A while back, the Florida Supreme Court reprimanded two lawyers for running a television ad that featured a picture of a dog and the pitch to call 1-800-PIT-BULL if anyone needed a little legal muscle. The court felt the ad demeaned lawyers and gave the entire justice system a black eye.
But the justices weren’t the only ones who had a problem with 1-800-PIT-BULL. The initial complaint about the ad was made by a breeder who felt his dogs were being insulted. Pit bulls have enough of an image problem — the last thing they need is a television spot comparing them to lawyers.
It’s been tough for pit bulls lately, particularly in Massachusetts. Since April, there have been three serious pit bull attacks in Lynn. In two of those cases, city officials were forced to shoot out-of-control animals that were charging with open jaws.
In Haverhill, police were forced to kill a pit bull that turned on its owner during an appointment with a dog trainer and ripped off a part of her arm and her calf.
Down in Canton, selectmen came to the rescue of a neighborhood that was terrified by three roaming pit bulls and passed a new law that limits dog ownership. It’s one pit bull per household in Canton.
Salem, Gloucester and Rockport have all been talking about possible pit bull bans but so far, nothing definite has come of the talks. And on Beacon Hill, lawmakers are tinkering at the edges of the state’s dog laws.
That effort was spurred on by several pit bull attacks in the Worcester area, and for a while it looked as if pit bulls might be the pooch non grata in the Bay State. But legislators seem to have backed off an all-out ban on pit bulls, or any specific type of dog, thanks in part to loyal owners, breeders, vets and fans who insist the problem isn’t bad dogs, it’s bad owners.
Still, pit bulls are unique animals. While some are leery of the dog because of its reputation or because of experience, most pit bull owners insist their dogs are lovable companions who are friendly and affectionate, especially with kids. Many even describe their dogs as docile coach potatoes.
Diane Jessup, a bit bull enthusiast who has an online warehouse of information about the breed, suggests that pit bulls are outgoing and friendly in part because they are supremely confident. And why shouldn’t they be — they are the alpha dog. Somehow they seem to know that they are the toughest thing on the block, the one who can take down anyone or anything in the room if the need arises.
But as pit bull fans will tell you, that doesn’t make them bad. Still, if we want to live with pit bulls, or any large or aggressive dogs for that matter, owners and breeders need to step up and make sure that their animals are trained and cared for properly. And it’s getting people to take responsibility for their dogs that’s the problem.
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Nature vs. nurture
The term “pit bull” is a little confusing. It’s not the name of a specific breed but more of an umbrella term that describes several different dogs that share personality traits and physical characteristics. When you hear or read a story about a pit bull, odds are the dog is an American pit bull terrier, a Staffordshire terrier, a bull terrier or some mix of those types.
Pit bull history can also be a little vague and contradictory, but many point to the bull- and bear-baiting shows that were popular during Elizabethan times as the beginning of the breed’s popularity.
Elizabethans were big on entertainment. They liked jugglers, dancers, minstrels and tumblers, and if all that got a little old, they would make their way down to the bull-baiting pit where they could enjoy an afternoon of growling, howling and blood.
The sport often involved tying a bull by the horns on a short rope and then setting a couple of revved up bulldogs or pit bulls on it.
Several British historians have mentioned that Queen Elizabeth herself was a huge fan of bull baiting, and she thoroughly enjoyed sitting among the crowd watching an angry bull gore and toss bloody dog carcasses out of the ring. And we wonder why this dog sometimes has an attitude.
When England finally outlawed bull baiting in the beginning of the 19th century, owners took to matching their dogs in one-on-one fights, taking bets on the outcome. Pit bulls were bred to be fighters, and aggression meant survival.
With that kind of heritage, it’s not a huge surprise that when you move pit bulls into an urban environment with a lot of people and other pets, there’s the potential for trouble.
“These dogs are fighting dogs,” says Kevin Farnsworth, Lynn’s animal control officer, who was forced to shoot a pit bull after it attacked a city water department worker last April. “They are going to be aggressive and obviously they can be a problem.”
Farnsworth says the problem kicks in when you have a naturally aggressive dog teamed up with a less-than-responsible owner.
“The bottom line is, don’t just blame the dog or the owner; it’s a number of things,” he says.
Nicholas Dodman, a Tufts University animal behavioral specialist and author of “Dogs Behaving Badly,” agrees that pit bulls come with some baggage.
“Genetics does play a role and people who think it doesn’t are kidding themselves,” says Dodman. “The pit bull is notorious for a very hard bite. They are always No. 1 in the lethal dog bite parade. The dog was bred for pit fighting. It was bred to never give up, to bite and hang on.”
Veterinarian Martha Lindsay, who runs the Alternative Animal clinic in North Andover, agrees breeding plays a role in aggression in pit bulls, but she says new research suggests that mandatory vaccines may be adding to the problem.
If you have a dog that’s predisposed to be aggressive, there’s some evidence that rabies vaccines can make it worse, says Lindsay.
Still, like Farnsworth, nobody is pointing the finger at pit bulls exclusively. Most people seem to agree that while they might be natural fighters, it’s irresponsible people who make a dangerous dog.
“Some pit bulls can be incredibly intelligent dogs who make great pets,” says John Mellace, the manager for Pet Express, a pet story on the Lynnway. “And then there are some pit bulls you can’t even get near. Genetics may be a factor but it’s because of bad ownership that they become bad dogs.”
Although pit bulls that attack often make headlines, animal control officers and dog-bite lawyers are quick to point out that they aren’t the ones doing most of the biting.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, between 2002 and 2004, approximately 20,000 people visited local emergency rooms to be treated for dog bites. Although Boston leads the pack in ER visits, Lynn comes in fifth with 116 bites recorded for 2004.
Farnsworth says that a good number of those injuries are from little dogs, or the “ankle biters” as he calls them.
And Richard Connors, a Lynn lawyer who has fought his share of dog-bite cases, says he’s not in court just taking aim at pit bulls.
“It’s the smaller dogs who are the more frequent biters,” says Connors. As far as breeds go, Connors says his cases are across the board. He admits it’s sometimes easier when he’s trying to win over a jury if he’s up against a pit bull named Thor instead of a poodle named Fifi, but small dogs can do a tremendous amount of damage, particularly to kids.
Still, according statistics from the Center for Disease Control, pit bull bites stand out. Between 1979 and 1998, 238 people in the United States died of dog-bite related injuries. Pit bull type dogs lead the list of breeds responsible for those attacks, with 66 deaths being attributed to them. Rottweilers were next, causing 38 deaths, and German shepherds came in third with 17 people dying because of bite-related injuries.
Although pit bulls might not be doing most of the biting, nearly everyone agrees that when they do bite they do the most damage. And while they might not bite ankles as often as small dogs, they sometimes seem to have a problem playing well with other animals.
There have been plenty of other stories from pet owners who say pit bulls have attacked and sometimes killed their animals. This week an Ipswich family lost their 12-year-old miniature collie when a pit bull escaped from a kennel and charged at the small dog that was leashed in another yard.
Dog trainer Anne Spinger wrote a letter to the Ipswich Chronicle shortly after the attack offering her advice about the dogs.
“Pit bulls, as a breed, are not generally dangerous to people, but do have in their genetic makeup, a predisposition toward being aggressive with other dogs, a trait which is shared by many other breeds,” writes Springer. “This tendency is what makes it imperative for owners of dog-aggressive breeds to take special care in their training and management.”
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Kate Knowlton didn’t grow up longing to be a pit bull owner. The Reading native happened to marry someone who was a longtime fan of the breed. In Knowlton’s case, the dogs came with the guy.
But Knowlton now calls her two pit bulls her babies and she has no reservations about letting the dogs play with her family. Part of her confidence comes from knowing that her husband Josh is a vigilant owner who knows his dogs and can sense if there’s anything stressing them out.
“Josh always had pit bulls and he loves the breed,” says Knowlton. “That was the reason I felt comfortable.”
Knowlton says she braces herself every time she hears of a dog bite story.
“I find myself saying, ‘I hope it’s not a bit bull, I hope it’s not a pit bull,’” she says. Still she acknowledges that pit bulls were bred to fight other animals and, in the wrong home, they can be trouble.
Knowlton believes that breeders need to be accountable and make sure that they know what kind of homes their dogs are going to.
“It’s really important that breeders check out who they are selling their dogs to,” she says.
And she’s not alone in calling for more responsible breeders. No one thinks it’s a great idea to sell a pit bull puppy to an angry 18-year-old male with FU tattooed across his forehead. Some animal control officers and police point to a subculture that values pit bulls because they can be trained to intimidate and attack. They suggest if there are any pit bull bans, it should be against those types of owners.
But they also admit there’s no real way to do that, and they know that if you take away their pit bulls, those people will simply find other breeds that look just as good in a collar with spikes.
Farnsworth says another one of his big problems in Lynn is the backyard breeders who are looking to make some quick cash with each litter. There’s not a whole lot of background checking or talking that goes on in those situations.
He favors a mandatory spay and neuter program for all large and aggressive dogs, not just pit bulls.
“If you’re a responsible pet owner, you’re not going to have a problem with that,” he says.
The only problem is identifying the dogs and their owners. Farnsworth says whatever number of pit bulls are licensed and registered with the city, he’s sure there are three times the number of dogs actually out there.
Connors says mandatory dog insurance may be the way to go. Right now, dogs are covered under homeowner insurance policies, and if you have a pit bull, you may have trouble finding a company willing to insure you.
Connors reasons that if you need insurance to drive a car, you might as well have insurance to own a dog. Premiums would be based on the breed’s track record, with Chihuahua owners paying so much and pit bull owners undoubtedly getting soaked.
That would go a long way toward paying the claims of dog-bite victims who Connor says generally win awards that range anywhere from about $20,000 to $80,000, depending on the case. Connors says that money goes to medical bills and a lot of times for counseling for victims, particularly kids who are often terrified after a dog bite.
But there are even more basic things people and communities can do.
“Why are we making this complicated?” asks Connors. “I suggest that people focus on responsibility and effectively enforce the leash laws.”
Donald Famico, who has been on board as Salem’s dog officer for more than two decades, says that’s where he put his efforts. When he hears about a dog, pit bull or otherwise, that’s a problem, he tries to stay ahead of it by talking with the owners. And if that doesn’t work, there are already a chain of fines and rules that kick in when dogs get out of line.
Famico says in the case of dog attacks there’s already a state law that allows vicious dogs or nuisance dogs to be seized. What usually follows is a hearing by city councilors or selectmen who then have to decide if a dog should be banished or put down.
Famico says those laws have been enough to handle the problem for years, and he wonders why state lawmakers are now stepping in to make changes.
“These laws work,” says Famico. “I have paperwork from 22 to 25 years to back that up. Are the laws perfect? Nothing is. There’s a nitwit out there for everything.”
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The state steps in
In answer to Famico’s question, “Why now?”, legislators generally respond to their constituents’ fears and concerns, and lately, pit bulls have been making some pretty bad news.
But while some legislators might initially have been gung ho about banning pit bulls, they have since softened. A hearing held in May that was packed with pit bull fans, breeders and enthusiasts may have had something to do with it.
Famico figures is might also have been the sheer impracticality of a ban.
“If Salem bans pit bulls and a car full of tourists pulls in with a pit bull in back, what are we going to do, tell them to leave?” he asks. And as many point out, a pit bull ban really isn’t fair.
Even the Lynn police, who have enough on their plates without worrying about finding a pumped-up pit bull every time they respond to a call, aren’t asking for a pit bull ban.
“That would be discriminatory,” says Officer Dave Brown, the spokesman for the department.
State Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, who is on the committee now reviewing dog laws, says the overhaul began with complaints about pit bulls but no one expects to see any breed-specific legislation.
“We want these laws to be action specific, not breed specific,” says Hill who has two well-known and well-respected pit bull breeders in his district.
Hill says he expects the committee to come up with an omnibus dog bill that will stiffen penalties and put more responsibility in the laps of owners and breeders.
Hill says he’s also trying to more clearly define exactly what makes a dangerous dog. Is it one bite, one attack, two bites over a certain time frame?
Although the dog-bite lawyers would say one bite and you’re out, Hill says we need something more concrete.
“Right now we have no specific criteria to tell me what a vicious dog is,” says Hill. “I want to put some type of objectivity into this.”
But Hill is also careful to stress that lawmakers do not want to get between dog owners and their best friends — even if those friends sometime seem a little sketchy.
“At some point, and this is the Republican in me talking now, the government should not be telling a dog owner how to raise his or her dog,” he says.