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Bark vs. bite: A look at the stigma surrounding pit bulls

Vox examines the local and national regulations on pit bulls, and how those rules impact the dogs' owners

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Lisa with Anni on bench

Lisa adopted 3-year-old Anni in January, though she hadn't set out to adopt a pit bull specifically. She says she was worried about how people would feel about the dog. 

Lisa Franko told herself that Anni would sleep on the floor, but ever since she let the 3-year-old pit bull into her bed the day after she adopted her, she hasn’t slept alone. “She always starts on the floor,” Franko says. “I would say halfway through the night, she finds her way up there.”

Franko adopted Anni from the Central Missouri Humane Society at the end of January. According to the Humane Society, Anni is a mixed breed, but because of her appearance and the fact that Anni was used for breeding by her previous owners, Franko has suspicions that she could be full Staffordshire bull terrier — one of the four breeds legally considered to comprise the pit bull category. When Franko began her search for a dog, she had no interest in adopting a pit bull, due to both her lack of experience with them and the stigma surrounding them. Although Franko says no one around her actively talks about it, she sees pit bulls portrayed as mean, particularly with stories recounting pit bulls attacking other dogs and children. The Humane Society even told Franko that Anni, statistically, was one of the hardest dogs to adopt out because of aversion to her possible breed and her dark coat.

Pit bull Anni

The Humane Society told Lisa when she adopted Anni that she is a mixed breed, but Lisa thinks she could be one of four breeds legally considered a pit bull.

The perpetuation of the negativity surrounding pit bulls has caused tension among their advocates and adversaries, especially when that reputation’s origins are a bit murky. Many people, such as Franko, say they are aware of it but don’t necessarily know when or why it came to be. Because many view pit bulls as inherently dangerous, the dogs are often generalized as having violent temperaments, which has resulted in breed-specific legislation regulating — and even banning — dogs identified as pit bulls around the world. In Columbia, landlords and insurance companies reflect these breed-based restrictions, which affect pit bull owners more than owners of other breeds. Government officials at both the state and local levels in Missouri are taking a stand against breed-specific legislation — with little luck.

According to DogsBite.org, Missouri is one of 42 states with municipalities that have dog breed-specific laws. There are 87 communities in Missouri that have dangerous dog breed ordinances, and all of them include pit bulls in some way. Regulations vary but include those that declare pit bulls dangerous, restrict them, require they be sterilized or outright ban them. No Boone County communities have breed-specific regulations. An animal control ordinance from the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, approved by the Boone County Commission about 25 years ago, states, “No dog shall be defined or considered vicious solely because of its breed.” However, neighboring communities do have these regulations. Within a loose 50-mile radius of Columbia, there are five towns that have ordinances banning pit bulls: New Florence, Montgomery City, California, Pilot Grove and New Franklin.

Breed-specific legislation has come under fire as dog advocates and professional organizations question its effectiveness and reasoning. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Veterinary Medical Association, for instance, condemn it. The ASPCA opposes state or local laws regulating or banning dogs based on breed because “no convincing data indicates this strategy has succeeded anywhere to date,” according to its website. The AVMA considers breed-based legislation unacceptable because it often relies on dogs’ appearances and quick judgments that can result in euthanizing dogs based on how they look rather than on how they’ve acted, according to its website.

Bronwen Dickey, author of Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, argues that breed-specific legislation imperils the public rather than protects it. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed from 2016, Dickey cites examples of locations with breed-based laws that have experienced higher numbers of injuries or hospitalizations resulting from dog bites since implementing bans — an indication such laws are ineffective. Toronto is one of these places, which, despite implementing a ban on owning, breeding, transferring, abandoning or importing pit bulls in 2005, is experiencing more dog bites overall than in previous years, according to a February 2016 Global News Toronto article. The United Kingdom, another location Dickey cites, has banned pit bulls since 1991 but has seen an increase in the number of hospital admissions for dog bite-related injuries or attacks over the past 10 years, according to a 2015 article from The Guardian.

In the op-ed, Dickey also writes that these laws squander resources that could be used to handle individual dogs acting out but instead focus attention on dogs that look a certain way. Such breed-specific laws also aren’t necessarily specific, especially where pit bulls are concerned, Dickey says. Four breeds — American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and American Bully — constitute the pit bull category. “If you’re going to make people adhere to special laws, you should have solid information to back it up as a lawmaker,” Dickey says. The lack of one widely accepted definition of the breed complicates creating and enforcing policies.

About 22 states either prohibit breed-specific legislation or have legislation opposing breed-based laws, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at the Michigan State University College of Law. Of these states, seven have state laws that also prohibit any municipal regulation of dogs based on breed — Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Utah — and 15 have state laws that ban municipal declaration of dogs as “dangerous, potentially dangerous or vicious.” Missouri is not included in either category and is among the states that currently do not prohibit breed-specific laws.

In the past two years, two Missouri representatives have proposed acts to change that. The first legislation was proposed in 2015 by former state Rep. Ron Hicks, and it didn’t move forward. This year, a bill proposed by Rep. Bruce DeGroot was referred to committee in March, but no hearing was scheduled before the close of the regular legislative session in May.

No Pit Bulls Allowed

Breed-specific laws are just one hurdle pit bull owners face. Many property managers, landlords and apartment management companies also have breed-specific restrictions. According to the Central Missouri Humane Society’s website that lists Columbia property restrictions for pets, the majority of landlords bar “aggressive” breeds, which include pit bulls. Many other properties specifically name the dogs not allowed, and pit bulls appear numerous times.

Lisa Franko spends an evening studying with her pit bull, Anni

Lisa Franko spends an evening studying with her pit bull, Anni, at their home in Columbia. Many apartment complexes don't allow aggressive dogs, including pit bills, so she had to find a place to live that didn't have such restrictions. 

Student housing apartment complex The Arch has a policy that all dogs have to be approved, but generally, aggressive breeds are not allowed, David Streeter, general manager of the property, wrote in an email. He noted that many apartment companies don’t allow pets, but he couldn’t speak on their policies.

Caryn McClanahan, who works for Jacobs Property Management, says restrictions against breeds considered aggressive are standard for management companies. Jacobs Property Management doesn’t allow puppies, Doberman pinschers, pit bulls, Rottweilers, chow chows, Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies or their mixes. This is because the company manages more than 500 residences for more than 51 owners who have insurance policies that might or might not cover these breeds, she says. The rules create a standard for all properties to avoid confusion and possible insurance violations by renters. Not allowing Dobermans, pit bulls and Rottweilers has been part of the company’s policies for the nine years McClanahan has worked there and said guidelines were in place before her hiring, she says.

When it comes to homeowners insurance for properties with dogs, some companies vary their coverage based on breed, but others, such as State Farm, don’t. Missy Dundov, a spokesperson for State Farm, says the company determines coverage on an individual basis, and it’s not just the breed of the dog that determines what is available for customers. Instead, State Farm looks at how the owner handles his or her dog, the history of the dog — specifically whether he or she has bitten someone — and the likelihood the dog will bite again. “It’s not necessarily that a pit bull bit you, or a Rottweiler bit you,” Dundov says. “If a golden retriever bites somebody, then we have to look at, is there a chance that the dog will continue to bite, and figure out then what kind of coverage that owner should get.” Underwriters and agents work to determine any future risks based on the individual situations where bites have occurred. “If we’re insuring families that might have an aggressive dog, we just need to make sure that if there is a claim, we can pay it,” she says. “It’s all a business.”

Franko says she and her roommate chose their property — an apartment owned by Montmartre Apartments and Properties — because of its pet policy. The lack of specific restrictions allowed her roommate to keep her cat and allowed Franko to adopt any dog.

Friend or Foe?

Historically, pit bulls weren’t defined by their negative rap. In her book, Dickey examines the public perception of pit bulls in America and how it has changed over the past 100 years. In the early 1900s, the dogs’ popularity stemmed from the idea that they were a friendly dog for the average American, gracing the cover of Life magazine three times — more than any other dog. Pit bulls were even used to represent the spirit of America in propaganda and advertising during World Wars I and II. As Dickey states in her book, the term “pit bull” encompasses multiple breeds and is a wildly imprecise and elastic phrase. Outside the law, pit bulls are more commonly defined as such based on physical characteristics, which casts a much wider net as far as what types of dogs are included. Dickey points out that if mixed-breed dogs possess characteristics similar to the four aforementioned breeds, including what Dickey calls blocky heads, brindle coats and white markings on their chests, people are often quick to label them pit bulls even if it might not be totally accurate.

When dogfighting became widely publicized in the 1970s, however, the perception of pit bulls drastically shifted as people began to see these dogs associated with fighting. They were often bred for this due to their natural strength and assumed scrappiness. “Once reporters and misinformed activists cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse,” Dickey writes, “pit bulls were exiled to the most turbulent margins of society, where a cycle of poverty, violence, fear and desperation had already created a booming market for aggressive dogs.” Now, coverage of pit bulls is largely dominated by news stories recounting violent attacks. Searching “pit bull” on Google News yields results that reflect this media phenomenon. Searching “dog attacks” conjures up more articles documenting pit bull attacks, even without the specific pit bull search parameters.

Looking at local statistics, it’s true that pit bulls are overrepresented in dog bite cases. The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services keeps records of dog bites reported to animal control. Of the 175 total bites reported in the year from April 1, 2016 through March 31, 2017, 43 breeds were represented. Only three breeds broke into double digits: German shepherds with 15 bites, Labrador retrievers with 19 bites and pit bulls with 51 bites. These numbers are consistent with reports from previous years, writes Eric Stann, community relations specialist for the department, in an email. What is more difficult to determine is how many of each breed live in Columbia. Although the city requires dogs to be licensed, only 11 percent are, according to the Board of Health. Of the 2,709 dogs licensed up to 2015, about 156 are pit bulls.

Crunching the numbers, it would seem that pit bulls are more likely to be part of a dog bite incident, with about 5 percent of the licensed dogs making up 30 percent of the dog bites reported. But that is far from a complete picture — not only because the true numbers of resident dogs are unknown, but also because the very stigma surrounding pit bulls could skew reports. People might be more likely to report bites by dogs that look like pit bulls. When Dickey was researching for her book, she says an animal law enforcement officer in Colorado told her it’s difficult to get anyone to care if it’s not a pit bull bite. Misidentification of breed by victims in dog bite situations is another factor. “Pit bull” encompasses four breeds of dogs in varying sizes, shapes and colors. “It would be like if you were going to compare the accident rates of the Toyota Tacoma, the Ford Expedition and all sedans,” Dickey says.

Anni with Toy

"She is very food-motivated," says Anni's owner, Lisa Franko, as the dog licks peanut butter, her favorite snack, out of a bone in her home. The American Bully breed has been bred to eliminate aggression in the dogs. 

With more than 50 years of experience training dogs, Ann Gafke, owner of the dog training facility Ann Gafke’s Teacher’s Pet in Columbia, says she summarizes pit bulls by five characteristics: protective, tenacious, stubborn, independent and willful. Being stubborn and independent might fuel the stigma surrounding pit bulls and the generalization that they have inherently bad temperaments, but Gafke says each trait can be considered positive or negative. A dog’s environment and its training affects temperament more than inherited traits, she says. If dogs are not educated by their owners, breed traits can manifest themselves in negative ways. Saying certain breeds have a “good” or “bad” temperament is like saying one group of people does or doesn’t do something solely based on their culture, Gafke says. Dogs that cause problems are the result of a lack of training, not what is in their DNA, she says.

Michelle Casey, the assistant director of the Central Missouri Humane Society, says she thinks the long-held stigmas surrounding pit bulls are slowly dissipating as people advocate for them. Missouri Pit Bull Rescue, headquartered in Kansas City, is one organization fighting for the rights of pit bulls across the state. The organization strives to teach people about the breed and how to care for a pit bull responsibly, and it also combats legislation against the breed. Educating the community about pit bulls is a necessary component in dismantling negative stereotypes, Casey says. One way the Humane Society does this is by including pit bulls in adoption events to increase awareness of all dog breeds. This allows people to form beliefs based on personal experiences with dogs rather than on reputation alone, Casey says.

In addition, Casey says the Humane Society’s community engagement coordinator goes to schools and teaches children about responsible animal ownership and humane treatment of all living things, using the same technique of creating positive individual experiences to erode ingrained beliefs about aggressive dogs. “She’ll bring dogs of all different shapes, sizes, breeds and just really tries to instill in (students) how important that human-animal bond can be,” Casey says.

Despite steps toward reducing negative views about pit bulls, Franko says she has seen people react to Anni in ways she doesn’t think they would react to other dogs. Although no one has ever said anything to her about Anni, sometimes, when she takes her for walks in a crowded place, Franko notices people sidestepping her a little more than she’d expect. When Franko was looking for a dog, this is exactly what she wanted to avoid. “I wanted a dog that I could take out in public,” Franko says. “I kind of worried about having her out and about and how people would react.”

Although Franko says she never considered that she might have to worry about where she and Anni will live next because of restrictions placed on pit bulls and so-called “aggressive” breeds, she says it’s something she’ll have to think about now. “I don’t plan on staying here forever, so if I were going to rent again, I feel like I would definitely have to let them know that she’s a pit bull,” Franko says. The negative reputation makes her sad, Franko says, because she has never seen Anni exhibit any aggression. Such stereotypes also mean there might be sweet dogs like her sitting in shelters for too long.

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