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An Evolving Dialogue for “Pit Bulls”: A Change for the Better
Posted on 09/29/2014 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel

It seems after decades of so much nonsensical breed discriminatory legislation (BDL), the tide is starting to turn for a vast group of dogs lumped into the generic and loosely used term “pit bulls”. Most notably, 19 states now prohibit the use of breed discriminatory legislation by municipalities, Utah and South Dakota most recently this summer.* There are plans in place to introduce similar legislation in Michigan in the future as well.

I believe many factors are at play here. BDL is being shown over and over again to be unsuccessful in protecting communities, is expensive, and is incredibly difficult to enforce. A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association last year has also helped support the truth that BDL does not work. The study, which focused on dog bite related fatalities on the basis of data, demonstrated that undue emphasis has been placed on breed in policy discussions, and the preventable factors concluded were multiple; however breed was not one of those factors. Laws enforcing responsible dog ownership and more public education/behavioral assistance were forerunners in the reasonable recommendations instead of BDL.

Beyond that though, is the rise in the population of dogs that fall into the “pit bull” category and subsequently, their high numbers in shelters, and resulting popularity as a rescue dog. While it’s unfortunate there are so many unwanted or dumped dogs of this type, one good thing to come out of it has been more education, understanding, and compassion. With so many mainstream pitties, their image is slowly being softened and accepted by the general public. I truly believe this is also due to the hard work of many groups such as Animal Farm Foundation and Best Friends Animal Society.

The national attention drawn to the Michael Vick case and subsequent success of the Vicktory dogs has done wonders as well. There’s more and more positive promotion of pitties all the time, and either the media is following that trend instead of publishing sensationalized stories of attacks that ignore all factors but breed, or perhaps the positive press is overshadowing those half-truth stories. The extremely popular news site Huffington Post has an entire section dedicated to pits, with happy pictures and positive stories. My favorite article so far, however, came from a very unexpected source, Esquire magazine.

In his feature story, The State of The American Dog, Tom Junod examines pit bulls in the most realistic, straightforward, yet sympathetic tone I’ve seen. Mr. Junod looks at pit bulls not only through data and statistics, but his own experience with his personal pit bull-type dogs he’s had in his life. He refers to them as “THE” American dog: “no other dog as vilified on the evening news, no other dog as defended on television programs, no other dog as mythologized by both its enemies and its advocates, no other dog as discriminated against, no other dog as wantonly bred, no other dog as frequently abused, no other dog as promiscuously abandoned, no other dog as likely to end up in an animal shelter, no other dog as likely to be rescued, no other dog as likely to be killed.” WOW. What an honest and emotionally striking description. In talking sheer numbers, he estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 pit bulls are euthanized per DAY. His statement, “they are more sinned against than sinning” could not be more true.

He talks about the history and that both advocates and opponents agree it’s more a classification or strain of dog rather than any particular breed. But he finds that “a pit bull is never anything more than a pit bull,” meaning that they are viewed by most as not just a dog, but a “pit bull” first and foremost, and are treated differently because of that. “If a pit bull-Labrador mix bites, then the pit bull is always what has done the biting, its portion of the blood - its taint - ineradicable and finally decisive.” He was so sensitive to it himself when he adopted his first pit bull that he took the dog a canine behaviorist at the University of Georgia for reassurance, whose verdict was that he was a great dog, but that “he was a dog before he was a pit bull.” He correctly points out that the argument about “pit bulls” does employ some racial thinking and division along class lines.

Junod had to come face to face with the issue of “pit bull” vs dog when his current dog was involved in an incident that made him question his own dog. The incident was also an illustration that extra care must be taken to protect the dog because it’s a pit bull and will face more serious judgment and repercussions. His dog, Dexter, was set up to fail in the situation by his wife - facing a dog between him and his person (Junod’s daughter) at the end of a six-foot lead - and did what many DOGS in general would do. He attacked the perceived threat that the small dog posed. Junod was then concerned with “whether Dexter did what he did as a dog or as a pit bull,” which prompted him to talk to various experts. One, a professor of comparative genomics named Kris Irizarry, challenged him not to extrapolate the behaviors of his dog to all “pit bulls,” but rather to look at his dog as an individual. That’s the big lesson all of us need to take from this article and remind ourselves of if we try to make generalizations or predictions based on appearance alone.

Following is the letter sent to Esquire on behalf of UKC to thank them for such a heartfelt and starkly honest look at the state of the “pit bull” today.

“On behalf of United Kennel Club, thank you for such a refreshingly honest look at ‘pit bulls’ in the recent article The State of The American Dog. The United Kennel Club was founded in 1898 and well over a century ago, the American Pit Bull Terrier was the first breed it recognized. While purebred UKC registered American Pit Bull Terriers are a small fraction of the dogs referred to as ‘pit bulls’, we deal with the consequences of breed bigotry, misguided legislation, and sensationalized media every day. Instead of perpetuating pit bull myths, Tom Junod went right to the heart of the matter with facts: each dog is an individual and should be evaluated as such instead of stereotyped and painted with a broad brush. Research consistently supports Junod’s quote from Dr. Kris Irizarry, ‘You look at a pit bull’s DNA and the only thing you can really tell is that it’s a dog. …It’s just a general dog and there’s no way to predict its behavior from its appearance.’

“While some natural instincts may be anticipated, but not guaranteed from a purebred dog of known ancestry, there is absolutely no prediction of instinct or behavior for a dog of unknown ancestry based on appearance alone. This is precisely why legislation that bans or restricts specific breeds or types of dogs is ineffective and serves no real purpose. The real cause of dog attacks is irresponsible dog ownership; the most effective way to decrease dog bites is education, training, and strict enforcement of existing laws for responsible dog ownership of all dogs, regardless of their appearance. The tide of breed-specific legislation in this country is slowly starting to turn, and realistic media portrayals such as this are helping to bring the truth to light. We applaud Tom Junod for writing such a wonderful piece, and Esquire for publishing it. Bravo.”

*The following states have laws prohibiting the use of BDL by municipalities: Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts, Nevada, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Utah, and South Dakota. Funnily enough two states have cities with notorious “pit bull” bans that may have precipitated the laws: Denver and Miami. Denver claims home rule status as an exception to the law, and Miami was grandfathered in.