No bull

Small numbers of pit bulls have been trained to fight other dogs by a small sect of backyard breeders who use horrific techniques. These dogs do not deserve the blame.

HALIFAX — The problematic “statistics” that Phil Innes quotes from dogsbite.org [“The pit bull quandary,” Viewpoint, June 13] are compiled from newspaper and media reports by a group of random citizens with no scientific credentials whatsoever.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), these “dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of the dogs that bite.”

Why isn't data from media reports complete or accurate? Here are a few reasons:

• Not all dog bites are reported to authorities, and not all dog bites are reported on in the media.

• Media reports are not accurate. The National Canine Research Council (NCRC), whose mission it is to “strengthen and preserve the human-canine bond,” has done extensive investigation of dog bite fatalities.

NCRC found that media reports differed greatly from official police reports in most of these cases. In 2010, the organization found that the “pit bull type dogs” reported in the media were later proven by epidemiologists to be innocent in many cases, and in only 11 of 33 total cases could breed be identified.

Eight different breeds were documented in the 11 cases. Yet, according to the council's analysis, the media does retract or correct the original headlines.

• Identifying breed type in mixed-breed dogs is impossible without a DNA test. A study by Judith Vioth, a professor of veterinary medicine at Western University in Pomona, Calif., found that shelter workers incorrectly identified dog breeds about 70 percent of the time. Even when workers were correct, the guessed breed made up only about 25 percent of an individual dog's actual heritage.

• Media bias. According to Karen Delise's The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths, and Politics of Canine Aggression, in 2003, a husky mix killed a boy in Alaska, and the story appeared in two newspapers in that state. In December 2003, a woman was killed by “pit bulls,” a story reported in 200 U.S. media outlets.

More recently, a headline on the local news website of a southwestern TV station reported on June 21: “Unrestrained dogs attack elderly woman and Dachshund.” The breed of dogs that attacked - a Labrador retriever and a German shepherd - are not mentioned in the headline. Note that the two attacking dogs were off-leash.

Is it ever splashed across the headlines in hundreds of media outlets when a pit bull does a good deed?

The media reports are incomplete and often do not report the abuse and neglect that precede the attack.

In 21 of the 33 fatalities described in the 2010 NCRC report, the attacking dogs were classified as “resident dogs,” not “family pets.”

The NCRC defines the difference: resident dogs are dogs that are isolated, kept outside chained in the backyard without positive and regular interactions with human beings. Family pets reside in the home and are cared for, healthy, and loved. The 21 chained dogs, regardless of breed, were neglected, ill, starved, infested with parasites, and abused.

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Different breeds of dogs have been discriminated against over the last hundred years. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, the majority of dog bites and dog-bite fatalities reported in newspapers were by bloodhounds, a very popular breed at the time that were used as guard dogs.

Topping the list of dog-bite fatality reports from 1959 to 1979? German shepherds, the most popular dog in that era, while pit bulls and Rottweilers were almost never mentioned during that time.

More individuals of a particular breed in the population increases the odds of the popular breed showing up in dog bite reports, particularly if that breed also becomes popular as a guard dog, according to Delise. The AVMA states that “the popularity of breeds changes over time, making comparison of breed specific bite rates unreliable.”

Pit bulls have not been bred to be guard dogs. Being a “guard dog” or being “aggressive” are behaviors that owners train their dogs to perform.

Small numbers of pit bulls most recently have been trained to fight other dogs by a small sect of moronic, drug addicted, backyard breeders, who use horrifically abusive techniques. The “losing” dogs are killed, and the winning dogs are bred, but this practice doesn't necessarily select for aggression or guarding behavior.

Many bully breeds in the 1800s and 1900s were popular as pets (Petey on the Little Rascals was a pit bull), on farms, and for the sport of bull-baiting, a blood sport common before dogfighting and one that used the dogs to immobilize a bull tethered to an iron stake.

According to Janis Bradley, a founding faculty member at the highly regarded SPCA academy for dog trainers in San Francisco, aside from small groups of breeders who specialize in herding or hunting dogs, modern dog breeders mainly select for appearance, not behavior.

Breed is largely irrelevant when searching for a pet dog, because each dog is an individual and because, as Bradley writes, “behavior does not occur consistently in the large genetic families known as breeds.”

“Prior behavior is a much more reliable predictor of future behavior than is a genetic predisposition, which may or may not ever manifest itself,” Bradley writes.

Studies cited in Bradley's book reinforce the concept that socialization, interaction, training, and intent of the owner are more influential than breed type when it comes to individual dog behavior.

* * *

The assumption that as a dog owner, you have to exert “dominance” over any breed of dog, especially a tough-looking dog, is a myth. Dominance-based “training” can actually lead to aggression or unwanted behaviors.

Having a well-trained dog is beneficial to the dog owner and the dog regardless of breed. Positive-reinforcement training is based on ignoring the bad behavior and rewarding the good behavior, and is a far faster, far more humane, and really amazing way to shape your dog's behavior.

This method involves zero punishment and zero “dominance.” Do an Internet search for Karen Pryor, Ian Dunbar, or Jean Donaldson, or head to Windham County Humane Society for more information on this scientifically proven training method. You will love positive-reinforcement training, and so will your dog!

The problem with these myths is that they make the breed even more attractive to irresponsible owners who simply want to get the dog in order to appear tough themselves.

Irresponsible owners use the dogs as guard dogs or “resident dogs,” and they often do not spay or neuter them. They often abuse them, let them run loose, and isolate them from human kindness.

And then we end up with more media reports of problems with the “breed.” when they are really problems with the owners.

* * *

Adding to the problem is breed-specific legislation (BSL), which, according to Bradley, “itself enhances the mythologized image of these dogs [pit bulls] as super aggressive, thus increasing their attraction for people who like this idea, and who are precisely those people most likely to treat them inappropriately and encourage aggression.”

BSL involves the confiscating and killing of family pets of banned breed(s), whether or not the individual dog has ever displayed any aggressive behavior.

Numerous studies published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior have proven that there is no scientific evidence that one breed of dog is more likely to bite or attack than another, and that banned breeds are no more aggressive than non-banned breeds.

BSL has proven to be expensive as well as ineffective at reducing dog-bite attacks, and as a result numerous BSL laws are now being repealed.

Stronger leash laws, however, have been a factor proven to reduce dog bites, according to the AVMA, which in April released a report concluding that banning specific breeds is not effective at preventing dog bites, and that many different breeds of dogs inflict injury upon human beings. AVMA bases its conclusions on dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies, not on Fox TV media reports.

As further proof that these dogs are not “universally detested,” as Phil Innes wrote, I can offer a list of at least 20 organizations that oppose BSL.

Hundreds of organizations rescue abused pit bulls and train them to be certified assistance dogs for people who are disabled, and to be therapy dogs in nursing homes and hospitals.

Of the 51 horrifically abused pit bulls, trained for dogfighting and seized from Michael Vick's dogfighting operation, 47 were rescued, and many are now therapy dogs, many are trained through the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program, and many have become family pets. You can read Jim Gorant's haunting book The Lost Dogs for more of their stories. The resilience and forgiveness of these dogs will never leave your memory or your heart.

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Finally, to briefly address the recent cases in Phil Innes's piece and in our local news:

1. We only have his word that the dog who bit him was a “pit bull.” Was there a DNA test done on this dog? We also have absolutely no idea of this dog's previous behavior, or how this dog was kept.

2. A situation at the local park with another alleged “pit bull type” dog. For breed identification, all we have are eyewitness accounts; we have no confirmation this dog was a pit bull.

More importantly, the owner was completely irresponsible with the dog and allowed it off leash in a public park. This is all too common here in Vermont, where people let their dogs run loose, often unspayed and unneutered.

Leash laws are for the protection of all people involved. They ensure that you have control over your dog in public at all times, and are proven to reduce dog bites.

3. The South Pond situation in Marlboro [“Tracking down the dog that attacked Tink,” Letters, June 13] is a horrible story of owner irresponsibility, regardless of breed. A woman's poor dog almost died because another ignorant fool let a dog - one she claimed wasn't even her own - off leash in public, in a state the person doesn't even reside in. This situation would have been completely avoidable had she kept the dog on a leash!

* * *

I hope we can dispel some myths that persist in this community regarding specific breeds and make it a safe place for everyone who wants to walk around - with a dog or without one.

Phil Innes is correct when he concludes that “simply blaming actions of police officers in the middle of it all will not solve any root problem.” Neither will blaming, banning, or discriminating against any particular breed of dog.

The root problem is irresponsible dog ownership. We need laws to enforce responsibility, no matter what the breed. We need to enforce leash laws. We need to examine each dog on an individual, case-by-case basis instead of banning a breed that happens to be popular at the time among criminal types who wish to project an image of toughness. We really need tougher laws on animal abuse, neglect, and cruelty.

Just because one individual dog displays a behavioral problem, we shouldn't ban, judge, discriminate against, or exterminate an entire breed or breeds.

Please do not hesitate to contact me for more factual, peer-reviewed articles and books written by veterinary behaviorists, dog trainers, and other experienced canine professionals on this incredibly resilient, sweet, and loving breed of dog who is so completely misunderstood in our society. They are paying the price for these myths with their lives every day.

I guarantee, Mr. Innes, that if you got to know one of these dogs, they would wiggle their way into your heart, too, as they have into the hearts of thousands of others.

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