In Defense of Wolf Dogs

Poor dog:

An illegal wolf-dog hybrid was found roaming wild in a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn, authorities said Thursday. Police found the approximately 3-year-old, 53-pound female wearing a collar and chain near Elton Street and Vandalia Avenue in East New York on Tuesday evening, according to Richard Gentles, spokesperson for New York Animal Care and Control. “She’s not a wild animal,” Gentles told the New York Post. “Nobody’s come forward to claim her,” he added, noting that it is illegal to possess a wolf-dog hybrid in New York City.

My wife and I had a hybrid dog exactly like that, from puppyhood in 1993 until the dog passed away from acute kidney failure in 2001. Her name was Laska (that’s her in the photo, caught in a common moment of affection with my wife). We adored her. Laska was incredibly smart and didn’t have an aggressive bone in her body despite her half-wild nature.

No offense to any of the other dogs who were or are part of our family, but Laska was maybe the best canine we’ve ever had. I still love picturing her when she heard a siren: She’d slowly raise her head heavenwards and produce a gorgeous, content-sounding, soul-piercing howl.

Laska came to us from a Maryland pound, where the employees were almost as smitten with the three-month-old pup as we were. They knew she was a hybrid, which should have led to a death sentence, but they couldn’t bring themselves to schedule the dog for execution. I am still grateful to the pound workers who not only let the dog live, but agreed to give her to us. They broke state law. So did we. I can’t say I’ve been wracked with guilt about it.

We trained Laska, and she thrived, and she spent eight trouble-free, happiness-filled years with us. Well, OK — trouble-free if you don’t count the fact that we had to always bungee-cord our fridge because she would otherwise raid it. There was also the time she found a bucket of lard and wolfed down all of it. Just picture the digestive consequences of eating a bucket of lard. On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t.

Hybrid dogs are very high-maintenance. That means, they’re not for everyone. Although we had no major issues with Laska, I defer to the experts, who for the most part agree that wolf dogs have a high prey drive and are more likely than ‘regular’ dogs to challenge higher-ranking members of the pack. That can have tragic consequences, although it doesn’t tell me much that, according to Wikipedia, 13 people were killed by wolf dogs in an 18-year period. That’s 13 absolute tragedies for sure, but given that the wolf dog population in the United States is estimated to be as high as two million, wolf dogs who kill appear to represent about 0.001% of their kind.

This report (pdf) looks at fatal dog attacks over a twenty-year period. The crux of the issue can be gleaned from the following table:

Note that across all breeds and crossbreeds, wolf dogs included, there are multiple two-year periods in which not a single dog in that category killed a person.

The only exception is the “pitbull-type” dog. The vagueness of that suffix is a bit troubling. No doubt some of the dogs implicated in “pitbull” attacks are actual pitbulls, and no doubt some other attacks are attributed to pitbulls almost by default. What I mean is that most people, including dog lovers like myself, can’t reliably identify a pitbull. And most likely, you can’t either. If you don’t believe me, take the test.

The authors of the above report conclude:

Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues. Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs.

That means that maybe it shouldn’t be against the law to own a hybrid dog, or a “pitbull-type” dog. Maybe it shouldn’t be against government regulations for service members to live on a military base and own a Doberman, a Rottweiler, or a Chow. (It’s interesting that if Theodore Roosevelt or General Patton were alive today, they’d be banned from bringing their dogs to a military base.)

Dog maulings are beyond upsetting. An out-of-control dog can cause horrible trauma and even death, and the suffering of the human victims should never be minimized or swept under the rug. But I do take exception to the lazy vilification of certain breeds. It can be said that regardless of breed, ninety percent of dog bites are one hundred percent the owner’s fault. Cooler heads should prevail when it comes to targeting certain breeds for persecution.

Fatal dog attacks are rare, but due to their horrific nature, they loom large in the public imagination. The fact is that about 350 Americans die of falls in the bathtub or shower every year, and a similar number die from accidental suffocation or strangulation in their own beds. Such cases rarely make it onto the evening news. By contrast, the yearly number of fatal U.S. dog attacks hovers around 30, and every single one of them ricochets across hundreds if not thousands of local and national news outlets.

By the way, I hope that if you love animals, you’ll join me in condemning not only the absolute shits who aggressively train their dogs to be cocked weapons, macho instruments of intimidation; but also the absolute shits on the so-called animal-welfare side who believe that in order to save the dog, they have to destroy it.

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P.S.: When it comes to banning dangerous dogs, U.K. authorities don’t even pretend to be equitable or fair anymore. The government’s website states unabashedly that “Whether your dog is a banned type depends on what it looks like, rather than its breed or name.” Emphasis mine.

P.P.S.: Mimicry for targeted breeds. Turn your Doberman into a poodle! Conversion kits now available!

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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3 Comments

  1. Posted December 24, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    There’s a whole bunch of reasons why that table of dog bite-related fatalities could be a misleading if you try to use it to estimate the relative dangerousness of various dog breeds.

    First, as you point out, it’s hard for untrained people to classify dogs by breed. A dog kills someone, you’ve heard that pit bulls are dangerous, the dog looks a bit like a pit bull, so you check the “pit bull” box. (By the way, the American Kennel Club doesn’t recognize anything called a “Pit Bull” as a breed, which may be why the table refers to a “pit bull-type” dog.)

    Second, a lot depends on how the broadly the breeds are defined. If the breeding standard allows a lot of variation, then a lot more dogs will fall into that breed. On the other hand, if breeders have instead defined a group of related breeds, then the exact same dogs would be split across multiple breeds, reducing the numbers for any one breed.

    Third, in order to use a table like this to estimate the dangerousness of a breed, you must have information on prevalence: You need to know how many of each breed are present in the U.S. Without that, you can’t get the rate information you’d need to measure dangerousness.

    Finally, the raw statistics do not include the factor that I suspect is the most important: Owner intent. If lots of people buy pit bulls because the want a fearsome attack dog, and if they train the dog to be a killer and routinely bring it into situations where it will have the opportunity to kill, then of course the pit bull breed will be at the top of list like this. But by itself that doesn’t mean that a pit bull you buy and train as a family pet will be any more dangerous than any other breed.

  2. Posted December 24, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Re: “You need to know how many of each breed are present in the U.S. Without that, you can’t get the rate information you’d need to measure dangerousness.”

    Agreed. I took that into account when I riffed on the deadliness of wolf dogs, but reliable numbers about breed prevalence are hard to come by. When I tried to find out how many wolf dogs there are in the United States, estimates turned out to range from half a million to two and a half million. Quite the range.

  3. Posted December 25, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    By the way, when I wrote “you” I didn’t mean you. It was a generic you. The point being that there really isn’t enough good data for anyone to go around passing breed-specific legislation.