July 05, 2006

Peter Worthington: Master of the unresearched "fact"

In a previous post, I mused about the possibility that, in this May 18 column attacking "pit bulls" and their owners, Peter Worthington may have been guilty of defamatory libel and inciting or promoting hatred.

To avoid any repercussions to the dog-related organizations for which I volunteer, I decided to remove that post.

Yet, I cannot remain silent when Mr. Worthington is at it again, making blanket statements and seemingly authoritative pronouncements that have absolutely no basis in fact.

In his latest column, our esteemed journalist can't seem to understand even the most basic concept of research. A worrisome thought indeed, considering his status in the world of journalism.

Should this then be the new standard of journalistic integrity? Is this the pinnacle for which all should aim? God help us if it is.

Thomas Jefferson wrote "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers". After reading both of Mr. Worthington's articles, I'm starting to think Jefferson had a point.

I have written the following analysis of Worthington's latest piece for one reason: to show readers how, by using particular words and by making bold statements that few will question because they "seem to be logical", a journalist can draw a reader into believing in a general concept. Although this concept has already been scientifically invalidated and statistically disproved, it is easier to simply believe it because the journalist "said so" than to independently investigate that journalist's claims of "fact".

Below are quotes from Worthington's July 5 article, each followed by my own comments.

"It's just not right to have an animal that threatens other animals and children."

Who can argue with this statement? Of course, it's not right to have an animal that threatens other animals and children. That's why we have dog legislation, along with many other laws - to protect our property and our families. The problem with this statement, taken in this particular context, is that Worthington is insinuating that it's only pit bulls (or at least predominantly pit bulls) that threaten other animals and children. Not only is this a factually unsupported statement, it is blatantly false. Bite statistics from any city in this country do not support that view. Animals and children are threatened and bitten every day by many dogs of various breeds. Not only are pit bulls not the primary aggressor, they are not even on the radar compared to numerous other breeds when it comes to seriously injuring and killing children in this country.

"It wasn't flies I was concerned about, but kids and other small dogs."
Again, Worthington makes the same statement that kids and other animals are in danger from the dreaded "pit bull", without any facts or statistics to back up this claim. Forget, for the moment, that nobody can even tell what a "pit bull" is. Even if you could identify the dog, there is nothing in any city's record books to even remotely suggest that "pit bulls" are the main transgressor in this area.

"Well, stand by ... for some first hand 'research!'"
One incident does not constitute "research", ever.

"But pit bulls are dogs with big heads, huge jaws, fearless, and are dangerous to anything that irritates them."
Although Worthington doesn't actually come out and say it, the insinuation is that these big heads and huge jaws make these dogs more dangerous. This, despite scientific studies by American geneticists that show no difference in size or strength of "pit bull" jaws compared to other dogs of similar size. And anyone who says my dog is "fearless" should see her trembling in a thunderstorm! Temperament tests of thousands of dogs representing hundreds of breeds show that "pit bull" type dogs are, in fact, significantly more tolerant of irritations than most other breeds, including Golden Retrievers, poodles, and beagles.

"Even minimal research indicates their prime targets, when they go berserk, are small children and small dogs -- toy poodles, Lhasa Apsos and the like. Rarely does one hear of pit bulls attacking German shepherds, Rottweillers, Doberman pinschers."
I challenge Mr. Worthington to produce this "research". There is no research of which I'm aware that shows that "pit bull" type dogs attack small children or small dogs with any greater frequency for their population than other breeds of dogs. Small children and small dogs are definitely more at risk than adults or larger dogs, but they are at risk from all types of dogs. The very fact that they are smaller makes them susceptible to more serious injury, regardless of the breed of dog that is attacking. In other words, serious injuries to small children and small dogs are not unique to "pit bulls". In Canada, particularly, a child has a much greater risk of dying from a significant number of other breeds that are not of the "pit bull" family.

"The new tenants had a pit bull with the menacing name of 'Sniper' who frequently got loose and headed for our place. The owner was alarmingly indifferent."
Is the problem with the dog or is the problem with the owners? The owner named the dog. My dog's name is Star. Does this make her any more or less dangerous than Sniper, even though they're the same breed? The naming of this dog is indicative of the owner's attitude about his dog, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the innate temperament of the dog itself.

The dog frequently got loose and the owner was indifferent. This was an accident waiting to happen! Not because of the dog's breed, but because the owner clearly has no respect for others. The attitude of the owner will eventually show up in the dog's actions.

"Once we saw it swimming in Lake Ontario near our place and diving to the bottom and fetching rocks the size of bread loaves."
The size of bread loaves? What does this mean? How big, exactly, are bread loaves? What is the purpose of including this? Is it to show that "pit bulls" are somehow "superdogs" that can carry huge rocks in their mouths? Can they leap tall buildings in a single bound? Are they faster than a speeding bullet? I know a 10-year-old "pit bull" that has been diving for rocks for years. He has no teeth left because of this, but must still be muzzled (figure that one out). Before the ban, he was a therapy dog at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. I don't think the rocks he picked up were the size of bread loaves, but they must have been close. By the way, he's never bitten anyone, dog or human, in 10 years, despite all that practice with bread-loaf-sized rocks!

Unfortunately, the dog saw her, and immediately charged and attacked Murphy, bowling her over and ripping a chunk from her ribs.
Yes, this was a bite. No, it should not have been allowed to happen and, in a perfect world, the owner would have been responsible regarding his pet's actions and responsive to neighbour's prior complaints. Six stitches do not a "chunk" make! Six stitches constitute a two to three inch cut.

After half a dozen stitches, a sedated Murphy came home and Yvonne phoned Animal Control which knew all about the pit bull and its owner from past complaints.
Past complaints against the owner is something so common, it's almost a cliché. It is extremely rare to find an attacking dog incident that has not been preceded by multiple complaints to Animal Services from neighbours. Often, particularly in the case of adolescent dogs, we see that the dog is allowed to gradually increase its boldness and aggressiveness (i.e., to learn that certain behaviours produce desirable results). Despite neighbour complaints, if the dog is not controlled and contained, as well as trained, then its behaviour will become steadily worse until the day when the first bite occurs. If we're lucky, it's not serious, but rather serves as a wakeup call about that particular animal. If we're not lucky, someone gets hurt, sometimes badly. The issue here is not the breed of the dog. It's the nauseatingly common phrase, heard time and time again from friends and neighbours, "we complained about this dog and nothing was done".

A couple of animal control officers came out impressively fast to get details. Another, Jim, called the next day. They took photographs of Murphy's wound and said the pit bull would be seized the minute the owner could be found. Meanwhile the OPP were notified in Belleville and surrounding towns in case the owner and dog decided to go on the lam -- which was the case. By the time Animal Control arrived with a warrant to seize the dog, it and its handler were gone.
Police on a manhunt for what? A murderer? A rapist? A gangster? No, a dog owner whose dog caused a three-inch cut on another dog! Three Animal Control Officers. Multiple police officers. A warrant to seize the dog.

Don't be fooled. This has nothing to do with the seriousness of the bite (or lack thereof). It doesn't even have anything really to do with the dangerousness of the dog. It has to do with two things: The phrase "pit bull" and the fact that the victim dog's owner is an editor for the Toronto Sun. Do you think that, with exactly the same history of the dog and exactly the same actions and injuries, if the dog was a Labrador Retriever and Murphy's owner was not Peter Worthington, would we have three Animal Control Officers and a provincial police force looking for the attacking dog and its owner? Would there be a warrant to seize the dog? Would the owner face FIVE charges, as does the owner of this dog?

Ah, you say, but a Labrador Retriever wouldn't do this! March of this year. Port Colborne. Two Labrador Retrievers running loose in the town attacked and KILLED a Pomeranian, then proceeded to attack an on-leash pit bull. The dogs had killed another dog a year earlier and there had been multiple complaints about the dogs. Comments from the Welland District Animal Control manager indicated that the dogs would probably be returned to their owner with muzzle orders and fines. What a contrast, simply because of the breed! I know German Shepherds, Airedale Terriers, Wheaton Terriers, and many, many mixed breed dogs that have literally ripped into their victims with gusto.

The animal control people said while they took dog attacks seriously, ever since Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby started defending pit bull owners, convictions have become a lengthy process. It took four months to get a conviction of an owner whose pit bull bit a cop. During the interim, the dog has to be kept at taxpayers' expense, then euthanized.
This is a very interesting comment. The amended Dog Owners' Liability Act has nothing to do with the breed of the dog when it comes to prosecuting dog bite cases. It provides for fines and jail time for the owner of any dog, regardless of breed, if that dog bites, attacks, or even threatens a person or a domestic animal. So, it's hard for me to understand how Clayton Ruby's "defence of pit bull owners" (their words, not mine) can interfere with prosecuting a bite case.

There are two aspects to prosecuting a bite case involving a "pit bull" type dog. The first is, did the dog bite (or threaten)? This must be proved by the prosecutor beyond a reasonable doubt, as in any other case of criminal prosecution. This has nothing to do with the breed of the dog, but focuses on the actions of the owner and the dog, as well as the owner's lack of prevention. The second issue is whether or not the dog is a "pit bull". This is primarily to determine the fate of the dog. If the owner is charged with owning an illegal pit bull or failing to muzzle/leash/sterilize it, then the identification of the dog becomes an impediment to conviction. But, this should not be a problem for a case involving biting. The law is very clear that no dog is allowed to bite, period. It is the insistence by Animal Control personnel in focusing on the "pit bull" aspect that is preventing the successful prosecution of owners of biting dogs. If they just focused on the bite and charged the owners with failing to prevent their DOG from biting, rather than trying to charge them with a bunch of "pit bull" related charges, they'd have a lot more success in their prosecutions.

Personally, I don't blame the dog. Like pedophiles, they simply can't resist attacking what they see as weak, defenceless, easy or vulnerable. It's just the way they are -- bred that way by people who've done the breed a disservice.
Pedophiles? Worthington must be just having fun with us now. He can't be serious, really. First, does he have any scientific evidence that pedophiles are "born that way"? This is his statement when comparing them to "pit bulls". "It's just the way they are", he says. From what I understand of psychology and pedophilia, the environment in which a person is raised has a huge effect on their actions in the future. "Abuse victims become abusers unless they can break the cycle" is a common refrain in the world of social and psychological assistance. So, Worthington's comparison of "pit bulls" to pedophiles, no matter how repulsive, actually supports the traditional anti-ban argument that "bad owners create bad dogs". And what about, in Toronto, the 99.95% of "pit bull" type dogs that caused no harm to anyone in 2004 (the last year for which we have statistics)? No, that percentage is not a misprint. Only 12 of 25,000 dogs caused even one stitch on a human being's body. If these dogs "can't resist attacking", then where are the thousands of victims? Where are the inevitable deaths and maimings? There are some, of course. Unfortunately, it's a fact of life that when human beings choose to live with animals, sometimes those animals act or react in dangerous ways. This includes horses, cows, and dogs. Horses and cows are actually more dangerous than all dogs put together, despite the fact that they have much less interaction with humans than dogs do.

Yesterday, they nabbed Sniper. "The OPP really pulled out all stops," said Garry Davis. "They knew the guy, visited his friends, and he just ran out of places to hide and turned himself and the dog into the OPP."
Again, back to an earlier comment. Do the OPP have nothing better to do than chase a dog that left a three-inch cut on another dog? What is the driving force behind this manhunt? Why this particular case? I ask again, is it because Peter Worthington owned the victim dog?

It turned out that the pit bull was registered to someone else, who has tentatively agreed that the dog should be euthanized.
The plot thickens! It wasn't even his dog or at least it wasn't registered to him. In that case, shouldn't the registered owner of the dog be charged as well? That's what the Dog Owners' Liability Act requires. Why was the dog not registered to this man? Is there more to this story than Worthington is telling us? Is there more to this owner? Perhaps he has had previous interactions with the police or maybe he had had previous issues regarding other dogs. If so, that would really go against Worthington's argument that the breed is the problem. So, maybe Peter has decided not to investigate this owner too closely. Maybe he is afraid to discover that the owner is really the problem.

Michael Laird is due in court on Friday to face five charges involving endangerment, mishandling the dog, improper care, etc. If convicted he'll likely be forbidden to ever own a pit bull type dog.
Interesting list of charges. None of these are charges under the Dog Owners' Liability Act. I also don't know to which law Worthington is referring when he says that the owner will likely be forbidden from ever owning a pit bull type dog. There is nothing in the Dog Owners' Liability Act that allows the judge to prevent someone from owning a specific breed of dog. The court may, in its discretion, forbid the owner from owning another dog for a specified period of time, but that refers to any dog, not a specific breed. I can't see how preventing this man from owning a pit bull type dog will protect the neighbourhood if he gets a different breed and manages it in the same way he did this one.

"I'm sorry about Murphy," said Davis, "but it was only a matter of time before that dog attacked a child, and that would have been tragic."
It's a shame that these words come from Garry Davis, an Animal Control Officer who we should assume has some expertise in dog behaviour, since that's his job. Mr. Davis should at least read a couple of books on problem dog behaviour or talk to some recognized experts before he equates attacks on humans with attacks on dogs. The vast majority of dog-on-child incidents occur within the family's home, a relative's home, or a neighbour's home and are predominantly driven by pack-related conflicts or by severe provocation on the part of the child (such as physical abuse of the dog). The vast majority of dog-on-dog aggression has to do with protecting the dog's pack and/or its territory from intruders.

One wonders why people want a dog that by law must be muzzled and leashed - something "Sniper" seems rarely to have endured.
First, most municipalities in this province require all dogs to be leashed outside their homes. A few have leash-free parks in which dogs are allowed to be off-leash while still under their owners' control, but this is not the norm. Second, most of us didn't choose dogs that have to be muzzled. We chose the dogs long before the government decided they were dangerous. Every day, often two or three times a day, these dogs managed to interact with people and other dogs without incident. Then, with the stroke of a pen, and against all expert advice, the government decided that they needed to be muzzled. Same dogs, same owners, same public interactions. But now, these dogs are something to be feared.

Hundreds of thousands of people in this country fall in love with a particular breed. When their dog dies, they often get another of the same breed, and they often choose to own multiple dogs of that breed. The various attributes of different types of dogs appeal to different people. We chose our breed because of its intense love of people and because of its trainability and stability. Though the government, acting against all scientific evidence, chooses to target these dogs and use them as a political stepping stone, that does not change the true nature of the vast majority of these dogs and it certainly does not quell the desire for true lovers of the breed to own them.

"Often people want them as a secondary defence against police," said Gary Davis. "They are owner-specific, unpredictable and often dangerous."
It may be true that some owners choose to use their dogs to protect them in their illegal activities. This is not a breed-specific issue, a fact that has been reiterated to others and me time and again by police officers throughout Ontario. Criminals, in trying to protect their drug and gun stashes, can and do use all sorts of deterrents, including dogs of many different types. A dog that is owned by a criminal and is "unpredictable and dangerous", regardless of its breed, has been encouraged to act this way and this behaviour is a result of that encouragement, a goal towards which a criminal deliberately aims with full knowledge of what type of dog he is intending to create.

Another question. Who identified this dog as a "pit bull", whatever that is? Was it Worthington himself? Or was it the Animal Control Officer who clearly has a bias against this particular type of dog? Based on Michael Bryant's lack of success in identifying an American Pit Bull Terrier, I wouldn't put too much stock in the accuracy of this identification when the people involved have already demonstrated that they have a clear bias against anything with a big head.

I'd love to get that Animal Control Officer on a witness stand and ask him if he's seen this type of damage done by any other breed of dog. Has he ever seen a severe bite to a child's face that was done by some other breed? Has he ever seen the results of a dog-on-dog attack that didn't involve a "pit bull" type of dog?

An unbiased journalist would ask those types of questions. An unbiased journalist, regardless of his own personal single-incident experience, would still try to present the truth, even if his own personal opinions keep trying to get in the way.

Mr. Worthington has allowed his personal bias to turn what would otherwise be a not-too-unusual dog-on-dog incident into "incontrovertible proof" that a breed ban is the only solution.

This is not journalism. This is propaganda. Worthington should take a step back and ask himself this question: If this was about anything other than "pit bulls", would he have allowed himself to write such inaccurate, unsubstantiated, and inflammatory garbage?

If the answer is no, then this piece should never have been published. It is a waste of the paper it was printed on and does nothing to help solve the problem of irresponsible dog owners.

If the answer is yes, then perhaps Mr. Worthington should take a hard look at what type of "journalist" he has become.

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