“My kids are around Pit Bulls every day. In the ’70s they blamed Dobermans, in the ’80s they blamed German Shepherds, in the ’90s they blamed the Rottweiler. Now they blame the Pit Bull.” — Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer
I visited Tim Hart and Pam Toomey one afternoon recently. Tim and Pam are the proud owners of a pair of dogs — Zeus, who’s six, and Carly, who’s two. Zeus & Carly greeted me enthusiastically, were well-behaved, and remained friendly throughout my visit. Carly gave me a few kisses and Zeus thought I was his new best friend. Pam gave Carly a quick correction when Carly became too interested in the food in her hand; Zeus was interested in investigating the canine and feline smells on me, but immediately backed off when instructed. These dogs had obviously been well-trained & socialized, and I felt very comfortable visiting with them. They’re pets that anyone would be proud to own.
Carly & Zeus (center & right) with their friend Ava (left)
So, why would the Worcester City Council want to muzzle these dogs?
Not because of their previous behavior, and certainly not because of the behavior they display on a daily basis. Not because they have a dangerous communicable disease or a history of biting. And not because their owners are irresponsible.
In a way, it’s mostly about how they look. It’s because both dogs have some features that have been vaguely described as a category of dog called “pit bull”.
Pit Bulls — a distinct breed or convenient epithet?
A”pit bull” is not a breed of dog, but a term used to describe a certain kind of dog. The term pit bull can refer to an American Pit Bull Terrier, an American Staffordshire Terrier, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and/or a dog that is a mix of one (or more) of these breeds.
The original “pit bull terriers” were bred to combine the best qualities of terriers and bulldogs during the 1800s in the British Isles. When the dogs came to the United States, they were used as “catch dogs for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt, to drive livestock, and as family companions.” While many today consider the pit bull a fighting dog, this dog has primarily been a family or working dog for the past hundred or so years.
Why would someone want to own a Pit Bull?
Most Worcester residents aren’t rounding up cattle or hogs, so I asked Tim Hart why he became interested in pit bulls. “When I was seventeen,” he explained, “I had a friend who was older than me and he got a pit bull. She was one of the smartest dogs. And I fell in love with the dog, and another six or eight months later another friend got one, and then a year later my best friend got one.” After getting to know so many great pit bulls, Tim knew that this was the kind of dog for him.
As Tim found, many pits are friendly dogs who are loyal to their owners. Tim says that “irresponsible owners are drawn to [pit bulls], and the good owners are too afraid to adopt them. They don’t want to deal with the discrimination that comes with them.”
Part of that discrimination includes the myth of the “locking jaw.” I was very interested to discuss this with Tim, who assured me that this is false. Pits also do not have a jaw strength that is stronger than that of other dogs of a similar size. [See this pdf, especially pages 7 and 8, for more information on the myth of the locking jaw and a pit bull's jaw strength.]
Another myth is that pit bulls are bred to be aggressive. A “pit bull”, as mentioned above, can be any one of several breeds which were meant to be working dogs and/or family companions. As we can see on television shows such as The Dog Whisperer & It’s Me or The Dog, any breed is capable of aggression. What sets well-behaved dogs apart from aggressive ones is their training and socialization.
As Allie Simone of the Worcester Animal Rescue League says, “[Pit bulls] are generally great dogs. [You can't] just say a pit bull is a nasty dog. … You have to take the dog as an individual.” (47 sec mark)
If we can agree that any dog is capable of good behavior or bad behavior, then what sets them apart from one another?
Dog ownership is a responsibility, and a long-term one at that — much like being a parent. A responsible dog owner helps their dog learn how to behave well around other people and animals. Unfortunately, there are many irresponsible dog owners, just as there are irresponsible parents. The several breeds which have come to be called “pit bulls” have gained popularity with many irresponsible people, and some of these dogs have been allowed to become aggressive. With the right sort of owner, these dogs would be no more dangerous than any other breed.
Violent dogs are a hazard that any community should address, and all towns in this area have ordinances that govern what is acceptable behavior. It is the responsibility of the owner to make sure that their pet’s behavior doesn’t violate any of these ordinances. Penalties can be as lenient as fines for small infractions like a dog running loose, or as severe as removal or euthanasia if the offense includes violent behavior.
Because of irresponsible owners, the several “pit bull” breeds have become a convenient scapegoat for public outrage when someone is attacked or injured by a dog. However, local papers have featured incidents involving other breeds as well, such as a Belgian Malinois, a German Shepherd, a Blue Tick Coonhound, a Malamute, an Akita, and an English Mastiff . So if the variety of breeds involved in aggression/violence is not limited to “pit bulls”, then what is the common denominator? The irresponsible owner, of course.
According to Joaquín Pérez-Guisado, in a study on dominance aggression, “the greatest influence on dominance aggression in dogs depends on modifiable factors connected to the owner.”
How should a community address the problem of aggressive/violent dogs?
In upcoming installments, we’ll take a look at some of the approaches that cities & towns have taken with regard to canine aggression. What works & what doesn’t? What’s fair and what’s not? I hope you’ll find this topic as fascinating as I have.