With Enumclaw getting a fully-enclosed dog park by the end of the summer, it’s time we addressed the elephant in the room.
Or I should say, the pit bull.
There seems to be no gray area when it comes to this ever-controversial “breed” — they’re either the sweetest dogs you’ve ever met, or they’re menaces that should be kept away from civilized society. Most people I’ve talked to about this issue have a passionate opinion, fueled by personal experiences and anecdotal evidence. This makes productive discussion difficult, especially when someone’s fear gets in the way of the facts.
Enumclaw’s bit pull ban, imposed in 1990, was a product of fear, and it’s time we changed that.
First of all, a “pit bull” is not a breed in of itself, but is a generalized visual description of four specific breeds — the American Pit Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the American Bully.
The problem with oversimplifying the physical appearance of these four breeds is that a pit bull-looking dog is just as likely to have pit bull DNA as it is to have little or no pit bull DNA, according to the University of Florida’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program.
In 2012, the program conducted a study involving nearly 6,000 “self-identified ‘dog experts,’ including breeders, exhibitors, trainers, groomers, behaviorists, rescuers, shelter staff, veterinarians, and veterinary technicians” in order to figure out how well people can identify a dog based only on physical appearance. A respondent would get an answer right so long as they chose a breed that made up at least 25 percent of the dog’s DNA.
I suggest viewing this article online to see the survey results yourself, but here’s the gist: out of the 100 shelter dogs whose DNA makeups were mapped, “respondents correctly identified a prominent breed an average of 27 percent of the time,” reads the abstract version of the study. “No one correctly identified a breed for 6 percent of the dogs, and 22 percent of the dogs had the correct breed chosen less than 1 percent of the time. Only 15 percent of the dogs were correctly identified more than 70 percent of the time.”
Long story short, “we’re basing things on what they look like and not necessarily what they are,” said Bronwen Dickey, author of “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon,” in a National Geographic interview.
Even studies touted by groups that support breed-specific legislation (a.k.a. pit bull or “fighting dog” bans) admit identifying a “pit bull” is nearly impossible.
In a 2000 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association-published study titled, “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998,” the study concluded “pit-bull type” purebred and mixed-breed dogs were responsible for 76 total dog bite-related fatalities during that time frame, more than any other breed.
While proponents of pit bull bans point out the study concluded dog violence “appear to be a breed-specific problem,” the authors also emphasized even experts can disagree on a dog’s breed, and the “enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues.”
JAVMA itself commented on the study, saying “the data from this study cannot be used to infer any breed-specific risk for dog bite fatalities,” and encouraged the use of generic, non-breed-specific legislation to control potentially dangerous dogs.
In a 2013 JAVMA-published study titled, “Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009),” the study authors strongly noted only 45 of the 256 dogs involved in these bite fatalities had DNA information available, which means the vast majority of media and law official reports likely incorrectly identified the breed of the dog involved in a person’s death based on its physical appearance.
But more importantly, the study concluded most dog bite-related deaths involved multiple factors, “preventable factors; breed was not one of these,” and that multifaceted approaches to dangerous dogs (anti-chaining laws, stronger enforcement of dog registration, etc.) are more likely to prevent violence or death than a breed ban.
Still, many anti-pit bull websites perpetuate the myth that these dogs are more dangerous than other breeds, and cherrypick studies that seem to support this misconception.
However, these studies tend to have one or two major shortcomings that negates their conclusions.
First, these studies don’t independently verify the breeds of the dogs involved, and some admit there may be reporting biases against pit bulls and other stereotyped dogs.
Second, these studies often don’t take into account what was happening prior to the bite, like how the dog and victim were interacting, how well the dog was trained, and even if the dog was altered.
The only thing these studies prove is on average, bites from big dogs are potentially more dangerous and necessitate medical treatment more often than smaller dogs.
“Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite,” reads a 2001 study from the American Veterinary Medical Association Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions. “Invariably the numbers will show that dogs from popular large breeds are a problem, because big dogs can physically do more damage if they do bite, and any popular breed has more individuals that could bite.”
The American Temperament Test Society, which tests the temperament of dozens of dog breeds, finds the American Pit Bull Terrier passes temperament tests more than 87 percent of the time, and the American Staffordshire Terrier more than 85 percent.
These two breeds, which had more than 700 dogs take the test each, outperform several other breeds with a similar testing numbers, like the Collie (80 percent pass rate), the Rottweiler (84 percent pass rate), and the Doberman Pinscher (79 percent pass rate).
Based on this data, it’s clear “pit bulls” are not more dangerous than any other breed.
Rather, these dogs (and any breed) could be dangerous for reasons beyond their control.
That 2013 JAVMA study not only concluded that breeding was not a factor in whether a dog would bite, but biting potential was connected to things their owners control, the most common being owners failing to closely supervise their dog and those unable to “interact appropriately” with said dog because of age, impairment, or mental disability (223 of 256 cases of the studied dog bite deaths involved no able-bodied person being close enough to the victim to intervene), failing to get the dog spayed or neutered (216 out of the 256 dog bite fatalities were caused by unfixed dogs, mostly male), and failing to help their dog form positive relationships with family or other canines.
Dogs are individuals and have their own unique personalities, just like you and me, and the environments we grow up in play a huge part in our identities.
Unfortunately, there will always be violent dogs, no matter how well we socialize and train them. But given the abundance of evidence, breed doesn’t a dangerous dog make.
Instead, it’s up to individual owners to understand their dog, to properly and humanely socialize them, and it’s up to us, the community at large, to encourage that behavior.
We should start by shelving our biases and welcoming the pit bull back into Enumclaw — a ban on these dogs does nothing but perpetuate false stereotypes, tax our city’s resources and excludes whole families from our community.
I urge you to attend the Sept. 24 Enumclaw City Council meeting to voice your support for overturning Enumclaw’s pit bull ban with me. It’s time we did away with this outdated law and replace it with legislation that can actually make our communities safer, like stronger enforcement of dog licensing laws, laws against tethering or chaining, and laws requiring spaying and neutering, just to name a few.
The Enumclaw dog park should be a place where every person, and every dog, should feel welcome.
Because if we can’t manage to treat all of man’s best friends equally, what exactly does that say about us?