Guest Commentary

Pit bulls and other 'bully breeds' don't deserve all the persecution

One day while my friend was walking her black pit bill, Jeb, a woman walked up and said, "What a beautiful Lab! Is it OK if I pet him?"

My friend said that it would be OK, adding: "By the way, he's not a Lab. He's a pit bull."

At the phrase "pit bull," the woman's arm halted in mid-reach; her smile morphed into a grimace, and she scurried away--another victim of society's pigeonholing of certain dog breeds as unpredictable beasts that would just as soon lick your hand as rip your arm off at the shoulder.

Her loss, and one that marks that lady as another casualty in the "nature vs. nurture" debate over dangerous dog breeds.

My friend has worked hard to ensure that Jeb, who is not far removed from puppyhood, is comfortable around people. If nothing else, he may be a little too comfy with the bipedalian world, viewing strangers as just "people who haven't petted me yet."

It's a tough world in which to be a pit bull or one of its relatives among the "bully class"--Staffordshires, bull mastiffs and other dogs whose breeding speaks of a past when dog fighting was a legal form of entertainment. Their inheritance is a mistaken belief that their DNA includes an inevitable, ticking time bomb that with explodes in gnashing teeth and splatters of blood. In the eyes of some people, the only resolution is to be found in a Russian adage: "The only cure for the hunchback is the grave."

Where once landlords sought to regulate dogs by size and weight, today, leases are written to exclude specific dog breeds, usually targeting "mean" breeds while ignoring smaller breeds whose genetics predispose them to digging or barking excessively.

Homeowners'-insurance carriers have moved in some states to blacklist the so-called "dangerous breeds" as too risky, arguing that a few breeds are responsible for half of the fatal dog maulings in this country every year.

And at the extreme, some communities have taken up breed-specific regulations that place unusual requirements on the owners of certain breeds--primarily pit bulls--like requiring the dog to be muzzled when outside the home, even in the family's yard. Some states have considered breed-specific legislation that also would ban or restrict certain dog breeds because of their reputation.

For example, the Tennessee legislature is considering a ban on "pit-bull-type dogs," purebred or mixed. I'd love to have them meet Zeus, a dog-park regular like Jeb. He's obsessed, but not with fighting. Instead, he's fixated on two things: his football, and finding someone, anyone, to throw it for him. Throw the bomb or throw a screen pass; it's all the same to him. He watches the gate and waits for a fresh arm, and doesn't care if you throw like Daryle Lamonica or Daryl Hannah.

Yep, ban that bad boy.

Around the dog park, the core group of owners chuckles at the memory of three girls--they don't have dogs of their own but come to the park occasionally to play with other people's dogs--scrambling over the fence at the arrival of a Rottweiler who's about the size of an airliner beverage cart. Those of us who know him also know that despite the breeding and size--he probably goes about 160 pounds--he is probably the most docile of the park's regulars.

That's a tribute to his owner, who has one of the strongest "command voices" in the park and rarely has to speak twice to the rotty about misbehaving.

And that's the rub in this debate. There's no argument about nature's role in all this. But in the rush to judgment, there's no accounting for the owner's role in shaping the dog's personality.

It doesn't take a lot of work to turn any dog--bully breed, or anything from a Yorkie to a Great Dane--into a fearsome piece of work. Just mistreat it a while. Ignore it. Withhold anything that seems like affection. Keep it away from other people. Teach it to be afraid, and to attack everything it fears.

When it comes to dogs--even bully breeds--they remind me of something Boys' Town founder Father Flanagan once said: I have yet to find a single one that wants to be bad.

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