Photo credits: Amy Buttram Yacoubian
As the young couple were about to leave the adoptathon with their newly-adopted pit bull, my fellow shelter volunteer offered them some advice: “I just want to say congratulations, and please understand that you have a responsibility now to help Ringo be a good ambassador for pit bulls, to change the prejudices that people have. I know, because I have a big black pit bull, and I’m very careful to teach him good manners and to keep him away from other dogs that look like troublemakers. Because if there is trouble, the pit bull will always get blamed.”
Pit bulls have become the demon dogs of our time. Recently I read an article in the New York Times by a new father, talking about his irrational fears for his child’s safety, which included “a pit bull snapping his leash and going for my baby in his stroller.” Not just a dog – a pit bull. I read in a memoir about the writer walking her dogs in a wooded area when they were attacked by “two vicious pit bulls.”
The training and boarding facility I use for my dog, run by experienced dog people, won’t accept pit bulls for group play, claiming their behavior with other dogs can be unpredictable.
As a shelter volunteer in a facility in which a large percentage of adoptable dogs are pits or pit mixes, I decided to try to get to the bottom of “the pit question” so that I could be sure I was doing the right thing in continuing to advocate for these dogs, to write positive bios for them, to “sell” them to potential adopters.
In terms of anecdotal evidence, I have known many delightful, sweet, mild-mannered representatives of the type described as “pit bull.” Several of my favorites are now settled in homes with owners who report back how much they love them, what good dogs they are. And all of the the dog people I respect most at Northside love pit bulls and have chosen them for their own pets.
My own take on why this breed has gained such a bad reputation is that pit bulls, because of widespread irresponsible breeding, have become overrepresented among dog breeds, especially in neighborhoods beset by poverty and crime. And the way many of these dogs are raised and cared for, as I saw when I accompanied one of the shelter’s animal control officers through our city’s troubled areas, contributes to aggression: leaving them chained alone outside, unsocialized, often deprived of adequate food, shelter and water — used as alarm systems and home protection. Failure to neuter males of any breed, which is common in poor communities, also contributes to aggression.
I did some research on the pit issue. The American Veterinary Medical Association gave support to my theory about disadvantaged owners passing on the stress of poverty to their dogs (predominantly, these days and in our community, pit bulls) in an article entitled “Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed,” published in March 2015, which said, in part:
“Owners of dogs that are identified by the community as ‘pit bull type’ may experience a strong breed stigma; however controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous. The pit bull type is particularly ambiguous as a ‘breed,’ encompassing a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified. Visual determination of dog breed is known to be unreliable. As discussed witnesses may be predisposed to assume that a dog that bites is a ‘pit bull’.
“The incidence of ‘pit bull-type’ dogs’ involvement in severe or fatal attacks may be associated with prevalence of at-risk dogs in neighborhoods with lots of young children. Owners of stigmatized breeds are more likely to have involvement in criminal and/or violent acts, so apparent ‘breed correlations’ may be due to patterns in owner behavior.” [Source: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Pages/The-Role-of-Breed-in-Dog-Bite-Risk-and-Prevention.aspx]
The ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have taken positive positions on pit bulls, basically lauding their loyalty and affection toward humans, and stating that, like any dog, with training they can be great pets. They oppose breed-specific restrictions.
The ASPCA is careful about this controversial topic, urging writers to not quote in part from their position statement but to present it as a whole. It can be found at https://www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-pit-bulls
The HSUS, in a press release on January 17, 2013, responding to a Maryland court ruling that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous,” said: “Singling out a particular breed or type of dog has repeatedly been proven to be ineffective because breed alone is not predictive of whether a dog may pose a danger. A dog’s propensity to bite is a product of several factors including early socialization, whether the dog is spayed or neutered, whether the dog is chained in the backyard, and the owner’s behavior. Additionally, many dogs are misidentified as pit bulls.”
Kerry McBride, Northside Animal Shelter’s executive director, has told me that in the old days, in previous shelters she served in, pit bulls were taken straight to the euthanasia room. Gradually attitudes changed, and they were adopted out with all kinds of extra restrictions. Now, the prevailing belief in shelters is that they should be treated just like any other dogs, assessed as individuals. Northside today has a sign posted stating “All Dogs are Created Equal” and stating that the shelter will no longer identify adoptable animals by breed, because of the inaccuracy of visual identification and the stigma of supposed innate aggression in certain breeds. In the past, that stigma has attached to Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers and other large dogs; now pit bulls are the scapegoats.
What I conclude from my observations and my research is that, affectionate and seemingly trustworthy as domestic dogs are – dogs of any breed — we should not idealize them or ascribe to them human ethics. They are not fur children or holy innocents. They are animals with the capacity for wildness, for pack behavior, for violence. They have to be trained, socialized, treated humanely and with care.
So I will trust the behavioral evaluators at the shelter who test our dogs in multiple ways and at repeated intervals to be as sure as possible that they are safe for the public. I will trust the expert animal welfare advocates. I will also trust that good owners can, to a great extent, nurture good dogs and offset the effects of past cruelty and neglect. I will advocate for owner education, spaying and neutering, and urge training for every dog we adopt out.
And when I walk through the wards and see, in kennel after kennel, the broad faces, the stocky bodies, the wide-jawed smiles of our resident pits and pit mixes, I will send them wishes for loving homes with owners who will bring out the good that I am convinced exists in this breed, as it does in all dogs.
Next: The Crazy Dog Competition