Humans to blame for dogs’ reputation as vicious
My Italian grandmother, Fanny, was full of Old World wit and wisdom. On one occasion, I was trying to rectify a bad misunderstanding, and she advised that I leave it alone.
Then she said something that sounded beautiful in Italian. “What does that mean?” I asked. It means the more you stir manure, the more it stinks. It sounded much more elegant in Italian. Now, at the risk of going against some sage advice, I would like to address some of the letters I got last week in response to my column giving advice to an expectant mother, who was worried about having a child in her home with her beloved and docile pit bull, Daisy.
To begin, I thank all of you for your letters. Whether they are critical, supportive or simply asking for advice, I know they come from engaged, informed and passionately protective animal lovers. We may have differences of opinion, but there is far more that unites than divides us.
The column really touched a nerve with some readers, and a number of specific areas drew harsh rebukes. Some questioned the validity of the statistics. Others objected to the characterization of the breed’s physical and behavioral traits.
A reader even asserted that I got my information from pit bull-hating websites. One letter accused me of “breedism.” Another took umbrage with my assertion that pit bulls are “largely” owned by those who would encourage the breed’s more negative attributes by using them as watch dogs and, sadly, for illegal fighting.
Far from being a “hater,” I love the breed, and I’m the proud owner of a pit bull mix, Trixie, whom we adopted. She grew up with my children and comes to work with me almost every day. She often accompanies me into exam rooms and on rounds and is one of the best dogs I have ever known, not to mention owned.
Recently, a beautiful pit bull, who we named Sugar, was rescued by one of our emergency room clinicians, Dr. Kelly Klein, and Charleston Veterinarian Dr. Cynthia Smith.
She’d been hit by a car and lay helplessly on Maybank Highway. With two broken legs and severe thoracic trauma, Klein and Smith knew where she would be helped. Smith donated her own money to help defray costs, and we picked up the rest. We repaired her fractures and are fostering her.
Both of these dogs had something besides their breed and orphan status in common. They had serious aggression issues, which were resolved with love and patience. These dogs do have the ability to respond to a nurturing environment.
The statistics I referenced in my article came from a recent independent study and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of course, when an attack involves a pit bull, it draws more attention than with other breeds.
Furthermore, it is possible that some dogs were labeled pit bulls but were actually some other breed. Just like everyone who sees a snake calls it a cottonmouth. But even if the stats are off by 75 percent, which is improbable, that still leaves many people who died as a result of a pit bull attack. Does that alone not warrant advising a young mother to take extra precautions with this, or any, large-breed dog?
I was asked by an anxious mother-to-be whether it would be safe to keep her dog, Daisy. I felt it was important to give her some facts and some opinion. I did not advise getting rid of the dog and stated that the risk probably did not rise above that posed by other breeds, given the temperament that she described. I only advised that she be aware of the potential for harm posed by a pit bull and any large dog.
Pit bulls were bred for physical and behavioral attributes that would suit life in a fighting ring. So many, not all, pit bulls possess those attributes. To deny this is not only irresponsible, it’s a disservice to the breed.
The blame for this breed’s bad name rests squarely on human beings. Within each breed, its members present a range of temperaments and behaviors. All things being equal, some breeds will have a greater population of aggressive constituents than others.
It’s the rare pack of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels that runs amok, terrorizing a neighborhood. But it is seen with unsettling regularity among large mixes and pit bulls.
The dogs may have the capacity to display that behavior, but human irresponsibility is the root cause. We recently had to euthanize a Labrador retriever who was prone to unexpected, vicious bursts of aggression. He also was owned by an expectant mother. Any dog could do it.
Pit bulls are wonderful, loyal, affectionate dogs. They are physical, athletic, protective and intelligent. They are perfect dogs for many, but they are not for everyone. No breed is right for everyone.
They require lots of exercise, socialization and attention. One must be aware of their breeding and public perception. Ownership of many large breeds involves managing risk. This is not unique to pit bulls. But for some reason, this breed continues to attract an untoward element of society, such as the Michael Vicks of the world. I’d go as far as to say this is the most exploited breed in America.
So until this breed is out of the hands of irresponsible owners, who either willfully encourage negative behaviors or are in denial of the potential for them, they will continue to be regulars on the nightly news, and the argument will continue between those who see the good in them and those who hear only the bad.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.