By Amy Neff-Roth, The Observer-Dispatch
The pit bull was on me before I ever saw her.
I was sitting down, looking the other way when all of a sudden she half jumped on my lap, her mouth at my throat.
And then it happened – she drenched my chin with doggie kisses.
But pit bulls are supposed to be mean and aggressive, right? Everyone knows you can’t trust them around kids, right? Sugar, a resident of the Stevens-Swan Humane Society in Utica, clearly missed that memo.
She’s dangerous all right – if you want to stay dry and keep dog fur off your clothes.
I had stopped by the humane society earlier this month to research pit bulls. I wanted to figure out how dogs that are so widely feared can be so beloved by their owners and as sweet as Sugar.
Inside, I found 40 pit bulls waiting for adoption, two pit bulls with adoptions pending, 11 pit bull puppies almost ready for foster homes; their pit bull mother (who will be adoptable as soon as her pups are weaned) and nine dogs who aren’t pit bulls. Some of the pit bulls have been waiting for homes for more than year, one since April 2009.
Their plight adds urgency to the question that sent me to the shelter: Are pit bulls beasts or buddies?
Clearly buddies, according to Debbie Delano, a Sauquoit resident and humane society employee, who owned one pit bull for almost 16 years and has adopted two former resident pit bulls.
“I think pit bulls really take a bad rap,” she said. “It’s not really the pit bulls ... it’s the people who raised them. They’re very loving. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a more loyal dog.”
Steel, the dog she adopted almost a year ago, had been found abandoned, tied to a tree with a bad case of mange. Scarlet, her other pit bull, came into the shelter in June as an abused puppy. Delano said she realized after several months that Scarlet was probably too shy to get adopted, so she took her home.
It’s not hard, though, to find information that paints a nastier picture of pit bulls. Statistics about dog bites and fatal dog attacks show that pit bulls account for a high percentage of bites and attacks.
It’s also easy to find news reports about pit bull attacks. Just go the Google News and type in pit bull. I tried it and found two articles published within the previous hour.
Based on this kind of information some municipalities have banned pit bulls. Some homeowner’s insurance won’t cover pit bull owners. A few shelters automatically euthanize pit bulls without even trying to get them adopted, said Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk Program of the Humane Society of the United States.
But animal advocates say those statistics and stories don’t paint a fair picture of pit bulls.
“They are such a misunderstood breed,” said Dr. Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA’s Animal Behavior Center.
Dog-bite statistics are problematic because they don’t include circumstances (such as a playful nip or accident versus an attack) and no one knows how many pit bulls live in this country. That makes it hard to figure out whether pit bull bites and attacks are out of proportion to the size of the population. Clearly there are a lot more pit bulls than, say, Afghan hounds.
Bite statistics also frequently rely on the victim’s identification of the breed. But many breeds look similar to pit bulls. Several online photo quizzes challenge viewers to pick out the only pit bull. It’s hard.
ID the pit bull
The term pit bull itself is a little vague. There is no breed called a pit bull and there is some dispute over its definition. It’s generally used to refer to American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers as well as mixed breed dogs.
Media coverage also shares some of the blame for pit bulls’ bad reputation, Reid said. A study by the National Canine Resource Council looked at media coverage of dog attacks during four days in 2007. Three attacks by mixed breed dogs, including one fatal attack, generated one or two articles each. But a similar, non-fatal attack by two pit bulls generated 230 articles.
Sure, pit bulls can be dangerous, just like dogs of any breed, said the humane society’s Goldfarb. But they’re more likely to make wonderful pets.
Dangerous dogs, of any breed, tend to come from similar, bad circumstances, Goldfarb said. They’re probably not kept as a pet, tend to be neglected or improperly supervised (such as running loose or being chained) and are most likely to be an unneutered male. In fact, unneutered males account for the majority of fatal dog attacks, he said.
And pit bulls may be at higher risk for mistreatment.
“For whatever reason, pit bulls have become increasingly popular with a certain segment of our population that may have them for the wrong reasons,” Reid said. “They actually try to encourage aggressive behavior in the dogs. And then there’s also another segment of the population that might be less responsible dog owners than we’d like.”
Those owners don’t encourage aggression, but they also fail to discourage it, she said.
There are also a number of irresponsible pit bull breeders who use the dogs to make money without worrying about their welfare or the health and temperament of the puppies, Goldfarb said.
And these unsocialized, unsupervised, unspayed or unneutered, unloved and often tethered dogs are more likely to act aggressively toward people, Reid said.
Over the years, many breeds have suffered from the same problem, Goldfarb said. In the 1970s, Dobermans and German shepherds were the macho dogs feared by the public, he said. In the 19th century, it was bloodhounds and Newfoundlands for a while, he said.
Pit bulls weren’t feared then. In fact, they were sometimes featured on propaganda posters during World War I.
Between abused pit bulls who are seized, unsold puppies let loose by bad breeders and the large number of pit bulls in this country (not to mention the large litters pit bulls have), shelters across the country face a glut of pit bulls – more than any other breed, Goldfarb said. But many potential adopters are wary of pit bulls, workers say.
Maybe that’s why Sugar, at this writing, was still in the shelter, along with all the other friendly, love-hungry dogs I met that day.
One girl’s campaign
Aubrey Ward, 11, wants to see people get over their misgivings about pit bulls. Aubrey, who lives in Utica, owns two pit bulls, Danger and Divine, who had puppies. People interested in taking a puppy would say no as soon as they heard the puppies were pit bulls, she said.
So Aubrey made a poster that said, “Hate the deed, not the breed,” and took it to the humane society earlier this month.
“Pit bulls are beautiful animals,” Aubrey said. “I love them. My dog, he likes to play with us and he actually acts like a kid. He acts like us. He’ll jump on the trampoline.”
Many shelter pit bulls do get happy endings in a loving home.
Annie made headlines when she was brought into the humane society in 2009 near death with multiple health problems, a victim of abuse.
Jim Mulvaney, of Whitesboro, fostered and later adopted Annie. She’s perfectly healthy now except for a slight limp, Mulvaney reported.
And he described Annie as a friendly, well-behaved companion who goes almost everywhere he goes – in other words, Mulvaney has a buddy.