Eavesdrop on the social circles at the local dog park.
The snippet of conversation about discrimination and bullying might sound like a discussion of the latest proposal to allow businesses to refuse service to gays. But the human companions to the canines may be denouncing breed-specific laws and defending pit bulls.
“When I walk my pit bulls, I get looks and people cross the street to get away from us,” said Lisa Williams, founder of Moonracer No Kill Animal Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues pit bulls and other large dogs from animal control shelters. “My dogs will not hurt anyone, they love people. But, because of how they look — some with cropped ears and tails, cut before I ever got them — people won’t give them a chance. People will look at our pictures on display at events and say, ‘Oh, you’re a pit bull rescue’ and walk away.
“So many end up in the shelter because people think they cannot be family dogs. It is the perception. … My favorite adopter was a 70-year-old island woman who adopted a pit puppy in order to promote them as the wonderful dogs they are,” said Williams, whose rescue is based in Florida.
Earlier this spring, the first known political action committee formed to fight breed-specific legislation. The Ohio PAC, founded by pit bull champions Alisha and Luke Westerman, operates under the banner Ohioans Against Breed Discrimination. The PAC maintains that breed-specific legislation is discriminatory, ineffective, unenforceable and unconstitutional.
Similar arguments were shared this spring in the Wisconsin community of Platteville, where the common council considered a proposal to prohibit Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and mixes with those breeds.
The council in April voted 4–2 against continuing a discussion on the matter after hearing from opponents of a ban, which lacked an endorsement from the police chief and was the focus of an online petition drive.
Platteville resident Kieryn Aigner launched the Care2 petition campaign in March, after Ald. Mike Denn proposed making it “unlawful to own, harbor or keep” a pit bull terrier or a mixed breed of pit bull.
Aigner, who adopted a pit bull in 2013, quickly collected thousands of signatures and lined up dozens of people to address the common council if necessary.
“Considering the reputation pit bulls get on being a ‘bully’ breed, I made sure to do my research” before adopting, Aigner said. “I knew I was going to get a lot of criticism and I knew I had to be smart when it came to this puppy. If he ended up being poorly trained, it would have been because I failed as an owner. Just as kids are raised, so are puppies. As parents, we have to teach them right from wrong, good from bad.”
Other opponents of breed-specific bans have adopted the online petition as an effective lobbying tool. A year ago, activists defeated a proposed ordinance to ban pit bulls in Medford, Oregon, after amassing more than 8,600 signatures on a Care2 petition.
“It is wrong to discriminate against a breed,” said Aigner. “If you are going to go after someone, it should be the owner for not training their dog correctly, not the breed.”
DogsBite.org is a website “dedicated to reducing serious dog attacks.” The site maintains that the number of dog bites in the United States is under-reported and that certain types of dogs — pit bulls and Rottweilers — are deadly. The group says from 2005 to 2014, pit bulls and Rottweilers caused 74 percent of the human fatalities from dog attacks.
“Unlike other dog breeds, pit bulls frequently fail to communicate intention prior to an attack (surprise attacks), possess a lethal bite style (hold and shake) and a ruinous manner of attack (gameness),” reads a “dangerous dogs” passage on the website.
Yet, the American Veterinary Medical Association says no breed or type of dog is more dangerous than another.
The AVMA says, “Any dog can bite, regardless of its breed, and more often people are bitten by dogs they know. It’s not the dog’s breed that determines risk — it’s the dog’s behavior, general size, number of dogs involved and the vulnerability of the person bitten that determines whether or not a dog or dogs will cause a serious bite injury. Dogs can be aggressive for all sorts of reasons. A dog that’s bitten once can bite again and a dog that’s never bitten could still bite. Don’t rely on breed stereotypes to keep yourself safe from dog bites. A dog’s individual history and behavior are much more important than its breed.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Bar Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also oppose breed-specific legislation.
The ABA “urges all state, territorial and local legislative bodies and governmental agencies to adopt comprehensive breed-neutral dangerous dog/reckless owner laws that ensure due process protections for owners, encourage responsible pet ownership and focus on the behavior of both dog owners and dogs, and to repeal any breed-discriminatory or breed-specific provisions.”
In its review of the issue, the CDC notes that data collection related to bites by breed is fraught with the potential for error in identifying the type of dog, especially among mixed-breed dogs. A 2009 study supports this point, noting a significant discrepancy between visual determination of breed and DNA determination of breed.
The ASPCA’s position statement says the organization “is not aware of credible evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer either for people or other companion animals. There is, however, evidence that such laws unfairly target responsible pet guardians and their well-socialized dogs, are inhumane and impede community safety and humane sheltering efforts.”
In its lengthy statement, the ASPCA says breed-specific laws ignore factors known to affect a dog’s tendency toward aggression: early experience, socialization, training, sex and reproductive status.
Breed-specific laws also “can cause hardship to responsible guardians of properly supervised, friendly, well-socialized dogs. … Although guardians of these dogs may have done nothing to endanger the public, they nevertheless may be required to choose between compliance with onerous regulations or forfeiture of their beloved companions,” according to the ASPCA.
States rethinking bans
In Ohio, after passage in 1987 of a law that identified pit bulls as “vicious,” some dog owners faced difficulties finding housing or securing liability insurance. Lawmakers removed the language three years ago, but a number of Ohio communities still label pit bulls as “vicious.”
Forfeiture of animals also results in crowded shelters or increases in killings by animal control. In Ohio in 2004, animal control agencies killed at least 7,400 pit bulls. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, 80 percent of the 500 to 600 dogs seized and killed under a ban on pit bull terriers are “nice, family dogs.”
Williams said, “It is heartbreaking when dogs are labeled dangerous and they really are not. … Many dogs that have been labeled ‘dangerous’ or ‘aggressive’ have been rescued or adopted and turn out to be just the best dogs ever, once they feel safe and secure. We want them to have a chance to shine, if they can.”
And animal welfare advocates stress an unintended consequence of breed-specific legislation. As one type of dog is banned, those who exploit and abuse animals train others to be aggressive, to fight.
Breed-specific laws exist in 55 Wisconsin communities, according to DogsBite.org. Thirty ordinances ban pit bulls, while other measures place restrictions on ownership of pit bulls and Rottweilers, such as prohibiting pit bulls declared “dangerous” or “vicious.”
“No good comes from discrimination, whether it’s discrimination against dogs or people,” said animal welfare advocate Shelaghla Donohue of Madison. “Instead of more communities passing bias legislation, I think Wisconsin should prohibit breed-discriminatory legislation. Probably that won’t happen anytime soon.”
States with measures against enacting breed-specific legislation include California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Virginia.
“The way I see it, outlawing a pit bull or a Rottweiler or a Chihuahua, for that matter, is like saying, ‘We don’t like that kind of person,’” said Green Bay animal rights advocate Laura Lippert. “And we just don’t do that.”
Said Williams, “Give pit bulls a chance, you won’t be disappointed. Help out at shelters so the dogs can be more socialized and have a chance to find homes. Ask to pet a pit bull, you will most likely end up covered in kisses.”