Thursday, July 9, 2009

ID - Are pit bulls getting a bad rap?

Are pit bulls getting a bad rap?By Mike Murad
BOISE - Pit bulls can divide people, just like abortion, politics and religion.

There's been a string of reported attacks locally, including when an Ada County Sheriff's deputy had to shoot a pit bull last week when they say it was attacking a Meridian Police officer and a K9. The pit bull died from the gunshot.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 12 people are killed by dog attacks each year nationwide, including three from pit bulls.

But even though you're still about 20 times more likely to be killed from a lighting strike than a pit bull attack, people still have strong feelings about the breed.

Two years ago, Peter Olson told CBS 2 he was simply outside his home picking up the mail, when two pit bulls appeared from nowhere, and attacked him.

"I knew they were going to kill me," Olson said. "I knew it was a fight for my life. As soon as I looked up they came charging and they didn't stop."

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 800,000 people seek medical treatment each year for a dog bite. But, are your chances of getting bitten by a pit bull greater than any other dog?

The answer is no, said Dr. Dianne Soule, a Boise veterinarian. In her 24 years of experience, Soule says she's been bitten by just about every breed, except a pit bull.

"When I talk to other veterinarians about what dogs you see that are most aggressive, pit bull is not in the top 10," she says.

It's Rottweiler, and Chows, and Chihuahuas and Daschunds.

And the science would seem to back that up. A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania indicates you have a much better chance of suffering a snap at the mouth of a Dachshund, Chihuahua, or Jack Russell terrier.

But, where the pit bull did score higher was in aggression toward other dogs, a trait that may have been fostered by their history of being forced to fight, both dogs and other animals.

CBS 2 recently observed dog activity and dog owners at a Meridian dog park, and couldn't find anyone who expressed a bias against the breed in general.

"I'd be a little scared if they were a pit bull that had been in dog fighting or aggressive," said Stephanie Griswold, who owns a German shepherd, "But as a puppy, if you raise it right, I wouldn't have any trouble with it."

Over the last three decades, the American Temperament Test Society has evaluated more than 29,000 dogs. And, of the 14 most tested breeds, only the Labrador retriever scored higher than a pit bull.

ATTS awards a pass or fail to each dog coming through their program. The test is based on the animal's shyness, aggressiveness and friendliness. Since 1977, ATTS has been keeping a running tally, and in terms of overall disposition, when it comes to the most tested dogs, only labs top pit bulls.

Lisa Kauffman is the Idaho director of the Humane Society of the United States. Two years ago, she became a first time pit bull owner when she adopted Barkley, who she brings to the dog park on a regular basis.

"People ask, 'is that a pit bull?' And I say 'yes.' He plays nice, and doesn't cause problems," says Kauffman, "So I think by me taking him places he's a good ambassador for the breed itself."

A pit bull is also the pet of choice for Treasure Valley dog trainer Sandra Sartorius.

"Give them a chance," says Sartorius. "If you've never met one, give them a chance, and you won't go back to any dog," she says.

In 2000, the CDC published a special report spanning 20 years on the breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States. Pit Bulls topped the list, averaging about three deaths a year, followed by Rottweilers at two, and German shepherds at one.

"Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bulls and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates," the CDC said in its report.

But, even if other breeds tend to bite more overall, why do pit bulls instill such fear in some people?

"They look tough," says Dr. Soule. "They are a big, beefy dog."

Sartorius says overcoming preconceived notions is the hardest part when explaining the breed to people. "I've met people, and I can't change their mind," says Sartorius. "It's 'oh, pit bulls are bad, and they're going to kill you and your dogs and everything else,' and I can't change people like that."

Kauffman says the problem comes back to any breed's owner. "It's the dogs left tethered on chains 24-7, dogs that aren't made a part of the family, that have no obedience training."

Soule believes owners can bring out the best, or worst, in pit bulls. "I do think pet owners have a big influence on a dog's behavior," she says. "If you want an aggressive dog, and encourage their tendency, that's what you will get. But if you want a dog that's gentle, that's what we see, and they're great."

Last year, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a study from Multnomah County, Oregon. The number of overall dog bites was analyzed, and the study found lower income neighborhoods produced more biting dogs of all breeds, and fewer dogs that were neutered, which is considered to be a biting risk factor.

The study concluded: "Dog bites continue to be a source of preventable injury. Prevention programs should target owners of sexually intact male and purebred dogs and owners who live in lower income neighborhoods."

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