"A breed of satin and steel. Pit bulls are a mixture of softness and strength, an uncanny canine combination of fun, foolishness, and serious business, all wrapped up in love."

-D. Caroline Coile

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pit Bull Bigotry: Public Perception and Legislation

Feature photo: Author/Above Photo
Nancy Harder challenges the social and legislative prejudices against pit bulls.

I used to think pit bulls were born mean.

I had never met one, but I accepted the opinions of my parents and the adults around me. I didn’t question the prejudice, despite a lack of evidence.

My attitude towards pit bulls didn’t change until I met my now-husband.

In a discussion about possible future pets, my husband said the only dog he would consider adopting was a pit bull. I questioned his reasoning, only to grow ashamed when he described all the positive, loving experiences he had with the breed.

Bigotry checked, I began researching the breed.

I fell in love.

I learned that violent acts attributed to pit bulls are not innate to the breed; violence is a manifestation of the way pit bulls are treated and raised. Despite the media’s portrayal of the breed as inherently aggressive dogs with a proclivity towards fighting, pit bulls will not act more aggressively than any other dog if not abused.

The real pit bull

Pit bulls do have three characteristics easily exploited for dog fighting. It’s no surprise that with these characteristics, bull breeds can be trained to harm:

1) Very high intelligence.
2) Strong desire and determination to please their owner.
3) Physical strength and stamina.
Cosmic intervention brought our pit bull, Zoey, to us. A vet technician acquaintance told us about a really sweet dog about to be euthanized. Zoey had been abused, neglected, and left to die in the street after being run over by a car.

Despite her cruel beginning and months of physical rehab, she is the sweetest, happiest dog I’ve ever known. Check out the recent "Meet Matador Pets" article for an example.

Since adopting Zoey 18 months ago, I’ve spent even more time researching the breed and connecting to other pit bull owners and rescue organizations.

I’m saddened when pit bulls are associated solely with hardcore gangsta rap, Sarah Palin, and Michael Vick. I cringe whenever someone uses the term “pit bull” as a descriptor for aggressive tenacity; it’s not only ignorant, but that bad word in writing: cliche.
Pit bulls in the news

Historically, the pit bull was championed as a family dog. Petey from the Little Rascals was a pit bull and Helen Keller’s dog was believed to be a pit bull. Understand-a-bull.com keeps a list of heroic pit bull stories and Cesar Milan published a list of celebrity pit bulls.

Karen Delise, founder and director of research at the National Canine Research Council, has been researching fatal dog attacks for 20 years.

She obtained official documents and data from as far back as the 19th century and interviewed animal control officers, police, and medical examiners to complete two books on dog attacks and pit bulls, "Fatal Dog Attacks: The Stories Behind the Statistics" and "The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media Myths and Politics of Canine Agression".

According to Delise’s results, the overwhelming majority of dog attacks were by dogs who were treated inhumanely and interacted negatively with humans. There was no evidence of a particular breed or type of dog behind the majority of dog attacks.
Typical pit bull
In temperament tests conducted by the American Temperament Test Society, pit bulls received a passing rate of 82% or better- compared to only 77% of the general dog population.

Michael Vick’s former dogs

Even pit bulls that have been fought are still not permanently aggressive. After the football star Michael Vick pleaded guilty to conspiring to run a dog fighting operation, officials confiscated 50 pit bulls on his Virginia property.

The dogs had been chained to car axles. The ones that didn’t fight were beaten, shot, hanged, electrocuted, and drowned. Many people, including animal rights groups, called for the animals to be euthanized because of their alleged vicious nature.

Instead, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson ordered each dog to be evaluated individually, not by breed stereotype, and required Vick to contribute one million dollars to the dogs’ lifelong care.

Only one dog was found to be too aggressive to save and had to be euthanized. Another was too injured to keep alive.

The other 48 dogs were placed in foster homes and animal sanctuaries, with a handful being adopted.

Despite their past, the dogs recovered from the torture. According to a St. Petersburg Times article about Michael Vick's former dogs:

"More than a year after being confiscated from Vick’s property, Leo, a tan, muscular pit bull, visits cancer patients as a certified therapy dog in California. Hector, who bears deep scars on his chest and legs, recently was adopted and is about to start training for national flying disc competitions in Minnesota. Teddles takes orders from a 2-year-old. Gracie is a couch potato in Richmond, Virginia, who lives with cats and sleeps with four other dogs.”
Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)

Prejudice isn’t just affecting public perception. Throughout the nation and world, breed specific legislation is building momentum in policy debates. Breed specific legislation bans or restricts pit bulls and other “aggressive” breeds.

Denver, Colorado banned pit bulls in 2005. As of March 2009, the city of Denver euthanized at least 1,667 pit bulls in gas chambers. Pit bull owners had two choices when they enacted the ban: inhumanely euthanize their family dogs or send them away.

Denver is not the only place that’s passed BSL.

Cities and regions across the US, Canada, and 14 other countries have banned, restricted or are considering breed specific legislation. Air France, Continental Airlines, and British Airways also embargo pit bull type dogs on their flights due to safety concerns.

Reasons BSL doesn’t work

The laws may originate out of concern for public safety, but BSL hasn't worked and doesn’t work for six reasons

1) Dog attacks aren’t disproportionately pit bulls; it only seems that way because of media portrayal.

2) The laws don’t fix the real issue: encouraging responsible pet ownership and punishing abusive and irresponsible owners.                                                              Pit bull at the pound

3) Banning pit bulls creates a black market of mis-bred and abused dogs.

4) Defining breeds is problematic. A dog can still be defined as a pit bull or other banned breed if they carry certain physical characteristics, even if the dog is a mixed breed. The pit bull breed, for example, can encompass the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, dogs with mixes of these breeds, even the American Bulldog and Bull Terrier.

5) It’s more expensive. According to Prince George County's assessment of BSL, it costs $68,000 to confiscate and euthanize a single pit bull. Gas chambers, like those in Denver, lessen the economic blow, but millions of dollars are still spent enforcing the ban. Those dollars could be allocated to promoting responsible pet ownership, punishing abusive owners, and contributing to other important issues like education and health care.

6) 4 million dogs are euthanized per year in the United States. With BSL, dogs are confiscated that actually have homes, adding to the number of dog deaths per year.

Outlawing and discriminating against pit bulls and other breeds is shallow and harmful. Negative group think and propaganda is no reason to hold a prejudice based on race, gender, religion, nationality…or breed.

What you can do:

Support your local pit bull rescue through donating, fostering, and volunteering.

Adopt a pit bull if you believe the breed works for your lifestyle.

Follow these tips to see if BSL is being proposed in your area.

Write your congressman about the issue.

Visit these websites and blogs for more information:
Dog Politics, Stop BSL, Anti-BSL, Understand A Bull, Pitbull Lovers, Molosos y Terriers, KC Dog Blog

How do you feel about BSL and pit bulls? What associations do you have with pit bulls? Are you considering bringing a dog into your family? Read "So You Think You Want a Dog? Four Questions to Ask Before Buying a Dog."

Author: Nancy Harder

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  1. Excellent post. I have bookmarked it. I am a victim (actually my dog) of a 5-pit bull mauling. My dog lived. I am not anti-pit bull, although I will never look at one the same. It's not a breed I will ever own. But it's all about the owner. You have to have an educated intelligent owner who will not set the dog up for failure. Not all people should be dog owners. Not all dog owners should be Pit Bull owners.

    One of the better posts read. Thank you.

  2. Yes, I agree with Bear very nice post! Also, I applaud your open mindedness when talking about these type of dogs, especially being a victim yourself. If only everyone was able to do that. I understand and respect that you would never own one but I respect even more that you believe pit bulls should have educated and intelligent owners; I couldn't agree with you more! Excellent post Beth and wonderful comment, Bear's Mom. I hope to read more posts.

  3. I loved reading your post. Just like you before I owned one I did my research, I had a few friends that had them; but wasn't ever around them much to make a clear choice then I had the opportunity to help one of my friend's. I truly fell in love with them. I now owe two, one is a rescue and the other is one of her puppies. I do believe it's the owner not the breed. I have never seen a breed love their owner with so much unconditional love. I agree with Bear's mom too. Please educate yourself if your going to own one.

  4. wow, what a great post! I will share and book mark, thanks for your time and stats

  5. Excellent post! I am the proud companion of three rescued pit bulls. They are absolutely wonderful dogs! They are my life!

  6. my aunt found a pit bull puppy a long time ago - he still had his milk teeth so less than 2 months old. she had 2 other rescues that were also sweet dogs - a flat-coated retriever and a german shepherd mix. the pit grew up with them. (they were all fixed too.) the retriever was abused so badly by his original owner that the only reason he survived in the shelter so long is b/c he was so quiet they kind of forgot how long he had been there... my aunt adopted him and took him to classes to get him just to take short walks. he wouldnt go further than 20 feet for a walk. she was patient & NEVER laid a hand on that or any of her dogs. eventually he came around. any who! then the gs came along and finally the pit.. the pit was a puppy like i said and so he grew up w/these other 2 dogs as his pack. around the age of 2 he started vying for pack leader by testing the lab the way dogs do. within a few months there was a full-on attack between the lab & the pit. both required stitches. she didnt think all that much of it but 6 mos later there was another attack this time the pit went after both dogs - all requiring lots of stitches again. she decided to keep them sep. years later the pit got in the same room w/the lab (they were like 11 & 14 yrs old now-OLD for dogs) another attack. this time the LAB just about killed the pit. she had to put the pitt down cuz he was so badly mauled...

    i loved both of those dogs! i pet sat frequently! the pit always acted like a lap dog and the lab & gs were also very affectionate dogs. the pit even had his own pet cat. he'd let that cat grab ahold of his upper lip and just hang there... the cat would chew on his ears and jowls. when the pit had enough, he'd just take his paw and "pin" the cat down. it was the most hilarious thing to watch, this big dog w/this tiny kitten that grew to a cat... he would even go "fetch" the cat for dinner time... my aunt would tell him "where's ur kitty" he'd disappear in the yard & a few minutes later he would show up w/the cat following right behind...

    we cannot understand why the pit only attacked the 2 dogs AND the same ones he grew up with... i mean he was a puppy when he joined the family. the other dogs were like 3 or 4 years old already & took care of the puppy. the other 2 dogs took him right in a member... and like i said, my aunt never raised a finger to any of her pets - ever. i trusted the pit. slept with him on the sofa... very much missed but he was an example of a dog that wasnt abused and still tried to eat other dogs :-(

    i also worked at a pet er. one nite we had alady come in hysterical with a pit bull on a leash and a bloody bag. she had gotten the cat & the pit together as babies. 5 yrs later she came home to the cat in pieces & blood everywhere... she put the dog down... again - a situation where these 2 animals grew up together.

    i am not anti-pit, but sometimes i have to wonder what's going on? might be all of the in-breeding that happens w/these kinds of dogs? but i dont know how much i "trust" pits now :-( very sad b/c they are beautiful animals.

  7. Every dog is an individual and should be treated as such. One dogs should not be blamed for another's actions. There are tons of pit bulls that get along great with all kinds of animals.

  8. Dogs will fight if there is no leader. Your Aunt must not have been strict enough with them because if you are (and I am) there are NO fights and they are easy to spot if one of the dog's is getting annoyed and looks as though it might bite. I can prevent a fight from occuring and if they were fighting then they were fighting for position of pack leader which your aunt should have claimed, it has nothing to do with the breed of dog as all dogs will do it. Your aunt should have consulted a professional and gotten help with controlling all 3 dogs instead of letting it escalate.

  9. Excellent post!!! from Jan Rodriguez-MN

  10. Excellent post! I am the proud companion of the rescued pit bull and lab. They are absolutely wonderful dogs! They are good pets not bad . Its the owners that don't know there breeds they should read up on them. Inter breeding is very bad, breeders should know better, that go for any kind of dogs, breeders breed these dogs with family dogs and its all worng.I mean son with daughter or mother with son. and keep it going that way, it is all worng. we don't inbreed as a family do wee? You know theres going be something worng with that child. why do it to any animal.

  11. Also I have 3 cats they get along very very good.

  12. Thank you for this post! I adopted a pregnant pitbull this past summer. She was emaciated and about to give birth...I could not send her to a shelter knowing she might be euthanized. I wasn't sure what to expect & I was scared of her at first. She is absolutely the sweetest dog & I love her to pieces! She was clearly abused and I have needed a trainer to work with her as she is terrified of new people and strange dogs...but she keeps making progress. I think this breed has gotten such a bad rap & I'm so glad I took a chance on her. I work at a vet and I have gotten to meet many pit bulls over the past year. It's funny - they are better behaved than most dogs who come to the vet. They certainly aren't the ones who try to bite either!
    I agree, though, with some other posters that having a pit bull means you should be responsible. As to dogs attacking each other, it can happen with any breed. As a pet owner, it's your responsibility to keep your pets safe. That might mean keeping them safe from each other. They're the animals, we're the humans - the ones who know better.