Pit Bull Prejudice
Author: Scotlund Haisley, President and Founder of Animal Rescue Corps
A healthy relationship with animals demands that we are informed with reliable information so we can make valid decisions that are beneficial to both humans and other animals. Highly charged, hot-button topics abound, especially those that affect animal governing laws. Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is one such issue.
BSL seeks to ban specific dog breeds that are assumed to be dangerous to society. Currently, the dog most often subject to bans is known as the pit bull. Technically, “pit bull” is not a breed but rather a generic term categorizing a strong and athletic class of terriers that most popularly includes the American Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier.
These breeds are subjected to bans because there is widespread prejudice based on the common misunderstanding of the temperament of these dogs. Pit bulls are used for fighting and other nefarious activity because of their determined and courageous nature; yet, the very same tenacity can make pit bulls outstanding members of family, community, police and military groups. The typically resourceful pit bull cheerfully assumes the duties that life requires of him. Human guardians are responsible for positively directing the focus of the dog’s spirit and not taking advantage of it for unethical purposes. It is the negative manipulation of the pit bull nature that has given birth to the unfair reputation of the breeds.
Several years ago in Washington D.C., I participated in a heart-wrenching episode that highlights pit bull prejudice and eventually revealed the purity of a child’s wisdom. The saga began at dusk when a man in his house heard a noise behind his car parked in the street. He glimpsed movement and demanded that the person come forward, threatening to send his pit bull to attack if they failed to surrender. The hidden figure stayed frozen to the spot, so the man incited his dog to leave his property to attack. The man heard the screams of a child and followed his dog only to discover him mauling a 10-year-old girl. He called off the dog, but the little girl was bleeding profusely and critically injured.
I was called to the scene to take control of the dog while the girl was being rushed away in an ambulance and the man was being arrested. The dog, who was impounded and restricted from human contact for more than a year, was named Face. As his caregiver, I came to know him well prior to the hearing that would decide his fate. Face was the coolest and sweetest dog you’d ever hope to meet but his eagerness to please was manipulated and taken advantage of. He had been obeying his guardian’s urgent command to protect him by attacking the perceived danger. I was so saddened for the little girl who had been injured and for the dog who would be killed for doing what the person he trusted most asked of him; both victims of a human who had abused his power.
I visited the child in the hospital, trying to ease her emotional upheaval. I told her honestly that the courts were going to make a decision about whether Face would be deemed a “dangerous dog” and lose his life. This insightful child, who required plastic surgery because of her injuries, told me to ask the court not to punish Face and said, “It isn’t the dog’s fault. It’s the man’s fault for teaching his dog bad things and using him that way.”
She got it exactly right. It is the nature of the pit bull to persevere and endure. This drive is not related to innate aggression but rather related to learned behaviors born of their loyalty and the drive to successfully complete assigned tasks despite adversity. Conversely, single-minded aggression is a sign of incomplete development in a dog who lacks confidence.
Historically pit bull breeds enjoyed a positive public image. They were trusted as beloved family companions – nursemaids to children and friends to adults. They worked beside farmers at home and soldiers abroad. Their sentimental place in society inspired the character Petey in The Little Rascals, Tige in the Buster Brown comic strip and more. Helen Keller and Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed the company of a pit bull companion and a pit bull named Sergeant Stubby still bears the honor as the most decorated service dog in U.S. military history.
Unfortunately, pit bulls have also historically been abused. The term “pit bull” comes from their ancestral use in pits for bull-baiting or fights with other dogs in “pits”. Despite the long history of mistreatment, the good-natured dog managed to retain the image of a loyal and amiable companion. The media began to propel pit bull negative perceptions to the forefront with articles like the extensive July 1987 Sports Illustrated story entitled “The Pit Bull Friend And Killer”, complete with a sensationalist cover photo depicting a snarling pit bull captioned “BEWARE OF THIS DOG”.
Recently, a Labrador mix dog attacked an elderly gentleman, requiring him to seek emergency treatment. The incident was reported in one article in the local paper. Soon thereafter, a mixed-breed dog bit a child, sending him to the hospital. Again, one article was printed in the local newspaper. A few days later, two pit bulls attacked a woman and her dog. The dog was uninjured but the woman was hospitalized. This incident was reported in 230 news articles as well as on multiple cable news networks.
Extensive misrepresentation of the nature of pit bulls is not merely unfair but also has regrettable consequences. This hype has led to their desirability among individuals seeking personal status or financial gain. The criminal use of pit bulls in professional and amateur dogfights and other illegal activity has ensured the proliferation of the negative stereotype against these dogs. The public is now conditioned to judge the breeds once considered quintessential American dogs as dangerous and pit bulls are subjected to bans.
Some municipalities and even entire countries are initiating and imposing dog breed bans while other are repealing them and forbidding future breed bans. Proposed legislation banning pit bulls in the entire state of Texas is being vehemently contested. “Justin’s Law”, written after a 10-year-old boy was tragically killed by two pit bulls, maintains that pit bulls need to be banned in order to protect children. If the legislation is passed, having a pit bull anywhere in Texas would become a third-degree felony. Pit bull protectors have organized their opposition and the bill currently has no sponsors within the Texas legislature.
Keeping people and other animals safe from danger must be addressed based on facts rather than emotion. Dog bites can cause serious injuries and even death and are costly in terms of dollars, community resources and emotional well-being. Yet, safety isn’t achieved by clumsy, blanket restrictions on broad classes of dogs. Reasoning and evidence show that non-specific restrictions affecting enormous numbers of dogs and people are ineffective and inhumane.
A child’s wisdom identified the root of the problem and allow us to ascertain the solution: “It isn’t the dog’s fault. It’s the man’s fault for teaching his dog bad things and using him that way.” The problem is irresponsible guardians. The solution must address this to be effective.
Dogs like Face are subjected to manipulative abuse, resulting in extremely distressing outcomes for dogs and humans, and then are blamed and punished for acting on behalf of their guardian. Entire breeds that need our understanding and protection most are condemned. May we honor the lesson of their suffering by returning their spent devotion with the human loyalty they deserve and taking proactive stances on how to handle the problems that abused dogs present to society and the problems society presents to them.
Breed-specific legislation is reactive and ineffective but there are proactive and effective ways to keep humans and dogs safe. Some municipalities and even entire countries are initiating and imposing dog breed bans while others are repealing them and forbidding future breed bans. Currently, the dogs most often subject to bans are those breeds labeled “pit bulls”. These breeds are subjected to bans because there is widespread prejudice based on assumptions and misunderstanding of their temperament.
All of the discourse and conflict distorts a basic truth: Dogs are born with the instinct to be worthy of their family pack – to bond with their leader. Determined dogs will serve their guardian’s bidding with all of their being. Treated and socialized well, they can become loving family members and even Canine Good Citizens. But if the dogs are neglected or manipulated and encouraged to perform negative behaviors, the consequences for the dogs and humans can be tragic. It is this abuse that is at the root of the dog-human problems that BSL attempts, but fails, to address.
I personally oppose breed-specific legislation for these reasons:
BSL is not proven to achieve its purported main function – to keep people safe from dog bites. For example, a study found that the number of dog bites in Great Britain remained the same despite a ban on three breeds the government classifies as pit bulls. In 1993, the Netherlands enacted a ban on pit bulls after three children were killed. The country repealed the law in 2008 saying that it had not solved the dangerous dog problem.
BSL misplaces blame and punishes the innocent. BSL calls for the round up of all individuals of a certain breed, regardless of whether they have ever bitten anyone. BSL victimizes responsible dog guardians and their companions and imposes societal prejudice against both. Innocent life is lost and public wellbeing is hurt by any legislation that wrongly incriminates a majority due to problems with a handful of deviants. BSL doesn’t seek to make irresponsible dog guardians liable for their deeds and its purpose isn’t to impose penalties on those who commit crimes to animals. Dog bites are caused by humans who don’t socialize or who abuse their pets. More than 70% of dog bites come from unneutered male dogs and most fatal dog attacks involve dogs who aren’t spayed or neutered. More than 80% of dog bites come from dogs who are abused or otherwise recklessly maintained.
BSL is reactive and expensive, blindly applying resources into sticking a Band-Aid on a problem, rather than preventing it. Solutions must be proactive and strike at the root of the problem, preventing the potential for dangerous situations to occur, to achieve lasting change. BSL costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to round up and kill all banned dogs, regardless of their innocence. Prince George’s County, MD, spends more $250,000 a year to enforce its pit bull ban, though a 2003 study found that the ban had not improved public safety and that all animal problems were covered by other laws. This money could be spent much more profitably elsewhere. The dogs whose lives are taken and the devastated families who loved them pay a much higher price.
BSL relies on arbitrary breed labels. Most of our nation’s 78 million dogs are mixed breeds thereby defying lineage classification. Also, the term “pit bull” is a generalized description and many dogs who are not pit bulls but share some physical characteristics are unfairly placed in this category. A report on dog bites from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does not support BSL, maintains that, “Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues.” Visit this website to try to “find the pit bull”.
BSL puts dogs in danger. BSL makes banned dogs more desirable to criminals and other irresponsible individuals. Since these individuals can’t be seen with the dogs, they keep them in hiding, typically in extreme confinement, and sometimes leave them to starve to death in basements or abandoned buildings. Loving guardians may also hide their banned dogs and forsake daily walks and even veterinary care.
The intriguing, lovable pit bull is truly an innocent casualty of discriminatory generalizations that result in illegitimate breed-specific conclusions. The American Temperament Testing Society, an independent research group that has been publishing results since 1977, reports that only 1 in 1,000 pit bulls are “disqualified” due to aggressive tendencies. American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers pass temperament tests at a rate of 86% and 83.9%, respectively. These rates are similar or superior to those of Beagles (80.3%), Golden Retrievers (84.2%), Jack Russell Terriers (84.1%), Border Collies (81.1%) and Standard Poodles (85.3%).
Yet dog breeds with good reputations find loving homes more easily than dogs labeled as pit bulls. Millions of pit bulls end up in shelters and rescue groups every year. Half or more of the dogs in large city shelters are pit bull types. Small town shelters are also overwhelmed by a national average of 33% pit bull population. The results are tragic; the national average death rate of sheltered pit bulls is 93%. So, for every 100 pit bulls who end up in a shelter, only seven survive. Pit bull breeding is a major contributing factor to this problem and regulations on it must be explored.
BSL cannot address the problems “dangerous dogs” present to society or the problems society presents to dogs. The solutions that will work are not easy and require progressive systems. Regardless, the focus of any action must be on promoting responsible dog guardianship and holding the irresponsible accountable. While my idea is admittedly ambitious, I offer one possible solution – pet guardianship regulations should be enacted.
Dogs are classified as property and we pay an annual licensing fee for our dogs, as part of our property tax. However, there is no process to license animal guardians. Driving a car or selling liquor requires people to go through a verification process in order to be approved by the government. Citizens need to earn credentials that are government validated because fellow citizens are impacted by the conduct of each individual. When adopting from an animal shelter, certain criteria must be met because, likewise, having an animal affects the guardian, the animal and those around them. If animal guardianship required licensing, it would demonstrate that it is a significant responsibility and elevate it to earned privilege. People would have to provide evidence that they are prepared for the responsibility and would take the decision to get a companion more seriously because they will be held accountable for that choice.
I believe that guardian licensure will find an open legislative door. The Animal and Plant Health Inspective Service, a department of the USDA, states that:
“Breed or type specific bans are difficult and costly to enforce, provide a false sense of security to the community and, where enacted, no data currently supports them as effective in reducing incidence of dog bites; therefore, they are not recommended… The most effective means of reducing prevalence of dog bites are education and placing responsibility on the owner, not the animal. Legal mechanisms that enable the competent authorities to impose penalties or otherwise deal with irresponsible owners are necessary. Mandatory registration and identification schemes will facilitate the effective application of such mechanisms.”
Guardian licensing legislation wording and implementation of the law would be tailored for each community, just as there are differences in animal control and sheltering systems across the country. The entities that would be charged with overseeing this law must be behind it, have an implementation plan in place and be prepared for its outcomes if it is to be successful. If communities are not supportive or prepared, it should not be enacted. If applied responsibly, guardian licensing would not only keep communities safe but also offer a community more than just an alternative to BSL. It provides a way to directly and proactively address irresponsible guardianship, which animal shelters are already doing with adoption requirements. It is time to expand these ideas to society as a whole.
It is time to dismiss discussion of breed-specific legislation. BSL is an abusive idea that doesn’t work but rather offends common decency and wastes resources and innocent lives. We need to employ preventative measures, such as guardian licensure, to make real and lasting change in keeping people and animals safe. Please join me in defense of those who are persecuted by noble intention but ignorant implementation. Together we can create a humane civilization for every member of the animal kingdom.