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by Lorrie Kalmbach Ehlers, President and Founder of BullsEye Dog Rescue, Seattle Pure Bred Dog Rescue Bully Breeds Representative

If you haven’t been down the halls of one of Puget Sound’s animal shelters recently, you might be surprised to learn that the predominant breed of dog currently found in our local shelters is a pit bull or some sort of pit bull mix.

Although there are no accurate or even near accurate census records for dogs in the U.S., much less specific breeds of dogs, there are far more pit bulls in our nation than most people realize.

In some areas, pit bulls are estimated to comprise between 30-40% of the dog population. Even in our nation’s animal shelters, it’s not unusual for pit bulls to typically make up “at least one fourth” of the total number of dogs in their kennels at any given time. Space constraints alone result in 90-100% of pit bulls ending their lives on the euthanasia table.

These same statistics ring true in the Puget Sound region. In the year 2006, three of our local shelters euthanized 1,375 pit bulls — roughly three to four pit bulls each day. This staggering number does not even begin to touch upon pit bull euthanasia rates for the area’s 100 other shelters and rescue groups.

SPDR’s statistics show a similar trend: For the last 10 years, American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers have been near the top of SPDR’s “top ten” list of most frequently handled breeds; last year, the number of pit bulls handled by SPDR was equal to the sum of the next eight most handled breeds on our list.

Because SPDR’s mission is to prevent unwanted purebred dogs from overloading the region’s public shelter systems, the Board of Directors decided that something had to be done to address the sheer number of homeless pit bulls. In a partnership with The Humane Society for Seattle and King County, Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue is sponsoring the free spay and neuter of any pit bulls living within the Puget Sound region.

Why are there so many pit bulls in the shelters these days? How has the homeless population of this breed reached such an alarming level? Are there just that many being bred? Or is that simply the proof of their “bad dog” behavior that we keep hearing about in the media, forcing them to be turned into the shelter far more often than the “nicer behaved” breeds?

In order to answer these questions, we need to take a look into the history of the pit bull.

History of the Breed
A cousin to the pit bull, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, descended from the old English bulldogge, or butcher’s dog — an animal bred since the Middle Ages to participate in the cruel “sport” of baiting large animals like bulls or bears.

A baiting consisted of confining or restraining these large animals and then allowing fearless dogs to attack and immobilize them, giving the people of the time both entertainment and source for gambling.

By the 16th Century, baiting events had garnered the enthusiastic support and patronage of royalty—including Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth, who reportedly took great delight in the sport in which the bull-dog was often killed or thrown severely injured into the crowd.

As public awareness grew to acknowledge the suffering of the animals caused in this display of barbarous cruelty, animal baiting was banned by law in 1835.

Baiting enthusiasts satiated their need for a barbaric sport by then turning their attentions to training their bull-dogs to fight each other. As time went on, breeders began selectively breeding their dogs for dog-aggression and greater athleticism. Cross breeding of the bull-dog with the English black-and-tan terrier produced the strong, agile, intelligent “bull and terrier”.

In 1832 Sir Walter Scott acknowledged his beloved “Wasp,” a product of the bull-dog cross breeding, by citing him “The wisest dog I have had was what is called the Bull and Terrier,”

Although fiercely competitive with other dogs in the fighting ring, these same dogs were stable and trustworthy; often living in their master’s house as family pets where their reliability with children earned them the nickname “nanny dog”. To ensure dog handlers in this sport would not receive a redirected bite when leaning into the pits to pull the battling dogs apart, breeders would cull any dogs showing reactive aggression towards humans immediately.

It this point in the breed’s development, England’s Bull and Terrier began to be known by a new name, the Pit Bull Terrier. History also shows that as Englanders began settling the New World, the pit bull terrier also made the crossing of the Atlantic with them.

America’s Yankee Terrier
The pit bull originally came to the shores of America with English families who were beginning a fresh life in the new world. Soon after arrival, the breed became a common sight in wagon trains and on farms. Although the cruel sport of dog fighting had also made the crossing with America’s pioneers, bull and terriers also began playing an important role in the development of the country.

Because of their reputation as a loyal, intelligent, and courageous they were often used in protecting children and the farm from predators, rounding up livestock, and bringing down hunted game. An invaluable asset for the taming of a wild country.

As the country matured and cities sprung from farmland, the Pit Bull Terrier became rooted in the fabric of America. At the turn of the century, the breed’s likeness was used in advertising, novels, and even a stamp that depicted Helen Keller with her dog “Phiz”, patiently waiting at her feet. It was during this time that an official registration was developed for the breed and the name once again converted to the American Pit bull Terrier.

Icon’s of early 20th century American culture featured this pit bull dog prominently in their ads; Levi jeans, Buster Brown shoes, and the infamous black and white RCA dog. Meanwhile tales of American Pit Bull Terriers were featured by such infamous authors as John Steinbeck who wrote about Jigg; James Thurber’s Rex; and even Mark Twain described Andrew Jackson, a Pit Bull pup in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. The American Pit Bull terrier even made a debut on the television as the beloved and ever patient “Petey” of Our Gang fame.

As our country entered World War I, so too did the American Pit bull Terrier. Affectionately nicknamed the “Yankee Terrier”, a name given to liken the breed’s courage and loyalty to the American people, it was featured in posters wrapped in an American flag spreading the word of patriotism with a caption of “I’m neutral, but not afraid.”

The most decorated dog in U.S. History emerged from this war. A brown and white pit bull terrier named Stubby. Mascot and member of the 102nd infantry, the dog had served his country in 17 battles in France. His courage was infamous, having saved hundreds of lives, solitarily capturing a German spy, all after being wounded twice but refusing to quit his countrymen. At a parade celebrating the end of the war, it is told that as Stubby marched alongside his infantrymen he raised his paw in salute to President Wilson. At Stubby’s passing, he was to remain a part of history when he was preserved and put on display at the Smithsonian.

Though Stubby gained the most notoriety of any dog fighting in war time, there have been other pit bulls serving just a notably in other wars. Sally Ann Jarrett served valiantly in the Civil War, facing some of the heaviest battles such as Bull Run and Pope’s retreat. Another pit bull named Jack also served in the Civil War, where twice he was captured, and then perhaps even more notably, was then exchanged for a Confederate soldier.

It is no surprise then, that when America entered World War II, poster sprang up depicting a U.S. Marine and his American Pit Bull Terrier, declaring them “Defenders of Old Glory.” The time where pit bulls were considered heros and symbols of the good in America has sadly passed.

The Pit Bull Today
The historic fighting ability of this All American breed has been attracting a bad crowd recently. During the 1980s, after the novelty of German Shepherd, Rottweiler, and Doberman “tough dogs” wore off, the Pit Bull became the next target. Within a decade, this once-beloved breed began to be exploited by the darker side of civilization — representing poverty, crime, drugs, thugs, and newspaper headlines featuring back alley dog fighting rings.

With that new reputation came disturbing accounts of aggressive attacks on humans by badly bred, severely neglected and abused pit bulls and pit mixes. For the first time in history, the public view of this breed was one of fear and panic brought on by sensationalist reporting and irresponsible criminal owners.

The scheme of a quick buck by these low life owners quickly contributed to the epidemic of unwanted pit bulls. Craigslist and the Little Nickel overflow with $100 ads for “Big Headed Monster pit bulls”. Look in the Free or Give Away sections and you will just as many pit bull ads featuring the remainder of the puppies that could not be sold.

And it’s not just criminals or backyard breeders causing the problem either. Anyone seeking a “tough” look, status symbol, or controversial fashion statement is likewise irresistibly drawn to having a Pit Bull.

And yet as fashions change, so do the loyalties of these “casual” Pit Bull owners. This is how the pattern of pit bulls purchased for breeding, fighting, or novelty, then later discarded and duly euthanized by our overcrowded shelters, has erupted into a disturbing ‘business as usual’ cycle with no discernable end in sight.

Breed Under Siege
While irresponsible breeders, drug dealers and dog fighters neglect and torture these dogs, the public media has been having a heyday with the breed. Today the pit bull is under siege.

A few years ago a New York Post story told of a man who was attacked and severely bitten on the leg by another breed of dog. He called the local media, but they didn’t find it exciting enough to report. A few days later, out of curiosity, the same man falsely told the same story to the same media, but this time he said that the dog was a Pit Bull. Three television news stations and four newspapers sent reporters immediately. (1)

Even typical dog and dog owner mistakes that are normally tolerated by the public, if done by a dog even marginally resembling a Pit Bull, are often turned into the “breaking news” story of the day.

Yet the very sensationalism that is the media’s hallmark can sometimes be a positive thing, as seen by the largely publicized animal cruelty case against well-known football player Michael Vick.

For years, the Pit Bull was always seen to be the criminal, and due to the nature of its breed, was blamed for the atrocities forced upon it, rather than blaming the people behind the true crimes.

Thus it was that Pit Bull rescuers, advocates, breeders, and law enforcement officials who have known for decades about the injustices and cruelty leveled against this breed were pleasantly surprised by the nation’s sudden outcry over this case. In fact the uproar has been so fierce and unrelenting that critics have condemned the response as too high for the crime. Clearly, the root of the public’s fury over Michael Vick is the shocking brutality of the dog fighting world. A world that very few of the general public in America had previously had even ventured a peek into.

Surprisingly, there’s also a negative side to the public’s recent awareness, something that at first glance would not appear to be an obstacle that the breed now faces. This is the well meaning but misguided efforts of certain animal rescuers.

More below...

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
The Few Who Are Worthy
An evolving trend our society of plenty has encountered in recent years is the “death row” and “last chance” guilt type animal rescuers. Motivated by good intentions and a love for animals, many of these people have but a casual relationship with dogs. But, because their message of urgency plucks our heartstrings, people fork over huge amounts of money and time to support their well intended, but often misguided efforts.

While it’s easy to be led by emotions and feel susceptible amidst the daily barrage of appeals from irresponsible owners threatening to turn their dog into “the pound,” having these situations result in knee jerk reactions to “save them all” is one of the worst things that can happen to pit bulls.

The pit bull breed, more than any other breed at this time, does not have the luxury of surviving ill-informed, inexperienced rescuers, much less unsuspecting, well-meaning, but inexperienced adopters. Given the way many of these dogs are still bred — for money rather than for temperament, or worse yet, for aggressive temperament rather than stability — every Pit Bull entering rescue should be an exceptional model of correct Pit Bull temperament, and should be placed in only the very best and most knowledgeable dog owner homes.

The goal of SPDR’s American Pit Bull Terrier Breed Rep is not to rescue as many pit bulls as possible. It is to restore the image of the breed — to bring it back to its original purpose and intent — through careful selection, scrupulous adoption, and non-sensationalized education.

Fact Versus Fiction
Let’s start with the easiest misconception: the term “pit bull.” Is it really a breed, or a conglomeration of breeds, or is it just a shortened version of American Pit Bull Terrier?

The evolution of the term ‘pit bull’ no longer represents a breed of dog, but rather a generic term used to describe dogs that display similar traits and characteristics. These dogs typically have breeding comprised of either American Pit bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any mix of the three.

No matter what you call them, the pit bull Terrier suffers from false information probably more than any other breed. The image of this breed as a natural human aggressor is attention grabbing, but false. pit bulls were never bred to attack people.

The typical American Pit Bull Terrier, the true ambassador of this breed, is stable, reliable, and loves people, as supported by a yearly study of dog breeds by the American Temperament Testing Society (ATTS), where pit bulls achieved a passing rate of 83.9%. That’s better than Beagles at 78.2%, and right up there with Golden Retrievers at 83.2% — both of which are breeds typically viewed as wonderful family dogs.

This temperament score is in stark contrast to the “monster myths” that perpetuate the image of the breed for a large part of society today. Locking jaws, unstable personalities that are prone to “snap” resulting in attacks on their owners, biting power beyond any other breed of dog — the list of myths goes on.

But wasn’t this dog originally bred to fight other dogs? The answer is yes. And like other types of terriers, some pit bulls can be aggressive towards other dogs. This is where responsible breeding, rescue and ownership becomes key.

A common phrase you will here relayed by responsible pit bull owners is “Set your pit bull up for success.” Just as we strive to set our children up to succeed in today’s world, so too does a pit bull owner their dog. Socialization in a controlled manner early on, spaying/neutering at a young age, monitoring dog play, and clear but fair leadership are just some of the a responsible owners guidelines. Not breeding or rescuing the overtly dog aggressive dogs, but rather choosing them for the plethora of also typical great traits they should exude. Still, some amount of dog aggression is typical and can be expected. Pit bulls often do not seek the fight, but true to all terriers, they don’t back down from one either.

Yet animal aggression is very different from human aggression. If animal aggression translated into human aggression, many dog breeds would be at risk of the “monster” label — the beloved Snoopy, a Beagle, bred to track and rip apart fox; the gentle Irish Wolfhound, bred to kill wolves; and nearly all of the terriers, of which Miniature Schnauzers are grouped with, that were (and are) deadly rodent hunters.

So who it the “real” pit bull? A fun loving, spunky and affectionate dog that is also impressively loyal, bold, and courageous. They are natural “court jesters,” amazing athletes, and perfect family companions.

Bred for athleticism and adaptability for hundreds of years, they are easily one of the most versatile dog athletes of current times, participating in a variety of dog sports including Agility, Weight Pull, Obedience, Flyball, Frisbee and even Herding. With their tenacious work drive and strong desire to please their owners not just 100% but 200%, they are natural competitors and win impressive titles wherever they’re worked.

As the reality of the breed’s capabilities has begun to be acknowledged, so too has their use in public service. Currently, just in the state of Washington, there are six pit bulls working as very successful K9 officers for the State Patrol bomb and drug sniffing units. Two of the countries most successful and noted search and rescue dogs are pit bulls, Dakota and Tahoe, who were called upon to participate in the recovery of the crew member remains from the space shuttle Columbia explosion.

Meanwhile the soft side of the breed shows up in their overflowing affection for humans — a desirable trait that was very important to the original breeders of this animal, and remains so today. For this reason, many pit bulls work as Certified Therapy Dogs in hospitals and nursing homes. A pit bull named ‘RCA’ was Alaska’s first certified Hearing Dog.

However the favorite place of any well-loved Pit Bull is in the lap of their adoring human or close by their side. There are hundreds of family homes right here in the Puget Sound who know the breed and continue to seek them out as their dog of choice because of their amazing tolerance and love for families and children.

The Future
Many people deeply embedded in the pit bull world are at a heightened state of alarm for the future of this amazing breed. As public misconception continues, the plight of the breed as a whole is in jeopardy.

As the media continues to misreport and sensationalize pit bull incidents, as other breed of dogs continue to be mislabeled as pit bulls, and as irresponsible owners, backyard breeders, and criminals continue to neglect and abuse this breed, their plight seems to be in a unending downward spiral towards an all-out ban.

In just the last decade, Breed Specific Legislation — rules that govern whether or not you can own a specific breed of dog, of which pit bulls are only one on the list — has become rampant not only in the United States, and not only in our own state, but in numerous other countries around the world.

The best argument against breed bans is that they are costly and ineffective. Breed bans are often a knee-jerk reaction from politicians who want to say they are “doing something” in response to a highly publicized dog attack (of any breed). This is a useless exercise.

I would argue that it is also not a very intelligent choice. What message are we telling society about these abusive and irresponsible owners when legislation makes the dogs pay the price for their action? Criminals habitually break laws. If their dog is confiscated and killed, they will just get another one because Breed Specific Legislation punishes the dog, not the owner. Criminalizing a breed only makes them appeal more to the criminals.

To end this trend, the public as a whole needs to respond. Demand conscientious breeding. Recognize media hype for what it really is. Thoroughly research and hold rescue groups to stringent standards, recognizing that not every Pit Bull can, or should, be saved. Report cruelty and neglect, knowing that abuse victims can be become dangerous out of necessity. Request, demand, and insist on responsible ownership of the Pit Bull. Do not support the “get out of jail free” card of Breed Specific Legislation.

But most of all? Give one of the true ambassador dogs of this breed a chance to show you who they used to be, and who they can be again, if we take the responsibility to treat them humanely, intelligently, and with great responsibility. You’ll be rewarded 200%, and then some.

1.The Ultimate American Pit Bull Terrier, Jacqueline O’Neil

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Best article I've yet read about the topic.
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