Not So Beastly
The real pit bull problem
I’m staring at eight pit bulls. They’re all in a row and stacked on top of each other, tucked inside those plastic dog carriers that come in muted colors like light blue, beige and gray. The dogs come in a similar color scheme—some are light brown, others dark, some tan with white trim, and one a curious shade of grayish-blue. That’s the baby—only six months old and she still looks like she could herd a whole flock of sheep without the least bit of trouble. They call her Tempest.
I’m waiting for the doors to those plastic carriers to open and for those eight pit bulls to step out, one-by-one, and sit in a straight line to pose for a photo. Honestly, it's a little intimidating. But out they come, one-by-one, and aside from the occasional escape and subsequent toe-licking from Tempest, the pits do exactly what they’re supposed to: sit for a portrait and dart playful, curious looks in my direction.
Pit bulls have gotten a bum rap. Considered in the public consciousness to be one of the most dangerous dog breeds in existence—indeed, some believe it to be the most dangerous—the pit bull is viewed as a fickle, unpredictable dog with a tendency for baby-mauling and other sorts of dastardly behavior. But the breed hasn’t always borne such a stigma.
Teddy Roosevelt had a pit bull. So did Thomas Edison and Helen Keller. At the turn of the century, pit bulls were heralded the “All American Dog.” So what’s changed?
Tempest and the others are finished posing. When their owner, Lisa, gives the appropriate command, they get up and shuffle around like a pack of kids who’ve been sitting in class for too long.
As the pits pant and sniff, I think of the pit bull breed ban which was renewed last spring in Denver, making it illegal to own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor or sell a pit bull within city and county limits. Letters were sent to pit bull owners from Denver Animal Control, warning them about the ordinance. A few weeks later, workers came to people’s homes to confiscate their pets. One month later, approximately 150 pit bulls had been taken and euthanized. Some owners fled the city; others hid their dogs. To date, nearly 900 pit bulls in Denver have been confiscated and/or put down since last year.
As Tempest takes another lick at my toes, it's hard to imagine how such a drastic situation has come to pass.
Denver isn’t the only city that’s taken issue with pit bulls—China, several Western European countries and numerous municipalities across North America have placed restrictions or bans on the breed as well. People are scared of pit bulls, and if you believe the headlines, they have every right to be.
It seems as though every couple months we’re bombarded with a series of stories on how dangerous, aggressive, wild and ferocious pit bulls are. National headlines like the recent “Pit Bull Attacks Girl” and “Pit Bull Attacks Police Horse” are familiar examples. Just this last April, Albuquerque heard all about the two young boys that were attacked by a neighbor’s pit bull in the South Valley.
Yes, headlines are scary. Headlines are so scary, in fact, that in 2004, the New Mexico State Legislature debated instituting a statewide pit bull breed ban. Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort sponsored the legislation. “It’s incomprehensible that people would want to have dogs like that,” she says. “It’s very irresponsible of a family to raise potentially dangerous dogs like [pit bulls]. There’s a definite pattern, a difference with this breed.”
Beffort says she was prompted to bring the bill after reading numerous headlines one spring about pit bulls attacking young children. Her bill wouldn’t have been as extreme as Denver’s—allowing people to keep their pit bulls as long as they had a bond on them and forbidding the breeding of pit bulls. “[The bill would have] allowed them to phase out,” says Beffort.
Beffort’s bill failed, but another bill aimed at stopping dog attacks was passed that year and signed in 2005. Gov. Bill Richardson’s Dangerous Dogs Act is not breed-specific and requires that aggressive dogs be licensed and properly contained by owners. It also mandates that dogs not be chained for prolonged periods of time. If the owner fails to comply and the dog seriously injures or kills someone, the owner can be charged with a third- or fourth-degree felony.
At this time, Beffort says, she doesn’t plan on supporting another breed ban until enough time has passed to see if the Dangerous Dogs Act is effective. “This summer, if there are dog attacks and if people are prosecuted—because it’s now a felony—and it’s handled as it should be, I’ll be happy,” she says. “But if it doesn’t curb dog attacks, it’s irresponsible to continue to allow these operations to go on.”
Yet not everyone’s thrilled about the idea of a pit bull ban. In fact, some folks find such legislation completely ineffective. “Breed-specific legislation is unnecessary,” says Rena Distasio, a pit bull advocate and cofounder of Responsibly Adopting Albuquerque’s Pit Bulls (RAAP), a newly formed program out of the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals working with the city animal shelters. “If we enforced the laws we already have—leash laws, non-roaming laws, anti-drug and gang laws, anti-fighting laws—we wouldn’t need legislation like this. When a community gets upset when something happens, they go first to breed-specific laws.”
Rutledge Beard, a counselor with Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless who uses her two pit bulls in therapy sessions, is also against such legislation. “Breed-specific legislation is not about dogs,” she says, “it’s about taking away people’s freedom to choose what kind of happiness they want. It’s saying we’re too stupid to decide what kind of dog we want. It’s more of a civil rights issue.” Beard adds that “a lot of times, [breed-specific legislation] is very classist and racist,” and cites a quote from Aurora, Colo., City Councilor Bob Fitzgerald, who sponsored a pit bull breed ban for Aurora based off Denver’s. When asked why he brought the ordinance to the Council, Fitzgerald said on record, “We don’t want ‘those people’ here,” referring to the pit bull owners from Denver who were likely to flee the city because of the ban and move to Aurora.
“Most pit bull owners are viewed as criminals, gangsters,” says Beard. “This is the dog of the working class.”
Still, Beffort thinks getting rid of pit bulls could potentially solve a myriad of problems in the community. “Pit bulls are involved in drug trafficking, backyard breeding and dog fighting,” she says. “If we ban the pit bull, [opponents] think there will just be another dog that gets into the arena of fighting and [takes the pit bull’s place]. Let’s worry about that if it happens.”
It’s a commonly held belief that pit bulls bite down with 2,000 pounds of pressure and have locking jaws. The problem with such statements is that they're not true. In fact, according to a study by a National Geographic scientist, pit bulls only bite down with 230 psi, the same as nearly every other breed of dog its size.
Perhaps one of the reasons the myth orginated is because pit bulls, unlike many other breeds, have a tendency to hold on and not let go when they bite--giving the impression that they have uncanny strength or that their jaws lock.
Pit bulls have also garnered fear in the community because of their method of attack. Many pit bulls try to inflict a maximum amount of damage on their opponents by tearing and shaking when they bite. They’re also less likely to growl before pouncing, although they do exhibit other signs of warning. As cited in a February 2006 article on pit bulls in the New Yorker, a scientific review of the breed states, “They are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression. For example, dogs not bred for fighting usually display defeat in combat by rolling over and exposing a light underside. On several occasions, pit bulls have been reported to disembowel dogs offering this signal of submission.”
Yet the notion that pit bulls are inherently aggressive is also false, as is the idea that all pit bulls, or even most pit bulls, are dangerous. In a study of 122 breeds of dogs by the National Temperament Testing Association, it was found that American Pit Bull Terriers passed with a rate of 83.4 percent, beating out the scores beagles received (78.7 percent) and nearly tying with golden retrievers (83.6 percent). What about the idea that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs around children (hence the attention-grabbing headlines)? You might have guessed—that sentiment’s also false. In fact, pit bulls were once regarded as the “Nanny Dog.” They’re no more dangerous to children than any other canine.
Speaking of other canines, pit bulls aren’t the only dogs that have been reported to attack people. You may or may not remember hearing about the Pomeranian that mauled and killed a 5-week-old baby girl in California in 2000. Or, surely, you’ve heard about the Frenchwoman who received the world’s first face transplant this year, prompted by an attack from a Labrador retriever.
According to a report from the Albuquerque Animal Care Center, in 2005, 669 cases of dog bites were reported in the city. Of those, 131 were from pit bulls, but 57 were from Labrador retrievers and 75 were from German shepherds.
It’s hard to tell what those numbers mean without understanding the overall population of those breeds in the city, and such data is hard to come by. However, numbers on the ratio of breeds of dogs Animal Care sees in a given year are available. Last year, Animal Care received 17,057 dogs. Of those, 4,298 were pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Therefore, even though pit bulls represent about 25 percent of all the dogs Animal Care saw last year, they're only responsible for approximately 19.6 percent of the number of dog bites reported. This suggests that pit bulls actually bite less often than other breeds as a whole.
Another pit bull myth is that the term “pit bull” refers to a single breed of dog. The term actually refers to three breeds of dog—the British-bred Staffordshire Terrier, the American-bred American Pit Bull Terrier and the American-bred American Staffordshire Terrier.
Perhaps the biggest myth of all, which may eventually lead to the pit’s downfall, is the idea that pit bulls are aggressive toward humans. In truth, pit bulls have been bred to be just the opposite.
In the early 1800s, pit bulls were used throughout Britain in bull-baiting and bear-baiting, but in 1835, when the bloody sport was declared cruel by Parliament and was abolished, the dogs were bred for other uses. Dog fighting, which, unfortunately, persists to this day in Albuquerque and in other parts around the world, became popular and pit bulls became the dog of choice for the sport. With this in mind, pit bulls were bred to be intelligent, level-headed fighters who disdained other dogs but adored humans. Early and organized dog fighting included a number of traditions, one of which was that a referee had to be able to enter a ring of a dog fight, pick up a dog it was unacquainted with and hand it to its owner to be carried out of the ring without being bitten. This was such an important, not to mention logical, part of dog fighting that any dogs that bit the referee were culled.
Pit bulls were brought to America in the mid-1800s. On this side of the Atlantic, they continued to be bred in the same manner, and usually ended up as either fighting dogs in the city or working dogs on farms or ranches in the West. Around World War I, pit bulls became popular as family pets and were featured in pro-American propaganda posters, thus becoming the “All American Dog.”
So if pit bulls are such temperamentally sound, human-loving, all-around fantastic dogs, why are there so many horror stories about them in the news?
“Pit bulls were raised to be all-purpose, human-friendly dogs. The media gives it hysterical coverage,” says Distasio. “[But the real problem is that] dogs are abused, chained, they’re not spayed or neutered. It’s a people problem, and the government doesn’t address it.”
Distasio believes many of the “problems” with pit bulls are a result of social issues—and people not understanding the breed or caring for it properly. “Throughout history, only a small percentage of pit bulls were used to fight. You could train them to do anything,” she says. “I know pit bulls that herd cattle, pull wagons—they’re athletic, working dogs.” She adds that in order to fulfill their instincts, part of caring for a pit bull is providing it with more exercise than you would most dogs. Without an hour or two of exercise a day, she says, a pit bull can become frustrated.
“We forget, in the Disneyfication of dogs, that dogs are wolves. It’s in their genetics,” she says. “They have a high drive to chase and kill—but genetics are skewed. In collies, for example, they’re skewed to chase and gather and not kill. Pit bulls are high-drive, working animals. If it’s chained [and not properly socialized], and a toddler it doesn’t recognize as human comes into its territory, what’s going to happen? That usually only happens with unsocialized, abused animals.”
Keeping dogs on chains is a big factor in how dogs react to people, Distasio says. Many people get pit bulls because they think they’re good guard dogs, or because they look tough. But Distasio says the pit bull was “never intended to be a guard dog.” She says because pit bulls were bred to work alongside people, keeping them separated from the family, like anything kept on a chain, is bound to drive them insane.
Additionally, Distasio says pit bulls are oftentimes mischaracterized because they have a tendency to be aggressive toward other dogs, which stems from their early breeding history. Such behavior can be misinterpreted, leading people to believe they’re also aggressive toward humans.
“Dog aggression is not a gateway drug to human aggression,” says Distasio. “A dog that’s dog aggressive is not a bad dog, you can manage it. A dog that’s human aggressive should be put down.”
Dogs that have temperament problems are more common these days due to backyard breeding. “Backyard breeding” is distinct from “hobby breeding.” The latter adheres to strict health guidelines during the breeding process and takes the time to get puppies properly certified. The former abandons professional breeder guidelines and breeds dogs usually for the sole purpose of making money. Backyard breeders don’t usually have their dogs temperament tested and don’t know if they’re compatible for breeding. Their dogs can also suffer from inbreeding, says Distasio. Such circumstances lead to health problems, poor genetics and oftentimes come from less than ideal animal living conditions. Dogs that come from backyard breeders are typically not representative of the breed as a whole.
Another unfortunate trend of backyard breeding is that pups that aren’t sold are oftentimes dropped off at animal shelters, increasing the number of dogs that are euthanized and perpetuating stereotypes of the breed. Pit bulls, Distasio says, have been a favorite for backyard breeders for the last couple decades, since they became the latest dog “fad.”
RAAP, the program Distasio helped found, is working to help the increasing amount of pit bulls that come into the shelters. Part of the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals, a volunteer-based organization that works to improve the lives of shelter animals and increase their chances for adoption, RAAP works through the city shelters to educate people on and eventually help foster pit bulls. Started in January, the program is still gathering volunteers and recently started giving out pit bull information packets to potential adopters, which talk about common pit bull myths and how to properly care for pit bulls, among other things. By this fall, Distasio and other RAAP members hope to begin education outreach for the public and for law enforcement. By this time next year, they hope to have a foster program up and running.
Even though 25 percent of all dogs that came to Animal Care last year were pit bulls, they only made up 14 percent of the dogs that left, meaning an unrepresentative number of them were euthanized. Despite the large numbers of pit bulls that come into the shelter and are euthanized, an official pit bull rescue group doesn’t yet exist, although some people do individually foster animals.
“There will always be a breed that’s the pariah,” says Distasio. “But we never learn to take responsibility for our actions. Do [politicians or the media] look at the real problems? No, they want sound bites. And then the community gets hysterical.”
Frankie and Diego were both rescued shelter dogs. Now, the four- and two-year-old (respectively) pit bulls are certified therapy dogs with the Delta Society—the largest and oldest registry in the country. They’re also deathly afraid of chickens.
Their owner, Rutledge Beard, the counselor with Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless (AHA), gets to see the effect her dogs have on clients firsthand. Frankie and Diego work in conjunction with Beard, helping homeless women and children to emotionally heal from trauma while AHA tries to help them get back on their feet.
Frankie’s specialty is depression symptoms. His main duties include hanging around and taking naps with clients, especially kids who are 10 and younger; he also partakes in the occasional round of dress-up.
Beard talks about some of the people Frankie’s helped—a 9-year-old girl with poor social skills sticks out in her mind. A verbally aggressive child who had trouble making friends, Frankie acted as a playmate for the girl, and helped her learn how to interact with other people. Diego’s great with infants and toddlers, and kids who act out with aggression.
The two pit bulls serve as a good example of what the breed can accomplish—they seem far from the stereotypes of pit bulls that often make national and local headlines.
The eight dogs I started my day with are also good examples. All highly trained in obedience, and most in agility (timed obstacle courses), they’re perfect models of the working dog pit bulls are programmed to be. Their owner, Lisa, who requested her last name be omitted for this article, has worked as a trainer at the Acoma Training Center on Wyoming for eight-and-a-half years. She, too, has a couple certified therapy pit bulls. She also has an agility champion, one rescued ex-fighting dog and two pits with herding titles. Of course, the rules were recently changed in herding competitions, banning pit bulls along with several other breeds from competing. But Lisa says they still like the practice. Toe-licking Tempest is still too young to know what she’ll be, but her obedience training is well underway.
Lisa takes one of the better agility dogs, Vixen, out to the obstacle course to show me what she can do. Vixen darts back and forth through plastic tunnels and over ramps with a broad smile, stopping on point every time she’s cued. I catch a shot of her flying mid-air through a hanging tire.
Now that’s something.