Getting Hit by a Car to Avoid a Dog

June 20, 2011  

Human fears and perceptions are not always logical

By Michael Mountain

(Photos courtesy of Melody McFarland )

Jessica Kohn was strolling down a busy shopping street in Portland, Ore., on a spring morning, when she saw a person with a dog who looked like a pit bull coming toward her. In a moment of fear, she stepped off the curb to avoid the dog – and was hit by a car.

Kohn’s reaction explains a little about how we evaluate danger. Psychologists call it “risk perception.” We perceive some things as being more dangerous than others, even though the facts don’t necessarily back this up.

Well-known examples of distorted risk perception are that while you’re more likely to get killed on the road than in a plane, to be injured in a bath tub than by a shark in the ocean, or to be killed by lightning than by a dog, we’re still instinctively more worried about the plane, the shark and the dog than by the bigger dangers.

There’s also nothing like a viral rumor mill to stoke our fears and imaginations.

Indeed, some of the biggest existential threats to our survival overall – like climate change and how we’re going to feed a human population that will soon exceed 9 billion people – are barely on the horizon of our perceived threats. That’s because the more generalized and the more “out there in the future” the threat is, the less we can relate to it.

Scientists say that some of these instinctive fears are natural and hard-wired. They come from hundreds of thousands of years of experience as a prey species, when we were being hunted by lions and leopards and needed to react quickly to the sight of a snake or spider right in front of us. But we’re not equipped to respond effectively to less visible threats. So Al Gore tells you about CO2 emissions, your adrenaline doesn’t start pumping the same way it did when Jessica Kohn caught sight of that dog coming toward her.

“I just saw him and reacted,” Kohn said. “If I’d stopped to think for a moment, I’d have at least looked to see if there was traffic on the road. But I saw the dog and I panicked.”

How We Perceive Danger

David Ropeik, an international consultant and author on risk perception, said there are other factors that come into play, too.

“We commonly react more powerfully and emotionally to dangers that are represented by a face or a name,” Ropeik said.

Another factor is the desire to fit into and agree with what other people may feel or think. That’s because we’re a tribal species. For thousands of years, our personal survival depended on the solidarity of our extended family, group or tribe.

So we shape our opinions to agree with the tribes and groups with which we identify.

Those opinions are reinforced by the biggest voice in our environment: the mass media. And media guidelines – like “If it bleeds, it leads” and “If it scares, it airs” – are designed to make us sit up and stay tuned whenever there’s a story of a kidnapping, a murder or a dog attack.

There’s also nothing like a viral rumor mill to stoke our fears and imaginations. To this day, parents are still worried that their children may be the victims of a razor blade in Halloween candy, even though there’s never been a single confirmed case of such a thing ever happening.

Some dogs may be more likely to bite than others. But it has little or nothing to do with their breed.

No surprise, then, that the story of someone, maybe even thousands of miles away, being chased down by a “pit bull” (who, as likely as not, later turns out to be a Lab or shepherd mix) tends to stoke our fears and skew our risk perceptions, while factual information about the true likelihood of being bitten by a dog doesn’t register with us in the same way.

So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 15 to 20 dog bite fatalities per year. In other words, the risk is vanishingly small.

“Dogs can be dangerous,” said Janis Bradley, author of “Dogs Bite, but Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous.” “And they’re more dangerous to children than to adults. Not as dangerous, of course, as kitchen utensils, drapery cords, five-gallon buckets, horses or cows. Not nearly as dangerous as playground equipment, swimming pools, skateboards or bikes. They’re not as remotely as dangerous as family, friends, guns or cars.”

Exploring the Facts

Some dogs may be more likely to bite than others. But it has little or nothing to do with their breed.

A mother dog with puppies will go through natural cycles of serious protectiveness. One day she may be fine letting the children handle the puppies, but the next day hormones may kick in and she can’t tolerate the intrusion.

Male dogs can become aggressively protective when they’re around a female in heat – which is why all household pets should always be spayed or neutered.

And puppies from puppy mills (the ones you buy in a pet store) are more likely to grow up as biters. That’s because, in the breeder’s rush to ship them out to the pet stores while they’re still cute, they will miss some important time with their mothers, where they learn basic rules of bite inhibition – meaning what’s just play and what’s going too far.

Helping People be Less Afraid

What’s the best way to adjust people’s perception of risk? Roepik points to two things.

First, the more we understand the ins and outs of risk perception, the more rational we can be about our fears. Just being conscious of our own reactions helps us make wise decisions.

Second, when it comes to dealing with other people’s fears, it helps if you start by boosting their own sense of self-confidence.

“People who feel good about themselves are more likely to be open-minded,” Ropeik said.

Studies have shown that if, before you start to try to change somebody’s mind, you first ask them to remember something that gave them a positive view of themselves, then they are more likely to be open to facts and to change their opinions. In other words, if you’re talking to someone with a deep-rooted fear of pit bulls, don’t just launch into your argument. Warm the situation up with a discussion of something that will have them feeling less defensive.

Two other things are worth bearing in mind, as well.

One is not to alienate a person from their “tribe.” Don’t keep telling them that their family, friends or peer group are all wrong – at least not unless they’re ready to jump into your tribe of dog lovers and become part of that. We humans have a strong need to belong. We feel safer when we’re part of a group, even if it’s a group that’s irrationally afraid of something. (Check out any of the daily talk shows that reinforce tribal beliefs and create fear of everyone else: other groups, political parties, religions, etc.)

And the other is to help the person get to know a real dog. A positive experience is worth a million facts and figures. It’s not unusual to hear people say, “I was terrified of pit bulls, but when I met such-and-such dog at a friend’s house, I discovered that they’re really no different from any other dog.”

Indeed, while Jessica Kohn was in the hospital recovering from a broken leg after she’d stepped into the road to avoid that pit bull, she met a volunteer who brings her therapy dog in once a week. The dog happened to be a pit bull.

“It was funny,” Kohn said. “It really perked me up. It changed my view of dogs in general and pit bulls in particular. I’m not nearly so afraid of them now.”

« « Surf’s Up | Traveling With a Restricted Breed of Dog » »

Comments

33 Responses to “Getting Hit by a Car to Avoid a Dog”
  1. MurielGaskell says:

    this is a wonderful article. im glad someone took the time to share another side of pitbulls with the world.

  2. StubbyDog says:

    @MurielGaskell thank you Muriel, here at StubbyDog, that’s our goal.

  3. LoriPodpora says:

    So happy to hear that the woman met a Pit Bull therapy dog who changed her mind about the breed. Everyone that meets my Delilah absolutely loves her. Church picnics, Block parties, baseball games, you name it she’s there. Only ever had 1 woman run away screaming,”Pit Bull!”. The only thing she accomplished was to make herself look like a complete ass!

  4. StubbyDog says:

    @LoriPodpora Thanks for sharing. Delilah sounds delightful!

  5. AnnColeman says:

    The best part of this story for me (other than the information, more valuable than gold) is that Ms. Kohn not only learned the truth about pit bulls but received comfort from one.

  6. StubbyDog says:

    @AnnColeman Thanks for your comments Ann, and yes, that is the best part, and the fact that Jessica was brave enough to share her experience with us to help others.

  7. DeFoe says:

    I enjoyed this article, particularly the pittie therapy dog, but this is very misleading–

    “So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 15 to 20 dog bite fatalities per year. In other words, the risk is vanishingly small.”

    First, it doesn’t address the fact that “pit bull” isn’t a breed, or that breed identification for bites is useless. Then, it gives the statistics for dog bite _fatalities_ for the overall population, when the question posed was about the frequency of _bites_ within a (murky, undefinable) breed classification. That’s just irresponsible statistics, something I believe all pit bull lovers should be wary of and alert to- on both sides.

  8. michaelmountain says:

    @DeFoe

    Quite right. It’s really difficult to say how many people were killed by pit bulls in any given year. All you can really say is how many people were killed by a dog who looked like a pit bull or who someone said was a pit bull. I didn’t want to get into that topic in this article since it’s a whole subject unto itself, as is the topic of what is or isn’t a pit bull. But I think the fact that there are so few fatalities from dog bites overall makes the point in itself. Still, I should have been more clear about this. Thanks for pointing it out.

  9. KaliSmithMonma says:

    @michaelmountain @DeFoe

    That’s still not the point.

    The point is that the question posed is: “how likely are you to be bitten?”

    The answer provided is: “15 to 20 dog bite fatalities.”

    You’re giving me the risk of my dying from a dog bite this year, not my rist of being bitten.

    If the question of how many bites there are per year cannot be answered, it shouldn’t be posed, or at least not “answered” with a statistic that is anything other than “there are _____ dog bites per year.” Which, for obvious reasons is an impossible statistic to nail down… but that doesn’t mean it’s substitutable with the fatality stat, which just tells us how many people died from a much greater number of bites. Regardless of whether the general population is more concerned with the bites themselves or the ones that are fatal, the information given does not answer the question.

    It’s like saying “how likely are you to get in a car accident this year? Well, there are 42,636 people killed in auto accidents annually.” That’s a totally inappropriate stat, as there are nearly 6.5 MILLION accidents per year.

    As a side note, I did appreciate your not shifting blame to other breeds (or even other sizes) of dogs. My biggest issue with the pit-bull-lovin’ community is that I see things like that all too often: “pit bulls aren’t even the biggest offenders, POODLES are!” and the like. I see so much of that in a Pit Bull facebook group that it really upset me — they’re complaining about unfair stereotyping for one breed, then going on to do it for another, and all it does is to make pitts look like a ‘lesser evil’ of sorts. Totally hypocritical and unfair. So I did appreciate that you pointed out that it doesn’t tend to correlate to breed — which is the appropriate way to approach that concept rather than “no, man, it’s collies that are the vicious ones!”

  10. Marysmuse says:

    Great article. I don’t own a pit myself (I’m not physically able to keep up with such an active, strong breed), but I’ve known a few, and have always liked them. I just wish more people were aware of their special needs… and the special needs of ALL breeds. In our community, pits, labs and hounds fill the shelters because people don’t understand what they’re getting into when they bring home that cute little puppy… Some breeds get big. Some breeds tend to be strong, and need a LOT of attention and exercise. Of course ALL dogs need attention and exercise, but my little mini Aussie is what I can handle. As long as he has a ball to chase and a person to lean on when we’re not outside, he’s happy. 🙂 My niece’s pit, on the other hand, needed more space than her little apartment could afford, and more time and attention than a very busy mom of five could give him. (Fortunately she recognized the problem was the situation and not the dog, and found him found another, very happy home where he has room to roam and a family who gives him the attention he deserves)Every breed isn’t right for every person or family, but it’s a shame that so many beautiful dogs end up abandoned because the adopter didn’t do their homework and didn’t understand the breed.

    Thanks for helping get the truth out there!

    Rejoicing in the day,

    -Mary

  11. StubbyDog says:

    @Marysmuse Thank you for your candid comments. All dogs, whether pure breeds or mixed, have different needs. Sometimes a large dog, like a Mastiff, won’t require as much exercise as a smaller dog. It’s important, like to you say, to do research before adopting. Which is also why adopting an adult dog is so beneficial. You get a much better idea of the dog’s needs when it’s an adult.

  12. Marysmuse says:

    @StubbyDog @Marysmuse Great point!I never thought about that- I don’t know much about mastiffs. Since we have a smaller home, I was thinking a smaller dog was a good fit for us, and as it turned out, it was a good choice. 🙂 Since I’d already had an Aussie (my late girl, Amanda, is my profile pic), I was pretty familiar with their needs.I agree, adopting an older dog is often the way to go. When I got Charlie, I was looking for an older dog. He was actually younger than I wanted at 20 weeks, but he’s turned out to be the perfect dog for our family, mixing really well with our lab and basset. (my kids’ dogs). I think what’s most important is understanding your family’s needs and understanding the breed tendencies as well as the individual needs of the dog you’re adopting. 🙂 I think sometimes, the right dog just “clicks” with the family, and that’s always a happy situation. When it doesn’t happen, it’s almost always possible to improve things with training, for both the dog and the owner! Our lab was a bit of a spaz for a while, but some time working with her was really well spent, and now she’s a great dog. :)Bottom line for me has always been… this is a member of our family, and I want to consider carefully if it’s a good fit, for all of us, because it’s a lifetime commitment. I’ve forgotten who said it, but “To tame something is to be responsible to it forever.”

    Rejoicing in the day,

    -Mary

  13. AnnColeman says:

    @KaliSmithMonma @michaelmountain @DeFoe

    Michael, THANK YOU for that. I hate hate hate that so many “pit bull” people would rather pass the buck and put down other breeds rather than focus on elevating the pit bull. It is lazy and doesn’t do any good. I have quit many a discussion and left many a “cause” because of just that issue.

  14. AnnColeman says:

    @KaliSmithMonma @michaelmountain @DeFoe

    Michael, THANK YOU for that. I hate hate hate that so many “pit bull” people would rather pass the buck and put down other breeds rather than focus on elevating the pit bull. It is lazy and doesn’t do any good. I have quit many a discussion and left many a “cause” because of just that issue.

  15. AnnColeman says:

    @KaliSmithMonma @michaelmountain @DeFoe

    THANK YOU for that. I hate hate hate that so many “pit bull” people would rather pass the buck and put down other breeds rather than focus on elevating the pit bull. It is lazy and doesn’t do any good. I have quit many a discussion and left many a “cause” because of just that issue.

  16. michaelmountain says:

    @KaliSmithMonma @DeFoe

    Ah, excuse me. We do have the figures I believe you’re looking for. Overall, last year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, nearly 5 million people were bitten by dogs, and half a million needed medical attention for them. Incidentally, Houston is the dog-bite capital of the United States. There’s more on this on our sister site — Zoe, It’s our Nature. http://www.zoenature.org/2011/05/this-week-take-a-bite-out-of-biting/There's more info at http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/may-15-22-is-national-dog-bite-prevention-week-121716363.html, which includes the fact that injury rates are highest among children between the ages of 5 and 9 years old. The dogs biting these children are not strangers. In victims younger than 18 years old, the family dog inflicts 30 percent of all dog bites, and a neighbor’s dog is responsible for another 50 percent of these bites.Does this answer what you’re looking for?

  17. puffapuffarice says:

    @Marysmuse Antione de Saint-Exupery said it, in The Little Prince. 🙂

  18. KaliSmithMonma says:

    @michaelmountain @KaliSmithMonma @DeFoe

    Yep – that’s what I, and I believe Defoe, were looking for. Though I suppose I should disclaim that I’m not personally concerned with those figured, just proper presentation of information – this is an issue that can’t afford more misinformation and misinterpretations of the facts.

    So it should read:

    .

    “So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 5 million reported dog bites per year – half a million of which require medical attention, and only15-20 are fatal.”

    .

    Just for reference, original excerpt:

    “So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 15 to 20 dog bite fatalities per year. In other words, the risk is vanishingly small.”

  19. KaliSmithMonma says:

    @michaelmountain @DeFoe

    Yep – that’s what I, and I believe Defoe, were looking for. Though I suppose I should disclaim that I’m not personally concerned with those figures, just proper presentation of information – this is an issue that can’t afford more misinformation and misinterpretations of the facts.

    So it should read:

    .

    “So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 5 million reported dog bites per year – half a million of which require medical attention, and only15-20 are fatal.”

    .

    Just for reference, original excerpt:

    “So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 15 to 20 dog bite fatalities per year. In other words, the risk is vanishingly small.”

  20. KaliSmithMonma says:

    @michaelmountain @DeFoe

    Yep – that’s what I, and I believe Defoe, were looking for. Though I suppose I should disclaim that I’m not personally concerned with those figures, just proper presentation of information – this is an issue that can’t afford more misinformation and misinterpretations of the facts.

    So it should read:

    .

    “So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 5 million reported dog bites per year – half a million of which require medical attention, and only15-20 are fatal.”

    .

    Just for reference, original excerpt:

    “So, how likely are you to actually be bitten by a pit bull? With about 64 million dogs currently in the United States, there are approximately 15 to 20 dog bite fatalities per year. In other words, the risk is vanishingly small.”

  21. JudyStarr says:

    I love all dogs & cats never was afraid of them.

    Years ago many years ago I was working in a display place & they had a mutt shep mix as an attack dog.

    She went after me & I freaked .

    They kept her from biting me though.

    For a year after that I was scared of Sheps & would cross the street when I saw them.

    I made myself get over it ~ b/c my love of animals has been too great all my life !

    How, I did it I’m not really sure ?

    I can’t pass a dog on the sidewalk without petting it (I ask the owner first) .

    I can understand her fear if she was attacked by a dog .

    Otherwise ,if she wasn’t frightened by the dog I can’t at all !!!

  22. almondkiss says:

    HOw stupid people are…really…like a little kid…” Ohhh get away doggie”…I saw a pitbul in a pickup waiting for this owner. A red colored pitty. Just gorgeous. I sat there and enjoyed the view till he came out.. I could here the doggie kind of wimpering wondering where his owner was. He obvliously was no threat..the window was wide open. I do not believe in going up to a dog..especially when he is in a car by himself. Dogs are protective so I didnt want to upset him. But watching him..he was a good..well behaved doggie. I talked the the owner a bit after he came out and told him what a good boy he had…Pit Bulls are just gorgeous…and loving too….I would love one .. one day though..I have a pit bully in mind…

  23. StubbyDog says:

    @JudyStarr Thanks for sharing, at least you realized your fear wasn’t logical because not all shepherds would attack you and you worked to conquer your fears. Way to go.

  24. StubbyDog says:

    @almondkiss Thanks for sharing that, he sounds like a great dog and we hope you find your perfect pittie!

  25. VeraLothian says:

    A guy yesterday tried to “teach” my kids on how to handle a dog by showing the the big doggie teeth and trying to impress on them that dogs are dangerous. I walked away with my kids who at that point where to distracted by the promise of chocolate biscuits. I prefer to teach my kids to read a dogs body language and to always ask before petting a dog. fear does no good what so ever

  26. StubbyDog says:

    @VeraLothian Thanks Vera, it’s a much better way to teach kids to be respectful of all other animals and not afraid.

  27. deedeisher says:

    Pitbulls in the hands of the wrong owners are where the problems lie. Any dog in the hands of the wrong owner is problematic.

  28. deedeisher says:

    Pitbulls in the hands of the wrong owners are where the problems lie. Any dog in the hands of the wrong owner is problematic.

  29. StubbyDog says:

    @deedeisher Very true, thanks for commenting.

  30. davesprettylady says:

    I have a pit bull as a service dog. We were walking out of my office (I was wearing a business suit and my pup was wearing his bright green vest identifying him as a service dog). A woman walking with her 2 little kids (under 6) pulled them into the path of an oncoming SUV to get them away from my dog. Luckily we were in a parking lot so the guy was going slow enough to break in time so no one was hurt. Her unwarrented fear could have gotten both her kids killed, I was shocked.

    • StubbyDog says:

      [email protected] Silly and dangerous reaction to any dog on a leash, much less a service dog, thanks for sharing.

  31. LisaSusin says:

    Many well educated people have irrational fears, not just dogs but also house cats, spiders, snakes, etc.   Some work on getting over it, others can’t be bothered.   What’s worst though is when they in-still those fears on their children.  

  32. SarahMacFhearadhaigh says:

    I was terrified of dogs until I was about 10 and my parents marched me to a child psychologist, and would probably have walked in front of a car too.  It worked so well that now I have a dog!  I was still slightly scared of big dogs right up until my adorable cuddly bulldog puppy turned into one.