The American Kennel Club calls them American Staffordshire Terriers or Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but most people know them as the pit bull. They are known for being strong and athletic, but to Caress Garten, pit bulls are dangerous animals.
“The pit bull’s traits make it dangerous. It is a very tenacious dog. The dog is also unpredictable. This is a trait bred into it for fighting. The dog could show no expression at all then suddenly turn and grab the other dog. To domesticate this dog and put it in a home, that’s a problem. They show no signs of preparation of attack, they just do,” said Garten who is a board member for DogsBite.org, a national dog bite victims’ group. “Another trait is their tremendous bite. When they bite, they clamp down and don’t release. This is the source of fear in people and they should be.”
Garten acknowledges that not all pit bulls are dangerous, however she said one never knows which ones are and which ones aren’t. She also knows there are other dog breeds deemed “attack dogs” or “bully breeds,” like rottweilers, German shepherds and doberman pinschers, however it’s the inbred traits, strong jaws and unpredictability in pit bulls that makes them the most dangerous.
Bull 911, a pit bull advocacy agency, also said pit bulls were historically bred to display dominance and aggression toward other dogs – part of the breed’s dog fighting past.
Garten’s beliefs are based on her research, but also her personal experience. In the early 1990s, while walking along Fall Creek Parkway, Garten was attacked by two pit bulls. The owner was nearby and saw the attack. Garten lost some of her lower left leg.
Garten took her story to the Indiana Legislature where she helped pass Indiana Code 15-20-1-4, which criminally penalizes owners of vicious dogs.
In addition to their traits, she said bad owners, backyard breeding and dog fighting further perpetuates the aggressiveness of pit bulls. Her mission with Dogsbite.org is to support dog bite victims and encourage cities across America to adopt stronger animal laws.
While Garten firmly stands behind her beliefs, others are skeptical about the companionability of pit bulls too. Sarah Clayton, an Allstate insurance agent at Don Oldham Agencies Inc. said there are many insurance companies that will not accept certain dog breeds, including pit bulls, when underwriting a home.
“There are a few companies that underwrite based on bite history, and would accept the home risk with the pit bull as long as the dog has not bitten anyone,” said Clayton. “Clients may opt to increase their medical payments or liability coverage and pay an additional premium.”
Indianapolis resident James Smith didn’t have those options. He said his insurance company dropped him because he owned a pit bull.
And according to Indy Pit Crew, only seven apartment communities in Indianapolis accept pit bulls.
“You heard very little about the Pomeranian who attacked a young boy and literally ripped his testicles off, but if a pit bull did it, it would be everywhere,” said Dawn Contos, community outreach coordinator for the Indianapolis Animal Care and Control.
Advocates of pit bulls understand why people are afraid or untrusting of pit bulls, but say that fear is due to misinformation, a perpetuation of stereotypes and blatant discrimination. They say most dogs are not dangerous, but actually any dog, not just pit bulls, has the potential to be dangerous for a variety of reasons. Certain dogs do have specific traits, but pet owners are ultimately responsible for a dog’s good and bad behavior.
Pit bulls are known for being loyal, having an affectionate disposition, and are noted for their attachment to their masters as well as for their confidence and intelligent temperament. Pit bull breeds are typically devoted and sociable, and are happiest when in the company of their human companions.
VetStreet.com lists pit bulls as one of the most popular dogs in America. Banfield Pet Hospital, which is oftentimes located in PetSmart stores, has seen an increase in their pit bull clients.
John Aleshire, CEO of the Humane Society of Indianapolis, said throughout history, certain dogs have acquired a bad reputation. During Civil War time bloodhounds were feared; German shepherds were associated with Nazis until popular TV show “Rin Tin Tin” made them more acceptable; and rottweilers and Doberman pinschers became the feared dog during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Today, pit bulls are vilified.
“The dog Petey from ‘The Little Rascals’ was actually a pit bull,” said Aleshire. “There was a time when pit bulls were widely accepted.”
Stacey Coleman, executive director for Animal Farm Foundation, whose mission is to secure equal treatment and opportunity for pit bulls, said people’s first mistake is believing that a pit bull’s appearance determines its behavior.
“There’s no real agreement on what is or isn’t a pit bull. Pit bull isn’t a breed. There’s no coherent gene pool that defines what a pit bull is. The pit bull is based on opinion about what it looks like. Even when you have a pure breed dog, you can’t make behavioral predictions,” said Coleman.
Another myth Coleman debunks is that the majority of pit bull owners are African-American. She said this is absolutely not true – pit bulls are popular among all races of people. Coleman adds that this sort of thinking can also lead to racial and cultural discrimination.
“It’s almost like it’s become a social construct rather than a dog. We stereotype the owners just as much as we stereotype the dog,” said Coleman. “Also socioeconomic status doesn’t dictate how well people love and care for their pets.”
Not only is there a wide variety of affordable veterinarians, Coleman cites the Humane Society of the United States’ Pets for Life program, which provides low-cost pet care services for those who have low incomes.
At any given time the Humane Society of Indianapolis can have a wide variety of dogs available for adoption. They always have an ample amount of pit bulls but not because no one wants to adopt them.
“We’re trying to get people to understand the importance of spay and neutering. We have lots of dogs on the streets. Particularly in certain areas of the city, pit bull mix dogs are very common and sought out so you have dogs breeding and breeding,” said Aleshire.
Contos said Indianapolis Animal Care and Control, which is a part of the Department of Public Safety, puts all of its dogs through rigorous temperament testing before being labeled as adoptable. Aggressive dogs are euthanized.
Organizations like Coleman’s Animal Farm Foundation and local organizations such as Indy Pit Crew and Casa Del Toro Pit Bull Rescue are working hard to educate people about the overwhelmingly positive traits of pit bulls and shed fears. Coleman adds that due to the publicity of the Michael Vick dog fighting arrest, for the first time, people see pit bulls and other dogs as victims rather than criminals.
Pit bull advocates encourage people to learn the facts and make pit bulls a part of their home.
“You ask why do pit bulls make great family pets? Well pit bulls are dogs and dogs make great family pets,” said Coleman.
For more information, call the Humane Society of Indianapolis at (317) 872-5650 or visit indyhumane.org; Indianapolis Animal Care and Control at (317) 327-1397; Indy Pit Crew at indypitcrew.org; Casa Del Toro Pit Bull Rescue at (317) 586-8024 or cdtrescue.org.
The Recorder asked Facebook fans: Do you think pit bull dogs are misjudged? Do you believe they are dangerous? Why or why not?
“No, dangerous people train dangerous dogs. Dogs become dangerous because of abuse not because of their breed.” – Bryan Chatfield
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“These dogs are naturally born aggressive animals so if you tune up the aggression then you will have a dangerous animal. If you love and help them adapt to family life then you will have a very good loyal pet.” – Alice Wallace
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“If they weren’t dangerous, there would be no need for this discussion.” – Andrew Majors
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“Misjudged for sure! They have needs that need to be met, like proper exercise, and a positive environment. I believe it is all about what they are exposed to and how they are raised.” – Wendy Williams
Join the conversation online on Facebook.com/IndianapolisRecorder.
Pet First AID and CPR Training
Indianapolis Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center (IVR/IVEC) will host its biannual animal first aid and CPR training class on April 13 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the veterinary emergency critical care center, located at 5425 Victory Dr.
As part of the class, vet techs bring in several dogs to engage with participants and demonstrate life-saving techniques like how to muzzle and/or restrain, how to carry and transport, and how to bandage and splint an injured animal.
A doctor of veterinary medicine will also cover common emergency-related topics like head trauma, shock, bleeding, choking, poisoning, heat stroke, drowning, seizures, broken bones, burns, paralysis and more.
Doors open for registration at 8:30 a.m. Cost is $35 per person, which includes an animal first aid manual, instruction from experts, extensive hands-on training, refreshments, certificate of completion and a tour of IVEC’s facility.
Pre-registration is required by calling (317) 846-8965.