Dog Bite | Animal Behavior Expert Witness For Attorneys

Richard H. Polsky, Ph.D. CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

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Dog bite fatality in Illinois by French bulldog?

French bulldog fatal dog attack
Photograph of the prototypical purebred French bulldog. The dog which killed the victim was not a purebred French bulldog.

It is very surprising when one one learns of a French bulldog possibly being implicated in a fatal dog attack.  Nonetheless, tragically, this reportedly happened in an incident which brought an end to the life for 52-year-old Lisa Urso. The incident happened in in Fox Lake, Illinois in May 2020, according to multiple news sources.

Nonetheless, based on this single isolated incident, caution is warranted in drawing conclusions about the potentially dangerous nature of the extremely popular French bulldog.

The popularity of the French bulldog may be attributed in part to its relatively small size and its reportedly docile nature.  Statistics for 2019 from the American Kennel Club show that the French bulldog ranked fourth in popularity, only behind Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and German shepherds.

As an applied animal behaviorist, I have personally trained French bulldogs and have consulted with French bulldog owners on many occasions. I cannot recall ever dealing with the case involving French bulldog aggression towards people.  Generally, most individuals (but not necessarily all) of the breed are of sound temperament and considered by many as an ideal family pet.

Background to this fatal dog attack incident

The victim, Lisa Urso, was found dead her backyard with numerous bites to her legs and torso. In addition to the subject dog, a 2 y.o. named Blue, Urso shared her home with two other dogs, a smaller pure-bred French bulldog and an older 15-year-old mixed collie. Urso fondly referred to her dogs as her “four-legged children”.  According to news reports, Urso’s attachment to her dogs was as great, and perhaps more so, than it was to humans. Animal control characterized the living conditions in the home of Urso as a “pet friendly home”.

However, as in other fatal dog attacks, there was a history of reported aggression in Blue. Blue had bit the boyfriend of Urso on two occasions within a month prior to the incident. Blue was quarantined after the second incident at animal control for 10 days. Blue was released back to Urso after the second quarantine on April 30, 2020. Apparently, animal control did not feel that Blue posed a risk to public safety. During quarantine, according to animal control officials, Blue did not show any signs of aggression or behavior that was cause for concern.  Shortly thereafter is when the incident happened.

Takeaways

  • The anecdotal temperament assessment by animal control was obviously wrong, and this mistake arguably was the indirect cause for the death of Urso.  Surely, anecdotal observations are needed invaluable in making a temperamental assessment. However, anecdotal observations should be supplemented with formal behavioral testing whenever possible. This is not to say that formal behavioral testing in itself may at times lead to false positives or false negatives, however.
  • Blue was not a purebred French bulldog, but rather but a two-year-old mix of the male gender, weighing approximately 52 lbs. Hence, he was much larger than the prototypical French bulldog. Condemnation of the breed based on this one incident therefore would be silly.
  • Generally French bulldogs are about a foot tall and weighed 20-28 lbs. A photograph of Blue posted on the Internet shows physical resemblance to a French bulldog. However, 52 lbs is considerably above the usual weight for an adult, male French bulldog.  News reports did not indicate what Blue was mixed with, however.
  • Any dog the size of Blue or even smaller, is capable of killing a person in the right circumstances. For example, I reported an incident in which a Pomeranian killed a infant in a bassinet in Los Angeles 2000.
  • Owners can be killed by their own dogs in their own home. Victims of fatal dog attacks are not necessarily strangers located in a area away from the territory of the subject dog.  I refer the interested reader to the peer-reviewed publication Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States, 2000-2009. This study presents the most accurate and most recent recent info about the factors and circumstances surrounding fatal dog attacks in the United States.

Conclusions

Dog bite fatalities and other serious bodily injury caused by dogs happen at a alarmingly high rates, but epidemiological data shows that is rare to find a French bulldog involved in an incident. It is significant that the particular instance under review this dog was not a French bulldog but it was a two-year-old mix of the male gender.

About 30 – 40 dog bite fatalities happen in the United States annually. Fatal dog attacks present a serious public health challenge, but remains far less of a concern in certain countries (i.e India) than the transmission of rabies through dog bites. Educating owners about the proper care and maintenance of potentially dangerous dogs may help reduce the number of dog bite fatalities. Breed specific legislation might be another complementary approach but such legislation is inherently flawed.

Further reading

Authoritative information about the French bulldog can be found on Wikipedia.