One thing almost everyone can agree on: Dogs are wonderful additions to the family.
One thing that is almost bound to be a divisive, argument-inducing opinion: Pit bulls make wonderful additions to families.
“I have been asked to leave local dog parks by other residents strictly because of the breed,” said Nikki King, who has two pit bulls. “They told me they were not comfortable around our dogs because they’re pit bulls.”
“It’s hard for me to walk down the street without getting stopped by people who want to pet them or ask about them,” said Emma Hosier, who also has two pit bulls. “But at the same time, it is really hard for me to walk down the street without someone glaring at me or otherwise completely judging me because of my dogs.”
“We got turned down for a house because of my oldest,” said Christine Rowan, referencing her dogs. “They said it didn’t matter how sweet she was.”
The stigma against pit bulls is undeniable. The question is, why is it there at all? Is it justified?
Pit bulls make the news a lot. Usually, news reports regarding pit bulls are about them biting or attacking people, or otherwise behaving aggressively and dangerously. The common narrative is that these dogs are dangerous, and people need to fear them.
“Has anyone noticed when a newspaper or news show talks about an attack, it’s either ‘pit bull attack,’ or ‘dog attack’ if it is another breed?” asked pit-bull owner Mike Drastic. “They almost never say something like, ‘German shepherd attack’ as a headline, or ‘Cocker spaniel bites three.’ ”
Pit bulls also tend to be a popular choice among people who participate in dog fights.
“In my experience, people have a negative opinion of pit bulls because of stories they’ve heard of attacks, and because of their popularity as fighting dogs,” said Colie McGuire, who has three dogs, including a pit bull.
“The funny thing about that is, they became popular fighting dogs because they’re such great dogs. They’re incredibly loyal to their owners and will take a great deal of abusive treatment, but stay docile and loving toward their owners.”
It all boils down to how they’re raised.
Chase Connolly works in the animal control department of the Kitsap Humane Society. They’re contracted to respond to calls regarding domestic animal control-related issues throughout Kitsap, including aggressive animals and animal abuse.
“I can say offhand, we investigate … over a thousand different animal control calls (a year),” Connolly said.
He said that they do not record breed statistics of the animals, but “pit bull has nothing to do with it.”
“All animals, it’s based on how the owners raised it,” Connolly said. “You could have a golden retriever, raised in a family with responsible ownership. You can have a golden retriever with (irresponsible raising) and no socialization that will have some behavioral issues. It all kind of goes down to, what’s the socialization, what’s the care the animal receives?”
KHS also tends to eschew judging dogs based on their breeds. KHS Director of Animal Welfare Natalie Smith said that their “point of view is that focusing on specific ‘breeds’ isn’t super-productive.”
“We really don’t make breed-specific policies,” Smith said. “Every single dog is evaluated as an individual.”
She said they don’t really get a lot of pit bulls or pit mixes in the shelter compared to other breeds, and that usually the difficulties in dogs being adopted is based on the restrictions each individual dog has, such as whether they are kid and other-animal friendly, or if they need a fenced yard.
“That really is not breed-specific; it really runs the gamut,” Smith said.
McGuire used to work as a vet technician, and said that in the course of her work, she’s only ever met one pit bull that “was actually aggressive and had to be muzzled for the exam.”
“I can’t tell you the number of small dogs like chihuahuas who had to be muzzled for the exam,” she said.
Chris Deighan, owner of a pit bull rescue, said, “This misconception that the instincts of the breed are the major driver for behavior is so dangerous. Sure, your French bulldog can’t do as much damage as my Staffordshire terrier if they both bit my ankle as hard as they can — but this just eliminates any motivation for the owners of the ‘not as dangerous’ dogs to be good, conscientious owners.”
Drastic said, “I have met a few people who have had personal interactions with pits that weren’t good, and I totally understand that. It’s no different than having a fear of spiders or being in the water. Those are usually due to personally bad experiences.”
Cheryl Knowles has had a couple bad experiences with pit bulls. When she was 6 years old, she was bit by a stray dog her mother told her was a pit bull.
“I don’t remember much other than being bit, but I must have gotten too close, made it nervous and it bit me on the back of the calf,” Knowles said.
Her mother called animal control, who then seized the dog and had it put down.
Later in life, Knowles had another bad experience with pit bulls. She was living in Kingston at the time, and her neighbors had two pit bulls.
“One day, my oldest and youngest sons were riding their bikes to a friend’s house past this house when both dogs … ran around from the back of the house,” Knowles said. “The male launched himself at him and bit his underarm, between the armpit and the elbow.”
Knowles said she called animal control.
“I called every day, wanting that dog killed, hating pit bulls because they’re so dangerous,” Knowles said. Eventually, the neighbors moved, solving the problem in the eyes of animal control, Knowles said.
“Years went by, and my oldest moved back home when he was 20, and one day brought this four-month-old red-nosed pit bull into my home,” Knowles said. “I was mad, to say the least! Of all the dogs he could have brought home, he brought this dog, even if she was a puppy. She looked mean, and I just knew she was going to be trouble.
“She definitely was trouble, as her sweet nature turned me into mush. She was such a good dog!”
Drastic, also, is a convert to loving pit bulls. He grew up in a family of dog breeders and trainers, but never really interacted with “bully breeds.”
“I, being young and impressionable as well, heard about these vicious dogs that have locking jaws (a myth) and aggressive ‘bite-anything’ attitudes,” Drastic said. “I didn’t know anything about ratings for news shows and newspapers, and how that translated to more readers/viewers, which then led to more movney from sponsors and advertising. I just believed that these ‘pit bulls’ I was hearing about were some kind of el diablo of the dog world. I was lied to. We all were.”
Drastic said later in life, he had the opportunity to be around a few pit bulls owned by friends, and “they turned out to be really awesome and fun dogs.”
“They definitely had a zest for life, were energetic, liked to play, wrestle and run around, and loved to jump on you out of excitement, because they were so happy you were interacting with them,” Drastic said. “A lot of people take that as being aggressive. Sure, it might be some bad manners, but it was never out of meanness or wanting to attack.”
Drastic eventually went on to adopt a pit bull of his own.
Anecdotally, there also seems to be a clear disparity in how often dog attacks are reported based on breed.
“People who mistakenly believe the dog is aggressive because of the breed are more likely to report the incident and make a big stink about it,” McGuire said. “The opposite is true with dog bites involving breeds percieved as sweet, docile family pets. Nobody want to admit they got bit by a chihuahua.”
Deighan told a story of a time when he and his pit bull Willow were openly discriminated against because of her breed.
“I had a terrible experience with Willow at a state park several years ago,” he said.
A park ranger claimed to have been bitten by her. He threatened to impound her and arrest me. He insisted on going to the hospital while we waited to hear her fate. He came back, his boss saw that his arm was absolutely, 100-percent unscratched, not so much as a faint red mark, and they let us go home.
“It was so terrifying, sitting in the tent for over an hour, holding her, realizing that he could come back and tell me he’s taking her away,” Deighan said, “which would almost certainly result in her being euthanized, let’s be real.”
Drastic said he’s been told, “You need to keep that dog locked up and at home” before.
“They saw a pit bull and jumped to ignorant conclusions,” Drastic said. “I’ve read so many stories on forums from other pit bull owners who have to deal with their neighbors trying to throw poison hot dogs over their fences to kill their dogs, people shouting extremely rude things to them in public while they are out walking their dog and officials taking away their pets because of a ban on the breed.”
Finding a place to live can be practically impossible, too.
“Basically nowhere in the area allows pit bulls, and those that do are unaffordable,” Hosier said.
She said when she and her husband moved to the area, they “spent months looking everywhere, driving places, calling apartment complexes, calling landlords, searching every realty website, searching through Craigslist … only to be rejected from literally everywhere.”
They ended up living in expensive base military housing.
Glenda Mitchell said that when she and her husband were in the process of trying to buy a house, they were told by an insurance company that “they would not be able to insure us if we had a pit bull.”
Crystal Nixon said, “Now that we own (our home), I am very cautious about disclosing our breed of choice, as many homeowners insurerers will not cover your home if you own that breed.”
“Why should I have to get rid of my dogs to get an affordable, nice place to live that’s safe and where I’m not harrassed?” Hosier said. “It’s wrong. The treatment of these animals is wrong, their reputation is inaccurate and it’s not just hurting the dogs anymore, it’s hurting the people who are brace and kind enough to give them a chance.
“Anyone else in our same position is risking having their dogs being put in a shelter because either people don’t want them or can’t have them because of housing/insurance policies,” Hosier added, “and it isn’t a decision me or anyone else should be forced to make because of discriminatory rules that people are allowed to me.”
KHS keeps a list of Kitsap housing developments with information on breed restrictions (the list is incomplete, but they try to keep it up to date). Smith said most restrictions around here are either wide breed restrictions, like no shepherding dogs, or weight-based, like no dogs over 50 pounds.
The bottom line is, pit bulls are like any other dog.
“People need to remember that dogs have a wide spectrum, to use the popular wording, just like people do,” Drastic said. “You have grumpy dogs — hey, there’s even a grumpy cat — happy dogs, mopey dogs, courageous dogs, adventurous dogs, quiet dogs, impish dogs and little angel dogs that never get in trouble, it seems.
“You can meet a pit bull that’s a happy clown or a barky grump,” he added. “They aren’t bad death machines, but not every single pit is going to be ready to love every stranger they meet either. Sometimes, yes, you get a dog out there that sadly has to be captured and put down because it is aggressive — but the point is, this is not exclusive to pit bulls. It happens with all kinds of dogs, and it is because of the owners who have failed to do their part as a good owner.”
Drastic said the most important thing is for people to educate themselves before making up their minds.
“Do your research, really see it with a balance and more than anything, go meet some pit bulls yourself,” he said. “Find some good dogs and spend time with them. Don’t be a sponge to what the media and newspapers tell you about anything, not just the pit-bull issue. Get out there and do your own research.”
Read about a few myths and statistics regarding pit bull breeds here.
Special thanks to the Port Orchard and Secret Bremerton Facebook groups, whose members responded to requests for more information about living with pit bulls.
Michelle Beahm is the online editor of the Kitsap News Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.