by Lisa Hartman for the Biscayne TimesÂ
We don’t have a bad-dog problem, we have a bad-owner problem.
Recently in the news was the story of a pit bull that attacked a female postal worker. An unspoken part of that story was the dog owner’s grief when his best friend was taken away and destroyed. Then we had football star Michael Vick on 60 Minutes, robotically claiming he felt remorse for beating, drowning, and everything else he did to the many canines in his dog-fighting ring. [I] also [recently] learned that [until this year it was illegal] in Italy to own 92 breeds, including the pit bull, the Italian maremma, and the Neapolitan mastiff.
Just turn on the news. At least once a month you hear of a dog attacking a human. It is usually a pit bull.
For those who don’t know me or the rescue work I’ve been involved with over many years, let me say that I oppose breed-specific legislation like Italy’s and Miami-Dade County’s, where pit bulls are prohibited. I also applaud the wonderful efforts of rescue volunteers who work tirelessly for the breeds they love. But one breed keeps coming up in the news doing horrible things — the pit bull.
The pit bull (as the name implies, these are dogs originally bred to fight other dogs in a "pit") encompasses a few terrier breeds: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier. A pit bull with a normal temperament is highly affectionate with people, even strangers and children; obedient, with a great desire to please; and emotionally stable.
In England the dogs have become known as the "Nanny Dog" for their love of and desire to be with children. A member of my extended family had Petey, a white pit who grew up entertaining her five children. He was a great dog and played with the kids for hours each day, loving every minute of it. So if this is proper pit-bull behavior, what has gone wrong?
As I said, I am against breed-specific legislation, but I also don’t like the way some groups fight bans on pit bulls — namely, by pushing the dogs in the public’s face and bringing pits where they are not allowed. This, in my opinion, will only cause more fear and upset, another reason for someone to telephone the police regarding a pit bull, another police report with the term "pit bull" in it.
Clearly this is a dog with an owner problem. Even in Broward, where pit bulls are allowed, owners have empowered themselves to break the laws, trying to show how wonderful their breed is my letting them run freely off-leash anywhere. "They’re friendly!" the owner calls out as his pair of pit bulls runs up to you and your on-leash dogs. You hold your breath while cursing him and trying to figure out what you’ll do if his dogs don’t get along with yours (they are animals, after all). And you fume at him for not even considering how you or your pets would feel being accosted by strange dogs.
Approximately 1800 pit bulls have been euthanized over the past three years by Miami-Dade Animal Services. Many Miami pit bull owners, complaining in the press, refer to Sara Pizano, director of Animal Services, as the "Pit Bull Executioner." But it’s highly unlikely that Pizano, a veterinarian by trade, wants to kill as many pit bulls as she can. Unfortunately animal agencies all around the nation are killing record numbers of all dog breeds because people don’t want them anymore, they are found as strays, or they get into trouble doing something bad or living where they are not supposed to.
So how are some 600 of this breed ending up there annually if they’ve been banned for years? The fact that pit bulls continue getting into trouble is nothing less than a mark of owner irresponsibility. They know that, in Miami-Dade, they’re not allowed to own pit bulls, but they do so anyway. They bring their scrappy males to dog parks, where they almost get into a scuffle, giving people reason to say, "Pit bulls are truly bad dogs." Maybe the Miami owner hides the dog most of the day in a apartment, and walks it quickly at night, leaving it undersocialized and overly aggressive. And of course there are still people like Michael Vick, who cruelly train their pit bulls to fight, driven by a kind of macho "gladiator mentality," as the so-called Dog Whisperer (a pit bull owner himself) once put it.
So what’s the solution? Now more than ever pit bulls and other maligned breeds need their owners to be goodwill ambassadors for them. In my opinion, pit bull owners should go out of their way to make their breed not just good canine citizens but stellar examples of well-behaved pets. And with the big personality and intelligence of these dogs, that isn’t so hard to do. The owners must …. manage and supervise their dogs, train and socialize them, follow the rules, and spay and neuter their pets.
I would propose a compromise, phasing out the breed-specific ban and replacing it over time with an owner ban. It would go something like this:
Pit bull ownership would slowly be reinstated but:
- Not to persons with criminal records.
- Not to minors (although the younger generation is usually better with animals).
- All pit bulls must be spayed or neutered.
- Pit bull puppies must attend with their owners positive-socialization classes.
- Owners and their young or adult dogs must also take classes to obtain their Canine Good Citizen certificate (CGC), which includes a vow to properly care for their pets and not let them become a public nuisance.
- Perhaps a written exam that tests their knowledge of pit bulls and their behavior.
- And of course, owners must always obey dog laws under threat of having their pet confiscated.
Something like that. At the least, it would be a step toward responsible ownership.
My friend and colleague Marthina McClay is a trainer and pit bull rescuer. (Among her rescues is Leo, a former Michael Vick dog now undergoing canine therapy.) She has a wonderful and informative Website on pit bulls and responsible ownership. You can visit it at www.ourpack.org.
Lisa Hartman is head dog trainer for Pawsitively Pets. You can reach her at
or www.pawsitivelypetsonline.com. You can also keep up with her and her dogs on Facebook at www.profile.to/dogtrainer.
Â© Biscayne Times 2009. Reprinted with permission.