Pit Bulls in the City

Trained to fight, or hardwired for aggression?

(Part two in a series)
By Steve Dale

The entire province of Ontario in Canada recently approved a ban on Pit Bull Terriers. Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant repeatedly called Pit Bulls a “ticking time bomb” and “inherently dangerous” in public statements.

The overwhelming majority of animal experts, however, have always concurred that there’s no scientific evidence to demonstrate Pit Bull-type dogs are any more dangerous than any other powerful dog breed. That was until Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human Animal Bond at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., said that he believes Pit Bulls are indeed different, agreeing with politicians who call them “inherently dangerous.”

“While I’m not necessarily endorsing breed-specific legislation, common sense restrictions seem to make sense,” Beck says.

That might be because evidence is mounting that breed-specific legislation doesn’t work. Various scientists representing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Humane Society of the United States together made that conclusion, and published their findings in 2000. In the real world, legislating against breeds fares no better than it does on paper.

For example, Denver banned Pit Bull-type dogs a few years back. Yet, the legislation made no impact on the number of Pit Bulltype dogs landing in the local shelters. It seems bans do hinder responsible pet guardians from rescuing good Pit Bulls. But the bans do nothing to discourage gang-bangers who use Pit Bulls in dog fights. The bans are mostly ignored by recklessly irresponsible people who have Pit Bulls as guard dogs or as some sort of misguided macho symbol. All these reasons combined explain why Denver rescinded its Pit Bull ban this year.

Following a flurry of attacks by Pit Bulls in Boston last summer, City Counselor Rob Consalvo felt he needed to do something to respond to a public outcry. “I actually fought against the outright ban many of my colleagues wanted,” he says.

Instead, Boston placed various restrictions on any dog that in any way even resembles a Pit Bull (which includes purebred American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers because they look so much like Pit Bulls). Any dog that even resembles a Pit Bull must be muzzled in public, spayed or neutered, and their guardians must have a sign on the property warning of the presence of a Pit Bull.

But what does the public really have to be warned of? Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and an animal behaviorist from Berkeley, Calif., and he says the entire issue is overblown. “I don’t mean to discount attacks by Pit Bulls, but we’re talking about maybe 10 fatal attacks on people annually,” Dr. Dunbar says. “Is this really something we should be putting our public policy efforts toward?” Dunbar says according to the CDC about 2,000 parents murdered their own children in 1999. In 2000, 25,000 people were killed by drunk drivers. Dunbar maintains that more people are killed annually by tripping over their own slippers than all fatal dog attacks combined, regardless of breed.

Even Julie Gilchrist, MD, of the CDC Injury Center in Atlanta, agrees. “The truth is that SUVs are far more dangerous than Pit Bulls, and they’re still on the road,” Dr. Gilchrist points out. “As a public health researcher, I want to prevent all mortality and morbidity. But the truth is that with just over 60 million dogs in America, and who knows how many millions of Pit Bulls, it’s not a statistically significant issue,” she says.

“Tell that to the little kids who are attacked by Pit Bulls,” says Rick Richards, city editor at the Michigan City ( Ind.) News-Dispatch, who frequently writes that he wishes all Pit Bulls were banished. “The scientists don’t have to interview family members after these out-of-control dogs have left their mark, psychological and physical. Aside from scars, these kids are now terrified of all dogs. Pit Bulls are a nasty dog, and they need to go,” Richards says.

Dunbar concedes some individual Pit Bulls are nasty, but no more so than the number of individual dogs of any other breed who aren’t socialized. “Those who say Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous are dead wrong,” Dunbar says. “Any kind of dog not socialized is indeed a potential danger. Why don’t the politicians consider going after the [guardians] of these dogs who attack people? Almost always, that’s where the source of the problem is,” he says.

Animal behaviorist Randy Lockwood, vice president of research and education at the HSUS in Washington, D.C., agrees. “This is a social issue, it’s a law enforcement issue, but it’s not a dog issue.” If Pit Bull-types were so inherently bad, how could millions of people share their families, their homes, and their beds with them without issue? Since Furry Friends Foundation in Chicago began 10 years ago, they’ve carefully adopted out more than 400 Pit Bull-type dogs without incident.

“Mandatory dog training, socialization, and altering the dogs makes all the difference in the world,” says Catherine Hedges, the shelter’s founder. “People [who adopt them] are encouraged to keep the dogs indoors as members of the family. And they’re discouraged from keeping them outside all the time, and especially discouraged from tethering them when they’re outdoors,” Hedges says.

Even Beck of Purdue University, who is cynical about Pit Bulls, says, ”Of course, responsible [guardianship] does matter, and a little common sense goes a long way.” “The public may have one perception of Pit Bulls, but that perception isn’t accurate,” Dunbar says. “It’s distracting to blame a dog breed rather than the real source of these dog attacks.”

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