Think fast: you hear that a dog has attacked and killed someone. What breed immediately comes to mind? The majority of people, I suspect, would immediately answer, “Pit Bull.”
On Friday, a two-month-old child was killed by a family dog. Dorchester County Coroner Chris Nesbit called it “one of the saddest days” in his 20-plus years of being in the coroner’s office, and one of the worst deaths he’d ever handled.
But it wasn’t a pit bull being blamed for the death: reports indicated that it was a golden retriever. The family apparently adopted the dog recently after keeping it for a short time for someone else.
Pictures of the dog (which is now being held at the sheriff’s office, and likely facing euthanasia) seem to depict what I’d call a golden retriever mix. In fact, the dog reminds me of my last one, Zoey, who by best guess was a golden/border collie mix. A co-worker of mine has a dog that also looks like that: his is a golden/Chow Chow mix.
Still, goldens aren’t really known for aggression. In fact, there’s an old joke about how bad goldens tend to be as guard dogs: I’ve heard people quip that if a burglar broke in and was met by a golden retriever, the dog would probably help him load up his car just out of friendliness.
They just don’t have that reputation. Pit bulls do.
Is it an unfair reputation? Not as much as pit bull enthusiasts might argue. Consider this:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined U.S. dog-attack fatalities from 1979 to 1998. During that period, dogs killed more than 300 Americans, and pit bulls, either purebred or crossbred, accounted for 76 of the deaths, the most of any breed. Purebred or crossbred Rottweilers were responsible for 44 deaths, the second highest. The CDC concluded that Rottweilers and pit bulls were responsible for 67 percent of fatal attacks.
To be fair, I know several people who own pit bulls. One of them is a colleague of mine and the worst his dog might do to someone is lick them to death. I met someone about a year ago who has a pit bull trained as a therapy dog for people in hospitals. You have to have a lot of confidence — and quite a track record of good behavior on the dog’s part — before it even has the chance to be a therapy dog.
Years ago, a friend of mine owned a pair of Rottweilers. The male was intimidating until his owner gave him the command to stand down. Then you were mobbed by two giant “teddy bears” who were both convinced that they were small enough to fit into your lap. At the same time.
But this tragic story should serve as a reminder that any breed, even one generally known to be as sweet and loving as a golden retriever, can still do serious, even fatal damage in the wrong situation.