BOOKS—Dangerous By Default: Extreme Breeds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2012:

Dangerous By Default: Extreme Breeds by Anthony Solesky / 109 pages. Free download from:

Ruling in Tracey v. Solesky, the Maryland Court of Appeals on April 26, 2012 held that knowing a dog is a pit bull or pit bull cross is sufficient to establish landlord liability if a dog escapes from leased premises.

The court found, in effect, that the risk presented to the public by inadequately confined pit bulls is so extreme and so self-evident that a landlord should not rent to people who keep pit bulls if the premises cannot securely hold them.

The verdict was denounced by representatives of many leading animal advocacy organizations, partly because it might lead to the eviction of pit bulls from housing that does not meet the court’s implied requirements for safe containment, including that the property must be fenced. The verdict also implies that to avoid potential liability in the event an adopted pitbull attacks someone, rescue agencies must ensure that the pit bulls are going to homes where they will not present foreseeable risk to the adopters’ neighbors and their pets.

At least four legislators pledged to push bills to overturn the ruling, which introduced to Maryland a breed-limited version of the strict liability standard for dog attacks that already exists for keepers of all dogs in 35 other states.

As father of pit bull attack victim Dominic Solesky, Dangerous By Default author Tony Solesky–nobody really calls him Anthony–was star witness at an ensuing legislative hearing. Tony Solesky summarized the facts of the case. He also testified about how much of the humane community, hellbent on saving dogs at any cost, is increasingly alienating the substantial part of the public–about two-thirds, according to most polls–who believe their right to safety supersedes anyone’s right to keep a dog who may be inclined and able to dismember children, cats, horses, livestock, and other dogs.

Dangerous By Default articulates Solesky’s experience and arguments in depth. As of April 28, 2007, he was a fairly ordinary “football father,” who attended his sons’ games and was restoring a used boat. The seizure of 66 pit bulls three days earlier from football star Michael Vick’s premises in Surry County, Virginia, was still in the headlines. Dominic Solesky and three friends started a game of Nerf tag in their yards and the shared alley that linked them, unaware of two pit bulls who had been left in a portable pen across the alley.

First a pit bull leaped out of the pen to blindside and maul a 9-year-old boy named Scotty. “Fortunately, the dog owner saw the attack through his back door and came out and got the dog off of Scotty,” Tony Solesky writes. “He put the dog back in the same enclosure with a female pit bull who had not attempted to escape.

He took Scotty into his house, and threatened Scotty not to tell because he said they [law enforcement] could take his dogs away. He told Scotty to tell his parents he fell off a bike. He gave Scotty water and a sponge to wipe the blood away and then he led Scotty out of the front door of his house,” not back to the alley and his friends, but to a busy traffic artery without a sidewalk.

“Panicked, Scotty made his way up that side of the street and home to his mother. He never was able to see or warn the other boys who were coming down the alley to his rescue,” Solesky continues. The same dog then jumped back out of the pen to maul Dominic. Three of the boys’ mothers heard the ensuing screaming and came to Dominic’s aid, while the pit bull keeper fled with his dogs.

Dominic suffered “a bite to the face just missing his left eye that had torn away and left his cheek and the tip of his nose hanging,” Tony Solesky recalls. “He had claw marks and puncture wounds, bites to the arms, chest and back. The flesh had been torn away from his upper left thigh and a life threatening tear to his femoral artery. He had various other scrapes, road rash, bruises, and contusions.” Dominic Solesky spent 17 days in intensive care. He returned eventually to school and football, but some of the effects of his injuries are permanent.

Tony Solesky began to feel betrayed when the Baltimore public health director, whose department supervises animal control, responded to the attack with a statement that he was concerned that discussing breed-specific legislation might “unfairly stereotype certain breeds of dogs and breed owners.”

“That is like saying you have concern about researching a helmet law for motorcyclists because a helmet law may unfairly stereotype certain types of vehicles and vehicle owners,” writes Solesky. “It is obvious by this incident that some dogs cross the line of suitability as domestic pets. Any breed of dog that is capable of exacting extreme harm while on the loose is an excessive pet and a dangerous breed.

“It is true that we would all be safer in our cars if drivers also wore helmets,” Solesky continues, but points out that “a line of acceptable risk is established by the suitability of the passenger car to the task of transportation. A motorcycle exposes riders to extreme accident characteristics that do not exist with an automobile. Because accidents are part of the nature of transportation, a helmet must be worn by motorcyclists.”

Solesky hopes to establish a similar standard for keeping dogs, regardless of temperament assessments or training. “Those are, as with driver education, the bare minimum standards demanded by common sense for any pet or breed brought into a community,” Solesky argues. “Temperament and training do not eliminate the severity of an attack. They bring the bite potential for all breeds down to the acceptable risk level in a suitable pet.

“The majority of dog owners,” Solesky holds, “are good dog owners primarily by choosing innocuous, more suitable breeds as pets. It is not by education or training,” he believes, “but by default that most people are good pet owners. I come from a background and time, unfortunately, where most people were much worse dog owners but at the same time tended to own much more innocuous breeds. I don’t know that I knew many kids, including my wife and myself, who hadn’t been bitten by a dog. It was like falling off your bike, breaking a window, or denting a car playing street ball, even ending up in a scuffle. My wife fully expected to go down the alley and find a child crying while being consoled by an apologetic dog owner. Instead, she and other neighbors rushed headlong into what could have been a life-threatening situation for them as well. The common thread that all sides agree upon is that any dog can bite. From there we have the responsibility to determine when that common thread of reality crosses the line of acceptable risk.”

Solesky acknowledges that the attacks on Dominic and Scotty involved multiple non-breed-specific risk factors. “Most dog attacks occur during spring and summer,” Solesky recites. “Children between six and 14 years of age are the most likely to be attacked; the boys were 9 and 10. Boys are attacked more then girls. The attacking dog is more likely to be male. There is a higher likelihood of attack if the male has not been neutered; this dog was not neutered. It is more likely for a male to attack if an unaltered female is in his company. The female was not spayed. There is an even higher likelihood of attack if the female has puppies. She did. Attack probability can be higher if the animal is not properly contained and can escape; the pen was only four-and-a-half feet high. In addition, the yard was not fenced. There is a higher likelihood of attack if the dog has already shown signs of aggression. Neighbors at that end of the alley had already called animal control about these dogs.” Notwithstanding all of those factors, Solesky points out that comparing what the average dog might do to what the attacking pit bull did is “the equivalent of comparing non-venomous and venomous snake bites.”

Continues Solesky, “In my experience, dangerous breeds are every bit and completely as warm, loving, loyal, and affectionate as any other breed. My sister’s bully Roxy and my neighbor’s bully Sage, are two examples. My Brittany has jumped up and put more scratches on visitors than what these two dogs combined have done to fleas. Pit bulls and other dangerous breed mixes are, without doubt, as nice as any well raised, trained, cared for, and properly socialized dog. It is bite potential which alone establishes their questionable suitability.”

Solesky warns against “confusing their propensity to attack with the intensity of their attack.”

Solesky, a onetime hunter who long ago gave up hunting in favor of golf, recognizes “the dilemma of the advocacy, defender, and rescue position. The strain to find homes and place rescued dogs is overwhelming. Further,” he acknowledges, “if these dogs could only be placed in homes and environments that were mandated to meet the common sense safety recommendations of specific breed restrictions,” as the Tracey v. Solesky verdict implies, “rescue groups would be drowned in a sea of dogs.”

But Solesky rejects the position of “rescue extremists [who] have decided that, given the choice between not placing or placing a dog, [any violation of] covenants, codes, you, your family, and community safety is an acceptable risk.

“I have always loved and admired dogs,” Solesky concludes. “They seem so eager and aspire to please. Paradoxically, many people are only too eager to have their pets treated as human citizens, while treating their fellow citizens like dogs.”

–Merritt Clifton

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