Rather than consigning unwanted pit bulls to life — or death — in shelters, why not put their skills to use?
he “pit bull” controversy in America is long on rhetoric and short on reliable information. I even felt compelled to put “pit bull” in quotes because there is no pit bull breed, per se — it’s a classification encompassing breeds related to the Staffordshire Bull Terrier — but I will use the term for simplicity’s sake. Supporters of breed bans say statistics show that pit bulls are the top offenders when it comes to dog bites, especially fatal ones. Pit bull proponents claim those statistics are tainted because of breed mis-identification and media bias.
For those of us who don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak — those who don’t rescue pit bulls or actively advocate against them — trying to determine the truth of the matter can be extremely difficult and time consuming. When it comes to man’s best friend, passions run high. I have many Facebook friends on both sides, and it seems that for every picture of a pit bull cuddling with an infant, a news report of a bloodied toddler with puncture wounds and lacerations appears in my news feed. There seems to be no viable solution to the controversy.
I believe that we are at such an impasse that it’s time for a somewhat radical solution. I propose that pit bulls be repurposed by law enforcement agencies similar to the way confiscated guns could be repurposed for police or military use. Yes, this might amount to an eventual ban on the pit bull type, but I believe it would ensure a minimal loss of canine life.
I’m not proposing this solution simply because we’re at an impasse. I want this proposal to start a new thread in the current controversy. And I believe that determining whether or not pit bulls are inherently dangerous is of paramount importance, and especially complicated. I think we need to determine whether or not dogs descended from or bred with the Staffordshire Bull Terrier have an element of risk not found in other popular breeds like Labradors or Golden Retrievers.
Melissa Weaver, Founder and President of Lodestar: Guiding Angels for the Blind, who also maintains a private dog training business on the side, told me that pit bulls “seem to tend to lack impulse control and have a high reactivity to stimuli.” Prior to Lodestar, Weaver worked as a certified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor for Leader Dogs for the Blind in Michigan, and before that as a handler of sled dogs for Alaska Icefield Expeditions in Juneau.
“Depending on environmental factors — socialization, how they were raised, etc.,” she said, “this reactivity is displayed either through extreme excitability or aggression. I have seen dogs initially be so stimulated that they tip over to aggression.”
Weaver touches on the crux of the issue: When it comes to pit bulls, can we determine if they’re inherently dangerous or if their alleged bad behavior is due to poor handling — or a combination of both?
As a former dog trainer myself, my experience has been that any dog, given the perfect combination of circumstances, has the potential to bite. I was a certified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor for The Seeing Eye for 11 years, and I’m sad to report that most of the dog owners I encountered on the street either hadn’t had training in handling their dogs or, for whatever reason, weren’t able to execute that training properly.
I trained guide dogs every day on the streets of Morristown, NJ, where everyone and their mother has a dog. I’ve also regularly trained dogs in New York City, and I’ve been to every state in the nation working with the dogs of our graduates in inner cities, in quiet suburbs, and in even quieter countrysides. I’ve seen dogs on leash and stray dogs in every one of those environments.
Thankfully, I’ve never had to protect any of my dogs or the dogs of my graduates from an actual dog attack, but I have encountered aggressive dogs and irresponsible dog owners. I know how to identify and avoid a dangerous canine situation, so I’ve been lucky.
What I’ve learned about dogs is that both sides of the debate about pit bulls are right, to an extent — it’s nature and nurture. But it’s still important to try and tease out the nuance of this formula because ignorance in this regard can be deadly. Yes, oblivious dog owners can be a danger to society. Yes, intact male dogs of any breed are more likely to be aggressive than their neutered counterparts. But what about the assertion that some dogs are inherently more dangerous than others? Do dogs that have been bred for a purpose still have that purpose in them?
I believe they may. For centuries dogs have been selectively bred for certain physical and behavioral characteristics. Some dogs have been bred to be guards, some to fit inside your Gucci bag, some to bait bulls or kill vermin, and some to herd livestock.
Take the German Shepherd Dog as an example. This is a breed that is near and dear to my heart. My Shawn just turned 10 years old last month — he’s a beautiful example of the breed, both physically and temperamentally. He has an excellent conformation, and when he gives you his full attention it feels like he’s reading your mind. He was born and bred at The Seeing Eye and I was fortunate enough to be his trainer. He went through the full four months of our training program, and he was smart, willing, and tractable — but he was ultimately released from the program. It turned out he was also suspicious.
If you peruse any of the German Shepherd Dog breeding sites on the Internet, you invariably come across the term “protective” or “suspicious.” German Shepherds are naturally protective of their families and homes. They look upon strangers with distrust, especially on their own territory. Otherwise they’re generally aloof to strangers, unlike Labradors or Golden Retrievers who act as though they’ve just found their soulmate. Think Dug, in the Disney movie Up.
German Shepherds tend to bark first and ask questions later — and a suspicious dog may bite you. Despite the best scientific efforts of world-class organizations like The Seeing Eye, the protectiveness and suspicion of the German Shepherd Dog has not been completely “bred out” of the breed. They don’t learn to be suspicious; it’s part of their nature.
Knowing this, I would be as wary of adopting a German Shepherd Dog from a shelter as I would adopting a pit bull. I’m even wary of Shawn, and I know every medical and behavioral detail of his whole life, including his entire pedigree. Yet I monitor every interaction he has with other dogs and with people. Even after the initial greeting, I chaperone the entire time.
Dog breeding is a very complex undertaking. That’s why The Seeing Eye employs a full-time geneticist. Guide dog schools breed and train dogs to guide the blind, obviously, and the schools breed for things like willingness to work, tractability, and soundness in the face of environmental stressors.
But training a guide dog is more about teaching it a set of skills, skills that don’t get passed on to its progeny. And training a dog to be a guide requires that the dog, a natural predator, go against its basic drives of hunting, chasing, and killing.
Encouraging a dog to bait a bull, kill vermin, or fight another dog, however, plays right into those impulses. So if you breed dogs that exhibit those impulses to a higher degree, you will get offspring that exhibit those same traits. Because those traits are in their biology, they don’t have to learn them.
A guide dog school will end up with a colony of relatively easily managed and trainable dogs, ready and willing to learn the ropes of guide work. Yet dogs that have been bred to indulge the most basic instincts of their evolutionary endowment will produce other dogs with the same tendencies. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier is one of those dogs. As the ASPCA notes, today’s pit bull is “a descendant of the original English bull-baiting dog — a dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears and other large animals around the face and head.”
This doesn’t mean that every individual pit bull is a stick of dynamite with a short fuse. Nevertheless, the pit bulls sitting in shelters waiting to be rescued are descended from ones that were bred for the sport of bull baiting, bred to amplify those natural canine drives of hunting, chasing, and killing. And it’s likely that they are the ones that have been exposed to abuse and neglect. That’s why they’re there.
If we can acknowledge the German Shepherd Dog’s hard-wired instincts for suspicion and protectiveness, I think we also need to recognize the Staffordshire Bull Terrier’s instinct for aggression. So I do think pit bulls have an elevated risk because of their breeding history.
The two main solutions on offer, however — breed-specific legislation (BSL) and enforcement of existing dog control laws — are ineffective. The Humane Society notes that BSL isn’t likely to work because it’s almost impossible to properly enforce. It seems obvious that BSL isn’t a good option anyway, because even if it did work, it would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Thousands if not millions of innocent dogs would be consigned to death along with the dangerous ones. And human nature being what it is, we know that dog owners won’t abide by existing animal control laws anyway. Everyone thinks their dog is an exception.
Take Morristown, NJ, as an example, where The Seeing Eye has been operating since 1965. Despite that fact that each month there are as many as 20 instructors with dogs in training and up to 24 blind students in training with their dogs around town, local law enforcement is notoriously lax when it comes to its animal control laws. And each of those dogs costs about $42,000 to train!
On an almost daily basis, dog owners leave their dogs tied to the outdoor cafe at the local Starbucks while they go in and get their coffee. Despite the fact that it’s against the town’s animal control ordinances to leave a dog unattended, I never saw a police or animal control officer give a ticket to anyone in the 11 years I worked there. A dog left tied to a fence or a pole in that situation is a danger to other people’s dogs and to passersby, to say nothing of the danger to that dog itself.
While researching this issue, I was originally hoping to stake out a position in the middle ground, but I realize it’s not feasible to promote caution with regard to the pit bull without sliding down the slippery slope towards an outright ban. I know what this means. When you ban and confiscate guns, for example, you presumably destroy them so they don’t fall into the wrong hands. So if you ban pit bulls, they would ultimately be destroyed, too. That idea nauseates me.
Here’s what I think we know with some degree of confidence: Breed-specific legislation isn’t effective, nor is it likely to go away. In addition to breed-specific legislation, there are other laws being passed that will affect negligent dog owners. New Jersey recently passed “Dusty’s Law,” which was sponsored by The Seeing Eye after one of their puppy raiser’s dogs was attacked by a pit bull. Under the law, the “pet-owner could face jail time of up to 18 months and a fine of up to $10,000. Those found to have recklessly injured a guide dog, could earn six months of jail time and a fine of up to $1,000. Those found at fault could also be forced to pay restitution for expenses related to the attack.”
Also, insurance companies aren’t likely to relax their criteria for determining coverage when it comes to so-called “bully breeds.” And the magnitude and nature of media reports will deter otherwise good-hearted people from adopting pit bulls from shelters. As a result, more and more pit bulls will be consigned to death row.
That’s why I propose that pit bulls be repurposed by law enforcement agencies. There is a precedent for this. Dogs that are released from the training program at The Seeing Eye, like my Shawn, sometimes return to the families who raised them or are adopted by employees, but many of them are evaluated by law enforcement for a chance at a second career.
The Seeing Eye has placed dogs with Homeland Security, The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, local Sheriff’s offices, and myriad other law enforcement agencies. Between patrol and scent detection, there are many options for dogs in law enforcement, including identifying narcotics, chemical explosives, cadavers, firearms, cell phones, clothing, and natural gas.
Some police departments around the country are already using pit bulls, and with great success. Officer Billy Wells of the Milwaukie Police Department in Oregon works with Shaka, an American Staffordshire Terrier. She was scheduled to be euthanized until she was rescued by pit bull advocate Cydney Cross from the Out of the Pits organization.
Shaka went through an 18-week narcotics detection training program in New York because she exhibited a high drive, a trait essential for that type of work. Shaka initially began her career in Washougal, WA, but the police department there lost funding. The police department in Milwaukie eagerly snatched her up.
Officer Wells has been on the force since 1990, and has been a K9 handler for the past eight years. He’s lived and worked with Shaka for three and a half years, and the team has been deployed over 100 times. Last year he and Shaka recovered $100,000 in illegal drug-related cash — a big win in an otherwise small town.
Shaka is now 10 years old and nearing retirement. Officer Wells will offer her back to her original handler in Washougal because he was “really upset that he had to give her up — he has a family of five and they loved her to death,” Wells said. If that officer can’t keep her, Wells will be more than happy to have her live out her golden years with him.
I asked Wells what his department planned to do after Shaka’s retirement. “We’ll probably purchase a German Shepherd or a Malinois so we can have a cross-trained dog,” he said. For practical reasons, many small departments around the country want dogs in their K9 units that can do both patrol and narcotics detection duties. But he told me he’d have no qualms working with another pit bull.
I also asked Joseph Nicholas from Vineland, NJ, who began his dog training career in the 1980s as a corrections officer, if he thought the pit bull would be a good choice for law enforcement. “People will tell you that the pit doesn’t have a good nose,” he said, “but that’s fucking bullshit. Their nose is as good as any other dog’s.”
After his career as a corrections officer, Nicholas — who goes by Joe Nick — went on to get certifications in narcotics, explosives, tracking, patrol work, cell phone, cadaver, arson detection, and search and rescue. Today, he continues to train dogs and instruct handlers for numerous law enforcement groups, search and rescue teams, and private citizens.
“I got five pits with me now,” he said in his confident southern New Jersey swagger, “and I’m training one named Hannibal for cadaver search. He’s fucking terrific.”
I also asked Joe why it is that more law enforcement agencies don’t utilize more pit bulls in their work. “They’re fucking scared of lawsuits. No one wants to work with [pit bulls] because they’re afraid of the litigation and publicity.”
But both Nicholas and Wells acknowledged that the same traits that make a pit bull great at police work — fearlessness and a high prey drive — also make breeds like the German Shepherd Dog and the Malinois great. And both agreed that those breeds are just as likely to be the target of litigation if they were to bite someone.
“[Police department] management is reluctant to use pit bulls because of the stigma attached,” Wells said, “because of their association with the criminal element since the 1980s.” He said that in his 24 years on the force, he’s never responded to a single pit bull bite call. He has, however, responded to other dog bite calls, some involving those traditionally considered “family friendly” like Golden Retrievers.
My proposal is feasible. But make no mistake, repurposing the pit bull is a huge project, and not something that can happen overnight. If we were to begin today, consider how many dogs are currently in shelters. How many are pit bulls?
An accurate count is hard to come by because there is no national standard or oversight for animal shelters around the country. The ASPCA estimates that about 7.6 million animals enter shelters each year, about half of which are dogs. Esquire writer Tom Junod, in his article “The State of the American Dog,” claims that “shelters have to kill about 1.2 million dogs,” and between “800,000 to nearly 1 million are pit bulls. We kill anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pit bulls a day.”
If those numbers are accurate, marshalling enough law enforcement manpower across the country will be a challenge. Larger cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles will be ideally situated, as would government agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security.
I’m not proposing an outright ban — no confiscation of beloved pets — just the ineligibility of pit bulls to be adopted out of shelters going forward. Except instead of euthanizing them, law enforcement agencies would acquire them, test them, and train them for patrol work and scent and substance detection. If there aren’t enough officers to foster them while they’re waiting during this process, perhaps we could employ people like Joe Nick to help carefully vet foster families the way guide dog schools vet their puppy raisers, ensuring proper handling and socialization.
Since even President Obama came out against breed-specific legislation, maybe we can petition the White House to appoint a “Pit Bull Czar” to oversee the repurposing project.
In the long run, repurposing the pit bull for law enforcement may make the most sense all around. Hundreds of thousands of dogs would be spared and acquire a noble purpose; pit bull advocates won’t have to fight a pernicious stigma and the general public would be more at ease; and law enforcement agencies would get an enormous budget-friendly source of excellent working dogs. Some police departments pay as much as $15,000 to acquire one working dog!
One thing is certain: Millennia ago we brought a wild predator into our world, and shaped and reshaped it to suit our human needs and desires, so it’s our responsibility to do something about it. And inherently dangerous or not, it’s not fair to summarily kill hundreds of thousands of these dogs every year.
Pit bull advocates seem to be exceptionally passionate about them mainly because of the type’s tragic plight. But if we were to repurpose them with minimal loss of life, if we can put them in the capable hands of those who will enable them to fulfill their evolutionary destiny and flourish, would it be too much to ask for pit bull advocates to put their resources and effort into making it happen?