"Aggressive owners have aggressive dogs."
This is how veterinarian Dr Mahfouz Aziz sums up the incidents of dogs mauling and killing several persons over the past few weeks. Speaking at the Azizi Veterinarian Clinic in Chaguanas, which he has owned and operated for the past 25 years, Aziz told the Sunday Express that dogs become aggressive through instinct and training.
Three weeks ago, a German Shepherd and an Akita mixed dog mauled four-year-old Ezekiel Renne-Cambridge, and last week seven pit bulls attacked and killed 46-year-old security guard Denise Rackal. "I suspect all dogs which attack people have had aggression training, whether formal or informal," Aziz says, "as opposed to obedience training."
The Shepherd dogs are owned by a businesswoman, and the pit bulls, which have since been put to sleep, were owned by a policeman. In both cases, neighbours had complained to the owners about their dogs attacking other animals, and even biting people, but had been ignored.
The businesswoman, Vidya Emrith, had sent her dogs away after one biting incident, but brought them back after a few weeks. But the most infamous incident of dogs killing a human being occurred in 1998, when two pit bulls owned by businessman and political financier Steve Ferguson killed a Rastafarian named Christopher Charles. Ferguson has spent the past few months in jail as the United States government tried to extradite him to face fraud charges arising from the Piarco Airport project.
However, Aziz says that it is not the breed of dog per se which is the issue. "Pit bulls, Akitas, and so on are the breeds most often used by the owners to perpetuate their aggression in the dogs," he explains. Additionally, elderly persons, children, and women are more likely to be attacked. In 2000, the list of such persons included six-year-old Kristian Clairmont; Monica Charles; 18-month-old Darius Lalla; Pamela Wright-Smith and her eight-year-old daughter Shekina; 71-year-old Kimmoi Wong Won, who was killed by her son's dogs; and 72-year-old Norris Young, a former national footballer.
"All dogs are naturally predators, so they can identify vulnerability," Aziz explains. Table 1 shows, from a limited sample based on newspaper reports, the persons most likely to be attacked and severely injured or killed by dogs in Trinidad and Tobago.
In a 2008 survey of primary school children carried out by Georges K Adesiyun and Karla Georges from UWI's School of Veterinary Medicine, 28 percent of eight-to-12-year-olds reported that they had been bitten at least once by a dog. And, contrary to what many dog owners claim, one-third of these children were bitten without having any interaction with the dog. More than half of them were bitten by dogs known to them, but which were not a family pet. Girls were just as likely to be bitten as boys – this last fact also contradicting the owners' claim that dogs attack because the children tease them, since girls are unlikely to do so.
The researchers concluded: "A public educational campaign is needed on responsible pet ownership. In addition, children must be taught effective ways of avoiding attacks or reducing injury in the event of a dog attack. The Dangerous Dogs Act 2000 must be proclaimed in parliament by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to exert more pressure on pet owners to safeguard the public from the menace of dog attacks." (See Box 1 for selected clauses from the Act which, if enforced, would have made the recent attacks less likely to occur.)
But, contrary to what is implied in the breeds listed in the Act as "dangerous dogs", it is the owners who are really the problem. In a 2006 article about pit bulls called "Troublemakers" written by the half-Jamaican writer Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker and compiled in his book What the Dog Saw, Gladwell cited tests which showed that pitbull dogs were calmer than other breeds. "The American Temperament Test Society has put 25,000 dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog's stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four percent of the pit bulls that have been given this test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, collies, and all but one variety of dachshund," Gladwell writes. The president of the ATTS, Carl Herkstroeter, said that bad pit bulls "have aggressive tendencies that are either bred in by the breeder, trained in by the trainer, or reinforced by the owner."
The owners of dangerous dogs in the US have a specific profile. "In about a quarter of fatal dog-bite cases, the dog owners were previously involved in illegal fighting," writes Gladwell. They were also often socially isolated and male. A 2009 report by the US Canine Research Council recorded 31 fatal attacks on humans by dogs. The US has 77 million dogs in a population of over 300 million people. The number of dogs in Trinidad and Tobago is not known, but with a population of 1.3 million, our fatality rate from dog attacks is ten times higher than America's.
"The overwhelming majority of these isolated tragedies – 22 out of 31 – involved resident dogs, not family pets," the reports says. "Owners maintain the dogs we call resident dogs exclusively outside of regular human interaction: on a chain, in a kennel, in an isolated portion of the home such as a basement or garage, or in the yard. Some owners acquire the dogs for negative purposes, such as guarding, intimidation, protection, fighting, or negligent breeding. These owners only rarely permit the dogs to associate with people and other animals in positive, humane ways."
In T&T, this is not the case. Martin Cuthbert, a carpenter and owner of the pit bull which killed Norris Young, had told the newspapers: "The dog is a house pet. My wife and my two daughters are accustomed looking after the dog." Cuthbert was charged with manslaughter after the killing. In other incidents, the owners have frequently been well-off persons, perhaps because such individuals are more likely to have dogs for property protection, but who all described their dogs as pets.
"The issue is not banning," Aziz says. "What is needed is regulation. Training a dog to be aggressive should be a regulated thing. And people should be licensed to own certain kinds of dogs."
BOX 1: Extracts from the
Dangerous Dogs Act, 2000
6. (1) No person shall own a dangerous dog unless that person within three months of the coming into force of this Act, applies for and obtains an annual licence from the local authority in the area in which he resides.
8. A person who keeps a dangerous dog which is not licensed in accordance with this Act commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of fifty thousand dollars and to imprisonment for one year.
9. (1) A person under the age of eighteen years shall not own or keep a dangerous dog.
13. (1) Except for the purposes of compliance with section 5(1), a person who owns or keeps a dangerous dog shall keep that dog under proper control in his private premises.
(1A.) A person shall not keep a dangerous dog on premises whether indoors or outdoors that accommodate more than one household.
(2) A person who contravenes subsection (1) or (1A) commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of fifty thousand dollars and to imprisonment for one year.
21. A constable or an officer of a local authority duly authorized to exercise the powers conferred by this section may seize a dangerous dog, or a dog which appears to him to be a dangerous dog, which is in a public place or in a place where it is not permitted to be, or destroy such dog.
1. Pitbull Terrier or any dog bred from the Pitbull Terrier.
2. Fila Brasileiro or any dog bred from the Fila Brasileiro.
3. Japanese Tosa or any dog bred from the Japanese Tosa.
Passed in the House of Representatives this 12th day of May, 2000.