The tragedy of serious dog bites – guest post by Caroline Kilsdonk

Thought-provoking article on the genetic and environmental factors behind severe dog bites
By veterinarian and (geriatry) zootherapist Caroline Kilsdonk, September 2015. Translation: Laure-Anne Visele

Full illustration credits at the end of the post

About the author: zootherapist in Canada

caroofficielle1Caroline is an accredited veterinarian, mother of four, zootherapist, bioethics graduate and talented blogger. Her intellectual output fascinates researchers and laymen alike.

She shares her moving reflections on bioethics, science, the dog-man relationship, zootherapy, and much more, in her (French-speaking) blog: Raison et compassion.

To find out more about Caroline’s work in zootherapy, read her interview on Canis bonus.

The article below is a translation of one of her blog posts. In this post, Caroline tries to make sense of a devastating incident in her neighbourhood. She approaches the emotional minefield with the intellectual honesty of a trained bioethicist, and her trademark compassion.

The tragedy of serious dog bites

A few hundreds of meters from my house, a little girl has been brutally attacked and mauled by a dog.

On the one hand, voices against the “breed” are being heard again (the pit-bull is not really a breed, but a clump of anything that vaguely resembles an American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, English Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bulldog, Bull Terrier and others, and any combination thereof) and on the other hand, voices assuring us that there is no such thing as a bad breed, just a bad education.

A newborn pit bull is no longer a blank slate than you or me were at birth

A newborn pup is no longer a blank slate than you or me were at birth

In what I call “the dog world” (shelters, trainers, and veterinarians), the focus lies on the determining role of the owners in soundly socialising, educating and managing their dog. I approve! Having said that I ponder about the tendency to deny that innate individual or breed characteristics may exist. In the dog world, it is acceptable to say «People are scared of pit-bulls…Yet they are such good dogs!» but not to say «Maybe they are more dangerous than others».


Bad apples: is it really just about education?

Last year, I attended a webinar on canine aggression for veterinarians (for an overwhelmingly American audience). We could all interact through messenger chats throughout the conference. Over the course of the day, a reputed university researcher came to present the preliminary results of one of his studies. The data was not yet complete. He explained that, so far, it pointed at a greater dangerosity from Nordic and molossoid dogs. What a commotion this generated!… Comments flooded in, everyone convinced this could not be! Derogatory comments about the researcher started to pour in… There were even mentions of his advanced age, undermining his credibility and revealing a note of ageism…

I would like to offer two explanations for the phenomenon of denying the possibility of a difference in dangerosity between breeds. The first is that we react viscerally to anything remotely reminiscent of human racism. There is a big difference between racism aimed at humans and racism aimed at domestic animals: we control the reproduction of domestic animals and deem it

People conflate breedism with racism

People conflate breedism with racism

acceptable. We even practice eugenics: we choose the breeding animal according to certain criteria we deem favorable… The second explanation relates to viewing each individual animal as a blank slate. This is inaccurate. Neither my slate, nor yours, nor that of your dog was blank at birth. Sure our slates will be marked by our environment and experiences, but it was never blank to start with.

The objective and scientific reality is that we simply do not know which breeds (if any) are more dangerous. Lacking evidence, the dog world chooses to stay breed-neutral and insist on educating owners and dogs. We can work on that point and we know it can be effective.

I would also like to stress the difference between a dog who bites because he is irritated for one reason or another and the one who bites out of predatory motivation (he acts towards his victim as he would towards prey). Sure we can achieve a lot through education, but can we ever expect every single owner to be a responsible one? Knowing that there will always be delinquent owners who are attracted by the intimidating looks of the breed, I fail to see the point of trying to convince them that all dogs are born equal. The question nature OR nurture is not what determines a dog’s behaviour. It is the combination of both that does.

Nature and nurture are inextricably intertwined

Nature and nurture are inextricably intertwined

I am not at all suggesting that «pit-bulls» are bad dogs and that there is such a thing as bad breeds. What I am saying is that those who insist aggression is purely due to education factors have no more evidence backing themselves than those who claim that pit-bulls are a dangerous breed.

Drive your policies through fact and logic, not ideology

Drive your policies through fact and logic, not ideology

You can no more generalize from an adorable pit-bull you have met (we have all seen them!) than from one involved in an aggression case.

Am I telling you that I support Breed Specific Legislation? No, all the less when the “breed” can’t even be defined! What I am saying is that public health would benefit from all involved genuinely trying to approach the topic with a clear head, unmotivated by ideology.

I can safely assume that we all want to protect our children. Unfortunately, I know from experience how hard it can be to change the behaviour of an unwilling owner. It is hard for the community to protect itself from them. They often have to go through countless inefficient procedures, not having access to simple steps to protect themselves. Acting against irresponsible and recalcitrant owners, that should unite us all. Shouldn’t we start with that?


Patronek GJ, Sacks JJ, Delise KM, Cleary DV, Marder AR. Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013 Dec 15; 243(12):1726-36

Illustration credits

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