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i guess my criticism of the article was that it didn't live up to the standard of your previous work. instead of reading as one coherent thought, it felt like you tried to stitch together several interesting factoids uncovered while researching something else. as i read it, i was continually distracted by the subject. first it's dogs, then cops, then the homeless, now back to cops, kenyan runners, dogs, cops... wha?

certainly we did not need the multiple metaphors to illustrate "the hockey stick" realtionship as different from the bell curve, as i'm sure your audience has heard of "the long tail" and/or the "80/20 rule" and can differentiate between those and the bell curve.

dealing with the consequences of hockey stick relationships is difficult, and as the title alludes, knowledge from one case can be applied to another; yet, the reactions to the article have glossed over whether a strictly economic solution to the problems of the homeless, or a nuanced yet broader approach to profiling is best, and have instead focused on whether one breed of dog is more dangeous than the next. the salient point was lost, and that is a shame.


Again with the pitt bulls. I wouldn't be surprised if the person gladwell is quoting is the person who aggressively emailed me twice (and probably every other person who replied to his original pittbull post) to profess his or her love for pittbulls and let me know how stupid I am for fearing them.

I wonder why very few humans of mild temperament own pitt bulls.

Also, one thing I don't think has been stated enough is that not all pitts are well-bred. Now that there's such a high demand for them, there are a lot of overbred, defective pitts out there, from what I hear.

(And the person who emailed me twice already in response to my reply can please abstain from contacting me personally again, thank you very much. I have an email filter now.)


It could be that many humans of mild temperament own pit bulls; because they're of mild temperament, you never hear about them.


What happens as a result of a vicious chihuahua or weiner dog? Bad scratch marks?


I know this is not central to what you're saying here, but I thought I'd mention that I believe Pitbulls can be violent because they are so intelligent.

I had a pitbull mix breed, and she was so intelligent and sensitive (as a puppy she'd just sit there studying us) that she was acutely aware when she wasn't being treated fairly. I have no doubt that if you treat a pitbull poorly it will become violent, but this is more a reflection of the owners than the breed. You could probably whack a stupid dog a few times and it will just forget it and come running to you the next time, but a pitbull would surely grow to resent you.


"You could probably whack a stupid dog a few times and it will just forget it and come running to you the next time, but a pitbull would surely grow to resent you."

Posted by: kai | March 17, 2006 at 03:33 AM

(A bit of a tangent from a dog lover...)
I understand you have a bias for pitbulls because you own one, and I commend you for being prideful of your dog. However, I cringed when I read your comment about whacking a stupid dog and then finding it run to you next time. The most rewarding part of having a dog as a pet is its unconditional love for you that you can't find through most human relationships. We don't know what's going on in their heads--minds are private, whether the mind belongs to a human or a dog--and we don't know if a dog will hold a grudge against someone who abuses him, but he sure as hell is more likely to forgive you than any other being. Human beings are a highly intelligent species hands down, but when it comes to love, dog>us.
Pitbulls may be idiosyncratically different here, I wouldn't know for sure as I've never owned one, but I'm sure their distrust toward humans comes with good reason. I'm sure the pitbull breed is a highly intelligent one, but please don't diss other dogs for being the loving creature that they are.


I couldn't agree more. In my spare time I enjoy serving as an amateur sabermetrician, and do a lot of work with statistics. Occasionally, people become so enthralled by what they see that they begin taking things out of context. There is a great importance in interpreting statistics, one many times overlooked.

fan of jimmy

selection bias. see URL.


Here in Toronto there's been a lot of debate recently, ever since a law to ban the breeding and sale of pit bulls has taken effect. It also sharply regulates those who currently own these dogs -- for example, they must always be leashed and muzzled in public.

Both sides have taken predictable stances. And while I do feel sympathy for those "good" owners of pit bulls who properly train and control their dogs, I feel that it comes down to a decision between two very unbalanced sets of rights.

The right of someone to own a particular breed of dog, versus the right of a random person not to spend the rest of their life with disfiguring facial injuries, say. Or the right of "good" pit bull owners not to be lumped in with the bad versus my right not to have my young child killed while walking home from school.

In either of those situations, I think it only makes sense to err on the side of caution... these are potentially dangerous dogs, and there's no practical way to regulate which dogs or owners are "good". Even if 1% of pit bulls are bad, that's still too many. The stakes are simply too high.

And, to those who feel that pit bulls are unfairly centered out, you're absolutely right: dobermans and other potentially deadly dogs should also be banned. Sorry. As far as chihuahuas, I also agree that they're incredibly vicious. But I've never heard of a deadly chihuahua attack, have you?


Let me take Gary's argument (above) and see how it applies to the profiling of people in the aftermath of recent Islamist terrorism. I believe that was a central point of Malcolm's original essay in the New Yorker.

"To those who feel that Palestinian-looking men are unfairly centered [sic; I think he meant singled] out in airport searches, you're absolutely right: North African-looking men and other potentially deadly people should also be banned from all international flights bound for the U.S.. Sorry."

How does that play?

We could argue that it's not meaningful to make the leap I just proposed above, because people intrinsically have rights that animals do not have. But that seems a bit of a red herring that takes us away from Malcolm's thesis in the pit bull essay.

Kevin Bertsch

Anne and Gary's comments above illustrate, to me, a growing divide over the way people make decisions. In our new digital world, I call them "analog" and "binary". Binaries are people who think decisions need to be made absolutely (on/off), while analogs are people who want to consider more than just issue when making a decision.

Gary makes the binary decision (on/off) - pit bulls are dangerous and should be banned outright. Anne points out how difficult it is to extend the binary view to issues such as middle Eastern men boarding airplanes in the US. And the concept of binary/analog extends to many controversial issues.

Abortion for example. There are binaries for and against, and a whole bunch of analogs in the middle who think unfettered abortion on demand is wrong, but don't want to go back to back alleys and coathangers.

Drugs are another issue. There are binaries for and against legalisation, and a bunch of analogs who think that smoking a joint is not going to ruin your life but who don't want to find their 14-year old daughter is a meth addict.

What makes the binary position attractive is it's satisfying: "X is wrong, and I say 'No More X!'".
It's clear cut, easy to identify what's right and wrong, and doesn't require much to implement.

Analog positions are necessarily messy. "Yes, it's a pit bull, but neither it nor its owner has a violent past, he always muzzles the animal when he's not around, and he doesn't leave the dog outdoors unattended"
- the opposite of the Ottawa dog attacks - would probably make a person think such a dog is safe. As Malcolm noted, easy profiling, while ineffective, is often substituted for the more nuanced approach.

Which brings me back to my main point: I think the reason we see so many more binary solutions on offer these days is that 1) we have had massive failures on the analog front in virtually any area you name, and 2) they are way easier (and cheaper) to implement.

Why bother to do in-depth interviews and background checks on prospective immigrants from the Middle East? That would be costly, and time-consuming. Far simpler to say "Keep 'em out!".

Why bother with psychological evaluations and parole boards? Keep 'em locked up. It'll keep the Willie Hortons off the street.

As an engineer, I know that any analog signal can be replaced by a digital one, if you can sample often enough. In fact, I'd argue that many of our 'analog' decision are simply the sum of many binary ones - "The dog isn't big, but it looks angry, it's not on a leash, it doesn't appear to be with its owner" - but we don't want to take the time or effort to build in enough small binary decisions to replace one big one.

Sorry if I went on too long!

Shannon DeJong

I'm not sure I agree (in regards to the "soundness" of your paradox assertion). In the instance of an anti-depressant "2x as effective" as Prozac, say, being associated with more reports of suicide ideation.

I think this over-simplifies things. This assumes that doctors give prescriptions on a "relative" basis -- namely, that a "much better and safer and more effective" drug would be prescribed to "the sickest and most troubled patients."

I'm sorry. But this takes a rather naive approach. Although I suspect this is probably true in terms of more effective drugs tending to be newer drugs which tend to be pricier drugs which tend to be doled out by insurance companies only in the most severe cases, I can't imagine this is always the case. Particularly with something like anti-depressants. At the risk of sounding like a rant, many prescriptions are handed out regardless of severity, or "relative need." I should know. A very good friend of mine was put on Zoloft because she was having trouble sleeping. Perhaps it was the three cups of coffee she was drinking at 6pm, she later concluded.

In terms of pit bulls and higher incidences of attacks, sure. I'll give you that it might be less indicative of the any inherent "evilness" of the breed and more a case of likliness to be bred a certain way. But this is where we must examine *why* they are more likely to be bred this way. Because of their "even temperment"? Or because, on the whole, they are more "successfully" bred to be aggressive, due to a naturally aggressive tendency?

I have no idea. I'm not making an assertion here. I have never intimately known a pit bull nor do I claim to be an expert on the breed's inherent disposition.

Just seems like an achems razor kind of situation.


I think it's a ridiculous solution to ban everything we categorize as dangerous. It's ignorant to generalize and put people/things/beings into boxes instead of making the effort to discover their true character, beyond assumptions and social definitions. It may take time, effort, money, etc. to do so, but it's a much more intelligent plan. Banning dangerous categories is a matter of convenience, not necessarily what is right.

paul s

i defend pit bull's reputations regularly, so please don't mistake this as invective directed at the breed--i think they are among the sweetest, smartest and most loyal dogs in the world. i am simply not sure i quite understand your logic: if a dog is even tempered and clearly communicates intent to do harm, shouldn't the breed as a whole inflict LESS damage than other, less predictable breeds--precisely by virtue of giving the potential victim time to retreat? isn't that the point of the email, in fact?

or are you saying that pit bull bites are more frequently reported simply because pit bulls are overrepresented in the pet population, and so the problem is that we are looking at absolute numbers rather than proportions? that argument makes sense, of course, but it goes to breed population rather than breed disposition, and still leaves my question unanswered--if the dog gives humans so much advance notice of its impending fury, why does it still manage to bite?

paul s

pit bulls' reputations... sorry, im a grammar freak....


Okay, I take the point that the mild-tempered pitt bull owners are less heard of. My dad's best friend (the renowned Arthur Lehman, baritone horn player par excellence) was a very mild mannered pitt bull owner who lived with his mother till he was 73. His pitts were very sweet-tempered.

But there must be about 10 pitt bulls per block in my neighborhood (washington heights), and their owners are not generally not mild-mannered. Be that as it may, their dogs MAY yet be more mild-mannered than their owners. Fine.

But that's still a LOT of pitt bulls. I think I'd feel a lot safer if they were all only the size of chihuahuas. wouldn't you?

PS- a wise person knows not to pet a dog they don't know VERY well, and any veterinarian or pet care professional knows that he better muzzle ANY dog he's treating, whether it's a mildmannered pitt, or a moody chihuahua.



Brent Toellner

In response to Gary above, I would agree with you, that one person getting disfigured is too many. However, I think you're missing Malcolm's entire point. What if the very fact that it's a "Pit Bull" is only a very minor contributor to an attack and in fact, the wrong indicator. Unfortunately, it's an "easy" fix for legislation. Seth Godin put this in amazing context earlier this week in his blog -- check the link. http://www.typepad.com/t/trackback/4425758

The basic premise of his article is that people need to know that what they're doing is making a tangible, immediate benefit. But they need to FEEL the benefit. Breed specific bans give them that tangible feel, and yet, with no harsh effects on them personally.

However, what if banning Pit Bulls is a bad solution. "Pit Bulls" still only account for 20% of the deaths by dogs in the US -- and fewer than that of actual dog bites. However, over the past 7 years, 92% of dog-related deaths have been by unneutered male dogs, 20% have been by stray dogs. So mandatory dog neutering would not only help prevent agressive dogs, but would also minimize the number of stray dogs. Plus, it would ease the stress of over-population in city's animal shelters.

What if the solution is really dog education? What if it's teaching children not to approach unknown animals? Or teaching owners that teathering dogs makes them more agressive because when scared, a dog's reaction is either fight or flight -- a teathered dog can't flee, so is left with only one option.

But these solutions aren't tangible enough for the general public -- although all are better solutions at preventing all dog attacks, not just by specific breeds.

Brent Toellner

Sorry, here's the appropriate link to Seth's blog entry



I'm a bit surprised that I'm going to be the first individual to point out Cesar Millan's perspective on the matter of dog psychology and human psychology here. Perhaps the overlap of National Geographic Channel watchers and watchers of this blog is smaller than I thought. But what Millan makes overwhelmingly clear in his show and profession is that bad dog behavior is much more indicative of how they are handled by their owners than by the vagaries of 'breeding'. His show has demonstrated something very fundamental about the average American dog owner, which is that they understand very little about what motivates dogs.

The greatest common mistake that dog owners make is that they treat dogs like children. They believe that aggressive dogs can be calmed down by giving emotional rewards. Instead what most owners do, by giving emotional attention is reward the wrong behavior at the wrong time. What the dogs do actually need is a smack when they misbehave. Most dog owners, and what I've noticed, most women who are the pamperers of small dogs, tend to reward the viciousness of their dogs because that viciousness is directed towards others. At home, their 'baby' does not attack. This is because the dogs believe they are the dominant animals at home - they do not attack their own pets. If the owners were truly masters of their dogs, as opposed to spoiling 'parents', the dogs would be calm and submissive no matter what the breed.

There are a number of very simple signs which indicate an imbalance in owner-dog relationships that anyone can pick out after watching just a few episodes. One of them is that any dog that pulls against a leash ahead of the owner during a walk is indicative of it being the master and the human being the submissive. It is actually what we perceive to be the norm.

My personal experience with pit bulls (aka staffordshire terriers) is that they can be perfect dogs. My father's is absolutely charming around people, but he has raised it in such a way as to hate other dogs. This is a condition Millan has cured within a day on his show, but something most people believe is intrinsic to the breed. But the aggression and hostility of pits is no different than that of any other dog - only that incorrect prejudices about the breed 'instruct' people to believe such problems are incurable.

I've always considered myself a dog person and what I've learned in just a few short weeks about dogs has greatly increased my awareness. I am quite willing to conclude that the great prejudices about the 'nature' of certain breeds of dogs is a far greater influence on their behavior than any breeding.


Valid points. I see the connection to my own life clearly in your point. Good illustration, applicable to many situations.


Any type of dog can be agressive. The larger the dog is, the more likely any agression will be dangerous.

My neighor's 15-lb dog is far more agressive than my 90-lb dog, but mine is more dangerous, simply because of the damage he could inflict in a very short amount of time. So I've had to spend some time and energy learning to keep my dog mellow and well-behaved. My neighbor doesn't have to worry so much, because his dog couldn't inflict much damage if she tried.

So, if you want to ban types of dogs, why not ban any dog over, say, 30 pounds? That'd cut right down on the fatatlities.

Chris Abraham

"I had a pitbull mix breed, and she was so intelligent and sensitive (as a puppy she'd just sit there studying us) that she was acutely aware when she wasn't being treated fairly."

Kai, she fas figuring out how to kill you. Studying you for your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Surely, you knew that.

Arnie McKinnis

Obviously, this blog attracts a certain kind of person - one that feels compelled to "explain" in detail their agreement or dissent on the blog entry. So much for the "YOU ROCK" type of comments - these are diatribes, worthy of their own blog. This is for both the original post and those that have commented "YOU ALL ROCK - Rock On".


The word Pitbull seems to be divided among the people. Either you love them or you hate them. I find that a animal to be breed for a purpose like a Border Collie or a Husky should be used for this reason. A Pitbull already has a label and sure they have different personalities, but they have the label of being used for protection and not a family dog. This is how they should be used. I think over the years people have taken domesticated animals beyond their intentions and this is where people think it is cute to dress them up and tote them around like a freak show. Use animals for their purpose not for a reason to express ones fake personality. This is why a Pitbull is evil and a saint. I sort of think of that Timothy Treadwill guy who tried to be one with the bears. It is much easier for a human to change its instincts then for a animal to change its instinct and we must remember that.

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

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