are not vicious dogs, says Karen Findley, a Corryville Rottweiler owner and breeder. “They're more protective than vicious. I would never say they are vicious. They're very protective of the family. I think they're great.”

        The popularity of the breed may have an impact on the attack statistics, says Dr. Tamara Goforth, a veterinarian at the Hamilton County SPCA. If there are more of them out there, she suggests, that might be a reason they are named in more police reports.

        In a review of Enquirer news stories about serious Tristate dog attacks during the past five years, Rottweilers were involved in seven; pit bulls and German shepherds were each involved in five incidents — including a controversial attack by two police dogs on crime suspects — and Dobermans and chows in three each. Nine other stories identified mixed breed dogs or didn't identify the breed of dog in an attack.

        The Hamilton County General Health District, in a comparison of recorded dog bites last year, found 65 by German shepherds, 37 by chows, 26 by Rottweilers and 20 by pit bulls.

        Cincinnati police logged 246 reports of dog attacks in 2000, including simple bites.

        While a family may fall in love with a Rottweiler before they take one home, they can fall out of love fast, says Dr. Goforth.

        “They show up here more than the others,” the SPCA vet says. “I bet I look at 11 Rotts a week.”

        Rottweilers have dominant personalities, and “they try to push you,” Dr. Goforth says.

        Even the American Kennel Club (AKC), which tends to point out the redeeming qualities in all recognized breeds, uses some rare comments in its narrative of breed standards.

        In its “temperament” section for Rottweilers, it cautions, “a dog that . . . attacks any person in the (show) ring shall be disqualified.”

        “I don't think they're inherently nasty,” Dr. Goforth said. But, “there seem to be more disagreeable Rottweilers than agreeable Rottweilers. They're not for the rookie dog owner.”

Owners' burden

        Respected organizations such as the AMVA, ADOA, AKC, Westminster Kennel Club and national Centers for Disease Control — which do not endorse breed-specific legislation — point to a larger problem than too much publicity given to dog attacks. They place the burden on dog owners who, they say, should be responsible for properly training and socializing dogs of all breeds and ensuring that dogs are not allowed to roam free.

        A severe injury or death from dog attacks, they say, is more likely to be caused by a bad owner than a bad dog, something that is often overlooked in the emotional aftermath of a tragic incident.

        “To pick out one breed of dog to control won't work — you're looking at a quick fix,” says Ms. Golab of the veterinary association. “Early socialization and training are far more important in looking at how aggressive a dog will be than breed. I'd say at least 80 percent of dog bites are the responsibility of the owner.”

        Those against breed-specific legislation say that the type of dog responsible for the most attacks or deaths changes almost annually and is often determined by how popular the breed is. In the '90s, for example, as more people wanted to protect their homes, the popularity of Rottweilers soared. An all-time high of 93,656 Rotts were registered with the American Kennel Club in 1995. (In comparison, there were 18,141 Dobermans registered that year.)

        In Ohio and Cincinnati, any breed can qualify as vicious, if it:

        • Causes personal injury without provocation.
        • Has been trained for dog fighting.
        • Is kept at least in part for dog fighting.
        • Has been used in a crime.

        In some communities, including Fairfield, pit bulls and pit bull relatives are banned because of their reputation. In others, including Cincinnati, pit bulls are permitted — with severe restrictions, the same ones that apply to all vicious dogs:

        • No more than one adult vicious dog per household.
        • Annual police registration, with color photographs.
        • Tattoos and implanted-microchip identification.
        • Locked pens with tops.
        • Muzzles.
        • Leashes no longer than 3 feet.
        • Transit crates/cages labeled “vicious dog.”
        • At least $50,000 in liability insurance.

        The maximum penalty for disobeying the vicious dog ordinance is 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine, according to the Cincinnati solicitor's office.


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