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Westport Dog Expert Defends Breed After Pit Bull Attack On Wilton Woman

Pit bulls are not an inherently dangerous breed, according to a local dog expert.
Pit bulls are not an inherently dangerous breed, according to a local dog expert. Photo Credit: Courtesy flickr user maplegirlie

WILTON, Conn. — Monday’s pit bull attack in Wilton made some people fearful of the breed. But Michele Wan, a certified applied animal behaviorist based in Westport, said pit bulls are not vicious by nature.

“We have enough data at this point to suggest that there’s no need to be afraid of pit bulls as a breed,” said Wan, owner of Advanced Dog Behavior Solutions. She also has a doctorate in psychology focused on animal behavior from Columbia University.

Although pit bulls are commonly viewed as aggressive and dangerous, Wan said most of those attitudes are based on stereotypes. These stereotypes, she said, are often fueled by media reports .

Monday’s attack, in which 65-year-old Anne Murray of Wilton lost one arm and part of the other, has been highly publicized, like others over the years.

The level of attention creates the perception that pit bull attacks—and dog attacks in general—occur more frequently than they actually do, Wan said. Serious injuries and fatalities caused by any dog breed are rare, she said, considering the size of the human and dog populations. According to the National Canine Research Council, 34 dog-bite related fatalities occurred last year in the United States—with a population of more than 310 million people and more than 70 million dogs.

About 346,000 Americans went to emergency rooms due to injuries caused by dogs in 2011, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. That same year, more than 9 million people went to emergency rooms due to injuries from falling, and 1.8 million due to injuries from assault by another person, she said.

Some pit bulls can be aggressive, but that doesn’t mean they are born that way, Wan said. Furthermore, aggressive behavior isn’t exclusive to the breed: All dogs, she said, are capable of becoming aggressive and biting.

It’s also important to understand that just because some pit bulls may be aggressive, not all are, Wan said.

“There are a wide range individual differences within a breed,” Wan said. “I’ve seen [labradors] who’ve aggressed toward children in their household, and other labs that are totally laid-back. Similarly, you can have one pit bull be aggressive and another one that nuzzles up with its owner and never shows any aggression.

“I think the key lesson here is that you need to look at each dog as an individual,” she said. “You need to evaluate each interaction you have with any dog and look at what the dog is trying to tell you about how the interaction going.”

Dogs rarely bite or become aggressive for no reason, Wan said. Not only is there usually a trigger, the dog also displays warning signs, she said. As such, it’s important to pay attention to a dog’s body language.

Many different situations can cause a dog to become aggressive, and most aggression is fear based, Wan added. In Monday's attack, police have not yet been able to interview Murray and it is unknown what could have caused the pet attack her.

For more information about dog behavior, including understanding a dog's body language, visit Wan’s website.

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