State of the Union: Dog Abuse—Who’s Taking the Biggest Hit?

If asked which dog breed is the most stigmatized and has the worst reputation in the public eye, most individuals would answer without hesitation: the pit bull. When it comes to canine abuse—both at the hands of dog owners and at the hands of the public at large—the pit bull has unquestionably been mistreated and vilified over the years above any other breed.

‘America’s Dog’

At the turn of the 20th century, the pit bull was hailed as “America’s dog,” renowned for its many exemplary qualities. These dogs were featured as national mascots in advertising campaigns during World War I and World War II and were among the very first canines to be used in military combat settings, being celebrated as war heroes in their own right. Many notable figures throughout history were known to own pit bulls, including Thomas Edison, Helen Keller and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

So, exactly what changed for this incredible breed?

A Tarnished Reputation

As with most of the problems in our world, the root cause of the bad rap pit bulls now suffer under can be traced back to humans.

Pit bulls were historically bred in the United Kingdom in the 1800s to perform in barbaric “sports” like bull baiting and dogfighting. The 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s saw a resurgence of these inhumane dogfighting activities in the United States, with pit bull owners breeding the dogs independently outside of AKC and ADBA regulations and abusing the dogs in order to foster aggressive behavior that would make them fiercer competitors in the dogfighting arena. This overbreeding, trained aggression and misuse of pit bulls helped proliferate the public perception that pit bulls were scary, aggressive and dangerous.

In addition to the mistreatment and misuse of pit bulls by their owners, the widespread vilification of these dogs can be greatly blamed on the popular media. A notorious 1987 cover story in Sports Illustrated, for instance, indelibly painted pit bulls as “killers,” with a vicious-looking pit bull bearing its teeth menacingly on the front cover and the caption “Beware of this Dog” emblazoned above it.

Countless other negative media portrayals have continued fanning the flame of discrimination over the years, painting pit bulls as a bad breed. Newspapers throughout the country continue to latch onto any story that involves a pit bull biting a human while primarily ignoring dog biting cases that involve any other breed. The reason? Though canines belonging to all breeds can bite (and do), pit bulls are the “whipping boy” of the dog world; therefore, when a pit bull bites, it’s headline news, while a Labrador, dalmatian, spaniel or any other type of dog biting a human rarely makes the newspaper.

Due to this “bad breed” reputation, there was even a rise in pit bull ownership among gang members in the 1980s, further adding to the image that pits were a “thug dog.”

A Cruel Irony

One irony of the pit bull smear campaign is that the innate breeding of these dogs actually conditioned them to be gentle toward humans.

While pit bulls were historically bred for activities like bull baiting and dogfighting—events that pitted them aggressively against other animals and against each other—they were being stringently trained to be gentle to humans just as they were being bred to dominate over other animals. Any pit bull that bit its handler was swiftly put down; only those that were obedient and gentle to people were kept and further bred. Thus, pit bulls were innately conditioned to be non-aggressive toward their human handlers.

In temperament tests today, pit bulls are actually consistently ranked as one of the least aggressive dog breeds in existence.

Breed-Specific Legislation

Just as the popularity of dogfighting was on the rise, the 1980s also saw the very first instances of breed-specific legislation (BSL) in America’s cities—most of which specifically targeted the pit bull.

Because pit bulls were now widely branded as dangerous animals that posed a public threat, laws began to be enacted against the dogs. Over the years, these laws have ranged from requiring owners to specially register their pit bulls and to carry liability insurance to outright pit bull bans that empower animal control officers to confiscate and euthanize the dogs.

Breed-specific legislation continues to target the pit bull today, and the consequences are heartbreaking:

  • Approximately 2,800 pit bulls are euthanized every day.
  • In cities with BSL, it is an almost-certainty that pit bulls taken to animal shelters will be euthanized rather than adopted.
  • Pit bull owners in BSL-restricted cities often resort to hiding their dogs and restricting their outdoor activity and socialization to avoid detection. They also refrain from seeking veterinary care, including spay/neuter and vaccinations.
  • Owners of well-behaved pit bulls can face housing issues, legal expenses and even having their beloved pets confiscated.

A Better Way

Instead of breed-specific legislation, which creates problems rather than solving them, there are better options that need to be implemented in America’s cities.

One key is the creation and better enforcement of laws that hold humans accountable for the treatment and care of their dogs, rather than unwisely and unfairly targeting one specific breed. The Animal Justice League of America is dedicated to supporting law enforcement efforts and legal processes and procedures that bring meaningful charges and judgements against those who abuse animals. Prosecuting abusive and neglectful pit bull owners, for instance, rather than persecuting the pit bulls themselves, is the course of action that needs to be taken.

Instead of focusing time and resources on restricting or eradicating pit bull ownership, municipalities need to enact and better enforce ordinances that target responsible pet ownership, including leash laws, dog license laws and animal cruelty laws.

Cities, counties and states should also take measures to make affordable spay/neuter and vaccination services available to pet owners to promote responsible pet care. Spay/neuter, in particular, has been shown to reduce sex-hormone-related aggression and stress in dogs.

The bottom line in reducing dog attacks from any breed is placing the focus and responsibility where they belong: on human behavior.

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