OP-ED: Canine or Criminal? The Pit Bull Question

pittbulls

The saying that "any press is good press" might apply if you’re a Kardashian or Justin Bieber. Alleged DUI’s and spending an exorbitant amount of money on your baby’s first birthday party seems to never adversely affect album sales or Nielsen ratings. But when applied to a breed of dog that seems to have the worst public relations department in the history of world, all press is the same old bad press.

Pit bulls have a reputation. But is it contrived or earned?

The same day that I drove by a newly erected billboard from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA) displaying a pit bull puppy with a level of cuteness approaching the ‘I can’t even’ territory, yet another story surfaced in the news of a dog mauling involving the breed.

The same story. The same ending.

Dog mauls child, police shoot dog and the public’s distancing from a breed, further fueled by fear and sensationalism, widens like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s absolutely terrible when a person of any age is attacked by any kind of a dog. But the finger-pointing at one particular tail-wagger is patently unfair. There’s plenty of blame to go around in the creation of the pit bull as the menace of the neighborhood, and breeders, owners and news outlets all share in the perpetuation of it.

What exactly is a pit bull?

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the term can refer to as many as five different breeds of dogs and all mixes or variations of the dog. The most accurate reference is to the American Pit Bull Terrier or the Staffordshire Terrier. However, the term is ambiguous and is loosely applied, becoming problematic when combined with a dog attack. An interactive game on the organization’s website demonstrates how easily the breed can be confused for another breed.

They’re as muscular and intimidating as they are lovable and loyal. The breed even earned the nickname “nursemaid’s dog” because of their reliability with young children. During World War I, pits even served in the military as search and rescue dogs and were plastered on recruiting propaganda posters as a symbol of American courage and dependability. One pooch named Stubby was honored at the White House, becoming the first dog given rank in the US military for his accomplishments in the field and is considered one of the greatest war dogs in our nation's history. 

So where did things go wrong? 

As a person that’s grown up around pit bulls my entire life, I see both sides of the equation. I often watch anchors on the nightly news voice-over b-roll footage of a vicious dog while my own two pit bulls sleep intertwined at the base of my television. Tuckered out from wrestling over the coveted Kong and exchanging barbs with their arch nemesis, the telephone-wire walking squirrel, they have no interest in the media bashing of their brethren. Their aggressive snoring, however, is certainly a public nuisance and needs to be regulated.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 10.17.47 AMPoncho and Lamb Chop [pictured right], whose names have been changed to protect the innocent, are about as similar as M&Ms and Skittles. Their exterior is the same relative shape and color but their internal make up is as similar as chocolate and whatever that chewy stuff inside a Skittle is. Lamb Chop is the fearless, idiotic pup that charges head-on into all situations, with little regard for himself or furniture. While Poncho cowers at the sound of rolling trashcans, bouncing balls and hair dryers.

They’re like furry people, with their own fears, temperaments and ability to judge distance or catch Cheetos with their mouths. And just like people, they are shaped by their surroundings and molded by the people that raise them. To reason that because one dog attacks the distinction of dangerous can be applied categorically is a logical fallacy. The question should really be: "What came first, the terrible owner or the vicious dog?"

For every Michael Vick that breeds the canine for the purpose of dog fighting, something outlawed as a felony in every state, or person exploiting the breed to project an image of toughness, there is the responsible dog owner that loves and treats the animal for what it really is: a member of their family.

Our dogs sleep in the house, unwrap gifts at Christmas and occasionally dress up as crime fighters. Although they have occasionally stolen food from my plate and socks from my room, they are not criminals. However, state and local governments across the country they once served with unrelenting valor have tried to pass legislation to treat them as such.

Currently, California is one of eighteen states (with six other states considering similar provisions) that doesn’t allow for breed specific legislation (BSL) that would ban the dog completely. However, the state does allow for cities and counties to impose mandatory sterilization for certain breeds. Fourteen cities and three counties (San Bernardino, Riverside and Sonoma) in California all stipulate that pit bull owners have their dogs spayed or neutered after they turn 4 months old.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 10.19.19 AMWhile I am for lowering the amount of pit bulls languishing in animal shelters, many of which are certain to be destroyed because of the inability to find suitable housing or willing adopted parents, I don’t think a governmental agency should impose on anyone the potential of neuticle shopping to replace their pet’s sex organs. But I guess if we can legislate human birth control, how much of a say can Lamb Chop and Poncho have in determining the fate of their family jewels?

Additionally, it’s become increasingly difficult for pit owners to attain home owner’s insurance because, according to Forbes, pit bulls fall into a list of 11 of the riskiest dog breeds that most insurers refuse to cover on a home insurance policy. So while the state might not ban them outright, many private entities have forced some people to choose between pet and home.

Here's the thing: all dogs bite.

Some people on internet forums argue that while a little dog may nip, it can't take your arm off like a pit. True: a football-sized Pomeranian may have grape-sized jaw capacity but does it change the intent? Perhaps the physical limitations of a smaller dog make it okay to classify it as feisty, not dangerous. Besides, a lap dog biting me while I’m out for my daily run—something that has happened twice, both not ending well for said lap dog—is less likely to garner local television news coverage than if it were a ferocious pit bull, the darlings of a slow news day.

But when it all boils down, pit bulls, like other dogs, are just that: a dog. You get what you put into the animal. Respect, nurture and love it and the dog will truly be your best friend. Mistreat, neglect and abuse it and the end result could further the slandering of an otherwise noble and devoted beast.

Owning a dog is a responsibility. Owning a pit bull is a duty. The only thing that can stop the wave of negative press is for more responsible dog lovers to tackle the task of owning the breed and making it an ambassador of love to those that fear them. Because until then, the exploitation both by the media and dog owners will continue to set a stereotype so strong that no amount of viral photos of a puppy heads stuck in a tire wheels will ever amend.

Hang in there, pit bulls of America.

For more information on adopting one of spcaLA's pit bulls, or any other furry friend, visit the Long Beach adoption center at 7700 East Spring Street (in El Dorado Park), call (562) 570-SPCA, or email  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . For information on animal behavior and training, call (562) 570-4910.



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