Responsibility, part 1: How dangerous is that dog?
Residential complexes or local governments in recent years have reacted to dog attacks by restricting or prohibiting certain breeds. This approach to reducing dogs attacks is doomed to failure, because the root of the problem normally has little or nothing to do with the breed.
Instead, research shows the factors that best predict dog attacks are either circumstantial or related to whether and how the owner trains, handles and treats the dog on a daily basis.
[For details, see Delise, Karen. Fatal Dog Attacks: The Stories Behind the Statistics. Manorville, NY: Anubis Press, © 2002 by Karen Delise.]
About the breed
It is true breeds have certain characteristics. Nearly all breeds originally had a specific use for which they were bred. Often those purposes suggest specific types of care or training.
For example, one breed often targeted for restrictions is the German Shepherd. German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) were sheep tenders bred for their intelligence and, by the reputable breeder, for temperament. Physically, they are large, strong dogs with a powerful scissor bite.
Their physical characteristics and intelligence have led to GSDs being trained as guide dogs as well as police, military and personal protection dogs. These same dogs will jump through windows to protect a child, sleep with a baby without leaving a scratch on it or gently shepherd a kitten.
GSDs that are poorly bred, untrained, uncontrolled or trained specifically to fight or defend territory indiscriminately, however, certainly can and have been involved in dog attacks on people.
Similarly, breeds not normally considered a threat to people can attack. One breed never, to my knowledge, targeted for restrictions is the dachshund. These long, low hunting dogs were bred to go into burrows after badgers. A cursory web search found three separate incidents of a dachshund mauling or killing a sleeping baby in its crib.
A 2008 University of Pennsylvania study identified the dachshund as the single most aggressive dog breed.
[For details, see Duffy, D.L., et. al., Breed differences in canine aggression, Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (2008), doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2008.04.006.]
So why are fingers pointed at specific breeds if breed is not the best predictor of aggression? Big dogs have bigger mouths and bigger teeth, so they do more damage when they do attack, and their bites more often require medical attention. Bites that do not require medical attention often go unreported and therefore do not figure in canine aggression statistics.
Also, we are less likely to notice aggressive behavior in smaller breeds because we incorrectly perceive them as smaller threats, even though in reality some smaller breeds attack more often and with less provocation than larger breeds.
The bottom line is that owners need 1) to train every dog in basic obedience and good social behavior and 2) to know the breed and handle it accordingly. These are the first steps in preventing dog attacks.