Saturday, 13 March 2010

Beware Teenage Boys Carrying Chihuahuas

The idea of tough-dogs is a fluid concept and the breed du jour has varied with the era.

When I was growing up, it was definitely German-Shepherds, then Dobermans. By 1976 this identity had been grafted onto Rotweilers, probably by people who had seen the demonic dog in the first Omen film. By the mid-80s, gangs in blighted urban America were using pit-bull types for security purposes, and for the first time a breed’s reputation equated pretty directly with its majority use.

The UK government is considering a revisit of dog control legislation. The last law, the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, is controversial and considered by many to have been a knee-jerk reaction by a parliament whose members were scared of looking insipid prior to an election.

The new proposals from DEFRA contain several measures, some of which I think are quite good, and one of which is just daft.

Firstly, it recommends that dogs are microchipped.

A quick call to my local vet revealed that in my area around fifty percent of dogs at that practice are microchipped already, This procedure costs a very reasonable £25, and you’d think it would be a tolerable compulsory overhead.

The government would also like to have compulsory third-party insurance.

So I called Pet Protect, one of the market leaders, and was quoted £253 per annum to insure a five year old male cross-breed.

This part of the recommendations has provoked hyperventillation in some areas of the media. However, that £253 is mainly medical coverage for the dog. When I asked them to decouple the third party element, I was told I couldn't, but that it represented just 3% of the total premium - £7.59 per year.

Microchipping and medical insurance, it strikes me, are both of primary benefit to the dog - which is OK if you’re a responsible dog owner. If you can’t afford £4.87 per week to insure your dog, you can’t afford the thousands it could cost for a chronic condition, or even the hundreds for, say, a broken leg.

So third party insurance. Just how likely are you to be attacked by a dog anyway? Well, there’s a problem with the figures.

Hospital Episode Statistics Online says that:

“Over the past ten years there has been an increase in the number of finished consultant episodes attributed to being bitten or struck by a dog”

But that phrase – bitten or struck – shows a deficiency in the way the stats are collected.

A dog bite is pretty quantifiable. There are probably a few accidental bites, but not many. A dog strike is a different thing entirely. If your labrador is so delighted to see you that he jumps up and causes you to bang your head on the kitchen unit – that’s a dog strike.

Conflating these things can’t be helpful.

As well as illustrating that reports of dog bites and strikes have gone up the HOS information also reveals some other interesting demography. The injury rate to male humans is roughly double or more than that to female humans. (This gender difference peaks between the ages of ten and fortyish).

And the chance of your being attacked by a dog are inversely proportional to your age. So as a 15-19 year old male youth, you are roughly four times more likely to experience an incident than a 75-79 year old man.

I’d be interested to index these figures with dog ownership. Perhaps teenage males are four times more likely to own a dog than retirement age men. But that’s probably not the case. Probably, young males are simply more likely to act like twerps around dogs, or to associate with breeds of dog they consider to be tough and thereby provoke the problematic behaviour.

In fact the relationship between perceived dog aggression and breed may be counterintuitive. According to ‘Breed Differences in Canine Aggression’ by Duffy, Hsu and Serpell (2008), the most dangerous dog breed is – wait for it – the sausage dog … followed by the Chihuahua and the Jack Russell. These breeds are snappy in several contexts: with their owners, with strangers and with other dogs.

In relation to pit bulls, the report points out that the attack:

“… pattern is consistent with the view that this breed has been selectively bred for aggression toward other dogs rather than humans”.

The problem with pit bulls is that their physiology means that an incident is more likely to involve significant injury. In fact, traditional ideas about large dogs and aggression may well be skewed towards indicting big dogs because their bites are more likely to require medical attention and therefore to be reported.

Another recommendation by DEFRA is that prospective dog owners should be required to take a test.

Wouldn’t this be great if it did what it said in the tin? However, you only have to look at driving to realise that intention does not automatically create outcome. It’s my guess that everybody who gets a dog already knows they’re supposed to get it micro-chipped and walk it a couple of miles each day.

There’s no guarantee that the person who takes the test will even be the dog’s primary custodian. If you get the swottiest member of your family to take the exam, and then leave your pit-bull puppy in the wrong company. Well you don’t need a crystal ball.

I think the figures show that with both driving and dogs, the problems peak in young men. It’s not the tests - it’s the testosterone.

The fact is, if you’re worried about being physically attacked, you should be on the alert for young men of around 17 years old. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2006, there were just over eighty thousand convictions or cautions for violence against the person in England and Wales. The majority of offenders were male (80%) and the offending rate peaked at age 17.

Of course, young men principally perpetrate against each other, whereas dogs – certainly in those headline grabbing cases – perpetrate against children too.

One of the most vociferous groups in relation to changes in dog control is the Communication Workers Union, who represent postal workers. They seem to have a valid point: at the moment, dogs are required to be under control in public places, but private places like homes and gardens are different.

The new proposals therefore include provision for a dog ASBO – a so called dogbo – and hopefully this would help to catch the animals who are really causing the contemporary problems: injuries to strangers on domestic property and injuries to young family members.

Ultimately, I think we all know what the real issue is. Some people don’t want a fuzzy friend, they want a status animal. Dog mismanagement is most likely to occur with the combination of dogs perceived to be ‘tough’ and young men. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to legislate for either attitude or age.

The major worry about the new legislation is that, the already conscientious would be targeted because they’re easy.

This situation must surely have been exacerbated by the fact that the government has violated an unwritten covenant with its citizens in such areas as motoring infringements which have come to be a kind of informal taxation. Will dog laws end up doing the same?

Let’s hope not.


Published in the Telegraph this week, three small dogs intimidate passers-by on a street in Jindong, China. No-one could get near to help their drunken, unconscious owner, including police and ambulance teams. Who needs a pit-bull anyway?

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Hilary Mantel & Teenage Mothers

Novelist Hilary Mantel has claimed that girls are ready to have babies when they are fourteen, saying that a ‘male timetable’ is dictating their activities away from the natural course.

"Having sex and having babies is what young women are about, and their instincts are suppressed in the interests of society's timetable" she said in an interview to ‘Stella’, the Telegraph’s Sunday magazine.

Firstly, I am sympathetic to Ms. Mantel, as endometriosis left her unable to have children. A teenage pregnancy is likely the only way she could have become a mother, and this thought must surely make her wistful from time to time.

Secondly, there's the implication that a biological drive is sufficient to create a virtuous outcome. This one is easy. I am biologically driven to eat chocolate eclairs at each meal, but I resist because I don't think it's a good idea.

Thirdly, (and less frivolously), I really wish she hadn’t blamed men. It’s very simple to lob rotten tomatoes as the traditional targets, but in this case I think she’s very wrong.

It seems to me that the real culprit is our technological/industrial economy.

In agricultural economies, children are useful workers and your pension plan, all rolled into one. A study of peasant Javanese families in 1976 showed that by twelve to fourteen, boys were contributing around thirty-three hours per week useful labour. Girls of nine to eleven were contributing around thirty-eight. (Benjamin White)

A 1977 study of families in rural Bangaladesh showed that male children were producing more than they consume by age thirteen and had, in effect, repaid all the effort that had gone into them by the time they were fifteen. (Meade Cain)

However, our technological/industrial economy means that our young need to be educated to prosper. I don’t necessarily even mean educated with degrees - just experienced and useful.

(I’ve added the word ‘technological’, because the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were industrial AND provided many work opportunities for children – up chimneys or in mills, for example.)

A technological/industrial society requires massive investment – you’re well into biological adulthood before you start making decent money.

Such a society also has high infrastructure overhead. When road maintenance consisted of shovelling the cow shit off the path, or when treatment for puerperal fever consisted of leeches and crossed fingers, there is simply a logical limit to how much it could all cost.

When housing consists of ten people in one earth-floored, wattle-rendered room, nobody needs to spend half their income for twenty-five years on its purchase.

But there are compensations for modernity. Post partum survival rates for both mothers and babies are higher than they have ever been, meaning that breeding is no longer a race. Chances are all your children will be at your funeral (if you haven’t pissed them off, obviously). And because modern children are nett consumers rather than nett contributors to the family economy, you’re unlikely to want a football team.

Girls who have babies when they are fourteen may turn out to be very productive indeed over the long run, but they’ll need a lot more external support to do it. The ideal modern model is that you get to the age where you can produce a surplus, then use it to rear your own children.

But there’s something else: these days women are under extra pressure to delay pregnancy until very late into their potential reproductive career.

However I don’t think that’s down to entirely our technological/industrial economic model and I don’t think it’s because of ‘men’ either. I think it’s because our standards of living are falling.

A shortage of housing in the UK, plus the decrease in the real value of wages over the last forty years, means that pairing up in your twenties, buying a home and starting a family quickly is atypical. Given that few people ‘aspire’ to move down the social/economic ladder, many are waiting ‘til the economic indicators are right before they jump.

We’re told that some modern parents are apparently lucky if their ‘kidult’ offspring are able to leave the family home by their mid-twenties.

And books like ‘The Crowded Nest Syndrome: Surviving the Return of Adult Children’ by Kathleen Shaputis discuss the modern phenomenon of the ‘Boomerang Generation’. These adults in their twenties and thirties boing metronomically on an invisible umbilical, unable to make escape velocity from the parental home.

It’s hard to know what to do. Degrees are not the guarantee of prosperity that they once were. Some categories of degree are, in financial terms alone, best not taken at all. Many people in their twenties now find themselves in exactly the same competitive position for work, relative to their peers, that they were when they left school – except now they owe fifteen or twenty thousand for their educations.

While I simply can’t agree that fourteen year olds averagely make good mums, I do think the impediments on reproduction for women of twenty five and over are ignored at our peril.