What pit bulls can teach us about profiling
The New Yorker Magazine
by MALCOLM GLADWELL
January 30, 2006
Below are a few quotes from Mr. Gladwell's excellent article in the
New Yorker. If you would like to read the entire New Yorker article, please click here.
“We have a policy against racial profiling,” Raymond Kelly,
New York City’s police commissioner, told me. “It’s the wrong thing to do, and it’s also ineffective.
If thinking about muscular terriers as pit bulls is a generalization,
then thinking about dangerous dogs as anything substantially similar to a pit bull is a generalization about a generalization.
“The way a lot of these laws are written, pit bulls are whatever they say they are,” Lora Brashears, a kennel
manager in Pennsylvania, says. “And for most people it just means big, nasty, scary dog that bites.”
The supposedly troublesome characteristics of the pit-bull type—its
gameness, its determination, its insensitivity to pain—are chiefly directed toward other dogs. Pit bulls were not bred
to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people
involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was “Man-eaters
Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have
passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. “We
have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,” Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says.
“I’ve tested half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive
tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.” It can even
be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive toward other dogs are what make it so nice to humans.
“There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs,” the writer Vicki Hearne points out. “Their
stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort
of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute
about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody.”
A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that
it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about
a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That’s a category problem.
The kinds of dogs that kill people change over time, because the popularity
of certain breeds changes over time. The one thing that doesn’t change is the total number of the people killed by dogs.
When we have more problems with pit bulls, it’s not necessarily a sign that pit bulls are more dangerous than other
dogs. It could just be a sign that pit bulls have become more numerous.
“I’ve seen virtually every breed involved in fatalities,
including Pomeranians and everything else, except a beagle or a basset hound,” Randall Lockwood, a senior vice-president
of the A.S.P.C.A. and one of the country’s leading dogbite experts, told me. “And there’s always one or
two deaths attributable to malamutes or huskies, although you never hear people clamoring for a ban on those breeds.
[According to a 1991 Denver study] The biters were 6.2 times as likely
to be male than female, and 2.6 times as likely to be intact than neutered. The Denver study also found that biters were 2.8
times as likely to be chained as unchained. “About twenty per cent of the dogs involved in fatalities were chained at
the time, and had a history of long-term chaining,” Lockwood said. “Now, are they chained because they are aggressive
or aggressive because they are chained? It’s a bit of both. These are animals that have not had an opportunity to become
socialized to people. They don’t necessarily even know that children are small human beings. They tend to see them as
“A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite
by a big or aggressive dog,” Lockwood went on. “It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions—the
wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation.
It [monitoring the owner] would have required a more exacting set
of generalizations to be more exactingly applied. It’s always easier just to ban the breed.