Pit Bulls in the City

Part 1
“”Pit bulls are different; they’re like wild animals,”” says Alan Beck, director for the Center for the Human Animal Bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN. “”They’re not suited for an urban environment. I believe we should open our eyes and take a realistic approach to pit bulls.””

Those who condemn pit bulls and call for breed bans targeting these dogs tend to be members of the general population, or most often, it seems, politicians. Beck isn’t calling for breed bans " he stops just short of that resulting from research yet to be published. Still, it’s exceedingly rare for an animal expert to vilify pit, and few would doubt Beck’s credentials. He’s renowned for his decades of groundbreaking research on using animals in therapeutic settings, such as nursing homes. He’s the co-author of “”Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship”” (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN, 1996; $29.95).

Controversy about dangerous dogs seems to be in the media daily, and mostly it’s pit bull-bull-type dogs who are guilty. Many communities around the world have responded with breed specific bans, but many experts contend that’s not the right answer.

In 2000, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) teamed to investigate whether or not breed specific legislation (banning individual breeds, such as pit bulls, from communities) is effective. The results of their studies were published in several scientific journals.

“”We learned breed specific legislation is not the way to tackle the issue of dog bites,”” says Dr. Julie Gilchrist of the CDC Injury Center in Atlanta, GA. “”Instead, we should look at the people with those dogs responsible for the bites.””

Animal Behaviorist Randy Lockwood, Vice President of research and education at the HSUS in Washington D.C. says about 100 percent of dogs involved in fatal attacks were unaltered males, also in the overwhelming majority of instances the dogs were previously complained about but animal control or law enforcement failed to take action. Other risk factors include dogs who roamed the neighborhood or dogs who were tethered.

“”I believe the answer is to strengthen and then enforce laws that encourage responsible dog ownership for all dogs of all breeds,”” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinary behaviorist in College Station, TX who has worked on breed specific issues, and is now the president of the AVMA. The thinking is if dogs of all breeds are spayed or neutered, officials enforce dangerous dog laws already in place, and people are discouraged from tethering, the number of dog attacks will significantly decrease.

Beck isn’t swayed by these arguments. Instead, he says it’s in the veterinary and animal welfare community’s best interest to protect pit bulls, and other pets from all restrictive legislation. “”It’s just not politically correct in the animal world to favor breed restrictions,”” he says.

Lockwood says Beck’s argument has no merit; it’s a matter of looking at the data.

Beck agrees, but his interpretation of that data differs from that of the HSUS/AVMA/CDC panel. Beck and the group all looked at mostly the same data – the fatal dog bite statistics from the CDC, 1979 to 1998, (Post ’98, the CDC stopped trekking which breeds are involved in fatal attacks because, according to a CDC spokesperson, that information isn’t of discernable value).

Pit bulls are not a breed registered with the AKC (In fact, Beaver and others argue pit bulls are not actually a breed in the first place, but rather a loose mix of various breeds). However, the United Kennel Club (the second largest registry of pure bred dogs next to the AKC) does maintain pit bull registrations. Beck estimated pit bulls numbers using UKC registrations, and then added to it based on several sources. He figures the number of pit bulls to be about one percent of the 61.6 million dogs in America. Yet, his arithmetic indicates pit bulls are responsible for 19 percent of all fatal dog attacks in America. “”That’s where pit bulls are out of whack,”” he says. “”Something is going on with pit bulls because the number of their fatal dog bites is so over-represented.””

Except, Beck’s data is fatally flawed, counters Catherine Hedges founder of Furry Friends Foundation in Chicago, a no-kill shelter that successfully adopts pit bulls. In Chicago alone, it’s estimated there are 60,000 pit bulls. It’s conceivable there are two times as many, or more of the number of pit bulls Beck estimated nationwide.

If Hedges is correct, and there are more pit bulls than Beck estimates, he’s even more concerned. Because Beck feels pit bulls are different than other dogs, and some are inherently dangerous to people.

“”It turns out that pit bulls are, in fact, absolutely the same as all dogs,”” argues Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist and researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine " Philadelphia, who bases her view on research she and others have conducted. What’s more, this summer the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled there is no genetic evidence identifying pit bulls as inherently more dangerous than other dogs.

According to recent testing of 122 dog breeds by the American Temperament Testing Society, pit bulls achieved a passing rate 83.9 percent of the time. Golden retrievers ranked 83.2 percent, beagles at 78.2 percent, and standard schnauzers, a surprisingly low 63.5 percent.

The truth is that pit bulls were indeed bred (using mostly various bull terrier breeds) to fight other dogs. “”It’s true that some pit bulls are genetically hard wired to be dog aggressive, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with being aggressive to people,”” Beaver says.

The related Staffordshire bull terrier and American Staffordshire terrier are legendary family dogs, the former dubbed the nanny dog for their devotion to children. Hedges says pit bulls were developed for dog fighting, but that also requires them not to turn on their people. She says, “”I’m constantly surprised that even pit bulls abused by people have an amazing threshold for unconditional forgiveness.”” Lockwood adds, “”Let’s look at the real source of the problem, irresponsible dog owners, or worse. So many pit bulls are now used for dog fighting by gangs or as a dangerous weapon. This is a social issue, it’s a law enforcement issue, but it’s not a dog breed issue.””

But then why do attacks from pit bulls seem to constantly be in the news? Next week, details of Ontario Canada’s recent ban on pit bull-type dogs, and whether or not the breed restrictions put into place this summer in Boston, MA have succeeded. Beck and other experts offer views of how to lessen the number of attacks from pit bulls, and all dogs.

Part 2
The entire province of Ontario in Canada recently approved a ban on pit bulls. Ontario’s attorney general Michael Bryant repeatedly called pit bulls a “”ticking time bomb”” and “”inherently dangerous”” in public statements. He said his office received over 4,000 emails in support of the ban, and only a miniscule fraction of that number that were pro pit bull.

However, the overwhelming majority of animal experts 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 for the Center for the Human Animal Bond at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN said a few weeks back that he believes pits 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, CO banned pit bull-type dogs a few years back. Yet, the legislation made no impact on the number of pit bull-type dogs landing in the local shelters. It seems bans do hinder responsible pet owners 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 owners who have pit bulls as guard dogs or as some sort of misguided macho symbol. All these reasons combined explain why Denver rescinded their pit bull ban this year.

Following a flurry of attacks by pit bulls in Boston, MA this 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. “”It’s a solution that seemed a bit much. And I wasn’t sure the outright ban would have stood up in court.””

Instead Boston placed various restrictions on any dog that in any way even resembles a pit bull (which turns out to include pure bred American Saffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers because they look so much like pit bulls). Any dog that in any way resembles a pit bull must be muzzled in public, these dogs must be spayed or neutered, and owners must have a sign on the property warning of the presence of a pit bull.

Consalvo says he commissioned an “”official study”” to determine if the breed restrictions amount to fewer attacks from pit bulls. “”It’s way too early to tell (if the breed restrictions matter). But I’m thrilled to see these dogs on muzzles. The public awareness is important.””

But what does the public really have to be aware of? Dr. Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and an animal behaviorist from Berkeley, CA and he says the entire issue is overblown. “”I don’t mean to discount attacks by pit bulls, but we’re talking about maybe ten fatal attacks on people annually”” he 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 more people are killed annually by tripping over their own slippers than all fatal dog attacks combined, regardless of breed.

Even Dr. Julie Gilchrist of the CDC Injury Center in Atlanta, GA agrees. “”The truth is that SUV’s are far more dangerous than pit bulls, and they’re still on the road. 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.””

“”Tell that to the little kids who were attacked by pit bulls,”” says Rick Richards, City Editor at the Michigan City, IN 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.””

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,”” says Dunbar. “”Any kind of dog not socialized is indeed a potential danger. Why don’t the politicians consider going after the owners of these dogs who attack people? Almost always, that’s where the source of the problem is.””

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 ten years ago, they’ve carefully adopted out 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.””

Even Beck of Purdue University, who is cynical about pit bulls says,””Of course, responsible ownership 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,”” says Dunbar. “”It’s distracting to blame a dog breed rather than the real source of these dog attacks.””


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