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(Photo: dogboxstudio/Shutterstock)

The Tragedy of America’s Dog

• February 28, 2014 • 5:00 AM

(Photo: dogboxstudio/Shutterstock)

A brief history of the vilification of the pit bull.

In decades past, the American pit bull was a canine icon. Nicknamed “America’s dog,” and favored for its remarkable loyalty and affability, images of the breed were everywhere. A pit bull named Sergeant Stubby won 13 decorations for his service in the trenches of the First World War. Nipper, the dog from the classic RCA Victor advertisements, was a pit bull. So was Pete the Pup, canine companion to The Little Rascals. Their affinity and gentleness toward children was so widely known and appreciated it inspired a second nickname: “the nanny dog.”

That perception profoundly changed in the 1980s. Dogfighting enjoyed a major resurgence in America in that decade, says John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy at the Humane Society of the United States. “In that time there were people who took an interest in romanticizing the horrors of dogfighting … living through the accomplishments of the dog.”

The pit bull’s trademark loyalty combined with its muscular physique made it a prime candidate for exploitation. The breed quickly came to represent aggression and a perverse idea of machismo, thus becoming the preferred guard dog cum status symbol for drug dealers and gangsters.

The pit bull problem isn’t really a pit bull problem. It’s a human problem—like most “animal problems” upon closer inspection.

Popularity for the breed in low-income, urban areas exploded. Consequently, there were (and still are) a large number of un-spayed and un-neutered pit bulls living in extremely close proximity to one another. It was the perfect recipe for an epic puppy-boom. According to Mid-American Bully Breed Rescue, a non-profit that takes pit bull breeds out of high-kill animal shelters around the Midwest, there are approximately five million registered pit bulls in the United States today: a combination of breeds which includes Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, or any mix thereof. This figure does not include the substantial number of pit bulls circulating the shelter system and living on the streets. The ASPCA reports that 35 percent of American shelters receive at least one pit bull a day. And in Detroit, where the stray problem borders on epidemical, pit bulls and pit mixes compose 90 percent of the homeless dog population.

Where pit bulls were once ubiquitous in American pop culture, they are now ubiquitous in actuality. And because the overpopulation centers predominantly on low-income areas, the pit bull is arguably one of the least-responsibly cared for breeds in the country.

THE RESULT IS A documented number of pit bull attacks that, upon superficial inspection, appears quite sizable. MABBR reports that, between 1965 and 2001, there have been 60 lethal dog-attacks in the United States involving a pit bull. Compared to most breeds, that figure is indeed quite high. There were only 14 lethal attacks involving Dobermans, for instance. But taking into account the overall populations of each breed measured, the rate of aggression among pit bulls is comparatively quite normal. Even low. During that 36-year period, only 0.0012 percent of the estimated pit bull population was involved in a fatal attack. Compare that to the purebred Chow Chow, which has a fatal-attack rate of 0.005 percent, and consistently ranks as the least child-friendly dog breed on the market. Why don’t media reports of attacks involving Chows eclipse those involving pit bulls? Because there are only 240,000 registered Chow Chows currently residing in the United States. And frankly, the broad-skulled, wide-mouthed pit bull makes for a more convincing monster than the comically puffy Chow.

Also worth noting is the pit’s comparatively large and potentially intimidating physiology. “I don’t think pits bite more than other breeds,” says Dr. Sandi Sawchuk, a small-animal veterinarian and clinical instructor at the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Teaching Center in Madison. “It’s just that when they do, they cause more damage. If someone did the same research on Chihuahuas, they would probably find that there are more bites, but they’re less reported due to insignificant damage.”

A study carried out by veterinary researchers at the University of Pennsylvania confirms as much. Dr. James Serpell and his colleagues found that smaller breeds, such as Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, and Jack Russell terriers, generally exhibit higher tendencies for indiscriminate aggression (toward humans and other dogs). They also found that breeds often vilified in the media as being “inherently aggressive,” such as pit bulls and Akitas, are generally more aggressive toward other dogs, but don’t necessarily exhibit abnormally high aggression toward humans.

This widespread mischaracterization of pit bulls, coupled with the understandably strong emotions of bite victims and their loved ones, has resulted in a number of local ordinances categorized as “breed-specific legislation.” BSL is the banning or restricting of ownership of certain breeds deemed especially dangerous or unpredictable. And it almost always targets pits.

As a strategy for decreasing dog attacks, BSL has been largely debunked. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association released a special report in September of 2000, republished by the CDC, which read, “Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive. … An alternative to breed-specific legislation is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior.” The National Canine Research Council claims, “There is no scientific evidence that one kind of dog is more likely than any other to injure a human being. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.” They point to a 2008 study by animal behaviorists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover, Germany. It compares the general temperament of golden retrievers (frequently cited as a behaviorally ideal breed) to that of breeds typically targeted by BSL (read: pit bulls). It concludes: “No significant difference was found.”

“BSL is not the panacea that communities hope it will be,” says KC Theisen, director of pet care issues at HSUS. “It fails to address the root causes of dog bites: spay-neutering, whether a dog is chained up or properly contained.”

In 1989, Denver was one of the first major metropolitan areas to enact BSL specifically banning the ownership of pit bulls. The NCRC reported that, following the law’s passage, Denver County hospital workers indeed saw a decrease in admitted injuries caused by the breed. Yet, to this day, as the law still stands, Denver “continues to have significantly higher dog bite-related hospitalization rates than other counties.”

(National Canine Research Center)

Further problematic is BSL’s dependence on sight identification. Dogs that simply “look” like a pit bull can be detained or euthanized based on little more than a law enforcement officer’s perception of “pit bullishness.” A 2012 article in JAVMA indicated that a heretofore unprecedented 44 percent of American dogs are of mixed-breed ancestry, and there are few surefire ways of determining exact pedigree, even with advanced DNA testing techniques. “The discrepancy between breed identifications based on opinion and DNA analysis, as well as concerns about the reliability of data collected based on media reports, draws into question the validity and enforcement of public and private policies pertaining to dog breeds,” writes Dr. Victoria Lea Voith, a professor of animal behavior at Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Veterinary Medicine.

Evidently, the pit bull problem isn’t really a pit bull problem. It’s a human problem—like most “animal problems” upon closer inspection. And BSL is a cop-out. It shifts culpability from the truly responsible parties—irresponsible owners—and unfairly manipulates the image of an already exploited breed. The Dodo’s Jenny Kutner reports that 93 percent of sheltered pit bulls are euthanized before being put up for adoption. These dogs, which experts have proven to be essentially no different than any other breed, are in dire need of caring, stable homes. BSL stands in the way of that.

THANKFULLY, IT APPEARS THE tide against pit bulls may be turning. Seventeen states now prohibit BSL in any form. Six more (Maryland, Vermont, South Dakota, Missouri, Utah, and Washington) may be heading in the same direction. Even the White House has come out in opposition to BSL. An official response to an anti-BSL petition posted to WhiteHouse.gov reads:

 We don’t support breed-specific legislation—research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources…. As an alternative to breed-specific policies, the CDC recommends a community approach to prevent dog bites. And ultimately, we think it’s a much more promising way to build stronger communities of pets and pet owners.

The Obamas have it right: the solution to curtailing dog attacks, and simultaneously controlling the pit bull population, is a combination of community and owner education. Spreading awareness about the importance and wide accessibility of spaying and neutering is especially necessary. (The ASPCA offers special, low-cost surgical packages at facilities across the country.)

Besides the surgery’s obvious necessity to population control, it can actually have a distinct effect on the disposition of individual dogs. According to the American Humane Association, 94 percent of reported pit bull attacks involve an un-neutered male canine. It’s simple biology. High testosterone levels in mammals produce heightened aggression (evidence: bar fights, the NHL). Fix your pit bull, and the benefits are dual: decreased aggression in individual dogs, and a smaller, healthier overall population. Other benefits? An eliminated risk of testicular cancer (duh), less territorial “urine-marking,” and, ahem, a decreased libido. (No more “inappropriate mounting.”)

(Photo: Jake Flanagin)At this point, I should probably admit some journalistic bias. My family rescued a dog we believe to be a pit bull, at least partially, in the spring of 2012. No doubt, in the eyes of BSL proponents, this disqualifies me from writing anything of substance on the condition and temperament of the breed—but I maintain what the facts support: Pit bulls are no different than any other dog. Other than having the deck stacked overwhelmingly against them.

In any case, does this look like the face of a monster?

Jake Flanagin

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