Don’t bully the breed

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Trina Severson
Feature Writer

Dog bites and attacks –  and the associated media coverage – have created quite a stir recently. Dog bites are serious stuff and, because of their size and lack of experience around dogs, children are at a much greater risk of being bitten and sustaining injury.

As a community, we’re smart to recognize this as an issue and work toward solutions.

Realizing the problem exists is a great start. We currently have three local entities that share goals of animal welfare – and public education and safety where pet animals are concerned: The Perry County Animal Shelter, the Humane Society of Perry County and the county Animal Welfare, Control and Education Board. These groups all seek to address dog bites and ways to prevent them.

I won’t dance around the subject: It’s easy to look around and notice that current trends have resulted in more pit bulls and pit-bull mixes. They’re popular.

What’s much harder is looking beyond the breed to see the real problem: human-caused issues such as pet overpopulation, poor animal husbandry, lack of training and socialization, overbreeding and breeding purely for financial gain and without regard to temperament of the sire and dam and securing appropriate homes for the pups. The result of that is, well…all around us.

But we err when we make blanket statements that single out individual breeds, in this case pit bulls, and mixes of those breeds. It fuels fears, perpetuates myths and does nothing to solve a very real, very complex problem.

Many studies have calculated dog-human incidents, but most only detail large-breed dogs. Small-dog bites occur more frequently, but often go unreported because owners often perceive the events as typical small-dog behavior and small dogs have small mouths that cause smaller wounds that often don’t require medical attention.

To dispel a couple of oft-repeated myths, pit bulls do not have more bite pressure per square inch than any other breed of similar size, nor do they have “locking jaws.” They are also fundamentally not any more aggressive or apt to bite than any other breed. An ill-bred, unsocialized, untrained Labrador retriever or Siberian husky holds the same amount of risk.

The popularity of pit bulls has resulted in over-breeding and mass production. Over half of the dogs euthanized in shelters today are pit bulls or pit-bull mixes.

Pit bulls are often obtained as a status symbol. Owners often add to a negative public image by putting metal collars on their dogs, cropping their ears and keeping dogs, especially males, intact, wanting them to be seen as fierce, not as the family pet dog.

Bad breeders are not concerned with who buys the puppies or for what purpose they are bought; puppies are solely a money-making commodity.

Because of their genetics and stature, pit-bull-type dogs have large litters of puppies. In theory, more pups mean more money, but in reality, the market is so saturated with these dogs there aren’t enough people wanting to buy or adopt them. These unwanted dogs become part of the pet overpopulation problem.

They come to shelters as police seizures, surrenders or strays. Most have not received any veterinary care and most are intact, free to reproduce. The sad reality is that pitbull-type dogs are now a dime a dozen and their chances of being adopted are slim. Nationwide, on any given day, there are 5 million stray animals in approximately 5,000 shelters.

In the public’s view, the term “pit bull” is a general, all-encompassing, loosely defined term describing any dog that is stocky, muscular and confident.

 It includes breeds such as bulldogs, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, bull terrier, boxers, American bulldogs, Presa Canarios and any mix of these aforementioned breeds with any other breed of dog. Even though there are distinct genetic and physical differences, the public often can’t distinguish a boxer from a bulldog. Media, law enforcement and the general public are often quick to label – or mislabel – a dog as a pit bull when it may not be.

Looking at dog bite reports, according to the National Canine Research Council, the breed of the dog or dogs could not be reliably identified in more than 80 percent of cases. If the average person can't accurately identify what breed(s) a dog is, how can so much blame rest on one breed or type of dog? The American pit bull terrier, as explained by the United Kennel Club, was created by breeding Old English terriers and Old English bulldogs together to produce a dog that combined the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the bulldog. In 1936, the American Kennel Club recognized the what became known as the American Staffordshire terrier (i.e. pit bull) as an official breed. And at the beginning of the 20th century, the breed was the most popular family dog. So, what happened?

Remember Petey, the canine mascot from Our Gang and The Little Rascals? He was a pit bull. Contrary to what many believe, pit-bull-type-dogs make excellent pets as long as they are bred for health and temperament, socialized properly with humans and other animals, and receive proper training and care throughout their life.

As with any dog, if they are treated cruelly, they can become afraid, fearful and defensive which often results in fear-based aggression.
Criteria for determining if a pitbull-type dog is going to make a good family pet is the same for any breed of dog: the temperament of sire and dam (the parents); the health of sire and dam; adequate and proper socialization within first three months; adequate and proper socialization through 14 months (last fear period); proper training and medical care for the life of the dog; caring, compassionate and knowledgeable owners.

Why are so many children involved in dog bites and why do so many of these bites occur at home with known dogs? Where are the adults? Any dog, especially a stray dog, can bite. Education is needed. Simply put, stray or loose dogs should be left alone and only approached by someone who is dog-knowledgeable and has dog-handling experience.

Kids and Dogs Interactive Education, at www.kidsand dogs.org, is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the number of dog bites, particularly to children, by educating them as to the safest ways to approach and interact with dogs, as well as to avoid interaction with unknown dogs.

They’ve compiled some interesting statistics: 70 percent of dog bite victims are children; 61 percent of dog attacks occur at home or at a familiar place; 77 percent of bites are by a family dog or the dog of a friend; any breed of dog can bite and list of “dangerous” dog breeds changes each year based on the most popular breeds. Today it’s pit bulls. Yesterday, it was German Shepherd Dogs.

As a community, we need to support groups that work to encourage solutions for dog-related problems. As pet owners, we need to be responsible for the health, well-being and behavior of our pets. As parents and guardians, we need to take the time to educate ourselves and our children how to respond to a stray dog and how to safely interact with the family pets. And please, let’s spay and neuter our dogs and leave breeding to the professionals.