The Terrible Injustice Of Bans Against Pit Bulls

The myth of the dangerous pit bull does harm to us all.

When my girlfriend and I got together, we agreed on one very important thing right from the start: We both wanted a dog. So after we moved in together, we got on the website for a local animal rescue and looked for our puppy. When we saw Xena looking up at us from the cement back patio of her foster mother’s home, we knew she was our dog. We loved her instantly — but if we’d lived in a different area, it might have been illegal for us to take her home.

Xena is a beautiful mutt whose most dominant traits are American Staffordshire Terrier and Weimaraner — which means that she falls under the category of “pit bull,” and looks a lot like other dogs who share that vague classification. The umbrella breed of pit bull covers all dogs who share a few key features: a boxy head, short fur, and a medium to large overall size.

There are a lot of dogs who fall into that category, including Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Bulldog, Presa Canario, Cane Corso, Bull Terrier, Dogo Argentino, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and English Bulldog. But most pit bulls that you see on the streets are mutts. They may be any of the above breeds, combined with many others to create beautiful dogs of varying shapes and temperaments: the truly fascinating tapestry that is the pit bull.

I was unprepared for the reactions of the public when we adopted Xena. The first time that someone leapt into traffic to avoid us when they saw her coming, I was baffled. Then it happened again. And again. And again. Seedy looking men offered to buy her from me on the street. Babies loved her, but mothers edged them away. We couldn’t socialize her with children because no mothers in our neighborhood would let their children approach.

Xena, an extremely terrifying dog
Xena, an extremely terrifying dog

When we made arrangements to travel to Toronto last year, we naturally wanted to bring Xena with us to meet our friends. When we were planning our trip, a friend who is a Canadian resident advised me that my dog was illegal within the city limits of Toronto. I was assured by Toronto residents that she would likely run across no issues during our short vacation, but the fear of some official taking our dog led us to board Xena rather than take the risk.

Legislation like Toronto’s is called breed-specific legislation, and it has been common practice in cities all over the world for some time. In the U.S., laws have been enacted in over 700 cities, beginning in the 1980s. Breed specific legislation can also be found on the books in 24 other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Israel, and Spain.

In my hometown of Philadelphia, former SPCA director Erik Hendricks spent his entire career pushing to enact breed-specific legislation against pit bulls, notably stating that: “A pit bull is a time bomb. Having one in your home is like leaving a loaded, cocked pistol lying around.”

There is indeed some risk in having pit bulls in your house, insofar as having any dog in your house carries some type of risk. Dogs are animals, and no matter how well you know them, there is always a chance that something will trigger a fear response and result in someone getting hurt. But you are no more likely to get that kind of response from a pit bull than you are from any other type of dog.

Dogs are animals — there is always a chance that something will trigger a fear response and result in someone getting hurt.

Hendricks’ statement not only goes against the personal experiences of many dog owners, it completely erases the history of one of the main pit bull breeds. Staffordshire Bull Terriers, arguably one of the most recognizable of all pit bull type dogs, were once called “nanny dogs” and used by their owners as child minders because of their gentle nature and devotion to the children in their care.

So where does the myth of the terrible pit bull come from? I spoke to Mike McConnery, owner of dog training and breeding company Baden K-9, who has 45 years of training and breeding experience. According to him, dog fighting is at the root of the public’s prejudice against pit bull type dogs:

“Dog fighting used to be the ‘Sport of Kings,’ but when it came over to [the U.S.] it became associated with mobsters and gangsters and this sort of macho, criminal mentality. It became an underground, illegal activity. So then you have the people that are involved in that type of dog fighting and their mentality and their cruelty becoming a part of the view of pit bulls as a breed. It’s a people problem, not a dog problem. But the dog suffers as a result of the people problem.”

Illegal dogfighting has contributed to the idea that pit bulls are fundamentally “dog aggressive,” as if this is something that happens on a genetic level and cannot be changed.

It’s true that terrier breeds, including many under the pit bull umbrella, have been bred to hunt down and kill small animals. While this does not make them inherently aggressive to other dogs, it does mean that (like many dog breeds) they need to be socialized as puppies to help avoid aggressive behaviors later on in life; they have been genetically optimized for hunting, not for sociability with other dogs. Being aware of these types of behavioral peculiarities in your dog’s breeding is part of being a responsible dog owner, and something that anyone looking to bring a dog into their home should be aware of.

But any dog, regardless of breed, can be trained to fight. Pit bulls aren’t used for dogfighting because they’re fundamentally aggressive; rather, a minority are aggressive because they have been used for dogfighting. This cruel sport is actually just another injustice perpetrated against pit bulls.

Some people, instead of justifying breed-specific legislation based on dog aggression, justify it based on the claim that pit bulls are more liable to kill humans. The truth, though, is that there are no statistics backing this up. In fact, there are no statistics on fatal dog bites at all; the CDC stopped keeping track of dog fatalities by breed after 1998. Based on the research it did collect, it recommended against breed-specific ordinances, noting that such legislation “raises constitutional and practical issues.”

But despite the facts on the books regarding dog bites, and despite the ineffectiveness of breed-specific legislation in places like Toronto (where dog bites have spiked dramatically in the years since the ban), new legislation is still being enacted against pit bulls. This month Montreal instituted a ban on pit bulls that prohibits citizens from adopting them and requires that anyone currently owning one must apply for a permit and have their dogs muzzled during walks.

Why are people continuing to push for bans against pit bulls? It’s partly fear, and partly an unwillingness to take responsibility — to recognize that the real cause of dog bites is not bad dogs, but bad owners.

According to Lt. Hank Ward, the officer in charge of K-9 at the Police Department in Falls Township, Pennsylvania, wherever you find a “bad dog,” you will find a bad handler. The CDC research corroborates that fact. In the discussion at the end of their paper, the researchers state that non-breed-specific dangerous dog laws would be more effective when enacted if they put the responsibility for the dog’s behavior on the owner, regardless of the breed of the dog. They suggest targeting chronically irresponsible dog owners and forcing them to assume liability for the behaviors and actions of their pets.

So what can we do to combat breed-specific legislation and prejudices against pit bulls? McConnery thinks the answer is advocacy and responsibility:

We have to be good dog owners, confident in what we know and do and not trying to convince anyone of anything. A lot of pit bull owners are on the defensive when confronted about their dogs. And they shouldn’t be. They should remain on the offensive. As dog owners we aren’t inclined to be activists. We stay back and stay silent, but we have to be activists.

When all’s said and done, breed-specific legislation comes from a place of fear on the part of the public, fear that lawmakers choose to feed rather than bringing facts to bear. As dog owners and people with voices, we have to speak out to protect our dogs against prejudices that have no basis in fact. After all, if someone told our dogs that their owners were going to be outlawed, they would never leave our side.

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