The Truth About Bullies Understanding America’s most controversial dog breed by Heather Davis I’ll never forget the day a woman brought her newly acquired American Pit Bull Terrier to the animal hospital where I worked as a vet tech. She’d had him for a month and couldn’t stop gushing about how loving, affectionate and smart he was. “He’s so gentle with our five-year-old son,” she beamed. As she turned in her new client paperwork, I noticed that she’d written “Boxer” as the breed of her new companion. Turns out she’d bought the dog out of the newspaper and was told it was a Boxer, which she’d heard were great with kids and made wonderful family pets. When I informed her that her dog was an American Pit Bull Terrier, which were also great with children and made equally wonderful pets, she gasped—and proceeded to tell me to either “put the thing down” or “get rid of it”. It both shocked and infuriated me that this woman—who had just seconds earlier professed her undying love for this dog—was now ready to put it to death all because of a name change. Never mind that the dog at her feet—happily wagging his tail and grinning ear-to-ear—was still the same loving and loyal companion he’d always been. The stigma of the breed alone was enough to change him in her eyes. After enlisting the help of the veterinarian to educate the woman about the breed, we still couldn’t encourage her to keep this poor pooch as a member of her family. She signed the dog over to us without another thought, and we in turn placed him into a rescue where he eventually found a loving forever home. But he was lucky: according to Brenda Johnson of Canine Counselors Inc., only 1 in 600 “pit bulls” ever finds a loving home. The others, unfortunately, are put to death. Understanding Pit Bull Breeds Pit bulls, as they are most commonly called, are not actually a recognized breed in and of themselves. Rather, “pit bull” is a collective term used to describe the dogs belonging to three different breeds: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The latter two are sometimes also referred to as “Am Staffs”. Bred in the U.K. in the early 1800’s as bait dogs, what we know as American Pit Bull Terriers (APBT) were unfortunately bred to be aggressive toward other dogs so they could be fought in the ring. They were also bred specifically not to be aggressive toward humans, so their trainers could handle them in the ring without being harmed. Due to this selective breeding, these dogs (commonly referred to as “bulldogs” at the time) have become widely known for their fierce loyalty and love toward humans and are regarded as highly trustworthy companions to those who know and understand the breed. In 1898, the United Kennel Club (UKC) officially named the breed American Pit Bull Terrier; in the 1930’s, the American Kennel Club (AKC) gave select lines the names of American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier in order to separate them from their reputation as pit fighters. The Am Staffs were bred more toward conformation as show dogs while the APBT continued to be bred for their working drive, stamina and speed. While these breeds can be nearly impossible to distinguish from one another to the untrained eye, their sizes, shapes and colors can vary widely. Some weigh in at a light twenty-five pounds while others may be eighty-five. They tend to be well muscled with short, bristly coats that come in a wide range of markings and colors. (And despite urban legend, they do not have “locking jaws” or exceedingly high bite pressure, which have both been found false by the veterinary community.) Despite their physical variances, most bully 18 | August/September 2006 breeds all have one thing in common: incredibly loveable personalities! As a rule, bully breeds are fun loving, spunky and often goofy dogs that keep their families laughing with their antics. They are smart and often do well in agility, flyball and other canine sports. Their strong desire to please and their absolute affection for people make them easy to work with and a joy to have around. Many pit bull breeds work as certified therapy dogs at retirement homes and children’s hospitals; others are top searchand-rescue dogs and border patrol canine officers. Despite their somewhat intimidating appearances, they are one of the most gentle, loving and devoted human companions of all dog breeds. A Heroic History When immigrants brought their bully companions to America near the turn of the century, the breed quickly gained national attention as America’s favorite family pet. They were entrusted to protect the homestead, help with chores around the farm and to be gentle companions and caretakers of their family’s children. The happy, smiling breed began appearing in posters and advertisements nationwide, gaining fame as the poster pups for household brands such as Buster Brown. They also became beloved characters in popular cartoons and on television. (Remember Pudgy in the Betty Boop cartoon and Petey as one of the Little Rascals gang?) They graced World War I posters as proud mascots of American bravery, and Stubby—a famed APBT war hero—was even awarded a Purple Heart and a Gold Medal of Honor for his role in saving nearly 1,000 American soldiers from the threats of a German spy. The breed became a favorite pet among many American officials, including President Coolidge and President Roosevelt. And consider this: Helen Keller considered an American Pit Bull Terrier her closest and most trusted companion! Bullies Get a Bad Rap Intelligent, loyal, trustworthy, affectionate…what’s not to love, right? Yet despite all of the qualities that truly make bully breeds perfect companions, they undoubtedly have the worst reputation of any in the canine world. Walk down the street with even the most well behaved pit bull and you’ll notice how many pedestrians magically cross over to the opposite side of the street. Open up a paper and you’ll read headlines titled “Killer Pit Bull Mangles Child”. It’s no wonder that these poor bullies have nowhere to turn: public perception has revoked their status as America’s Favorite Pet and has instead labeled them America’s Most Wanted. So why the bad rap? The 1980’s ushered in an unfortunate era for bullies. As back alley fighting pits became more popular with gangs and criminals, pits began to be bred and trained under horrible conditions. By the 1990’s, the breed had become a symbol of status, power and aggression, and was quickly associated with poverty, crime and fighting. Attacks by abused, neglected and poorly socialized pit bulls began to surface in the news—although oftentimes, these dogs were not “pit bull” breeds at all. (To see how easy it is to mistakenly label a dog a “pit bull”, take the Find the Pit quiz online at www.PitBullsOnTheWeb.com/PetBull/ FindPit.html.) A Kansas City news station reported on March 6, 2006 that a pit bull had attacked a twelve-year-old. When they showed footage of the dog in question, however, it was clear that it was anything but a pit bull; in fact, it appeared to be a yellow Labrador Retriever mix. When faced with complaints that their story was not accurate, they removed the photo of the dog from subsequent airings yet continued to call the dog a pit bull. In another attack, a newspaper ran the headline “Pit Bull Attacks Baby”, spreading panic and fear though the community. The family soon came forward to set the record straight: the truth was that the family’s American Bulldog had attacked their baby, and their American Pit Bull Terrier had attempted to save the child by taking down the Bulldog. Endless stories of mistaken (or purposely misreported) identity exist, yet are hardly ever corrected or apologized for by the media. The public goes on believing that bully breeds are responsible for these attacks, and the breed continues to suffer from the misinformation. To make matters worse, only the negative stories ever seem to gain national momentum in the press; meanwhile, the everyday positive and heroic pit bull stories hardly even make local news. With so much bad press, it’s no wonder that America’s beloved bullies have become largely feared and unwanted. Banning the Breed Due to widespread misinformation and misunderstanding, our once celebrated pit bull breeds now face a terrible fate: execution. Many counties throughout the country (our own Davidson County included) have already banned the breed from dog parks, and over 200 counties have banned them altogether. After all, what if those select few “bad seeds” wreck havoc on the entire city? “You can’t base your assumptions about a whole breed’s behavior on three or four dogs,” says Karen Delise, the founder of the National Canine Research Foundation, which gathers statistics on dogs and public safety. According to data collected by the foundation, pit bulls have only accounted for 45 out of 145 dog-related deaths since Bully Rescue & Efforts The issues surrounding bully breeds are numerous, and the issue of rescuing and adopting out these wonderful pets is another article altogether! If you think you’d like to adopt a bully, or if you’d like more information in order to help make positive changes for the breed, please check out these resources. While we simply don’t have room enough to cover all bully breed topics in one issue, we have found these websites, books and videos to be responsible, accurate and informational resources for learning more about these breeds, the issues surrounding them and responsible guardianship of the breed: Recommended Websites www.PBRC.net www.BadRap.org www.PitBullPress.com www.ForPitsSake.org www.Understand-A-Bull.com www.PitBullsOnTheWeb/PetBull www.PitBullsOnTheWeb/Home.html www.HappyPitBull.com Recommended Book Pit Bulls for Dummies by D. Caroline Coile www.Dummies.com Recommended Video Off the Chain by Bobby J. Brown Ardustry Home Entertainment 1999. In fact, many of the deaths were caused by breeds no one would suspect: in 2000, a Pomeranian climbed into the bed of a six-week-old girl in southern California and killed her. The fact is, any breed of dog can potentially pose a threat given certain circumstances, especially when left unsupervised with a small child. Add to that abuse and neglect, and you’ve got a ticking time bomb on your hands, no matter the breed. Statistically, a dog that is kept on a chain and abused is more likely than a housedog to attack a child that wanders into its territory. Given that pit bulls are America’s most abused and neglected breed, often living out their lives on chains, it seems obvious that there will be heightened occurrences of attack than with other breeds. However, it’s important to remember that these dogs are not so much villains as they are victims: of the 45 pit bulls mentioned above, one had been repeatedly beaten with a hammer to make him “tough”; another was starving to death on a chain when an unsupervised child wandered up to him. Each had their own story of abuse and neglect. And yet, the breed as a whole has been judged as guilty for the crimes their humans have committed. To put it into perspective, consider this: approximately 3 people are killed by pit bull breeds each year, while 113 are killed in traffic collisions with deer. Ask yourself: should this mean that we should ban deer or cars? While many believe that breed banning (and the subsequent extinction of the breed) is safer for the public, this theory has a major fault: breed banning only prevents law-abiding citizens from keeping pit bulls. In Off the Chain, a documentary in which director Bobby J. Brown goes behind the scenes in the underground world of dog fighting, a top dog fighter tells him, “If they banned pits in my state, it would not do anything to deter us from fighting these dogs.” He goes on to explain that he makes “a killing” off the dogs he fights, and that any slap-on-the-wrist penalty in court is merely regarded as the cost of doing business. It simply doesn’t make sense to take well-socialized, well-behaved pit bulls from loving, responsible guardians and put them to death in the name of public safety when the criminals who are abusing the dogs and keeping them irresponsibly are left to continue on their illegal and inhumane activities. “You can’t base your assumptions about a whole breed’s behavior on 3 or 4 dogs.” - Karen Delise, founder of the National Canine Research Foundation Also take into consideration that breed-banning laws are very difficult to enforce fairly and effectively, as the task of breed identification requires expert knowledge of dog breeds and is further compounded by mixed breed dogs. Such is the case at our local dog parks, where any dog exhibiting the “characteristics” of a “pit bull” is banned from entering. While the case can certainly be made that pit bulls are not always the best candidates for off-leash play with other dogs (we do encourage guardians of this breed to honestly evaluate your individual dog’s ability to be trusted off-leash around other dogs), it is often virtually impossible to accurately determine which mixed breeds are part “pit” and which may simply have characteristics of Boxer, Mastiff, Bulldog, Rottweiler or other breeds that are routinely mistaken for pit bulls. Using this logic, are dog park users expected to “police” one another, and who exactly is supposed to determine if a particular dog is a “pit” or not? Identification aside, any breed of dog can become out of control or aggressive during offleash play, and for a variety of reasons and at any time. The key is not in singling out any whole breed, but in ensuring that all dog guardians are acting responsibly at all times and that we all understand the need for obedience training, temperament monitoring and careful attention to dog posture and behavior throughout play, so that any early-stage aggression can be stopped before a problem arises. Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Companion Animal Section of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), explains that rather than focusing resources on banning specific breeds, communities tend to have a higher rate of success when dog bite legislation is applied to guardians of all breeds equally, coupled with public education. “Legislation aimed at punishing the [irresponsible guardian] of the dog rather than punishing the dog [or breed] is far more effective in reducing the number of dog bites and attacks,” she says. She adds, “Protecting residents from dangerous dogs is a noble goal and one that communities across the country are wrestling with. But communities that have banned specific breeds have discovered that it has not been the easy answer they thought it would be. Dangerous dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and breed bans just don’t effectively address the issue.” Bully Abuse on the Rise Meanwhile, these precious bullies continue to be abused and exploited, subjected to unthinkable suffering for the monetary gain of their trainers and breeders. From a young age, they are harshly trained to fight in the ring, suffering physical and emotional abuse and neglect from their trainers. Trainers anesthetize their dogs in order to sharpen their teeth into fine razor-edged points and the dogs are pumped full of hormones to increase their aggression. In rural backwoods and urban back alley pits, these innocent bullies are forced to fight one another inside closed pits while crowds cheer and wager on who will “win”. During a fight, a dog suffers unthinkable pain and suffering: ears are torn, eyes are gouged, legs are snapped in half, abdomens are disemboweled. And yet, they are forced to continue fighting until one becomes either too exhausted or too wounded to carry on. The “winner” is taken home, where the trainer haphazardly stitches up wounds to get the dog in shape to do it all over again. The “loser” is typically left lying to die, or suffers further abuse from his humiliated trainer and then is often shot, beaten to death or set ablaze before the crowd to show that the trainer is not “weak” and will not tolerate “weak dogs” in his breeding line. Only 1 in 600 “pit bulls” ever find a loving home. The others, unfortunately, are put to death. According to law officials, dog fighting is a billion dollar industry worldwide, with America exporting bullies to as far away as Japan, Taiwan and Bosnia. Most of the time, fighting pits are also directly linked to illegal drug and weapons trade, as well. Yet, much of the American public has no idea just how huge this illegal industry is, and how many thousands of dogs are forced to suffer this abuse day in and day out. “It’s so far underground, so well entrenched, that the American public has no idea it’s even taking place,” says Sergeant Steve Brownstein of the Chicago Police Department, who continues to work to bust up illegal fighting operations. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to get close enough to the rings in order to go undercover. “Dog men”, as they’re called, are a tightly knit group, and not just anyone can get into a fighting pit. Entrance fees are often $50 or more, and you need to be known in the gang and criminal community as one of their own before you can be trusted. Pits are equipped with police radios and heavily armed doormen, and often the scene has been cleared by the time law enforcement officers arrive. When raids are successful, the dogs involved are often deemed “unadoptable” and are euthanized. And if you don’t think it’s happening in your neck of the woods, think again. This June, a couple from Hamilton County, Tennessee pled guilty to dog and cock fighting charges after attempting to sell a fighting dog to undercover officers. (They tried to “close the sale” by turning the dog on another dog so that the potential “buyers” could see that he was “game” for fighting.) According to Guy Bilyev, the executive director of the Humane Educational Society, “officers found a treadmill, spring poles, break sticks, dog fighting publications and other devices used for training dogs” for fighting in the couple’s home. A grand jury indicted John David Putnam and Israela Katz, who received a one-year suspended sentence with good behavior. The couple is no longer allowed to keep animals. Unfortunately, according to officers, the 22 dogs taken from the property were scared, badly injured and “unfit for adoption”. Now, another dog cruelty case hangs in the balance: animal advocates recently uncovered what is likely a fight-dog breeding and training facility in Lexington, Tennessee. Armed with photographs of decapitated and mutilated dogs lying about the property, as well as photos of abused and neglected dogs tied to trees with no food or water, they pushed the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department to investigate. An arrest was made and the breeder was charged with a Class E felony for aggravated cruelty to animals. The $10,000 bond, however, was quickly reduced to $5,000—mere pocket change for a fight trainer—and the case has continually been pushed back in court due to pending psychiatric evaluations. The next court date is set for August 18th. Fortunately, five dogs were rescued from the property by the Henderson County Humane Society. The society’s treasurer, Debbie Foster, says the dogs are now safe and have been placed into loving homes. “We rescued two males, 2 female pups and a pregnant female, which gave birth to twelve puppies soon after we rescued her. They are all happy and doing well now.” As for the court case, Foster suggests that the public make their voices heard to Jerry Woodal, the county’s District Attorney General. If you’d like to urge the courts to punish the crimes of this case to the fullest extent of the law, please contact Atty. Woodal at (731) 423-5800 or write a letter to: Jerry Woodal, District Attorney GeneralCriminal Division, 225 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Jackson, TN 38301.