Those of you that follow the Letters to the Editor in our local paper, The News-Gazette, may recall a letter that appeared on January 5, 2012, from a Danville resident (Jimmy Bryant). He opined that it should be illegal to own all dogs known as “Pit Bulls” and such animals should be “gathered up and put down.”
I can’t say for sure what inspired Mr. Bryant to write, but the letter appeared not long after a jogger in Chicago had been attacked by two Pit Bull type dogs that were running at large.
Since Mr. Bryant’s letter appeared, several letters have been printed that defend the breed. A few of those letters have made broad assertions, such as: “The only pit bulls that are dangerous have been abused.”
You might assume that the director of a humane Society that adopts out hundreds of Pit Bull type dogs a year would agree whole heartedly with this statement in their defense. I don’t. While I find Mr. Bryant’s position harsh, ill-informed, misguided, and cruel, assertions that the only dogs unfit for life in society are “abused” is also misguided and naive. And, it would be equally so for Golden Retrievers, Labs, or Basset Hounds.
As is so often the case, it’s just not that simple.
Dogs behave “dangerously” or exhibit behaviors that can harm or frighten humans (barking, lunging, biting, jumping, mouthing, scratching) for a variety of reasons. The underlying cause of these behaviors in any given dog could be (1) a combination of genetics, rearing, socialization, and present circumstances; (2) a medical condition; (3) frustration, fear, or stress; (4) lack of training and/or appropriate outlets for energy and expression of normal dog behaviors; or (5) psychological damage due to past experience (e.g., abuse, neglect, or extreme fright). Rarely is there just one single factor at play. While suffering abuse can certainly render a dog fearful and unstable for life, cases of dog abuse are actually rare. It is far more likely that the dangerous or unruly dog you encounter became that way due to the “crime” of human ignorance.
Lovers of Pit Bull type dogs undermine their own credibility when they make naïve assertions about the benevolence of all Pit Bulls. Dogs with “issues” come in all breeds and mixes, “Pitties” not excluded. Pit Bull type dogs have become very popular and many have been bred without any regard for physical and psychological soundness.
Pit Bull owners and lovers need to focus not so much on changing the perception of their breed, but on changing the reality. Everyone who owns and loves a Pit Bull can do the most good for the breed’s reputation by making sure that their dogs are model canine citizens or, when that’s not possible (because some “issues” can never be overcome, despite an owner’s best efforts), by being model dog owners.
A model owner of a Pit Bull type dog understands that he has a responsibility to show the community that Pit Bulls can be well-behaved, safe, non-threatening dogs. Specifically, I’d be thrilled to see all Pit and Pit-mix owners take the following measures:
(1) Train your dog! If you are going to take your Pit Bull out in the community, he should respond to your commands to sit, lie down, wait, “leave it,” and come when called. Taking a Pit Bull out in the world that you cannot control sets your dog, and the entire breed, up for failure.
Imagine your dog gets away from you by accident and runs toward an elderly person. You call the dog, but he has not been trained to come when called, and in his excitement and confusion, knocks the elderly person to the ground, causing an injury. It doesn’t matter that your dog had no intent to harm. The headline in the paper will focus on the fact that a “Pit Bull” dog “attacked” and injured an elderly person who was minding his or her own business. It is your duty as a Pit Bull owner to consider this type of scenario and prevent it. No excuses.
(2) Understand your dog’s body language and respond appropriately when your dog behaves in a way that is intimidating to other dogs or people. I’m talking about things that many dog owners ignore, such as staring, pulling at the leash, and posturing. Excuses for these behaviors are unacceptable: “He just wants to play.” It doesn’t matter what you believe your dog “wants” when he stares or barks at another dog. Staring is interpreted as an act of aggression by many dogs and it’s your job to redirect your dog when he or she engages in any intense behavior suggestive of aggression toward another dog. Period. No excuses.
(3) Do not allow your Pit Bull dog to be a bully at the dog park, jump up on strangers, or take hold of human body parts with his/her mouth. Allowing these behaviors only sets you up for the inevitable misunderstanding in which you find yourself explaining, “she didn’t mean to . . .” If you can’t eliminate these behaviors in your dog, then keep him on leash and under control in public.
And finally, I have to include the obvious . . .
(4) Don’t breed your Pit Bull or Pit Bull mix and make sure he/she is spayed or neutered.
No question that all dog owners should take their responsibility to public safety and public perception just as seriously. But all dog owners don’t bear the extra burden of needing to prove to society that their dogs deserve to live. Is it fair? No. Does fairness matter? No; we already know that we can’t win-over public perception by pronouncing how unfair it is to label the entire breed based on the acts of some. This will always be a losing argument when there are disfigured children and torn-up limbs on the other side of the equation.
I’m reminded of the highly popular Gandhi quote, “be the change you want to see in the world.” If Pit Bull lovers want to change the reputation of the breed, they must make every effort to help their dogs become the model canine citizens that they want us all to believe they are! No excuses.