Pit Bulls: A Dangerous Breed?
A bill that would have banned pit bulls statewide has rekindled the debate over Hawaii's unofficial state dog
April 02, 2009Several times a week, while jogging through my north Kihei neighborhood, I pass two adjacent houses. The scene is familiar: single story, truck, a few bikes and some kids' toys in the driveway, a small yard surrounded by a chain link fence. And behind the fence, a dog.
When I jog past, the first dog charges, barking frantically, hair up and teeth bared. On my initial encounter with him (and the evidence between his legs clearly shows it's a him), I crossed the street and ran faster. I've since learned he can't jump the fence, though it's not from lack of effort.
Temperament-wise, the second dog is the exact opposite. When he isn't lounging lazily in the shade, he'll sometimes plod over to the fence and look at me pleadingly. Occasionally I stop, reach over and scratch behind his ears, and he shows his appreciation by flopping over and grinning, purple tongue lolling out of his comically wide jaw.
Different as they are, the two dogs have one important thing in common: they're both pit bulls. That means both would have been illegal to own if SB79—a bill brought up for consideration during the current legislative session that passed its first reading but has since been quashed—had become law.
The bill's language was strong. It sought to make "owning, possessing or selling a pit bull" a misdemeanor. For the purposes of the bill, "pit bull" is broadly defined as "an American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, a Staffordshire bull terrier or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of those breeds."
The public reaction was equally strong. Pit bull owners and breeders across Maui and the state held rallies and lobbied lawmakers to put a swift end to SB79. Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who introduced the bill, said she did so at the behest of a constituent. Few people spoke out in favor of the legislation once it was introduced, but plenty spoke out against it. Gina Ursua of Maui's Pure Breed Kennels—one of over a dozen kennels on-island—organized a sign-waving event in Kahului where more than 150 pit bull owners and their supporters held up photos of their beloved pets. On Oahu, Sen. Fred Hemmings told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that "dogs have become part of the family, and taking away part of your family would be a serious intervention."
That doesn't mean pit bulls are universally loved. Deserved or not, they have a reputation for aggressiveness, which is supported by some statistics. In Hawaii, where pit bulls are sometimes referred to as the "unofficial state dog," attacks by pit bulls on other dogs and humans occur virtually every year.
If SB79 wasn't the solution, what is? And, more to the point, do we even have a problem?
The attacks tend to come suddenly. Take the case of a Wailuku man who was sitting in his living room watching a basketball game last April when two dogs, a pit bull and Labrador mix, came crashing through his screen door. The 70-pound pit bull grabbed the family dog, a miniature dachshund, in its powerful jaws. "Blood just went everywhere," the man related to The Maui News. While attempting to rescue his dog, the man was bitten on the arm.
Other accounts are similarly harrowing. In 2003, a 5-year-old Kihei boy was playing in the yard when a mixed male pit bull jumped the fence and attacked, biting the child repeatedly. In 2002, a 2-year-old boy was at his babysitter's house in Pukalani when a dog that was tied to a tree sunk its teeth into his neck and head. The most recent fatal mauling documented in Hawaii occurred in October 2008 on Oahu. A 2-month-old infant in the care of her great-aunt was attacked and killed by the aunt's dog. Neighbors described the animal, which was euthanized, as a pit bull, though it was termed a "mixed breed" by officials, according to the Star-Bulletin.
Of course, these examples—and others like them—are relatively rare. Most dogs don't attack people or other animals, and human fatalities are extremely uncommon. But is there a correlation between the attacks that do occur and certain breeds?
The advocacy organization DogsBite.org thinks so. Describing itself as "a national dog bite victims group dedicated to reducing serious dog attacks" through "common sense laws," DogsBite.org compiles accounts of dog maulings as well as dog bite statistics. The site highlights "legislation that targets specific breeds due to the unique dangers posed by them."
To bolster its claims, DogsBite.org cites a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association in 2000, which found that about 60 percent of fatal dog attacks were committed by either pit bulls or Rottweilers. There's also a survey of press accounts between 1982 and 2007 by the organization Animal People, wherein 77 percent of all attacks and 73 percent of fatal attacks were attributed to pit bulls, Rottweilers or "wolf hybrids," with pit bulls leading the pack.
Those numbers are certainly attention-grabbing, but some say they're unreliable and potentially misleading. One of those people is Jocelyn Bouchard, Executive Director of Maui Humane Society (MHS).
Bouchard acknowledges that pit bulls are "powerful animals," and can be dangerous when not trained and handled properly. But she says blaming the breed is the wrong approach for a number of reasons. First, Bouchard argues, breed misidentification is common. People hear pit bulls are prone to attack and so they believe an aggressive dog must be a pit, when in fact it's a Lab or something else. Bouchard also says that pit mixes can be more hazardous than purebred pits. Combine the strength of a pit bull with a breed like a heeler that can be "mouthy" and prone to nipping, she says, and you've got a higher likelihood of problems.
But whatever the statistics do or don't say, Bouchard has one firm belief: a breed-specific ban won't help. "They simply don't work," she says, "[because] it's looking at the wrong end of the leash." Bouchard says that the "dangerous breed" label has been variously attached to many different dogs through the years.
"It used to be German Shepherds, then Dobermans," she says, adding that the feared breed of the moment is usually one that's popular and strong. But that doesn't make them an inherent menace.
For Bouchard, preventing dog attacks is about educating owners, controlling the animal population and putting severe deterrents and penalties in place for owners of dangerous dogs.
A 2001 report from the Centers for Disease Control comes to a similar conclusion: "Because a dog's tendency to bite depends on other factors in addition to genetics (e.g., medical and behavioral health, early experience, socialization and training and victim behavior), [other] laws might be more effective than breed-specific legislation."
Bouchard cites three key factors in dog attacks that have nothing to do with breed: "intact" dogs, especially males (like my jogging buddy); dogs that are tied or chained up and not "properly socialized"; and the presence of children, who are attacked far more often than adults.
Though MHS and its parent organization, the Hawaii Association of Animal Welfare Agencies, strongly opposed SB79, Bouchard says she understands why some are concerned. "We have a lot of empathy for people who have had someone they love—two- or four-legged—get attacked."
Blame the deed, not the breed" is a common mantra among opponents of breed specific legislation. Humans, they argue, not animals are the real culprits when a pet goes bad.
Which raises an interesting question: are there people who actually want their dogs to be aggressive? On Maui, the answer appears to be yes; you don't have to look far to find "Beware of Dog" signs hung on gates like a badge of honor or dogs with spiked collars chained in the backs of vehicles, growling menacingly. A tongue-in-cheek letter submitted to The Maui News earlier this year by Ron Sambrano of Lahaina promoted the fake services of "ACME's Pit Bull Shop," which offered "all pits…half off" and "a free pit bull sticker for the rear window of your four-wheel drive truck [to] let everyone know you aren't to be messed with."
"There are some people who think it's pretty cool, who are looking for a status symbol," Bouchard says. "If their dog isn't tough enough they're going to make it tough."
Bouchard admits that Maui has "pockets of dogfighting," though she doesn't think it's as prevalent as some make it out to be. She says pit bulls are also popular among pig hunters, especially when crossbred with hounds or other hunting dogs.
"Pit bulls are fabulous dogs that make wonderful companions," says Bouchard. "[But] in the wrong hands, they can be a liability."
The key, she emphasizes, is understanding your dog. For example, Bouchard says pit bull owners should be cautious about taking their pet to a dog park. "They tend to be better with people than with other animals," she says, adding that another dog might start a fight but that the pit bull will likely be the one to finish it.
The prevailing sentiment among animal rights groups, breeders and politicians seems to be that criminalizing an entire breed is neither fair nor tenable. The answer instead looks like some combination of education, strict leash laws, harsh penalties and, above all, awareness and responsibility on the part of owners.
As Bouchard puts it: "We're just being people, and they're just being dogs." The trick, as ever, is striking a balance between the two. MTW
A few ways to reduce dangerous behavior…
Get 'em fixed: Spaying or neutering your pet isn't just a good way to control the animal population and prevent unwanted puppies; "intact" dogs are far more likely to be aggressive. (Obviously there's an exception here for breeders.)
Ditch the chain: Though the law and common sense require dogs to be leashed in public, chaining your dog up at home can increase territorial behavior and stunt socialization.
Be careful with the keiki: The majority of dog attack victims are kids. Always supervise children and dogs when they're together.
Know the breed: Some experts say pit bulls tend to be better with people than other dogs. That doesn't mean your pit can't sniff a canine okole or two, but it does mean you should exercise caution and keep a tight grip on the leash (and make sure you can contain your animal) when going to a crowded dog park or popular pet beach.
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