Stereotyping Dog Breeds

By By Cindy Wolff
September 29, 2002

Tank is a chocolate-colored muscle of a dog whose tail was partially amputated after it became infected from incessant wagging against a kennel wall.

He sleeps at night cuddled with a stuffed animal; his thick neck bears the scars of a collar that was unmercifully too small. He’s never met a stranger and is happiest with his 70-pound body splayed across someone’s lap.

But no one wants Tank. He is forever painted by the same brush that has caused his breed to be revered by criminals and reviled by families.

Tank is a pit bull, the street name for several bull terrier breeds known for their tenacity, strong jaws and ability to inflict serious damage if not death on a human.

Some insurance companies won’t insure a house where a pit bull, Rottweiler, chow chow or other breeds live.

Last month, American Airlines banned pit bulls, Doberman pinschers and Rottweilers from its cargo hold after a pit bull chewed its way out of its crate and severed some electrical cords that knocked out part of the plane’s navigational system.

People who know the breeds call it a knee-jerk reaction to some isolated incidents that perpetuate a stereotype that strong dogs are bad dogs. Others call it a necessary precaution.

The result is that owners of the so-called “bad breeds” must constantly fight a negative image and prove that their pets are as gentle as their neighbor’s retriever or beagle.

“I’ve had people come out of their house and yell at me whenever I walk Jordan,” said Dellis Nobles, a Midtown resident, who owns the 3-year-old Rottweiler. “One man actually pulled a gun on me and told me if I walked him down the street again that he would shoot my dog. I called the police and they wouldn’t even take a report. The officer told me to walk a different route.”

He and other Rottweiler and pit bull owners are tired of the fearful gasps, the hard looks and the misinformation that continues to be spread about their pets when there are plenty of other breeds who lack the social skills of their dogs.

In fact, the various so-called pit bulls – the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, and Staffordshire bull terrier – and the Rottweiler scored better in temperament testing than many of the popular breeds living in households today.

The American Temperament Test Society examined nearly 23,000 dogs of various breeds in 2001, testing them for the ability to recover from loud sounds, their reaction to strangers aggressively walking toward them and other situations.

About 82 percent of the pit bulls and Rottweilers passed the tests. Some of the breeds that scored lower include Shar-pei, 69.4 percent; Dachshunds of various types (average) 75.2 percent; Lhasa apso, 70.8 percent; Scottish terrier, 62.1 percent; silky terrier, 68.8 percent; Skye terrier, 37.5 percent, and toy poodle, 79.1 percent.

“Usually the best dogs we have are the pit bulls and the Rottweilers,” said Julanne Ingram, president of the Humane Society of Eastern Arkansas, the group that rescued Tank.

“It’s pitiful what’s happening to these dogs,” said Ingram. “We find them tied out on chains to barrels. That barrel is supposed to be their shelter. Do you know how hot that metal gets in the summer and how cold in the winter? They are so mistreated, and they are so sweet.”

The problem is that many of these muscular dogs are trained from an early age to attack and kill other dogs. They are made to run on treadmills to get stronger. They grip on to and hang from a rope on a tree to make their jaws more lethal. Street fighting and pit bull rings are a national problem with a no-win situation for the dogs, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

“Certain segments of our society are under the impression that some dogs have a greater macho factor,” said Donna Malone, vice president of the Responsible Animal Owners of Tennessee. “You never see gang members walking down the street with a bichon (frise, a small, white fluffy dog). It’s not because the bichon can’t be as protective of the owner or its property as a Rottweiler. It’s just that a Rottweiler weighs seven or eight times more and has man-stopping ability. It doesn’t make the rotty a bad dog and the bichon a good dog; it just makes them different dogs.”

The problem comes when criminals train dogs such as pit bulls and Rottweilers to attack humans, something that’s not part of the dog’s nature that can have tragic consequences when those dogs are unleashed on society.

Of the 330 dog-bite related fatalities from 1979 to 1998, more than half were caused by pit bulls, according to a task force on canine aggression created by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Since 1975, more than 30 breeds have been responsible for fatal attacks including Dachshunds, a Yorkshire terrier and a Labrador retriever.

In Memphis, schoolteacher Betty Lou Stidham, 57 was killed in 1990 by her neighbor’s two pit bulls. The dogs’ owner, former Memphis policeman Edwin G. Hill Jr., was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in 1991. He served five months of a two-year prison sentence.

Attorney John Heflin, who successfully represented Stidham’s family in a lawuit against the city said he wasn’t out to condemn the entire breed because of the actions of those two dogs.

“These two dogs were vicious and what they did was horrific,” said Heflin. “I know people have pit bulls and they are great family pets. But these weren’t. They shouldn’t have been living next door to her. Mrs. Stidham tried to have those dogs removed. The city failed her. It was one of the most difficult cases I’ve ever worked on because her death was so painful.”

Stidham’s death prompted the City Council and County Commission to create ordinances that banned pit bulls and other vicious dogs. The laws were later ruled unconstitutional.

There was one other death in Memphis as a result of dog bites. In 1993, Mary Jackson, 94, died from blood loss after a family dog, a mixed-breed chow, mauled her arm.

In August, city officials strengthened an ordinance dealing with vicious dogs. It didn’t address a specific breed but focused on a dog’s bite history, nature of the bite and its temperament.

Besides the pit bull, the CDC said other breeds have killed humans too, including the German shepherd, husky, malamute, Doberman pinscher, Rottweiler, Great Dane and St. Bernard.

Nationwide Insurance created a list of breeds that are banned from homes it insures, including pit bulls, Rott weilers, Presa Canarios, chows and wolf hybrids.

Dog attacks have become the biggest single cause of home policy claims, with costs running to more than $300 million a year, said Robert Hartwig, chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group.

But banning a breed won’t stop dog attacks, said Malone and the CDC. People have to be aware of their dog’s temperaments and make sure they have control of their pets through obedience classes and behavior training.

Also, people need to train their children how to behave around animals, she said.

“I don’t believe any breed poses more of a risk than any other breed,” said Malone. “Size is of course a determining factor in the potential severity of the attack. Obviously, a big dog can do more damage than a small dog, but to say that so-called breed differences is the cause is unjustified.”

National Geographic Today is taking a look at the pit bull in a documentary it’s producing.

“Our investigation into pit bulls finds that breed is as much maligned, abused and misunderstood as any breed in society today,” said Mark Nelson, vice president and executive producer of National Geographic Today, which plans to air the documentary in the next few months on the National Geographic Channel.

“Many pit bull owners have dogs as gentle as any dog that their kids play with, and there are people breeding the dog specifically for dog fighting,” said Nelson. “It’s sad because pit bulls are certainly one of the most euthanized dogs in America.”

The commonality of fatal dog bites is size, not type or temperament, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fact is that big dogs are more powerful and can inflict more damage. That doesn’t mean they are more aggressive or dangerous, said veterinarian Dr. Kim Blindauer, epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta. It means owners need to be more responsible.

“The number of fatal dog bites is minuscule,” said Blindauer. “When it happens, people get upset and blame the breed, but there is no scientific evidence that one breed bites more than another.”

A recent walk down the quarantine aisle at the Memphis Animal Shelter found the biters to be a border collie, mixes of German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and chows. One pit-bull mix is among the biters. The rest of the pit bulls are wagging and begging for attention.

The most common biters in Memphis are chows and Labrador retrievers, said Ken Childress, manager of the city-operated shelter, which reported 725 bites in Memphis last year.

The most common dogs that bite usually reflect the popularity of the breed in that community, Blindauer said. It doesn’t mean that that breed has a propensity to bite.

Childress uses this analogy: If more people are driving red cars and statistics show more red cars in wrecks, does it mean that red cars cause wrecks or are there just more of them?

“There is no scientific evidence that some breeds are more aggressive than others,” said Blindauer. “In Texas in 2000, the chow was the breed that bit more people. In Lincoln, Nebraska, it’s the lab (Labrador).

“There are literally tens of thousands of Rottweilers and pit bulls that are loving pets in homes with families. You can’t single out a breed for aggression. What you can do is look at the owners who don’t take responsibility for their pets.”

Blindauer worked on a canine aggression task force with the CDC that found five factors that determine a dog’s tendency to bite: heredity, early experience, later socialization, training, and the victim’s behavior.

Also, more than 80 percent of the biters are male dogs that have not been neutered.

But regardless of their temperament at the Memphis shelter, pit bull strays and those surrendered by owners don’t make it out alive.

“There isn’t a nice family coming in asking for a pit bull that they want to keep in their homes and be part of their family,” said Childress. “The people who come in to get these dogs are not the people you want to adopt them to. They think the dog is macho and they want to fight them. We’re not going to rescue a dog from that life and then send him back to it. The best thing we can do is give it a humane death.”

It’s disturbing to people who know and love the breed.

Midtown resident Amy Shelton spent a lot of time looking at different breeds before she settled on a pit bull.

“A friend used to bring his pit bull over and that dog was not in accordance with anything I had heard about pit bulls,” said Shelton, 28, who works in accounting for Hilton Hotels Corp. “I got on the Internet and went to rescue sites and learned about the breed. I had to have one.”

She ended up with Cookie, a red pit bull that loves children, other dogs and any creature she encounters on their walks.

“She is the most loving, friendly dog I’ve ever met,” said Shelton. “She plays with Jordan (Noble’s Rottweiler). Jordan rolls over on his back and Cookie climbs on top and they just play. No aggression. Just two dogs playing like any other dogs.”

Hollywood Pet Star owner Don Warmbrod is so determined to educate people about pit bulls that he made one his store dog at the Hollywood Pet Star in Germantown. Pumpkin is a rescued pit bull who spends her day meeting and greeting customers.

“How do you fight any stereotype,” said Warmbrod. “You do it by showing people that it’s wrong. People can’t believe Pumpkin is a pit bull because they have an image in their mind of what that dog should be, and it’s not Pumpkin.”

When Pumpkin and Bubba, his other pit bull, get together, they are like a couple of 4-year-old children, Warmbrod said.

“They run around looking for trouble and will play and wrestle around with each other for hours,” said Warmbrod. “That’s the thing about pit bulls, they are tenacious, and these two will play forever. But it has never gone beyond playing and it never will.”

He said there isn’t a better dog with children than a pit bull, because they are loving, gentle and good-natured.

“When I was growing up, the bad breed was the German police dog,” said Warmbrod. “That’s what they called shepherds. Then the Doberman pinscher became the bad breed. Remember that movie They Only Kill Their Masters (1972). Those were Dobermans.”

But then a few years later, Hollywood noticed a big, black lumbering dog called a Rottweiler, and soon they created a menacing, vicious stereotype of a dog that guarded the Antichrist in the 1976 movie The Omen.

“Hollywood does the same thing to dogs that they do to actors and actresses,” said David Frei, spokesman for the American Kennel Club. “They create a villain, but it’s hard to look beyond what they’ve created and see the good guy in real life. . . . They do the same thing with Rottweilers and pit bulls, and these brave and loyal dogs suffer for it.”

So that leaves shelters and rescue groups with situations like Tank, a dog that’s never been aggressive and whose only crime is that he was born of a breed that scares a lot of people. It took about a year before the court granted ownership of the dog to the Humane Society of Eastern Arkansas. By then, staff at the shelter had become attached to the big, brown dog. Tank then had to endure heartworm treatment.

“I think about him all the time and wonder if we did the right thing in saving his life,” said Ingram. “I wish we could get a bunch of grandmothers to adopt pit bulls so their image as a bad dog would change. Tank needs someone who will protect him and keep him from getting in the wrong hands and someone who can handle a dog that size in their lap. He just needs what all these dogs need – someone to love him.”

– Cindy Wolff: 529-2378
The New York Times News Service contributed to this story.

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