Last week I did an interview with CNN's Headline News regarding a four day old infant that had just been killed by the family’s pit bull in Jacksonville, Florida. Baby Justin was lying on the bed while his mother went to take a shower when the attack happened. The baby was taken to hospital where he died of his injuries and the pit bull was seized by animal control and euthanized the next day. First, my heart goes out to Justin’s family. As a mother I cannot imagine the pain that they are going through at the moment.
The family stated that their dog was very friendly and had no previous incidences of aggressive behavior, not even towards their other child, a four year old boy. An investigation is now underway to determine why the dog attacked and if there had been any warning signs. One of the points I made on the show, however, was something that I don’t think was on other people’s radars: Why was the most crucial piece of evidence in the case destroyed so quickly? You can interview the family all you like, their friends and neighbors. You can listen to the testimony of animal control who said that the dog was very aggressive when they went to pick him up. Well, that doesn’t surprise me because what would you do if a group of strangers came into your home to take you away? I’m sure that you would feel threatened and react in a negative way too. My question is: why was the dog euthanized before he was evaluated by a qualified behavioral specialist? The dog was put down less then twenty four hours after the attack had happened, so I don’t believe that he was seen by anyone who was able to evaluate him properly and even if someone had seen him, twenty four hours is not enough time to do a thorough temperament test and an evaluation that would help determine why the attack happened. The dog might not have been behaving aggressively at all – in fact he might have just been stimulated by the infant’s cries which could have sounded like a squeaky toy or a piece of prey to play with. All the ‘might haves’ and ‘could haves’ are now going to be just that because now the dog has been destroyed, we will never know.
Let me be clear: I’m not claiming that the dog was somehow a victim, nor am I defending him or his actions. I agree that the dog should have been put to sleep even if he had undergone the above-mentioned tests, but in order to avoid these kind of tragedies in the future, we have to find out more about what triggers such an apparently violent event so that we can build up a clearer picture of why a dog sometimes kills in this manner. I understand that it would be cruel to keep the dog alive for too long because of the stress it would be under being away from its family, and that getting a clear picture of behavior would be hard in a shelter environment, but if a professional had been able to study this dog, they would have come up with potentially valuable information that could be shared and used to prevent future attacks from happening.
Education is key, which is why I am developing a project that will spread the word about dogs and child safety, particularly for new mothers-to-be. Too many infants and young children are being mauled or killed by the family pet and it is time to take action and spread the message about safety and a parent’s responsibility. When people like me advise that an infant or young child should never be left alone with a dog even for one second, we mean it! Dogs and young children do not mix well and the combination can be a recipe for disaster. Active supervision when both are in the same room together is crucial and separation when a parent is unable to supervise is a must. Follow those simple rules and babies like Justin will be kept out of harm’s way. Life changes when a baby comes into the home and adjustments need to be made so that everyone in the household – including the new baby and the family pet – are safe and protected from each other.
And to all of those calling out for the pitbull breeds to be banned, Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), does not work! Britain, other countries, and several US states have banned pitbulls and/or certain other breeds for decades and yet child deaths from dog attacks are continuing to rise. BSL addresses the wrong end of the leash. We need to be focusing on owners and their ultimate responsibility for the animal in their care. So regardless of how you feel about the politics of the debate, the end results of such legislation speak the loudest – BSL doesn’t make the world a safer place. Let’s concentrate on the deed and not the breed and give full focus to keeping children safe around all dogs.