Jan. 10, 2013 - Issue #899: The games we play
In the dog house
Who's to blame when pit bulls attack: the dogs or their owners?
They started making headlines in the mid '80s for fighting and attacks, possibly from a resurgence in underground dog fighting that happened around that time; three decades later, pit bulls are still making the news—and it's usually not good news. On January 3, a man and woman were attacked by a pit bull in a backyard in Calgary. The day before, two pit bulls got loose and bit a woman. But the story that has gotten the most reaction was when three pit bulls attacked and killed a Pomeranian and injured a Great Pyrenees in an off-leash park in Calgary on New Year's Eve.
Dog trainer Alecia Muirhead works at Sadie's K9 Stay and Play dog daycare in Edmonton and was upset when she heard about the New Year's attack.
"The whole situation in general, I think it reflects more poorly upon owners not having control over their dogs more so than what kind of dog it was, and there's a lot of things to consider," Muirhead says. "You're dealing with a group of dogs and the reactions that they have to each other and unfortunately, when it comes down to it, usually if there is more of a dangerous or a restricted breed involved, then that dog gets the brunt of the punishment when there may have been provocation, there may have been other things. But I think just the fact that both owners weren't able to control the situation, as a trainer, that's what makes me most upset. If you had dogs who had reliable and consistent recall and proper training, then some of those things most likely could have been avoided."
Calgary has never had restricted dog legislation—although some people are now calling for it—but Edmonton made pit bulls restricted in 1987 and only last October did that legislation change. There had been some pit bull attacks in the city leading up to the restriction and it was suggested that some mixed breeds had an aggressive and stubborn instinct that would lead them to act violently towards people.
Keith Scott, the City of Edmonton's coordinator for Animal Control and Care, says they lifted the breed specific legislation because all dogs bite. By the way, pit bulls aren't a breed of dog. It's a name given to a few different breeds, but the City calls it the American Staffordshire Terrier and its cross breeds.
"We wanted to go on what the real issue is, and the real issue is the behaviour of the dog. It doesn't matter what breed of dog, it's the behaviour that determines whether it attacks or whether it's dangerous or whether it's not a dog that you would want in your neighbourhood or your community. And so we really focused on the behaviour and not the breed because we felt that every breed bites and every breed can attack and that's discriminatory in our mind."
In fact, Edmonton's top biters in 2011 were, in the following order: German shepherd, retriever/lab, Rottweiler, boxer, border collie, husky and pit bull. However, pit bulls topped in the percentage of bites per breed at 5.5 percent for the 422 restricted dogs that were registered in 2011—the majority of restricted dogs prior to the legislation change were pit bulls.
"We get attacks from all kinds of dogs, whether they're large or small," Scott says. "Generally the ones that are reported to the City of Edmonton are the larger dogs that have either attacked another large dog or a small dog because that's when the damage usually occurs. When there's two small dogs that sort of get into a bit of a battle, there's not much damage done, so most people just walk away and don't report that kind of stuff."
A report given to the city by Animal Control and Care last March explains what led up to the October decision. It was stated that many factors contribute to a dog bite such as "poor breeding practices, inadequate socialization and training, health or behavioural issues and inadequate supervision and/or control of the dog." (March 2012 Community Services Report)
The seven dog-related organizations the city contacted in writing the report—including the Edmonton Humane Society—all agreed that breed-specific legislation wasn't appropriate, as violent behaviour is not something a dog is born with, but learns from irresponsible owners. Muirhead agrees. As a trainer she knows that no dog is untrainable and no dog is born violent; that is a learned behaviour from irresponsible owners.
"When it comes down to training and that sort of stuff, I think that pit bulls, like any other dog, they really need to be properly trained and properly fulfilled, and when you don't have a dog whose basic needs in terms of socialization and exercise are met, that's when a lot of those behaviour problems come out. And I don't think that it necessarily has to do with the breed of dog, but more so the energy," Muirhead continues. "You're dealing with a really powerful, really excitable, really intense animal and when they're not properly trained, or properly socialized and you don't have that control over them, that's where those problems do come from."
Sadie's welcomes all breeds of dogs and Muirhead says on any given day there can be between 35 – 55 dogs at the daycare, and all of them, including pit bulls, are properly trained.
"I've met just as many nasty poodles as I have pit bulls and we have fantastic pit bulls that are wonderful family pets that come to daycare regularly. They're well socialized, they're well trained and they have babies and children and cats and other dogs in the house, and they're fantastic because their owners have properly set them up to be a welcome member of society by doing right by their dog," Muirhead says. "There's a lot of unfortunate things when it comes to more of the powerful breeds that some people do get them as a status symbol and they don't necessarily understand the commitment and the responsibility of having a dog, let alone a high energy, intense dog. So any dog with an uneducated or non-committed, non-responsible owner is going to suffer at the end of that."
Famous pit bull owners include Jon Stewart, Jessica Biel, Rachel Ray and the Dog Whisperer himself, Cesar Millan. Even Helen Keller had one back in the day. Throughout the last century, pit bulls were seen as a family dog, but the macho status symbol that was associated with owning a pit bull and participating in dog fighting in recent times—think Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback who spent time in prison for his involvment in a dog fighting ring—has led to an uneducated public image that all pit bulls are "bad."
As Muirhead pointed out, no dog is untrainable, but she does concede that some dogs have limitations.
"If you have a dog who wasn't properly socialized and you're trying to deal with them when they're seven years old, it's going to be a lot more challenging and there's going to be situations that they're just not comfortable in, but you can always manage those things by setting them up to succeed and not putting them in a situation that's going to make them uncomfortable or reactionary ... They are the most adaptable creatures in the world and they catch on to things really well if we just teach them properly."
When it comes down to it, irresponsible pet owners make it harder for everyone else, and Muirhead says the stigma attached to pit bulls could stick around for the next 10 – 20 years.
"If I chose to get a pit bull, I would make sure that I have the best, most well-socialized, under control, well-trained, well-mannered pit bull in the world. And I would do my research and make sure I was getting it from a respected breeder that breeds good tempered dogs to other good tempered dogs to avoid any of those things that can come up with it."
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