Harley is 4 years old and looking for a home.
The brown-haired pit bull, who has lived for more than three months at the Animal Welfare Society in West Kennebunk, is one of 16 pit bull or pit mixes waiting for adoption.
Shelter manager Bobbi Allen said since stories of last month’s two pit bull attacks in Maine the shelter has struggled to find owners for the breed.
On July 13 in Manchester, a pit bull reportedly attacked and killed a smaller dog and injured three people. A Biddeford police officer shot a pit bull that bit him and attempted to attack him a second time on July 15. The dog later was euthanized.
Allen said only two pit bulls have been adopted since the attacks and subsequent media coverage.
“There’s been no interest,” she said of the “unusual” lull. “We’ve got some great pit bulls and there’s been no interest to adopt them or even to take them out on walks and get to know them,” she said.
Patsy Murphy, executive director of the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, said the Westbrook shelter was similarly affected. A week or two lag time in adoption rates happens after stories of pit bull attacks, she said.
Allen said it is not unusual for pit bulls to “stay on the shelves” longer than other breeds.
“There are a lot of pit bulls out there either in shelters or from breeders or on Uncle Henry’s,” she said. “For people who are pit bull lovers, they can have their pick. But many people don’t have experience with the breed and have just heard stories in the news. For them it seems there is a stigma surrounding pit bulls that deters people from adopting.”
Fans of pit bulls love the breed for their intelligence, loyalty, easy maintenance and moderate exercise requirements, Allen said.
She attributed their reputation as aggressive, violent dogs to “media hype.”
“I think if a golden (retriever) were to attack it wouldn’t be media-worthy,” she said. “With pit bulls it can be sensationalized because there’s a stigma attached. When a pit bull has been involved it has people’s attention.”
Murphy added the reputation of pit bulls allows the public to blame an act of canine violence on the breed rather than on the individual dog.
“There’s always been a trigger point for the public: One breed that gets vilified. I remember 20 years ago it used to be rottweilers,” she said.
Murphy said pointing fingers at an entire breed might be a safety tactic.
“If the community can blame it on the breed then it feels safer,” she said. “Then they don’t have to look at what the conditions were or the external stimuli were that encouraged the dangerous situation.”
Allen and Murphy agreed that the media attention allows the public to misunderstand the breed.
“People start thinking that these dogs are unpredictable, bad dogs by definition regardless of other circumstances. That’s just not true,” Allen said.
“There are a lot of pit bull myths out there now,” Murphy added. “That they have locking jaws, that they bite more than other breeds, that they are more aggressive and have unstable temperaments. The list goes on. But really, they are people-friendly dogs.”
The majority of pit bulls at Animal Welfare Society are local strays or surrendered pets, Allen said.
Like all new shelter dogs, pit bulls are given a series of behavioral tests. The tests provide information so the shelter can gauge their history and make sound matches with prospective owners.
Allen said the most informative study is the SAFER test, a nationally recognized behavioral assessment evaluation that tests a dog’s pain tolerance, stimulation or arousal levels, aggression and sociability.
“It’s a not a pass-fail test,” Allen said. “It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle to help us figure out what type of home the dog should be in.”
Allen added that the shelter would not put any pet up for adoption if it deemed the dog a threat.
All shelter dogs also attend obedience classes, agility trainings and play classes with other dogs while at the shelter.
Allen said time spent at the shelter makes them confident in their safety and adoptability.
She said the breed does not require additional training despite its aggressive reputation.
“As a terrier mix, you can’t expect a pit bull to just be a coach potato. They are energetic dogs and anyone who wants any type of terrier needs to have the time to devote to training and exercise … but all dogs require good decision making,” Allen said.
Kim VanSickle, the shelter’s obedience instructor, agreed.
VanSickle said she gives the same advice to pit bull owners that she gives to all new owners: Attend obedience class.
“Dogs that bite people are dogs that have not been socialized properly as a young puppy. It means they haven’t been brought up to trust and understand people or that they have been kept isolated,” she said.
VanSickle and Allen said in their 13 years of experience at the animal shelter they have never seen a pit bull bite a person.
“Actually, often if a young family comes in wanting a family friendly dog, the dogs we’re recommending happen to be pit bulls,” Allen said.
She said because pit bulls have a higher tolerance for pain they can tolerate children’s typically rough handling. She also recommends them because of their “people-friendly” demeanor.
“I find them to be very people oriented, actually. They love people and they love to be touched,” VanSickle said. “What I have experienced is a Labrador that seriously bit a child, but that doesn’t seem to get the media’s attention.”
VanSickle and Allen agreed that while pit bulls’ aggressive reputation may be a myth, they warn owners they will need to be especially accountable for their pet.
“Because of the media stories and the reputation, as an owner you should really be responsible,” VanSickle said. “Owners with well-trained dogs can be part of the effort made by trainers, breeders and professional to prove that the stereotypes aren’t representative of the breed.”
Allen said each pit bull should be an “ambassador to their breed.”
“I can’t think of anybody that I wouldn’t recommend this breed to,” Allen said. “It’s a breed for the whole family, but I would say that pit bull owners need to have a thicker skin. They have to deal with people on the outside and with questions and because of that it’s important to raise a dog you can trust,” she said.
Murphy said she’s confident that through education, awareness and training pit bulls can break free of the aggressive reputation.
Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland since 2008 has worked with Southern Maine Pit, a group of volunteers and pit bull supporters that advocate on behalf of the breed. The group holds free humane education classes, adoption fairs, fundraisers and happy hours to celebrate and promote pit bulls.
“We always have great pits on the floor here available for adoption and it’s our goal to get pits out into the community to show they are a good breed and to change their stereotype,” she said.