By Cesar Millan
A month ago today in Little Rock, California (a small town located forty miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles), a woman named Pamela Devitt was out for a jog when she was attacked and killed by a pack of four dogs.
Of course, the dogs were immediately identified as pit bulls in the headlines, whether they were or not. So far, only one dog’s photo has been released, and it is clearly a pit bull mix — but the problem with most news stories about people being attacked by dogs is that every dog becomes a pit bull in the headline.
This is nothing new and only the breed changes. At various times in the past, it would have been Rottweiler, German shepherd or Doberman pinscher. However, in the tragic case of Pamela Devitt, authorities have gotten one thing absolutely right, and it offers a bit of hope that things may be slowly changing when it comes to anti-breed prejudice.
Three weeks after the attack, Alex Donald Jackson, the owner of the four dogs, was charged with murder by the LA County district attorney — possibly a first for the area, according to prosecutors. They decided to do so because, since January of this year, there had been at least three reports to police about his dogs attacking other people.
Ultimately, the courts will decide Jackson’s fate and I’m not going to discuss his case specifically. However, this incident should be a reminder to dog lovers everywhere that, ultimately, we are responsible for our own dogs’ safety and behavior, and we are the ones who should face the consequences if they should ever attack someone.
Currently, state laws on dog attacks are inconsistent. More than thirty states have what are called “strict liability” laws — that is, laws that hold the owner liable for injuries caused by their dogs. However these rules are inconsistent from state to state.
In some places (like California), the law only covers dog bites. In others (like Minnesota), they cover any injury — for example, if a dog startles a person and they fall down, the legal owner is responsible. In Arizona, Rhode Island, and West Virginia, the laws only apply if the dog is “at large,” or loose. In ten states, it’s up to the victim to prove that they were not trespassing or otherwise the cause of the attack.
The one consistency among these laws is that they apply to all dogs equally, from Chihuahua to Great Dane; pure bred to mutt. This is exactly as it should be. Unfortunately, because the current dog attack headline breed is pit bull, in many places there are special laws for this breed — or, rather, against this breed.
In Maryland, the State Supreme Court decided that merely having a pit bull made the owner subject to strict liability in all cases, a ruling that did not apply to any other breed. Can you imagine the outcry if any state tried to pass a law regarding people based strictly on something like race or gender? And yet, in many places, lawmakers seem to think that the only way to deal with dog attacks is through breed specific legislation.
This was not always the case. In fact, in a 1977 New York Times article on the increasing number of dog bites, pit bulls are not even mentioned. The rise is blamed on the increase in popularity of large dogs in general, particularly when they were intended to be guard dogs.
Something changed very quickly between then and the end of the 70s. My human pack did two Google news searches from 1950 to 1980, the first for “pit bull attack” and the second for “dog attack,” and found that before about 1976, the breed of dog attacking is rarely specified in the headline. After that date, if the dog is a pit bull, then it’s mentioned in the headline; if it’s not a pit bull, then it’s just a dog.
Something else changed as well, and that is the idea of personal responsibility. In a highly publicized case from the 1940s, Joe Munn, a dog breeder from Miami, Florida, was charged with manslaughter after eight of his dogs escaped their pen and attacked and killed a woman — eerily similar to the present case in Little Rock.
Munn was sentenced to five years in prison and the sentence was upheld on appeal. Twenty-six of his dogs were also destroyed. And yet, there was no call for a ban on pit bulls in Miami at the time — it wasn’t until over 40 years later that the breed was banned there — because existing law already provided penalties for all owners whose dogs attacked innocent people.
The case of Pamela Devitt is tragic for the people involved, but it should not become a cause for further tragedy for an entire breed of dogs. Pamela’s husband, Ben Devitt, said it himself in an interview with LA radio hosts John and Ken: “I do not blame the dogs. I blame people who don’t take responsibility for their animals.”
Responsibility is the key word. When we agree to adopt a dog, we become responsible for every aspect of its life, from care and feeding to training and behavior. Dogs are animal first, then species, breed, and name. Any breed of dog can be vicious and, in fact, according to a recent University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine study, the three most aggressive dog breeds are dachshund, Chihuahua, and Jack Russell terrier.
So next time you read about pit bulls attacking a human, remember: It’s not the dogs’ fault, but the owner’s. Together, perhaps we can educate people so that one day the term “breed specific legislation” will be a distant memory, and blame for dog attacks will be placed where it truly belongs — on the humans who allowed them to happen.