Debunking Merritt Clifton’s “Statistics”

Jun 30th, 2010

June 30, 2010

Editor of Animal People, Merritt Clifton, in 2006 put out a statistical report called “Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada September 1982 to November 13, 2006.”  Because so many visitors to this site talk about the Clifton statistics and because it has been used to push breed-specific legislation (BSL), I thought I would offer a debunking of Clifton’s junk science so that BSL adherents and municipalities that entertain the false notion that BSL will prevent bites/attacks/fatalities will be educated.

First, Clifton’s statistics incorporate “press accounts” of dog attacks which are notoriously inaccurate.  The press is in no way qualified to make breed determinations, nor are Animal Control, veterinarians, or law enforcement.  In addition, with the press calling any and all dogs that can pass for a “pit bull” a “pit bull” (which is a type, not a breed), what will victims of dog attacks and witnesses most likely say the “breed” in question was?  And as Clifton himself notes, his statistics are “by no means a complete list of fatal and otherwise serious dog attacks,” which means that there is little one could accurately conclude from Clifton’s “statistics.”

Second, any statistics that designate “pit bull” or “pit bull terrier” as if it were an actual breed are automatically erroneous and skewed, and therefore meaningless.  Yet Clifton does not seem to understand this distinction.  Instead he maintains that his,

…table covers only attacks by dogs of clearly identified breed type or ancestry, as designated by animal control officers or others with evident expertise… (1).

“Pit bull” may be a type (a broad type), but it’s not a breed.  Therefore the “pit bull terrier” designation in Clifton’s “statistics” should be discounted since his “statistics” also contain actual breeds.  Indeed, comparing the vague designation “pit bull” to actual breeds is like comparing apples with oranges. (Nor are Animal Control officers experts in breed determination and Clifton’s assertion that ACOs are experts in breed determination shows the extent of his ignorance.)

The slang term “pit bull” can potentially describe anywhere from 3-30+ breeds of dog and their mixes.  For instance, in Irvine, California, three men broke into a local animal shelter and stole what they thought were “pit bull” puppies but which turned out to be Chihuahuas!  So, what is a “pit bull”?  Anything proponents of breed-specific legislation (BSL) wish it to be.  Yet, does it not follow that if you define “pit bull” as the usual three breeds — American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), American Staffordshire Terrier (AmStaff), and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (Staffies) — and any mixed breed or dog resembling these three breeds that there may not be any medium- or large-breed dog you couldn’t define as a “pit bull”?

Third, these statistics do not take into account population sizes of breeds, which, if one were able to accurately discern them, would help determine a breed’s statistical propensity to bite.  Of course if you could accurately determine a breed’s statistical propensity to bite, it would probably be comparable to other breeds which would of course prove nothing other than that every population of dog breed has a very, very low-level likelihood of biting/attacking/killing.  In other words, because population sizes for breeds commonly and erroneously called “pit bulls” are unknowable, there is no way to determine their propensity to bite, and even if you could, the findings would most likely be comparable to any other medium- or large-sized breed.

Clifton seems to vaguely grasp the concept of breed population sizes and their importance to the accuracy of bite statistics, but only for Rottweilers.  He observed that,

[Rottweilers] seem to show up disproportionately often in the mauling, killing, and maiming statistics simply because they are both quite popular and very powerful, capable of doing a great deal of damage in cases where bites by other breeds might be relatively harmless. (4)

By his own admission, Rottweilers show up in stats more because their population size is larger!  This of course does not make Rottweilers inherently vicious, only prevalent.  And Rottweilers are comparable to other large-breed dogs that are equally capable of doing damage in an attack.  So why is the popularity (meaning prevalence) of Rottweilers offered as a reason why they disproportionately show up in mauling, killing, and maiming statistics, but the same apologetic is not given for dogs called “pit bulls” which are also thought to be quite popular?

Clifton concludes of “pit bulls” and Rottweilers that they are dogs that,

…not only must be handled with special precautions, but also must be regulated with special requirements appropriate to the risk they may pose to the public and other animals, if they are to be kept at all (7).

The only “special precautions” “pit bulls” and Rottweilers should be handled with are the same ones any breed of dog should be handled with.  We prefer Cesar Millan’s exercise-and-discipline-before-affection model for all dog owners, not just bully breed fanciers.  And as Mr. Millan himself would say, there are no problem breeds, only problem owners.

Still, it’s odd that Clifton would single out Rottweilers and “pit bulls,” insinuating that they are inherently dangerous and should therefore be handled with kitty gloves when he does not give the same admonition for other breeds who are also frequent victims of breed-specific legislation.  For instance, Clifton adds this note about German Shepherds:

In the German shepherd mauling, killing, and maiming cases I have recorded, there have almost always been circumstances of duress: the dog was deranged from being kept alone on a chain for prolonged periods without human contract [his type-o, not mine], was starving, was otherwise severely abused, was protecting puppies, or was part of a pack including other dangerous dogs (5).

Has it really escaped Clifton’s notice that the dogs he calls “pit bull terriers” are inarguably the most abused, neglected, and tortured dogs on the planet?  Why does Clifton offer abuse and neglect as a mitigating factor for German Shepherd maulings/killings/maimings, but not for “pit bulls”?

Clifton also goes on to offer an apologetic for Huskies as well, calling them a “special case” because the dogs are “kept in packs, in semi-natural conditions” (5).  He concludes that,

…many of the husky attack cases might be viewed more as attacks by feral animals, even though they technically qualified for this log because they were identified as owned and trained animals, who were supposed to know that they were not to attack (5).

Again, why is the same apologetic not offered as a mitigating factor for dogs he calls “pit bull terriers” who are frequently kept by criminal dog fighters unsocialized, untrained (except for illicit purposes), and which, as anyone who has ever worked in bully breed rescue can tell you, have been let go to free roam after losing fights?  Just like Huskies, “pit bulls,” Rottweilers, and indeed, any breed of dog, can revert to a “semi-natural” “feral” state and can quickly adopt a pack mentality if they are left free-roaming with other dogs.  But again, this is not a breed issue; it’s an owner abuse and neglect issue, and it’s a phenomenon that can happen to any breed of dog left free-roaming too long.

And as an addendum, a dog should not merit an automatic death sentence just because s/he has been trained to fight.  Dogs aren’t born fighters; they must be trained to fight.  And as Michael Vick’s dogs showed, they can be rehabilitated and go on to make perfectly loving and pleasing pets.  Indeed, according to the Washington Post,

Of the 49 [Vick] pit bulls animal behavior experts evaluated in the fall, only one was deemed too vicious to warrant saving and was euthanized.

And yet animal rights groups like PETA and the Humane Society of the United States were calling for these dogs to be killed, which many found incredibly unethical, inhumane, and downright sickening.   But folks who had worked in bully breed rescue (including yours truly) knew better and advocated for these dogs to be spared.  And, in fact, the overwhelming majority of Vick’s dogs went on to be rehabilitated, fostered, and even adopted out, while still others appeared in the National Geographic show Dog Town. (Sports Illustrated also gave an update on Vick’s dogs in 2008 which you can read here.)

If by “pit bull terrier” Clifton means American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers, then he should do some research because it is well known among fanciers that these breeds have been carefully bred for over a hundred years to not hurt people.  In fact, Staffies and their related breeds instinctively love children and have frequently been recognized for their nanny-like qualities.  For instance, the encyclopedia describes the American Staffordshire Terrier as “affectionate…loyal and…good with children” which they say makes “it an outstanding family pet.” So often we see BSL proponents mentioning “pit bulls'” fighting heritage as a reason why the “breed” is supposedly inherently vicious.  Again, this belief shows astounding ignorance since breeds once bred for traits that might lend themselves to being exploited for fighting had to be pleasing to humans so that dog owners before and during a fight could examine the opposing dog — flank, teeth, mouth, tail, etc. —  without being attacked themselves.  Indeed, Staffies (from which APBTs and AmStaffs are derived) have been bred for over a hundred years to be inherently friendly and people-loving.  You can look this information up in the Encyclopedia Britannica for heaven’s sake!  And have we forgotten the heroics of Sgt. Stubby, how endearing “Pete the Pup” from Our Gang was, or that Helen Keller had a bully breed?  How about all the celebrities — like Jon Stewart, Jessica Biel, or Jessica Alba to name a few — that own bully breeds?

Yet still, the “pit bull’s” detractors make false claims like Clifton does in the following incredibly ignorant statement:

Pit bulls…are also notorious for attacking seemingly without warning, a tendency exacerbated by the custom of docking pit bulls’ tails so that warning signals are not easily recognized. Thus the adult victim of a pit bull attack may have had little or no opportunity to read the warning signals that would avert an attack from any other dog (4).

Does Clifton know dogs at all?  There is no such thing as a dog breed that doesn’t give warning signs before it attacks, not even that mythical “breed” “pit bull.”  For instance, the parenting section of a typical question-answer website informs parents of the common signs of an impending dog bite or attack — which can include stiffening, raised hackles, a standing tail, a showing of the whites of the eyes, and of course bared teeth and growling — adding,

Dogs typically don’t attack without warning.  In most cases, dogs are sending subtle cues that signal distress before resorting to an attack.

Simply because Clifton may be ignorant of the subtle cues that a dog of any breed may give before attacking, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  Again, there is no such thing as a breed of dog that attacks without warning, and certainly not simply because Clifton believes that so many “pit bulls” have docked tails and therefore one more tell-tail (pun intended) sign of their impending attack has been eliminated.  How ludicrous!  Unfortunately, the false claims proffered by Clifton appear to have made their way into many of today’s dangerous dog laws (which declare a dog dangerous or vicious for attacking without reason or warning), which only serves to illustrate that those pushing legislation like BSL and dangerous dog laws are not always a knowledgeable or reliable source for accurate information, and may in fact have an agenda.

Clifton continues with his breed-specific vilification:

The traditional approach to dangerous dog legislation is to allow ‘one free bite,’ at which point the owner is warned. On second bite, the dog is killed. The traditional approach, however, patently does not apply in addressing the threats from pit bull terriers, Rottweilers, and wolf hybrids. In more than two-thirds of the cases I have logged, the life-threatening or fatal attack was apparently the first known dangerous behavior by the animal in question. Children and elderly people were almost always the victims. (6)

It is important here to distinguish between reports on and off the record.  If “apparently the first known dangerous behavior” means only those complaints logged by Animal Control, or some other agency of record, then that doesn’t mean there weren’t prior complaints.  A lot of Animal Controls won’t cite owners of free-roaming dogs at first (or sometimes even for other things like growling or threatening), or perhaps even after several instances of the dog being at-large.  But the dog being at-large could be the first warning sign that you could potentially have a dangerous dog threatening the community (and not because of the breed of the dog, but because, as already mentioned, free-roaming dogs of any breed can revert to a pack mentality). So what Clifton is saying is specious and therefore should not be used as any kind of indicator of the need for breed-specific legislation for “pit bulls,” Rottweilers, or wolf hybrids. [And here I should note that there are some who maintain that all dogs are technically wolf hybrids because domesticated dogs are descended from wolves.  So in essence, when a municipality passes a wolf hybrid ban, they may very well have banned the domesticated dog altogether.]

Clifton also tends to confuse “dangerous dogs” with their irresponsible owners; and indeed, it is the irresponsible owner who is the true danger:

One might hope that educating the public against the acquisition of dangerous dogs would help; but the very traits that make certain breeds dangerous also appeal to a certain class of dog owner. Thus publicizing their potentially hazardous nature has tended to increase these breeds’ popularity (6).

Well, doesn’t that just indicate that it is the irresponsible owners, who have the potential to own any breed of dog and make them dangerous, who are culpable?  These kinds of owners don’t train their dogs, don’t socialize them, and often don’t contain them.  Is this a breed problem or a people problem?  Ban specific breeds and irresponsible owners either ignore the ban or simply switch breeds.  Oh but every bully breed or Rottweiler owner must be a dog fighter, thug, drug dealer, or pimp right?  That’s what BSL proponents would have elected officials believe.  Yet city councils seldom hear about responsible owners because these owners are doing just exactly what they should be doing — training, socializing, and containing their dogs — and in far greater numbers than irresponsible dog owners.  So chalk up irresponsible dog ownership to a couple of bad apples who spoil the whole bunch.  And, implicit in Clifton’s comment is a latent classism and/or racism since “a certain class of dog owner” probably refers to just who you think it does.  No progressive city council will want to align themselves with legislation that is perceived to be racist and classist, though BSL so often is just that: racist and classist.

[And as an aside, Clifton mentions that the "publicizing" of the "potentially hazardous nature" of "dangerous dogs" "has tended to increase these breeds' popularity."  Yet it should be noted that the very animal rights group(s) that now clandestinely, or not so clandestinely, push breed bans and breed-specific restrictions, were also the one(s) circulating pamphlets back in the day warning about the dangers of street dog fighting; pamphlets which turned out to be a primer on how to train a dog to fight.  In other words, a radical faction of the animal rights movement created the very problem they now supposedly seek to correct.  Unfortunately, their "correction" of the problem -- breed-specific legislation -- involves killing a lot of innocent dogs, which not so surprisingly aligns with their agenda to end domestic animal ownership.  We'll come back to this issue when we address the ideology of nativism later in this post.]

Oddly, while Clifton outlines the traits that supposedly make up a “dangerous dog” and conjectures about “a certain class of dog owner,” he does a subtle dance.  He presents what he thinks qualifies as evidence of the inherent danger that certain breeds supposedly pose, and at the same time highlights the problematic nature of breed-specific legislation:

What all this may mean relative to legislation is problematic.  Historically, breed-specific legislation has proved very difficult to enforce because of the problems inherent in defining animals for whom there may be no breed standards, or conflicting standards.  Both pit bull terriers and wolf hybrids tend to elude easy legal definition; neither can they be recognized by genetic testing (6).

This little two-step Clifton does may serve only to give the appearance of scientific impartiality when Clifton must have known full well his “statistics” would go on to be used to push for breed-specific legislation.

Junk science often has the appearance of being correct or truthful which is why I prior referred to Clifton’s opinion about the supposed dangers of specific breeds as specious.  Yet the issue is far more complex than Clifton would have the reader believe.  For instance, the term “pit bull” as used by the media, law enforcement, Animal Control, legislation, and people in general, doesn’t elude easy legal definition, it eludes legal definition entirely.  When challenged for constitutionality, ordinances that define “pit bull” as if it were a breed have consistently been found to be unconstitutionally vague.  Still, by Clifton’s own admission, BSL doesn’t work because it is unenforceable.  Additionally, BSL has been proven to be an unconstitutional violation of due process, equal protection, and ownership and use rights.  [And when Clifton refers to breed standards, it should also be mentioned that use of breed standards (like the AKC's, UKC's, or ADBA's) in BSL is a copyright infringement.]

And even stranger still, after Clifton has spent so much time addressing the supposed inherent danger of specific “breeds” like the “pit bull,” he maintains that,

Temperament is not the issue, nor is it even relevant. What is relevant is actuarial risk (7).

If temperament is not the issue, and only actuarial evidence will suffice, then how does one go about creating a risk assessment for a dog “breed” — “pit bull” — that doesn’t exist?  And again, while Rottweilers may appear to bite in higher numbers, Clifton has failed to take into account population sizes for Rottweilers or any other breed or breed type in his data, which renders them meaningless.  Such poor data-gathering methods will not, and do not, hold up under any sort of scientific or legal scrutiny.  [Perhaps too, Clifton doesn't want anyone looking at temperament statistics because he knows that the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier score 85.3%, 83.9%, and 88% respectively on their temperaments tests.  These scores are comparable to breeds like the Golden Retriever which scored 84.6% on average on its temperament test.  It should also be noted that bully breeds are among the most frequently temperament-tested dog breeds, as are Rottweilers (83%). (Source: the American Temperament Test Society.)]

Perhaps Clifton is dismissive of temperament as pertains to “pit bulls” and Rottweilers because their pleasing temperaments (evident in their temperament tests) negate what Clifton has set out prove.  Instead, he claims that,

If a pit bull terrier or a Rottweiler has a bad moment, often someone is maimed or killed–and that has now created off-the-chart actuarial risk, for which the dogs as well as their victims are paying the price (7).

Clifton’s remarks are a variant of the locking-jaws/more powerful jaws and “gameness” urban mythology of the “pit bull” (and, from Clifton’s point of view, the Rottweiler too it would seem).  Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist at the Savanna River Ecology Laboratory, a professor, and an expert in training, handling, behavior and the anatomy of bully breeds, testified in the Tellings v. Toledo case in 2006 that,

…pit bulls [which the court defined earlier as meaning the American Pit Bull Terrier] do not have locking jaws. Based on actual dog dissections and measurement of their skulls, the evidence demonstrated that pit bull jaw muscles and bone structure are the same as other similarly sized dogs.

The court concluded that,

No evidence was presented to demonstrate that a pit bull’s bite is any stronger than other dogs of its size and build…[C]ontrary to information relied upon and perpetuated by earlier case law…and law review articles…assertions that a pit bull can bite with a ‘force of 2,000 pounds per square inch’ have absolutely no basis in fact or scientific proof.

Additionally, in 2005, Dr. Brady Barr in a show for National Geographic called Dangerous Encounters conducted bite-force tests for several kinds of animals.  Also included in the tests were three breeds of dog: the German Shepherd, the Rottweiler, and the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT). [And while the APBT is an actual breed, I should make it clear that we still don't know if this is the breed to which the media and others are referring when they use the slang term "pit bull" to describe bites/attacks; though APBTs are almost always one of the breeds named when "pit bull" bans are passed.]  Of the three, the American Pit Bull Terrier had the least amount of bite force, which was found to be well below the average dog’s 320-pound bite pressure.

Clifton goes on to assert that,

Pit bulls seem to differ behaviorally from other dogs in having far less inhibition about attacking people who are larger than they are (4).

Again, this is a variation on the claim that “gameness” causes all “pit bulls” to be inherently vicious, that they are somehow physiologically different from other breeds, or that they differ in temperament, which Dr. Brisbin also debunked:

Many pit bulls [again, which the court defined as meaning the American Pit Bull Terrier] may also exhibit a behavior or trait referred to as ‘gameness,’ which, simply stated, is the ability or willingness to continue doing an action once begun, i.e. ’stick-to-it-iveness.’ Gameness, in itself, is not a negative trait. For example, the ability to carry out duties or trained tasks, despite injury, distraction, or frustration, is desirable in pit bulls which have been trained to be search and rescue dogs, protection dogs in the U.S. military, drug sniffing dogs, and therapy dogs.

Once again, we can so clearly see that it is owner involvement that makes a dog potentially dangerous, not the breed; this principle is potentially true for any breed of dog in the wrong hands.

Additionally, Clifton accuses “pit bull” defenders of adhering to the “animal rights philosophy which holds that all breeds are created equal” (6).  Mere logic would bear out the fact that no breed is created equal because the different breeds  — ranging from all different shapes and sizes — were selected for different traits.  Some were bred for traits that might lend themselves to herding, hunting, rooting out moles and rats, etc.  And?

Perhaps Clifton means to say that we — meaning breed defenders, not animal rightists — hold that there is no such thing as an inherently vicious or dangerous breed.  Ironically, it has been a radical faction of the animal rights movement — PETA and the Humane Society of the United States — that has pushed breed-specific legislation.  Why?  Because of something called “nativism.” Nathan Winograd, author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America defines nativism as the,

…belief that the value of an individual animal comes from lineage and that worth as a species stems from being at a particular location first (79).

What Winograd can’t or won’t say is that some animal rights organizations are adherents of nativism and may not have an interest in saving pets’ lives, but may in fact be willfully seeking to exterminate them. To many animal rights activists and environmentalists who subscribe to nativism, domesticated pets represent a violation of “Mother Nature,” or the living Gaia, which to them is the natural order of things.

The essay The Ethic of Care and the Problem of Wild Animals sums this view up tidily:

Without addressing the difficult issue of the rationality of nonhuman animals, the autonomy and independence of at least wild animals can be and has been defended. In fact, environmental ethicists have long emphasized the difference between wild and domestic animals along these lines: Aldo Leopold wrote that the essence of environmental ethics was “reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free” (Callicott 1992, 67). According to environmental ethicist J. Baird Callicott, wild animals are autonomous and independent, while domestic animals are human creations which are metaphysically unfree. By this Callicott means that domestic animals are nothing but what we have selectively bred them to be, such that it is as meaningless to speak of setting free domestic animals as it would be to speak of setting free a chair.

In the minds of many environmentalists and animal rights activists, since you can’t set domestic animals free (after all, they are, according to them, unnatural human creations), you must necessarily “humanely” “euthanize” them. In other words, in order to return to the “natural order” of things, indigenous species should take precedent over human encroachment, which includes human domestication of animals, because wild (i.e. natural, indigenous), animals were there first.

When you understand nativism and the resultant intentional killing of domesticated pets by radical animal rightists, the agenda becomes undeniably clear: a willful extermination campaign is underway to eradicate the existence of domesticated animals worldwide (including agricultural animals).   Indeed, Clifton’s ignorance may not be ignorance at all, but may in fact suggest an underlying agenda. Still, Clifton accuses “pit bull” and Rottweiler defenders of adhering to animal rightist ideology?  Well, perhaps Mr. Clifton is projecting since it appears that he is the one adhering to nativism, his spotty “statistics” having been used to push for animal rightists’ breed-specific legislation which has seen the killing of thousands upon thousands of innocent dogs.

Clifton concludes,

…it is sheer foolishness to encourage people to regard pit bull terriers and Rottweilers as just dogs like any other, no matter how much they may behave like other dogs under ordinary circumstances (7).

No, it is sheer foolishness to give credence to a junk science set of “statistics” whose author may very well have an agenda.