Animal Studies Bibliography
Podberscek, Anthony L. 1994. Dog on a tightrope: The position of the dog in British society as influenced by press reports on dog attacks (1988 to 1992). Anthrozoos 7(4): 232-241.
Many people in Western society value their dogs highly and treat them very well. Treatment of dogs, however, may vary widely, and one of the major reasons for negative treatment is dogs' aggressiveness. It may also be based on public perception, which may be based in part on media coverage. An analysis of coverage of dog bites in 5 major British newspapers from 1988 to 1992 demonstrates this point. Bite stories included both serious stories about upsetting or viscous attacks and stories that treated bites humorously. The majority of the dog bite stories found in the period studied were found between 1989 and 1991. The sudden increase in 1989 seems to have been started by and 11-year-old girl's death in Scotland from a Rottweiler attack. Following this attack there was a frenzy of media coverage for the rest of the year and through 1990 indicting Rottweilers. Although German Shepherds were also cited in this coverage and were actually the causes of a large number of the attacks, Rottweilers received the most negative coverage. Politicians called for owner responsibility for keeping wild beasts and a criminologist reported that concern about dogs had become a larger concern than other crimes for the first time. Rottweiler owners were abused in public, the price of Rottweiler puppies fell drastically, and demand was so low that puppies had to be euthanized. Some demanded a government ban on all aggressive breeds of dogs, though attention was on Rottweilers, not other breeds. In 1991, the Rottweiler coverage waned and the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) became the new focus as a result of two severe attacks. During the period in question, the victims of the attacks covered changed, moving from mostly adults and adolescents in 1988 to mostly children during the period of hysteria from 1989 to 1991. This may have been a tactic to arouse more public outrage, but reliable statistics on the actual number of dog bites are not available, so this cannot be assessed. In 1991 the government responded to the pressure with the Dangerous Dogs Act, which strictly controlled possession of 4 breeds, including pit bull terrier types but not the Rottweiler. A significant number of dogs have been impounded for long period of time and then released because of the vague wording of the hurriedly-passed law, which is not specific about the breeds it covers. After the passage of the law, media coverage of dog bites dropped off considerably, and one major attack was not followed by the same flurry that had occurred before. The Rottweiler's negative image was probably due to the attack on the girl, the rapid increase in ownership during the 80s and the relative unfamiliarity of most British people with the breed, and its size and power. The APBT's negative image was probably due to stories about its fighting abilities and the fact that it is often used to protect drug dealers. The fact that German Shepherds and Rottweilers were not put in the legislation is likely because they are considered valuable to society--the former are widely used by police and as guide dogs. The media in this case served two functions: it set the agenda, telling people what to think about, and it served as a medium through which the public concern could be expressed and calls for action could be made. The drop in dog bite coverage after the passage of the Dangerous Dogs Act makes sense in this light. This media and public reaction was far out of proportion to the actual risk of dog attack. This hysteria is similar to nineteenth century hysterias in England and France over rabies. The reason for the extreme response seems to be that the source of the threat is a domesticated animal that has been taken in and given a cherished place in family life. These pets can only have human status while they refrain from behaving like beasts, and this perspective is furthered by the fact that owners feel their animal's behavior reflects upon them. The dog thus has a perilous place in society, being elevated but at significant risk of falling out of favor. This instability is the result of out mythological views of dogs, which don't mesh with the reality of their wild natures being put in domestic settings.