Support for husky absent for pit bull

| Thursday, March 1, 2012

No one's reaction to the recent fatal dog attack in McKeesport has baffled me more than my own.

The death of 2-day-old Howard Nicholson Jr., whose mother left him alone in a room with Nico, an 18-month-old husky, and another dog should disturb everyone. How is it that Brandy Furlong, who has two other children, doesn't know you don't leave an infant alone with any dog, let alone in an infant seat on the floor• You don't have to be a parent to feel pity and a level of anger for her -- an unusual emotional cocktail.

Even more interesting is the response to the dog involved. A number of callers to the Tribune-Review support sparing the husky from euthanization. A judge in the case received threats for putting the wheels in motion to do that.

To my surprise, I found myself feeling sympathy for the dog, even though I have a 9-month-old baby. This is completely unlike me -- and maybe it's unlike a lot of Nico's other supporters, too.

Suddenly, I and others are willing to consider that the husky reportedly was malnourished and had a broken leg that a veterinarian hadn't treated.

What's the difference?

I think it's the breed of the dog. Were this a pit bull, the people in favor of sparing the dog likely would be a much smaller group.

Most people have good feelings about huskies. Since childhood many have seen them as the beautiful dogs who pull sleds in the Iditarod. For me, there's also a sense that if a husky attacked, there had to be a reason.

When a pit bull attacks, though, public reaction is basically: "That's what pit bulls do, right?"

If the dogfighting ring that authorities busted in Wilkinsburg last week is any indication, there's a chance every pit bull that ever attacked a person was treated and trained badly.

I talked to Carlo Siracusa, who has a master's degree in veterinary science, about this bias. He works at the Behavior Clinic at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which works with animals and their owners, usually after a pet displays signs of aggression. He establishes a plan to eliminate the behavior.

Siracusa said many people share my anxiety about pit bulls because as terriers, they "have a tendency toward nervousness." Still, not all pit bulls are predisposed to attack, he said.

"There's a lot of wrong information in the media that puts people at risk," he said.

Siracusa said the key is to understand that any dog can attack. Other breeds are known to bite, such as dachshunds. The determining factor is not breed, Siracusa said, but how the dog is trained and how it feels.

"If a dog feels threatened, he will bite. That's normal behavior (for a dog)," he said. Apparently, that includes my Labrador retriever mix.

So whether it's a husky, a pit bull or lab mix, should a dog that attacks and kills a person be euthanized• In retrospect, I'd have to say yes.

Siracusa said he would hesitate to put down any animal. Yet he told me: "The only conclusion I can make is if the dog is in the same situation, he would do it again."

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