Lap dog or savage beast, pit bull is here to stay

Jessie Sanders (left) leads a terrier mix Tuesday as Donya Satriale, behavior and enrichment technician, watches how it reacts while explaining how they would identify any aggressive tendencies before listing the dog for adoption at the Charleston Animal Society.

More than 40 percent of the dogs at Charleston Animal Society are breeds that fall under the pit bull category — dogs similar to Tiger, the 3-year-old pet that tore off its owner’s arm in North Charleston on Sunday night.

Walking through the shelter, kennel after kennel held pit bulls, each one wagging its tail as prospective adopters passed by — most quick to lick or roll over on their bellies.

As friendly as the ones at the shelter appear, pit bulls’ reputation has polarized the public. While they have their defenders, many don’t trust them and advocate for breed bans or mandatory insurance for pit bull owners. Pit bull is not a recognized breed by the American Kennel Club, but rather a label that incorporates about 20 breeds, many American Staffordshire terriers or bull terriers.

Of the 231 dogs currently in the nonprofit’s sheltering system, 101 are Staffordshire-type dogs, according to CEO Joe Elmore. It’s the most common type of dog the nonprofit sees in Charleston County and it might be the most prevalent type of dog in America, he added.

Maulings like the one on Sunday stereotype the breed, but Elmore said people need to understand that there are many factors outside of a dog’s breed that can contribute to episodes of violent aggression.

Tiger had not been neutered, according to Elmore — a factor he is certain may have played a major role in the attack. He emphasized the point that people need to spay or neuter their dogs and said if they can’t afford the procedure, the Animal Society will do it for free.

In all fatalities involving dog bites, 84.4 percent were not spayed or neutered, according to the National Canine Research Council. Breed was not listed as a factor present in more than 80 percent of all fatal bites.

The victim from Sunday, Katherine Rizk remained hospitalized on Monday night after her left arm was amputated from the elbow down. Tiger was euthanized by the Animal Society after her husband, Mahmoud Rizk voluntarily surrendered him.

He said Monday he had Tiger for three years since the dog was a puppy, but didn’t specify where he got the dog. He did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Elmore said the dog did not come from the Animal Society and that he would be interested to know more about its background. He encouraged potential dog owners to obtain them from reputable sources that conduct certified aggression assessments and said there was inherent danger in getting a dog from a “backyard breeder.”

“You get dogs from particular breeders and they don’t know breed or background,” he said. “Everything is pretty as a puppy.”

Other tips Elmore offered to owners included socializing dogs, training them and identifying aggression indicators and predictors. To help with the latter, the Animal Society has a certified aggression assessor spend time with every dog to document what potentially makes them tick.

“Most of these dogs come in as strays and we have no idea about their background or history at all,” said one of the assessors, Melissa Klein. “This just helps us understand their personalities a little bit more.”

The dogs undergo a seven-point assessment that includes a loud game of tag, staring the animal down, trying to take its food away or pushing its head out of the bowl and testing toy possession. Assessors are certified through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the tests are research-based.

Klein said trainers work to improve overly aggressive dogs, but that depending on the type of aggression and whether the animal is beyond help, the shelter has to take steps to prevent it from being violent within the community.

She added that pit bull-type dogs typically exhibit the same behaviors as any other breed of dog in assessments.

When pit bull attacks occur, Lowcountry Animal Rescue Director Joy Davis said she often feels for all of the others forced to live with the stereotype.

“I think it mislabels them,” she said. “It’s like a plane crash. You hear about a plane that crashes, but think about how many flights go every day with no problems.”

What happened in North Charleston was a terrible attack, she said, but society is not as quick to judge following similar occurrences with other breeds.

“I actually get a lot of very bad small dogs that I won’t place in homes with small children,” Davis said.

In her own experience, Davis said she’s learned to be more cautious of English bulldogs. Pit bulls, she said, have never been an issue.

“Of the pits I have, they’re not going to bite you. I think they get a bad rap,” she said. “If you look historically, the German shepherds were considered dangerous, then it was the Dobermans, and now we’re on to pit bulls.”

Regardless of breed, most bites to owners, occur with male dogs, ages 3 to 4 that haven’t been neutered, Davis said.

She cited the pit bull’s historic label as a “nanny dog” as evidence of their otherwise loving demeanors.

“They were protective of children,” she said, describing the dogs as nurturing, not aggressive.

Douglas Gordon, 24, of North Charleston spent time Tuesday at the Charleston Animal Society looking at the dogs to adopt. He said he wasn’t sure yet what breed he wanted, but preferred one that wasn’t aggressive in any way.

He spent a lot of time in front of Skye’s kennel, looking at the blue-and-white terrier, a breed categorized as a pit bull. She was shy at first, but rubbed against the fence and wagged her tail when Gordon’s friend bent down to look at her.

“I don’t think (an attack would sway me) because I know people who have pit bulls and it’s just a matter of how they’re brought up,” he said. “I love them; they tend to be very playful, protective of their owners and I think with the right care, they can be great family dogs.”

Elmore agreed and said the attacks tend to cause apprehension with adopters, but not completely turn them off.

Not everyone agrees, however, that pit bulls can make great pets. A dog bite eight years ago prompted Colleen Lynn, of Texas, to create DogsBite.org, a website and nonprofit aimed at educating the public on “dangerous dog breeds.”

Lynn was jogging through a suburban Seattle neighborhood on Father’s Day 2007 when she came across a woman walking a pit bull. The woman tugged at the dog’s leash, pulling it to the side of the road as Lynn approached. She was appreciative of the gesture and didn’t think anything else of it.

But things changed when she passed the pair. A quick glance from the corner of her eye, she saw the dog lunge and its handler drop the leash. The dog stopped in front of her and sat for a second on the sidewalk.

“I think my body was anticipating something, but my brain hadn’t processed it yet,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to put my right forearm in front of my face.”

The dog’s bite was sudden. It first clamped down on her arm, she said, and then shook its head quickly from side to side. The ordeal lasted about 5 seconds — long enough to crush bone. The shake, she said, was the worst part.

“That’s where a lot of the damage comes in. It’s not just the bite. It’s all a part of why these dogs show up so often in catastrophic and fatal injuries,” Lynn said.

Lynn didn’t consider pit bulls dangerous prior to the attack, though she said she was leery of them. She turned to the Internet to research the breed, dog attacks and state laws pertaining to them. She couldn’t find a site that centralized the information she was looking for, so she created her own.

Lynn advocates through her site for the mandatory sterilization of pit bulls with an exemption for breeders. That, she said, is “the very least a community can do” to protect its citizens from the dogs.

“A sterilized dog is not necessarily less dangerous, but it is less likely to roam,” Lynn said.

Sterilization would not only reduce the number of bites but also the number of pit bulls that end up in shelters or put down, she said. Lynn also lobbies for mandatory insurance for pit bull owners.

“We come back to this issue over and over again. Their simply isn’t enough money to put these people back together,” Lynn said of the victims of pit bull attacks.

Ultimately, she supports an outright ban of the dogs as pets — something cities like Miami, Denver and select small towns already have in place. According to Denver’s ordinance, it is unlawful for anyone to “own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor, transport or sell within the city any pit bull.”

“The breed doesn’t have a place in modern society … They’re not nanny dogs, that’s a fabricated myth,” Lynn said. “We’ve really got to take a look at what happened (in North Charleston). Here you have a family pit bull that apparently had no history of aggression. But when it went off, it went off bad and now this woman is maimed for life.”

Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC. Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.