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What is a bad dog?


Oft-filed bill puts heat on pit bulls



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Jose Vega, right, takes a break with his pit bull Honey while friend Mike Garrido looks on. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
July 13, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — Pit bulls have the reputation of being attackers, seemingly reinforced last week when one of the dogs bit Officer Michael Sullivan. They seem to get more publicity and spark more fear than most breeds and insurers even require owners to get extra coverage for them.

But do they deserve such a reputation?

Animal Control Officer [ACO] Kathy Shields doesn't think so. For two years, she's owned one named Fiona.

"What matters is how they're brought up. It's case by case, not breed by breed," she said, adding that mistreatment by the owner is usually the cause of any dog's aggression.

Jose Vega, 18, agreed. Although his family has had Chihuahuas and cats for years, he got his first pit bull, Honey, last year.

"I love pits. People think they're vicious, but they're really friendly," he said while walking Honey on Cross Street. "Dogs, they smell fear. If somebody's afraid, they can smell it and that's what I think makes them aggressive."

But it's also controllable, he added. His mother was originally afraid of Honey "because she's big," but Vega stopped the dog every time she growled and as dog and woman got to know each other, things went well. Vega said he knows at least 20 people with pits; whenever one of their dogs has puppies, they get passed around the neighborhood upon weaning.

His friend, Mike Garrido, said he doesn't have one, but seeing them all "makes me want to get one."

"So far, every pit I've ever met hasn't tried to bite," he said. "If you don't show fear, and show them love, they're good."

Vega noted he does know people who have raised their pits to be aggressive.

"They'd keep their dogs in a cage because they knew anyone who came near would get attacked," he said. "If I'd trained [Honey] to be vicious, she wouldn't be around you."

Indeed, Honey let a complete stranger come up and pet her without any sign of aggression.

Regardless of cause, aggressive dogs may soon be subject to more stringent legal control. In January, state Rep. Brad Hill, D-Ipswich, filed a bill (H. 1977) to define how local ACOs should deal with "at risk" and "dangerous" dogs, while stating, "no program shall regulate these dogs in a manner that is specific as to breed." This is at least the bill's third go-around, since it was also filed, in a somewhat different form, the last two sessions.

According to co-sponsor state Rep. Todd Smola, R-Palmer, the bill aims to give municipalities "something to go by, which doesn't exist in law now." Among the other cosponsors are representatives Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, and Jennifer Callahan, D-Sutton.

During his four years as Palmer selectman, Smola was involved in seven dog hearings with a variety of circumstances, including children being attacked and owners with criminal records.

"It's a very difficult position for a selectman to be in," he said. "As an animal lover, it ripped my heart out to make such a decision. The sad thing about it is it's the owner's responsibility; the animal doesn't know any better if the owner trains him in a vicious manner."

The bill defines "at risk" as "when unprovoked, engages in any behavior that requires a defensive action by a human or domestic animal to prevent bodily injury," acts "in a highly aggressive manner" while in its yard if it "appears to be able to escape," or is owned by someone cited more than once a year for allowing the dog to run loose. It defines "dangerous" as having killed or seriously injured a person or domestic animal or continuing "at risk" behaviors after the owner has been warned.

Under the bill, ACOs can require "at risk" dogs to submit to "any or all" of five possible outcomes for up to two years — microchipping, obedience training, vaccination, increased security by the owner and/or limitation of ownership to those age18 and older. "Dangerous" dogs can be subject to the above list plus neutering, muzzling whenever off owners' property, or euthanasia.

Smola said one goal was to avoid local laws that ban specific breeds, since "in some families, those dogs can be very docile."

"I don't believe it's those animals — it's their owners, who are breeding them and teaching them bad behavior for their own reasons," he said, noting he'd like to eventually see laws that require owners to get professional dog training to license their animals.

Sullivan said last week's bite was the first time he's had a problem with any kind of dog in his 21 years on the force. He was bringing a piece of mail from across the street, where police were involved in an investigation, to the dog's house and knocked on the door. It was slightly open, so the dog pushed his way on to the porch and bit Sullivan.

"Our ACO now has the dog and is seeking a new home for him," Sullivan said. "He had all his shots, so we don't have to worry about rabies."

Records in the Town Clerk's office indicate there are 12 licensed American pit bull terriers and 108 pit bull or pit-crossbreeds in town. Julie Pena said the most common breeds and mixes in town in recent years, in no particular order, have been Labrador retrievers, Chihuahuas, golden retrievers and German shepherds, with Chihuahuas probably being number one. Pit bulls, by contrast, "are probably in the middle or near the end," she said.

Southbridge has had a total of 3,222 licensed dogs over the last few years.

The Web site www.dogbreedinfo.com notes that purebred American pits are sometimes registered as Staffordshire terriers, depending on which kennel club the owner belongs to. Historically, the dog has been a popular symbol, used in numerous ads, cartoons and even World War I posters. Among the famous owners have been President Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller and Laura Ingalls Wilder, it states.

Regardless of who the owner is, that person needs to carefully train a pit bull because the breed is so strong; the breed was founded as a fighting dog.

"The American pit bull terrier can be willful with meek owners and needs a firm hand," the site states. " Problems arise when one does not understand dog psychology, seeing the dog as having human emotions, and ends up with a dog who thinks he is the boss of the house. For a smaller, not as powerful dog, people can sometimes get away with this, however, for a powerful breed, one really needs to understand and follow this concept of keeping a dog."

All dogs treat their human family as members of their dog pack — and large breeds will try to become "alpha" unless the humans make it very clear from puppyhood that's not acceptable.

"Lines are clearly defined and rules are set," it continues. "You and all other humans MUST be higher up in the order than the dog. That is the only way your relationship can be a success."

In the same vein, Shields observed the largest dogs will be friendly, obedient and gentle "so long as they're trained and worked properly." Among other things, dogs in general need plenty of exercise.

According to Kenneth Phillips' extensive Dog Bite Law Web site, there are six major "danger signs" that have been linked to fatal dog attacks — the dog is home with no master present; a pit bull, Rottweiler, Akita or chow chow ; in a pack; chained or tethered; male (especially if unneutered); and/or either the dog or the person is new to the scene. Sullivan's incident involved at least three of those.

Regarding pit bulls, Phillips noted, "In 2008, 65 percent of the fatalities were by pit bulls."

"The presence of any one factor indicates danger," Phillips writes. "Two or more of these danger signs should be avoided at all costs."

Elsewhere, however, Phillips notes there's a "false impression" that the breeds predominantly responsible for fatalities —partly due to their size — are also responsible for dog attacks overall. That, he writes is "a much broader problem involving all dogs and all dog owners." He reinforces Shields' view that any dog can be turned into a killer or an attacker by circumstance, mistreatment or inept handling.

"[W]hile banning the pit bull might lower the number of human deaths, such a ban would probably not reduce the number dog bites in any significant manner," he wrote. "After the United Kingdom banned pit bulls in the 1990s, a study showed that the number of dog bites remained the same even though the number of pit bulls had steeply declined."

When asked if she had been attacked by pit bulls, Shields said she had.

"Yes, but I've been attacked by Chihuahuas and golden retrievers," she said. "I have 20 years of experience, and I've been bitten from my head to my toes."

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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