According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 4.5 million dog bites occur annually, sending nearly 800,000 Americans to the emergency room. (R)
An analysis of the characteristics of vicious dog owners and their pets suggests the public and lawmakers should reconsider breed-specific legislation.
- Owners of dogs classified as “vicious” were 6-10 times more likely to have criminal records than non-vicious dog owners.
- Vicious dog owners reported higher rates of violent crimes, domestic violence, crimes involving children, drug crimes, and more.
- Owners of vicious dogs scored higher on sensation-seeking and psychopathic personality traits.
- The data indicates dog aggression relates more to owner behavior than breed.
Source: Journal of Forensic Sciences
Pit Bull Owners: Psychological & Behavioral Characteristics (Study)
A study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences sought to identify distinguishing psychological and behavioral characteristics of owners of dogs legally classified as “vicious breeds.”
Researchers surveyed college students about their pets and illegal activities, personality traits, and attitudes.
Laurie Ragatz and colleagues at West Virginia University conducted an online survey of 869 college students to compare owners of “vicious” dogs versus other dogs and non-dog owners.
Subjects described up to three of their dogs and answered questions about their own criminal history, personality traits, attitudes toward animal abuse, and other factors.
The “vicious” breeds classified were: Akita, Chow Chow, Doberman Pinscher, Pit Bull Terrier, Rottweiler, Wolf Hybrid, or any mix of these breeds.
Dogs weighing over 40 pounds that were not one of these breeds were considered “large” dogs, while smaller dogs were classified as “small” dogs.
The study sample included: 66 owners of vicious dogs, 303 owners of large dogs, 194 owners of small dogs, and 181 non-dog owners for comparison.
Vicious Dog Owners Report More Criminal Behavior
The results showed a clear link between ownership of high-risk dogs and antisocial behavior in their owners:
- 15.2% of vicious dog owners had been convicted of a violent crime such as assault or domestic violence. This was 2-10 times higher than the rate among other groups.
- Only 1.5% of vicious dog owners had no criminal record, compared to 7.9-10.4% of other dog owners.
- Vicious dog owners admitted to an average of 4.23 different types of criminal offenses. Other dog owners averaged 2.6-3.02 offenses.
This supported the researchers’ hypothesis that ownership of dogs legally deemed “vicious” correlates with broader patterns of criminal deviance.
Personality Differences Emerge in Vicious Dog Owners
Beyond criminal history, several personality differences stood out among vicious dog owners:
- They scored significantly higher on “sensation seeking,” indicating a preference for thrill-seeking activities and unpredictable situations.
- On a scale of “primary psychopathy” traits such as selfishness, manipulation, and lack of empathy, vicious dog owners scored higher than other groups.
- However, they did not score higher on “secondary psychopathy” linked to impulsiveness and self-defeating behaviors.
- Their attitudes toward animal abuse did not significantly differ from other owners.
The findings related to psychopathic traits align with research showing that psychopaths begin committing violent crimes early in life and often exhibit versatile criminal behavior not limited to one type.
Nature & Nurture Both at Play? Dog Owners vs. Genetic Tendencies
While this study cannot definitively prove causation, the results suggest that nurture may play a significant role in dogs’ aggressive tendencies, in addition to any natural propensity in certain breeds.
The owners of so-called vicious breeds exhibited multiple red flags in terms of criminal history and personality traits consistently associated with violence in humans.
This indicates a correlation between owner behavior and dog aggression.
However, some breeds have been bred for fighting or guarding purposes, and likely have natural tendencies toward aggression, even with responsible owners and training.
The aggression is not solely a result of owner behavior and environment.
In summary, the data suggests both nature and nurture are factors in dog attacks.
Certain breeds may be predisposed to aggression, while owners’ behavior also appears correlated to aggressive incidents.
More research is needed to fully understand the interplay and relative contributions of genetics and environment.
In the meantime, a balanced approach is warranted – one that promotes responsible ownership and training, while also recognizing the inherent risks of some breeds due to their genetic history.
Limitations: College Student Survey
As the researchers acknowledged, this study’s reliance on a sample of college students limits how broadly the findings can be generalized.
The analysis would be strengthened by surveying dog owners of diverse ages, education levels and demographics.
It would also help to gather more detailed background about subjects’ dogs beyond just breed, such as source, training, signs of abuse, etc.
Following up with criminal records rather than self-reports would provide more objective data as well.
Nonetheless, these results offer compelling evidence that “vicious” dogs tend to attract owners with problematic characteristics: criminal history and antisocial personality traits.
Future Research Ideas: Vicious Dog Breeds & Owners
Longitudinal Studies for Comprehensive Understanding: Future research could benefit from longitudinal studies tracking dog owners and their pets over time. This approach would offer deeper insights into how the interaction between owner behavior and dog temperament evolves, potentially influencing the dog’s behavior.
Broader Demographic Sampling: Expanding the research to include a wider range of demographics, such as different age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, and geographic locations, would help in understanding whether these trends are universally applicable or vary across different communities.
Behavioral Analysis of Dogs: Incorporating a behavioral analysis of the dogs themselves, possibly conducted by animal behavior experts, could provide valuable data on how much of the aggression is innate versus learned from the owner’s behavior or environment.
Impact of Training and Rehabilitation: Investigating the effectiveness of professional training and rehabilitation programs for aggressive breeds could offer insights into how much of the aggressive tendencies can be mitigated through responsible ownership and professional intervention.
A Case for Banning Vicious Dogs: Owners & Innate Traits
Protecting Public Safety: Given the correlation between ownership of certain breeds and higher rates of criminal behavior and antisocial traits, banning these breeds could reduce the risk of dog attacks, thus enhancing public safety.
Reducing Animal Suffering: Many dogs classified as vicious are bred and trained in ways that promote aggression. Banning these breeds could discourage such practices, reducing animal suffering and promoting more humane treatment.
Addressing the Problem at Its Source: By focusing on specific breeds known for their aggressive tendencies, legislation can target potential risks more effectively, potentially preventing incidents before they occur.
Simplifying Enforcement: Breed-specific legislation can provide clear guidelines for enforcement agencies, making it easier to identify and manage high-risk situations.
Conclusion: Protecting Society from Vicious Dogs & Owners
The study from the Journal of Forensic Sciences highlights a multifaceted issue at the intersection of human behavior, animal temperament, and public safety.
While it’s clear that both the nature of certain dog breeds and the nurture provided by their owners play significant roles in canine aggression, the solution isn’t straightforward.
A balanced approach that considers both the genetic predispositions of certain breeds and the influence of owner behavior is essential.
This might include stringent regulations on owning breeds with a history of aggression, coupled with robust education and training programs for owners.
Further research is needed to fine-tune our understanding and response to this complex issue, ensuring both human and animal welfare are considered.
As we advance in our understanding of this dynamic, it is vital to foster a society where responsible pet ownership is the norm, and where the safety and well-being of both humans and animals are equally prioritized.
- Paper: Vicious Dogs: The Antisocial Behaviors and Psychological Characteristics of Owners (2009)
- Authors: Laurie Ragatz et al.