Pit Bulls Get a Bad Rap, Owners Say
Local shelter says dogs are victims of overbreeding, abandonment.
Last week, we reported on a drug raid in the West Ward in which a dealer allegedly kept heroin under the bed where his 2-year-old son was sleeping.
Readers were disturbed by that detail, but also by another one: The story noted the presence of a pit bull in the apartment at the time of the raid. Fans of the breed say it's another example of pit bulls getting a bad rap.
"Had the dog been a Labrador retriever or a dachshund or any other breed, would the breed have been mentioned?" wrote reader Dave Rex. "On behalf of all the gentle and loving bully breeds in the West Ward: we resent the implication of guilt by association."
One of those pit bulls is Ace, adopted last year by West Ward resident Patti Berger.
Berger already owned another dog—a Huskie—but wanted to get a second one after a break-in at her home. Huskies, it turns out, aren't very good watch dogs.
“When the police came, they were convinced my dog had been drugged," she said.
Berger wanted a way to protect her home, but didn't want to install an alarm system or—given the presence of kids in the house—buy a gun.
“And I didn’t want a mean dog, and I didn’t want a vicious dog," she said. "I just wanted somebody to make me feel safe, and protected, and be a family member.”
That's what Ace has become, Berger said. He's a "big baby" and a popular presence in her neighborhood.
“It never occurred to me to be wary of him," she said. "I don’t want to paint a dog with a wide brush.”
But that's what began happening with pit bulls in the 1990s, Pamela Reid of the ASPCA’s Animal Behavior Center told WebMD last year. The dogs became popular among owners who "weren’t focused on the positive attributes of the breed - they were looking for a strong, scary-looking dog."
And anyone who's watched/read the news in the last 20 years has probably seen quite a few stories that have dealt with the ugly/scary side of the breed, from random dog attack pieces to the coverage of the NFL star Michael Vick's dog-fighting ring.
Closer to home, a pit bull attacked and injured a smaller dog last month in Salisbury Township. And last year, Easton police shot and killed one of the dogs during a raid after it apparently tried to bite officers.
They're a controversial breed, as the comments section on the Salisbury dog attack story indicates. A Google search of "pit bull myths" leads you down a rabbit hole of debate about the dogs.
Despite the efforts of pit bull owners to rehabilitate the dogs' public image, some states and cities have passed what's known as breed-specific legislation banning pit bulls and other dogs.
Pennsylvania—and its cities—have no such laws, according to DogsBite.org, a dog-bite-victim advocacy group.
Locally, shelters are seeing a glut of pit bulls, either abandoned or coming from less-than-reputable owners, said Andrew Flegler, shelter manager at the Center for Animal Health and Welfare.
"They’re just being overbred right now," he said. "We’re being overwhelmed by them."
Flegler noted that pit bulls are hard to define. The term has become sort of a catch-all for a wide variety of dogs.
"If you look at a German shepherd, you can tell it’s a German shepherd," he said. Do a mouth swab on a pit bull and you might come back with DNA for four different kinds of dog.
He said the shelter takes steps to make sure pit bulls go to good homes.
That's what happened with Ace and the Berger family. Patti Berger said a series of home visits were required before her dog could join the family. Now, she looks at Ace and feels like he and his kind have become the victim of a bad marketing campaign.
“This is the same breed that was Petey from The Little Rascals," said Berger, who argues that a dog will only be as good as its owner.
Even some of Michael Vick's fighting dogs, who underwent some truly horrific abuse, have been rehabilitated.
Jim Gorant, a writer for Sports Illustrated, chronicled their recovery in his book The Lost Dogs.
As he told NPR in 2010, Vick's case might have been "the best thing that ever happened to pit bulls," by allowing people to see them like any other dogs:
"And a lot varies from each one to another and then how they're raised and socialized and all of these issues that go around them," Gorant said. "You can find the sweetest, most loving pit bulls in the world and you can find other dogs that are as mean as you want."
Thinking about getting a pit bull? Here's some things to consider to help socialize your dog, according to the ASPCA:
- If your pit bull is friendly with other dogs, maintain that socialization by meeting up with friends or going to the dog park. (As long as your dog doesn’t get too rowdy in that kind of setting.)
- Monitor your dog’s play and be prepared to distract your dog if she gets too intimidating.
- If your dog isn’t friendly with other dogs, make sure he’s on a leash and there are no unleashed dogs around.
- When it comes to other pets, take introductions slowly. Some dogs are fine with other animals, others aren't.
The ASPCA also says that other facts lead to dog attack cases beyond just the breed of the animal:
- More than 70 percent of dog bite cases involve unneutered male dogs.
- An unneutered male dog is 2.6 times more likely to bite than one that hasn't been neutered, while a chained/tethered dog is 2.8 times more likely to bite than one that isn't chained or tethered.
- Most dog attacks involve non-spayed/neutered animals.