January 10, 2011  

What pit bulls can teach us about profiling

The following is excerpted from an article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. The full article can be found here.

Gladwell draws the parallel between the “profiling” of pit bulls and the profiling of people based on racial and cultural prejudices.

These unconscious cultural associations are known as implicit cognition. In one example of implicit cognition, a study at the University of Washington revealed that 70 percent of the people who volunteered to take part (including African Americans) were harboring an unconscious preference for white people over black people. This included African Americans. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

Simply put, we are all deeply influenced by stereotypes that are generated in the back of the brain to help process the reams of information coming at us from every direction.

Gladwell and other social psychologists say that dogs are just as subject to this kind of stereotyping. The emphasize that attitudes toward pit bulls – attitudes that lead to public policy over who shall live and who shall die – are being driven not by reason but by unconscious implicit cognition.

Excerpts from the article Troublemakers by Malcolm Gladwell, February 6, 2006.

A terrible attack

One afternoon last February [2005], Guy Clairoux picked up his 2-and-a half-year-old son, Jayden, from day care and walked him back to their house in the west end of Ottawa, Ontario. They were almost home. Jayden was straggling behind, and, as his father’s back was turned, a pit bull jumped over a back-yard fence and lunged at Jayden.

“The dog had his head in its mouth and started to do this shake,” Clairoux’s wife, JoAnn Hartley, said later. As she watched in horror, two more pit bulls jumped over the fence, joining in the assault. She and Clairoux came running, and he punched the first of the dogs in the head, until it dropped Jayden, and then he threw the boy toward his mother. Hartley fell on her son, protecting him with her body.

“JoAnn!” Clairoux cried out, as all three dogs descended on his wife. “Cover your neck, cover your neck.” A neighbor, sitting by her window, screamed for help. Her partner and a friend, Mario Gauthier, ran outside. A neighborhood boy grabbed his hockey stick and threw it to Gauthier. He began hitting one of the dogs over the head, until the stick broke.

“They wouldn’t stop,” Gauthier said. “As soon as you’d stop, they’d attack again. I’ve never seen a dog go so crazy. They were like Tasmanian devils.” The police came. The dogs were pulled away, and the Clairouxes and one of the rescuers were taken to the hospital.

Five days later, the Ontario legislature banned the ownership of pit bulls. “Just as we wouldn’t let a great white shark in a swimming pool,” the province’s attorney general, Michael Bryant, had said, “maybe we shouldn’t have these animals on the civilized streets.”

How we generalize about people and other animals

. . . Of course, not all pit bulls are dangerous. Most don’t bite anyone. The dog that recently mauled a Frenchwoman so badly that she was given the world’s first face transplant was, of all things, a Labrador retriever.

When we say that pit bulls are dangerous, we are making a generalization, just as insurance companies use generalizations when they charge young men more for car insurance than the rest of us (even though many young men are perfectly good drivers).

Another word for generalization, though, is “stereotype.” And behind each generalization is a choice of what factors to leave in and what factors to leave out, and those choices can prove surprisingly complicated. After the attack on Jayden Clairoux, the Ontario government chose to make a generalization about pit bulls. But it could also have chosen to generalize about powerful dogs, or about the kinds of people who own powerful dogs, or about small children, or about back-yard fences – or, indeed, about any number of other things to do with dogs and people and places.

How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?

The problems with profiling

[Raymond Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner, discusses with Gladwell the problem of what’s known as profiling.]

It’s a “category problem.” Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait – like young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about.

“I think profiling is just nuts.” NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly

“You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly told me. “These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”

Pit-bull bans involve a category problem, too, because pit bulls aren’t a single breed. The name refers to dogs belonging to a number of related breeds, so the Ontario ban prohibits not only these three breeds but any “dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to pit bull-type” dogs. But what does that mean? Is a cross between an American pit bull terrier and a golden retriever a pit bull-type dog or a golden retriever-type dog? If thinking about muscular terriers as pit bulls is a generalization, then thinking about dangerous dogs as anything substantially similar to a pit bull is a generalization about a generalization.

“The way a lot of these laws are written, pit bulls are whatever they say they are,” Lora Brashears, a kennel manager in Pennsylvania, says. “And for most people it just means big, nasty, scary dog that bites.”

“We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.” – Carl Herkstroeter, president of the American Temperament Test Society

The goal of pit-bull bans, obviously, isn’t to prohibit dogs that look like pit bulls. The pit-bull appearance is a proxy for the pit-bull temperament—for some trait that these dogs share. But “pit bullness” turns out to be elusive as well. The supposedly troublesome characteristics of the pit-bull type—its gameness, its determination, its insensitivity to pain – are chiefly directed toward other dogs. Pit bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dog-fighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was “Man-eaters die.”)

The American Temperament Test Society has put 25,000 dogs through a 10-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness and friendliness in the company of people. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies and all but one variety of dachshund.

“We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,” Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. “I’ve tested half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.”

“There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs,” the writer Vicki Hearne points out. “Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody.”

The perfect storm

“A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned to express hostility to human beings.”

A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by selective breeding, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned in such a way that it begins to express hostility to human beings. A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit-bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That’s a category problem.

“I’ve seen virtually every breed involved in fatalities, including Pomeranians and everything else, except a beagle or a basset hound,” Randall Lockwood, a senior vice-president of the A.S.P.C.A. and one of the country’s leading dog bite experts, told me. “And there are always one or two deaths attributable to malamutes or huskies, although you never hear people clamoring for a ban on those breeds. I don’t think I even saw my first pit-bull case until the middle to late 1980s. It’s a reflection of what the dog of choice is among people who want to own an aggressive dog.”

“I’ve been involved in many legal cases involving fatal dog attacks, and these are generally cases where everyone is to blame.” – Randall Lockwood, VP, ASPCA

In many cases, vicious dogs are hungry or in need of medical attention. “A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog,” Lockwood went on. “It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions – the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. ”You’ve got the unsupervised 3-year-old child wandering in the neighborhood killed by a starved, abused dog owned by the dogfighting boyfriend of some woman who doesn’t know where her child is. It’s not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.”

A textbook case

Jayden Clairoux was attacked by Jada, a pit-bull terrier, and her two pit-bull-bullmastiff puppies, Agua and Akasha. The dogs were owned by a 21-year-old man named Shridev Café, who worked in construction and [had been] charged with domestic assault, and, in another incident, involving a street brawl, with aggravated assault. The court order in the wake of the first attack required that they be muzzled when they were outside the home and kept in an enclosed yard. But Café did not muzzle them, [and] did not neuter them. And when the city temporarily confiscated his animals, it did not neuter them, either.

The second attack was a textbook case: unneutered, ill-trained, charged-up dogs, with a history of aggression and an irresponsible owner, somehow get loose, and set upon a small child. The dogs had already passed through the animal bureaucracy of Ottawa, and the city could easily have prevented the second attack with the right kind of generalization – a generalization based not on breed but on the known and meaningful connection between dangerous dogs and negligent owners. But that would have required someone to track down Shridev Café, and check to see whether he had bought muzzles, and someone to send the dogs to be neutered after the first attack, and an animal-control law that insured that those whose dogs attack small children forfeit their right to have a dog. It would have required, that is, a more exacting set of generalizations to be more exactingly applied.

It’s always easier just to ban the breed.

« « Pick the Pit | Escape from Ontario » »

Comments are closed.