You go to the pound. You find the cutest dog on the planet sitting in one of the cages, staring up at you with baleful eyes. You adopt this dog, love this dog, train this dog. She becomes part of your family. One day, a dog of the same breed in a neighborhood 20 miles away bites somebody. A few weeks later, after exhaustive media coverage of this event, your landlord comes knocking at your door and says you have to get rid of your dog. Why? Because she happens to be a pit bull.
Breed-specific legislation, or BSL, typically manifests as a ban or restriction on a breed of dog - but let's be honest, it's almost always pit bulls. The law typically can be traced to some idiot who picked up a dog from a backyard breeder, ignored it, failed to spay or neuter it, neglected to teach it basic obedience, and didn't care enough to make sure it wasn't out roaming. So one day, unsurprisingly, this dominant, pent-up, powerful dog bites somebody, and the community decides to protect itself by outlawing the breed.
"Every single pit bull owner reflects on another pit bull owner," says Liz Henderson, founder of Atlanta Pit Bull Parents. Henderson represented the organization at a Douglasville debate on a potential pit bull ban last month, arguing for legislation that would ban individual aggressive dogs, not an entire breed. The proposed ban would be gradual, and current pit owners would be able to keep their dogs, with some restrictions.
"We do not support any laws that treat [pit bulls] like they are different from any other dogs," Henderson says. "But we do support laws against dangerous dogs. We just don't think that singling out pit bulls is the way to do it."
Douglasville is considering the ban after three pit bulls running loose attacked a woman. In response to people's fears about the breed, Atlanta Pit Parents offered Douglasville pit bull ownership classes and the resources to help with a spay/neuter program for pit bulls. "Ninety-seven percent of fatal dog attacks are done by dogs that are not fixed," Henderson says. "It's a well-known fact that [spaying and neutering] reduces aggression and prey drive."
Part of this issue also calls into question the effectiveness of the current policy on animal control. "Minneapolis has a great dog aggression policy," Henderson says. "If a dog is out running around, neighbors call and the owner gets fined. There are no repeated warnings; problems can be fixed before a dog ever bites somebody. The city even has a website where you can see the pictures of aggressive dogs. All kinds of breeds are on that website."
As an Atlanta Pit Parents email points out, the pit bull as perpetrator of the majority of dog bites is a myth. The National Canine Research Council did a study on dog bites and recorded four bites in a four-day period, one of which was by a pit bull. While the other three bites were largely ignored by the media, the pit bull attack story was picked up and circulated on the national media. Any dog, especially one that is not neutered or spayed, has the capacity for violence if not properly cared for. In fact, pit bulls score higher than golden retrievers on temperament tests (see a full list of canine temperament tests at www.atts.org).
Henderson knows that the situation regarding pit bulls can be complicated because not all owners have their dogs' best interests at heart. "There is a real problem [with irresponsible owners and their dogs]," she says. "We do need to address that. We really want to improve the situation, because we love the breed."
She also understands that some people are just afraid of pit bulls. "I'm afraid of spiders," she says. "If someone had a giant spider in the street, I would avoid that person. I know that people have phobias, and I respect that. Not everyone understands that my dogs are nice and friendly and sweet, and I don't need to force my dogs on them."
If you own a pit bull or other bully breed, or are thinking about getting one, then facing other people's prejudices about what a pit bull owner's intentions are is part of the territory. Training your dog to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, understanding the responsibilities of having a powerful dog, and respecting the fact that other people may be afraid of your dog are all good places to start. Also realize that having a dog with a reputation like a pit bull may necessarily exclude you from certain activities.
From her own personal experience, Henderson doesn't take her pit bull to the dog park, for example. "We used to take all of our dogs to a dog park," she says. "We didn't know any better. Once a Rottweiler zeroed in on our dog because she was nervous. My female pit got in the middle of them and basically told the Rottweiler to back off. All people saw was the growling pit. Nobody saw the Rottweiler."
Henderson realized that taking her pit bull around other dogs in an uncontrolled setting like a dog park simply wasn't worth it. "People are always going to blame the pit bull," she says.
Douglasville officials will vote on the pit bull ban Oct. 4.
If you want to show bully breeds some love, come to the Atlanta Bully Rally on Oct. 23. This year, they've added a LugNuts weight-pull contest, and will discuss backyard breeding and responsible pit bull ownership. And, of course, you can't miss the Pit Bull Kissing Booth. Check out the event at www.atlantabullyrally.com.