Pit bulls – are they a friend or foe?
A pit bull is not an actual breed, instead it refers to three different breeds, or any mix thereof, incorporating the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier. All were bred in the 19th century and have dog fighting backgrounds. Only the American Staffordshire terrier breed is recognized by the American Kennel Club.
Fact vs. fiction
According to Dog Breed Info. Center, pit bulls are extraordinarily muscular and powerful. They do not harbor a natural aggression towards humans but can be aggressive to other animals if not properly socialized.
Robin Laux, who works with Measle’s Animal Haven, a pit bull rescue organization in central Ohio, said pit bulls have received a bad reputation due to how they are portrayed in the media.
"Pit bull attacks receive more attention than when other dogs bite someone," Laux noted. "The dogs also look tough and intimidating."
Laux has been working with pit bulls for several years. She said of all the dogs she has rescued, less than 1 percent are aggressive towards humans and about 70 percent are not dog aggressive. She also said there is a lot of myth and "hysteria" about the dog.
"People think they mame and kill but they are not vicious killing machines," she remarked.
Another myth is that the dog has a locking jaw, where once it bites, the jaw locks.
"Ask any veterinarian. Their jaw is no different than any other dog," Laux commented.
She added, "Something most people don’t know about pit bulls is that they are awesome with kids," said Laux. "In some countries they are even called the nanny dog."
Corporal David Shellhouse, with the Franklin County Dog Shelter, often sees another side to the dog and says they can be very dangerous.
"When they do attack, it can be bad," he said. "They are the number one bite breed in Franklin County.
"They are bred to be fighting dogs so they will want to fight just like a Border collie wants to herd."
A pit bull’s bite is something that makes people nervous. Shellhouse said the dog will keep trying to accomplish what it sets its mind to. He saw one chew through the mesh wire at the shelter because it wanted out of the cage.
In 2007, the Franklin County Animal Shelter impounded 2,971 pit bulls. Of that number, only 327 were claimed by their owners. If a dog is not licensed, owners have three days to pick up their dog. If it has tags, owners have 14 days. Under Ohio law, pit bulls are vicious dogs. The county cannot put them up for adoption. If the owner does not claim the dog, it will be euthanized.
In the wrong hands
Laux says the problems lie with the owners.
"Irresponsible owners are ruining it for all of us and it’s the dogs that suffer the most," she remarked.
A pit bull’s temperament is obedient and always eager to please its master. It is also known to be determined and highly protective of its owner. Laux said these traits, along with their physical characteristics, make the pit bull appealing to the "wrong type of person."
"Pit bulls attract the criminal element," said Laux. "They want to look tough by having a tough looking dog."
Shellhouse said this month over 50 percent of owners cited with pit bull problems had a criminal record, including drug abuse and assault.
Adoption and ownership
A pit bull’s reputation can keep them from a good home. Shellhouse said a lot of people would not want a pit bull because they are afraid of what it would do to their children or other pets.
Laux said it is sometimes difficult to find "forever homes" for pit bulls. Each dog rescued is temperament-tested but she said the state laws make it tough.
"A lot of good potential owners cannot afford the insurance," she said.
According to Ohio law, the owner of a pit bull must maintain at least $100,000 of liability insurance coverage. Pit bulls must also be confined on the owner’s property by means of a locked fenced yard, locked dog pen with a top, or some other form of enclosure. This refers not only to American pit bulls, but other purebreds and mixes that have similar physical and behavioral characteristics. The penalty for not abiding by the law can include a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. If the dog seriously injures a person, felony charges may apply.
Banning pit bulls
Several communities in central Ohio have banned pit bulls and others are looking into similar bans. Shellhouse said Franklin County does not see a lot of problems with pit bulls in areas that have banned them. He reported that approximately 96 percent of cases come from the City of Columbus.
Laux said the bans are unfortunate for the law abiding citizens.
"You have a responsible owner that has a pit bull, then you make them give up a beloved member of the family," she commented. "These are not the people causing the problem."
Laux believes the problem lies with the owner who has bad intentions. Someone who gets a pit bull to promote a tough image or participate in dogs fights is not going to go through the proper channels to register the dog.
"There will still be pit bulls in the area, only they won’t belong to good citizens," Laux said. "Ban stupid people – not the dogs."
Shellhouse said those against any type of ban should ask themselves, "Would you want one next door to you?"
Shellhouse said this type of dog would do well in a rural environment in a house where it is the only dog. Many agree that pit bulls are not for everyone. They need plenty of regular exercise, obedience training and socialization.
"It is important to note that all kinds of dogs can bite," said Shellhouse. "It’s a difficult situation (with pit bulls) because they can inflict much more damage."