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Pit bull laws have teeth, need braces

By jim Published: December 11, 2010

Breed-specific rules under attack by dog advocates, who believe blame rests with owners

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

Helen Keller owned one, as did presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Sergeant Stubby died as a hero serving in France in World War I, and the lovable Tige was Buster Brown's best friend.

Even Petey, which ran the streets in the 1930s with the kids in Our Gang comedies, was a pit bull.

Whether real or fictional, the American pit bull was not always considered a pariah, demonized in news reports until communities worldwide legislated against it, and in some cases, banned it to reduce vicious attacks.

Dog advocates often refer to breed bans as knee-jerk reactions by politicians to highly publicized attacks, said Ledy Van Kavage, lead attorney for Best Friends Animal Society and co-author of a chapter on dangerous-dog ordinances in the American Bar Association book, Dangerous Dog Laws, published in 2009.

''I call them panic policymaking at its worst,'' Van Kavage, of Illinois, said of breed-specific laws. ''In reality, any dog bites. We want good, safe legislation with the focus on reckless owners and generic, dangerous-dog laws.''

Last week, the Dearborn, Mich., City Council turned down legislation to include breed-specific language (commonly referred to as BSL) in its vicious-dog law, in part because of a presentation by Van Kavage.

In Akron, the owners of certain dogs that are believed to be pit bulls, described as any American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier or any mixed breed of any of those dogs, and canary dogs, are subject to additional security requirements.

Few serious attacks

A study the American Veterinary Medical Association recently released estimates that about 72 million dogs live in the United States, with 37 percent of all households, or 43 million homes, owning at least one.

While dog bites seem to be rather common based on a national survey of about 10,000 people, the study indicates dog bite-related fatalities appear to be rare, at about three fatal bites per 10 million dogs.

A person would stand a better chance of dying from a lightning strike, the report shows.

The study, published in the October edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, was written by Gary Patronek, Margaret Slater and Amy Marder. The conclusion is that breed-specific legislation does nothing to prevent dog bites.

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of Colorado and smaller jurisdictions, Patronek and his colleagues estimate that a community would have to ban more than 100,000 dogs of a targeted breed to prevent a single serious dog bite.

''Enthusiasm for BSL persists despite the lack of empirical evidence that legislation of this type reduces the risk of injury from dog bites or reduces associated costs to communities or insurers,'' the report indicates.

Breed-specific legislation is appealing to lawmakers for three reasons, according to the report: misperception of risk; misinformation and stereotyping; and erroneous beliefs about its effectiveness.

Sensationalized publicity about certain breeds being particularly aggressive, as well as popular beliefs about some breeds' physical and behavioral characteristics contribute to the erroneous belief that certain breeds have a propensity to bite people, the report states.

Saved from death row

Such misconceptions might have played a role in the fate of a bulldog Akron police impounded during a drug raid a few years ago. The owner of the dog, a suspected drug dealer, ordered the animal to attack officers.

Akron police face this situation all too often, said Lt. Rick Edwards, public information officer for the department.

Officers must assess the situation in each case, he said. If a dog charges an officer, it might have to be put down.

''Each situation is different. They have to look at the aggressiveness of the dog,'' Edwards said.

In this case, the officers felt the excited dog was vicious and ordered it impounded at Summit County Animal Control, where it was held for several months awaiting disposition of the case. Eventually, Municipal Judge Annalisa Williams issued an order to euthanize the dog because it was used in a crime, said Craig Stanley, director of administrative services for the county.

During the months the dog lived at the pound, caretakers began to realize it was no more than 7 or 8 months old when it had arrived. And although it fit Akron's physical description of a vicious dog, it was obvious the animal was deaf and could not have responded to the suspect's order to attack, Stanley said.

''I would play with him every time I went in. I could stand right next to him and shout his name and he didn't respond,'' Stanley said.

''When the [euthanization] order came out, a lot of the employees were sad about it.''

He visited Judge Williams and explained the situation. She agreed to a plan to take the dog off death row. Pound workers moved it to a shelter outside the county, where it could be placed for adoption.

The chain of events illustrates the problems many animals face if they are the property of reckless owners, Stanley said.

Animal control is a law-enforcement agency charged with protecting the citizens of Summit County from vicious animals in a humane way.

Rescue groups, by contrast, have accepted the task of protecting animals from irresponsible owners, bad breeders and puppy mills, as well as dogs at the mercy of unscrupulous people.

Mistaken identity

Pawsibilities, the Humane Society of Greater Akron, is by law required to rescue and provide care for neglected and abused animals in Summit County.

Four years ago, as many as 80 percent of the dogs living at the Humane Society were considered pit bulls. Today, less than half that percentage call the Twinsburg shelter home.

''The Humane Society is one of the few shelters in the state of Ohio that takes them in and adopts them out,'' board member Carianne Burnley said.

Kristen Brannigan, director of behavior and adoption testing at the shelter, attributes the successful placements to programs designed to educate the public about ''bully breeds.'' Also, DNA testing is made available — at a potential owner's expense — to determine whether any breeds singled out by law are in the dog's genetic makeup. The $85 tests have helped increase adoptions of long-term residents, she said.

''If the DNA test comes back with no 'bully' breed, the adoption rates skyrocket from 30 to 80 percent,'' Brannigan said.

At the Humane Society's National Pit Bull Awareness Day program in October, more than 250 visitors were challenged to ''pick the pit bull'' on a chart with photos representing 24 breeds. The photos were pulled from reputable, pure-bred breeders' Web sites, Brannigan said.

''Not one [visitor] was able to pick out the American pit bull on the first try,'' Brannigan said.

The legal hassle of owning a dog that arbitrarily has been labeled a pit bull because of its appearance is one of the biggest problems the agency faces in placing animals.

Ohio is the only state that singles out ''pit bulls'' in its legislation as vicious dogs.

Brannigan said every dog at the Humane Society undergoes temperament testing before it may be adopted. Also, anyone who shows an interest in adopting a ''pit-bull type'' dog is advised of the law in his or her community and given leads on insurance companies willing to provide the $100,000 in liability coverage necessary to comply with Ohio law.

DNA testing in many cases is proving that although a dog's characteristics might indicate a certain breed, the animal's parentage is not reliably assessed by its appearance.

A study published this year in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science indicates that many mixed-breed dogs do not resemble the predominant breeds identified by a DNA analysis. The study, conducted by Victoria Voith, Elizabeth Ingram, Katherine Mitsouras and Kristopher Irizarry, shows there is little correlation between the probable breed composition assigned to a dog and the identification of breeds by DNA analysis.

In other words, it is unwise to judge mixed-breed dog by appearance.

''Justification of current public and private policies pertaining to breed-specific regulations should be reviewed,'' the study concluded.

Overcoming their past

Best Friends Animal Society Sanctuary, a 33,000-acre animal rescue and rehabilitation center based in southern Utah, recently kicked off a national initiative called Saving America's Dog, to restore the pit bull's image and to challenge breed discrimination laws across the country.

In April 2007, in a highly publicized case, 51 pit bulls were seized from a dog-fighting operation at Bad Newz Kennels, owned by NFL quarterback Michael Vick in Smithfield, Va. Vick was ordered to pay nearly $1 million to rehabilitate the animals.

Animal advocates Bill and Kim Jones of Bath Township, who became involved with Best Friends when they helped the agency rescue animals after Hurricane Katrina, were called on to help rehabilitate 22 of the most challenged dogs taken to the sanctuary. They spoke Wednesday at the Fairlawn branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library.

The Joneses arrived at Best Friends the same day as the Vick dogs. They found the animals so traumatized, they cowered in corners when humans entered their pens and refused to cross thresholds because ''it meant something bad was going to happen to them,'' Kim Jones said.

Today, with some mishaps along the way, the majority of the Vick dogs are doing well. Three are certified therapy dogs and many have found new, adoptive homes after their painful start in life, Bill Jones said.

Because of the experience, the couple, along with Best Friends, have become breed advocates urging the removal of breed-specific language in favor of more effective laws to protect people from vicious dogs. Best Friends will be bringing that message to Ohio next year, Bill Jones said.

''Best Friends has targeted Ohio to get the [breed-specific] law rescinded,'' Jones said.

Readers can take a ''pick the pit'' challenge at http://www.pitbullsontheweb.com/petbull/findpit.html

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.

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