« Levitt and Dubner respond | Main | Game of Shadows »



I don't know if anybody still remembers this from Malcom's post, but the second, third and fourth paragraph begin with:

"This is a paradox that is not confined to dogs. For instance, for years people in the pharmaceutical business have been aware of the fact that a large number of reported adverse reactions to a particular drug can mean one of two things."

Anyone care to talk about drugs now? Because I'm all dogged out now. Funny how the drug paragraphs didn't sollicite such strong responses.

Maybe the comparison is flawed?



I think this relates--especially to so many paradoxes out there. I'm a pastor and it seems the stats I read on the church or on Christian's in culture are different in drastic proportions depending on whose survey and the angle of the questions. Surveys and stats can do what we want them to--to a degree...something to think about before making the knee-jerk reaction to information.

Jill Posener

I'm not a pitbull owner - that square faced look doesn't do it for me. Give me a pointy nose border collie any day! I'm involved in animal welfare so I know what fighting pitbulls are capable of when they bring another dog down. But I don't hate the breed. There's a real difference between banning the breed and banning the breeding. Another way to look at the issue is to ask why we good liberals think it's OK that thousands of pitbulls and related breeds are being killed in animal shelters every year and yet we are too chicken shit to put in place mandatory spay and neuter laws. Pitbulls are the hardest breed to place because of the hysteria about attacks by them, landlords are refusing to rent to pitbull owners & trying to evict people and insurers are backing away from insuring homes. But we turn our heads and minds away from the mass killing. Death in most animal shelters is still pretty brutal - and most lovable pitbulls go into the euthanasia room wagging their tails and smiling at their killers. They smell death in the room, they often piss and shit themselves, people carrying out the euthanasias become hardened to this job. We shouldn't ask our city employees to have to kill healthy dogs. Stop the breeding of dogs who for whatever reason cannot find homes. Pitbulls are more prone to Parvo virus and skin conditions like mange which most animal shelters do not treat and automatically kill the dogs, even pups.
Forget the other stats - pitbulls are dying in greater numbers than other breeds. Stop the breeding, protect the breed.


I liked what you said about pitbulls and profiling, but I think you're getting some bad information about pitbulls as a breed.

Pitbulls were developed to fight other dogs in a pit, hence the name. They are NOT known for broadcasting their intention to bite or attack, which is typical dog behavior. Most dogs, like most wolves, have elaborate rituals and levels of threat display which they run through prior to actually attacking. This is how highly social carnivores (with the ability to kill each other fairly quickly)survive to raise future generations.

A "regular" dog will not last five minutes in a pit fight, because while they are still trying to avoid violence by broadcasting their badness, the pitbull quietly rushes forward, grabs the unlucky dog by the throat, and hangs on (shaking, if the other dog is small enough). Through generations of breeding for success in the pit, pitbulls have just about lost all signs of aggression prior to the actual bite. This is their main danger to humans and to other dogs. At the same time, the owners of these "vicious" fighting dogs could walk into the pit and grab their dog without worry about being bitten--dogs that bit people were put down.

Of course, after lord knows how many generations of losers deliberately breeding dogs for scaring other people, not all pit bulls can be trusted not to bite humans. And, they are very steady and steadfast in whatever they choose to do, which can make them terrific kid companions and terrible risks (especially if poorly understood and improperly trained). But I completely disagree with the idea that a pit bull will "telegraph its intentions in times of stress." That is precisely the opposite of my experience with pitbulls (and I worked with the excellent pitbull screening program at the San Francisco SPCA). It would be great if you gathered information from actual behaviorists such as Gary Wilkes, Morgan Spector, Ian Dunbar, rather than impressions from vets who are silly enough to miss intimations of discomfort from German Shepherds (and what vet would misspell Shepherd?).

Brent Toellner

Dr. Food, you sound like a very educated animal person, but in all fairness, the term "pit bull" has nothing to do with them being developed to fight other dogs in a pit. Because Pit Bull is not a "breed of dog" but only is a name given to several different breeds of dogs that have since been used in "pit fighting". However, this is the popular name for the dog that has really developed over the past 2 decades, and not what their original purpose was. A small point, but I think a major difference.


Brent, it's true that pit bulls have become much more popular over the past thirty years, but the basic type was developed a really long time ago. The United Kennel Club recognized the American Pit Bull Terrier in 1898. I put a link to about.com's history of pit bulls in the "URL" slot--I'm guessing you get that link if you click my name under this post.

My main point still stands--the most characteristic feature of pit bulls is NOT that they "telegraph their intentions in times of stress." The ironic thing for me, as a dog trainer, is that most dog owners stifle their dog's natural displays of fear/self defense/aggression, such as growling, and usually by punishing the dog. (Some toy dogs are plucked up from the ground when they growl, which can actually reinforce the behavior, if they like being held up high.)

If your dog is growling, you need to do something, but that something is not to yell at or smack the dog. Remove the dog from the situation (and avoid it in the future) or remove the obnoxious stimuli, and take note of what you need to either avoid, or train your dog to tolerate (if reasonable).

Somebody asked above what a vicious dachshund could do. I'm a pediatrician, and the most disfiguring dog bite I've seen (and luckily, it wasn't too horrible, but the kid is definitely scarred) was from a cocker spaniel to a toddler. Most dog bites are level 1 or "warning/disciplinary" bites, that aren't intended to break the skin, but do because the dog doesn't realized how delicate human flesh is. They use the strength that would deliver an "I'm serious" warning to another dog, but it is too much for people. Small dogs are more likely to actually attack with full force, out of fear, and these bites can be substantial for a toddler.

Sorry for going on, but this is a pet peeve of mine, I guess! I believe the best info on training your dog to be safe with humans is from Shirley Chong (she has a website, www.shirleychong.com, and if you go to ClickTrain Keepers, then Puppy Stuff, then Bite Inhibition, you'll see what I'm talking about).

Zack Brown

I can't help but think--while reading the gladwell and freakonomics' blogs--that you and Leavitt could write an incredible book together. Pick 8-10 issues on which you disagree and write in point/counter-point format. Both of you think and write with great clarity, but come to conclusions using seemingly opposite philosophies.


"Many german shepard dogs, american eskimos and some retrievers will decide that they want to eat my jugular veins...."

Not only did the guy misspell shepherd, he's also saying that american eskimos are killers! All this time I thought they were very nice folks. Do you think maybe he meant husky? If he meant husky, he would be wrong again. I own a family pet that is husky and shepherd mix, and this dog is a delight! She's the most loving, intelligent and gentle dog I've ever had the pleasure to be around.
Nothing unpredictable about this dog at all. On the other hand, a pit bull attacked my daughter at a full run, wagging it's tail, and never made a sound. The girl was in her mother's arms being carried, and the dog completely ignored the several adults who were present, and went straight for the kid. Eveyone tried to beat the dog off, and it paid no attention to them, while it focused on trying to maul a child!
It's a cold hard world, folks, and I have no problem with legislating the entire breed out of existence.
Especially if it saves even one life.

Stefan Engeseth

A good text is like a walk with the dog. Good for your mind and health.

Garry Wang

I hate to burst anyone's bubble here, but I think the Armchair Economist by Steven Landsburg is a much better read than Freakonomics.


I was raised with dachshunds. My impression is that the aggressive ones are male. Our females were very mellow -- if you really really annoyed one, she would snap in the air as a warning, but mostly they just walk away when tired of the kids picking on them. On the other hand, our first doxie was quite an efficient killer when it came to mice, birds, and a squirrel that was as big as she was, and my cousin's guinea pig. (The squirrel's name was Malcolm, and he was the biggest one I've ever seen -- my mother had been feeding him a long time.)

Jill Posener

I'm assuming Tracy has a nice vein of irony going when she feigns surprise at the concept of a dog called an American Eskimo...but there it is...and some of them can be a litle weird and aloof at times....like some other 'northern breeds' - huskies, chows etc. Any dog can inflict a bite. They're not teddy bears.

But the pitbull and associated breeds discussion is illuminating. I'd always heard that the Staffordshire (from the name of a county in England) Terrier, was bred to fight bulls in a pit, one of the first being on the South Bank on the Thames, next to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, in the 16th century. I bought some 18th century lithographs of pitbulls when I was last in London, complete with cropped ears and names like 'Savage' and 'Venom'.


I've been raised with purebred american pitbulls and can honestly say they are very good dogs. I also have seen wonderful Rotts, Dobies, dingos,. I believe that it isn't the dog or the breed. Its the master who raises the dog. when I hear about deadly dog attacks all I think is Stupid owner.

David Harmon

"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."

Dubious -- family members of mine have owned two husky-type crossbreeds (one to German Shepherd, one to Golden Retriever). Both of them insisted on a taut leash (not always forward); I was told this is usual for "sled dog" types and their crossbreeds.

The GR cross was none too smart, but very affectionate to humans. Other animals, however, got a demonstration of the difference between "keeping the leash taut" and "dragging the owner along". The Shepherd cross is not only gentle (with other animals too), but polite, and shows GS-style attachment to her owners.

The real problem isn't any particular breed, it's the owners and breeders. If the owner trains any dog to be mean, it will comply to the best of its ability. And a "puppy mill" can ruin any breed.


Many things in life are paradoxes...Jumbo shrimp?!
Or waiting til mid-life to decide to live their dreams-follow their passions!

Paradoxes abound!

Turning mid-life into the RIGHT Life!

Ivan Hannel

Malcom's article was great. He was just using the fear of pitbulls as a reference point.

But so much of the reaction gets focused on the breed itself. I find it just incredible the attention paid to the almost ridiculously small possibility of being killed by a (pit) bulldog or any other kind of dog.

When Americans talk about being in the land of the free and "home of the brave," surely we must be joking.

There are 300 million of us in this country and growing. Some of us will die from car accidents, heart attacks, a crazy guy at a convenience store, whatever. Can we just get over the fear? I doubt it.

For those of you fearful of pitbulls, I'm dying to hear more about your fears--your many, many fears. Yes, that includes you who would remove a breed of animal to save "just one more life." Great, go get rid of mountain lions and everything else wild in this world. And put away your sharp knives...


Gee, Ivan, I also know of a local high school girl who was killed by a Siberian tiger! She knew the animal and the trainer/handler, but was killed in an instant.
Now the state has passed legislation banning 'exotic' pets. While you're right that we can't shelter people from all dangerous situations, it would be irresponsible to not minimize known risks, and risky behavior.

brent toellner

But Tracy, you can't eliminate all known risks. It's quite silly. On average, 25 people or so die each year from dog attacks (and this is ALL dog attacks, the # is closer to 4 or 5 for Pit Bulls). At the same time, nearly 400 die from falling off ladders, 2300 fall down stairs or from one level of a building to the next, 400+ die in drowning accidents (most in swimming pools, many small children in bathtubs) and 45,000+ die in auto accidents. And yet, there is no clamouring for the outlaw of automobiles, swimming pools, bath tubs, ladders or ordinances that ban two story homes. And sadly, the two story homes would be one of the easiest and least expensive to enforce for all new construction, yet no one clamours for it. And yet, people want to ban Pit Bulls, even though one is 12x more likely to be struck by lightening than killed by a Pit Bull. My personal thought is that most people want to ban Pit Bulls because of media frenzy (and most have never actually met a "Pit Bull") and the perception that most owners of this breed are people who live in "ghettos" so because it doesn't inconvenience them at all, it's the right thing to do. But mention banning anything that is a much bigger inconvenience (cars, 2 story homes, swimming pools) and now it's not worth doing, in spite of what real statistics say.


That's just the 'straw man' argument.
If we can't ban ladders and pools, then you win by default right?
I said minimize risk, not eliminate. We can't eliminate risk, it's the very nature of being. So if we ban mean dogs, we need to ban life because it leads to death right? That's just one type of straw man reasoning.

brent toellner

Out of curiosity, why can't we ban swimming pools? they're completely not essential to our lives. Or passing housing ordinances that require all new residences to be only one story? Which would then cause less need for ladders. It's a perfect solution. And MUCH safer.

Pit Bull bans, seriously, only save 3-5 lives a year (on average). But it's an easy law to pass because it inconveniences fewer people, even if it is a major inconvenience (basically, the loss of a beloved pet or having to move to a different city to keep one's pet) for that smaller # of people.

There are much better solutions to the "problem" than breed bans. For instance, 72% of dog attacks last year were by unneutered male dogs. So let's institute mandatory spay and neuter programs. Instuting laws that only affect others and are smoke and mirrors solutions to problems at a high price to tax payers is a silly way to solve something that is really a very small problem.


I guess we've kicked this dog till it's dead.


I enjoy your blog, but, sorry, this is merely a way to send greetings and ask a question.

I love your book, The Tipping Point. I find myself reading it very slowly, and am not sure if that indicates the ever present aging process, personal slowness, or your book just overwhelms me with interesting information. I lean toward the latter.

But, your wonderful book is only part of the reason I am sending you this note. I have been asked by a national organization I belong to, to ask someone I think would be wonderful to be our guest speaker at our Conference, this coming October in Chicago.

Do you do speaking engagements? If so, would you consider speaking to a group of commercial/industrial real estate people. People who are always seeking tipping points.

Please let me know if you are interested. Thanks so much for even reading this far. I look forward to hearing from you.


anthea moonbat

Poor dog. Do it a favor and let it stay dead, pit bull or otherwise.

I'll eulogize it with generalizations about how dog examples derail discussion from interesting ideas.

Anyway, great article, as usual, MG. Glad you are blogging. I'll be checking back.

By the way, have I told y'all about my cat?

Christine S

Malcolm, why not following Zack Brow’s suggestion, and write a book with Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakeconomics, over some issues on which you disagree, with your respective points of view? It sounds exciting.

Chris Keeley


FYI goto


Malcolm I attempted to email you, however it Bounced , hence I am posting my website here, which you may find facinating


The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo


  • 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.

    My great claim to fame is that I'm from the town where they invented the BlackBerry. My family also believes (with some justification) that we are distantly related to Colin Powell. I invite you to look closely at the photograph above and draw your own conclusions.

My Website


  • What the Dog Saw

    buy from amazon


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK

    Tipping Point

    buy from amazon

Recent Articles

Blog powered by Typepad