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Coming to grips with reality and the mythical pit bull

County Humane Society struggles to educate public about pit bulls

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Graycie Collins with her family's pit bulls.

Graycie Collins with her family's pit bulls.

Published on: Wednesday, January 04, 2012

By Helen Hocknell

To some people, pit bulls are monsters. To others, they are loving companions. 

In October, the Montgomery County Humane Society hosted a “Pit Bull Awareness Day Event” to promote the adoption of pit bull-type dogs and pit-mixes from the shelter, a striking contrast to neighboring Prince George’s County, where owning a pit bull is a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

“The idea was to give prospective adopters a chance to get acquainted with several individual dogs who represent a range of behaviors that are suitable for a family companion,” said BJ Altshul, director of external communications at the Montgomery County Humane Society. 

Altshul explained that a significant percentage of dogs at the shelter are pit-mixes rather than purebred American Pit Bull Terriers, but because the dogs are all considered pit bulls, they are adopted at a much lower rate than dogs of other breeds. 

Of the four dogs featured at the MCHS event, three were adopted by families in the area and one is still available for adoption.

Robert Wilkes adopted one of the featured dogs and says he couldn’t be happier with “Cookie.”

“I know they get a bad shake sometimes, but when there’s a bad pit bull, it’s more the owner’s fault than the dog’s,” said Wilkes, 25, who grew up with pit bulls in Germantown and now lives with his girlfriend, Tara, in Frederick. Cookie is Tara’s first pit bull, but Wilkes says the two get along great. “I’ve had four pit bulls and never had a problem with them biting anyone. They’ve all been super friendly.” 

According to the American Kennel Club, a registry organization for purebred dogs, the origins of these bulldog-terrier dogs date back to the early 1800s, when they were used for bull baiting and dog fighting in Europe before dog fighting was outlawed in England in 1835. 

“The American Kennel Club considers the term ‘pit bull’ to be a generic descriptor for a type of dog – much the same as ‘hound’ or ‘terrier,’” explained Rebecca Mercer, public relations coordinator for the AKC. The AKC recognizes the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and Bull Terrier as ancestors of pit bulls. The United Kennel Club recognizes a breed called the American Pit Bull Terrier.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights organization, pit bulls are “the most abused dogs on Earth,” and are often bred for profit and used for illegal dog fighting in the United States.

“There’s so much negative stereotyping against pits and pit-type dogs – whereas the reality is the ‘breed’ is widely diverse not only in physical characteristics but also in temperament,” explained Altshul. “It’s rather hard to pin down precisely what makes any given dog a genetically pure pit bull.” 

The ambiguity, according to many experts, can make enforcing a ban problematic. The controversy is so intense, even defining exactly what constitutes a pit bull isn’t something upon which everyone agrees.

In Prince George’s County, Chief Rodney Taylor says breed determination is made by animal control officers based strictly on physical characteristics.

“We look at the head and jaw structure and so forth, but to be honest with you, 90 percent of owners will tell you right out what kind of dog it is,” said Taylor, who has served as associate director of the Prince George’s County Animal Management Division for 12 years. He said officers are usually alerted to a pit bull in the county when someone calls in to report a dog running loose in their neighborhood. 

"We're still finding people that own them. We had about 1,200 pit bulls a year when the law went into effect in 1997, but we still find around 600 per year,” said Taylor. "In some cases, people had the dog for two months and just didn't realize it was illegal.”

If there’s any uncertainty about the breed classification, the dog is brought in for an evaluation and a determination is made by the chief. If the owners wish to dispute the findings, they can file an appeal that is then decided by a commission made up of members appointed by the County Executive, which includes law enforcement officials, representatives from the health department and county attorney’s office, and six citizen representatives – including one from the local Humane Society, a kennel owner, a pet store owner, and a veterinarian. 

After a dog has been deemed a pit bull, the owner must remove it from the county – sometimes the owner will send the dog to live with relatives in another area – or turn it over to the authorities. If an owner refuses to comply, then arrests and harsher consequences are imposed. Once it has custody of the dog, the Animal Management Division either transfers it to a shelter or rescue organization outside the county. If that can’t be done, the animal may be euthanized.

The effectiveness of breed bans is hotly debated among activists, welfare groups and legislators.

"The American Kennel Club strongly opposes any legislation that determines a dog to be 'dangerous' based on specific breeds or phenotypic classes of dogs," said Mercer. Yet PETA supports mandatory sterilization laws and breed bans as the best method for protecting animals from abuse.

“Bans on breeding or acquiring new pit bulls protect pit bulls from horrendous suffering by helping to prevent them from ending up in the hands of cruel people,” said Teresa Lynn Chagrin, Animal Care & Control Specialist with PETA. “With so many animals being euthanized for lack of good homes, PETA maintains that we shouldn’t be breeding more dogs of any kind.” 

It is difficult to determine how well bans protect the public from bites, because statistics are hard to put into context, said Dr. James Serpell, a professor of animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Many times, he said, only dog attacks serious enough to require medical care are reported, which skews the data toward the more severe attacks and excludes bites from smaller dogs. 

“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” said Serpell of the controversy. “You’ve got this vocal community of people who really hate pit bulls and think they’re a menace to society, and then an equally vocal group that feels pit bulls have got a bum rap, that they’re no more aggressive than any other breed and that bad behavior is learned.”

Serpell said the truth lies somewhere in between. In a study on canine aggression Serpell co-authored in 2008, dog owners were asked to fill out a questionnaire detailing their dog’s behavioral traits. American Pit Bull Terriers scored average or below average in aggression towards humans. Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers scored the highest. American Pit Bull Terriers scored slightly higher than average for aggression towards other dogs, along with Akitas, a type of dog from Japan historically bred for fighting. 

“Pit bulls are undoubtedly more aggressive toward other dogs, but not more than average toward people, certainly not toward people they know,” said Serpell. He said the results were about as expected, given that American Pit Bull Terriers were bred as fighting dogs, but also said “aggression” may not tell the whole story, pointing to the higher rates for abuse of pit bulls as compared to other types of dogs.

In his neighborhood in Philadelphia, where gang activity can be intense, Serpell said pit bulls are often the dog of choice for drug dealers and gang leaders.

“People want to own these dogs because of the image they project, because of their reputation as a fearless kind of dog,” said Serpell.

Towson resident Tony Solesky, whose son was nearly killed when he was attacked by a pit bull in 2007, says the need for breed bans and mandatory sterilization has more to do with the level of damage pit bulls are capable of inflicting rather than an inbred propensity to attack. 

“People protest breed bans and say ‘well hey, it’s all the way you treat them.’ But if you can’t remove the fact that they get abused more than other breeds, what does it matter if it’s genetics or environment?” asked Solesky. “Given the horrible cruelty that these breeds suffer, wouldn’t it be better to just grandfather them out by outlawing breeding?” 

Solesky said efforts to promote the breed make light of the danger they pose. In 2007, Solesky’s son Dominic and another boy were mauled by a pit bull after it escaped its enclosure. Dominic suffered life-threatening injuries, including a tear in his femoral artery that required extensive surgery and painful rehabilitation.

“The word ‘bite’ really doesn’t engender an accurate picture of what happened to my son,” explained Solesky. “He was not ‘bitten’ by a dog defending its territory. He was mauled until he bled out. That sustained attack style combined with their size is what makes them so dangerous. I could try to rob a 7/11 store with a BB gun, but if I pull the trigger on a .44 magnum, it’s going to have a pretty different result.”

“Well, he has a valid point,” said Dr. Deborah Duffy, a research specialist in animal behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of the 2008 study on breed differences in canine aggression. “As for any larger breed of dog, if that dog is aggressive, it’s a much more serious situation.” 

Duffy said it was important to note that there is no data to suggest the “bite style” of a pit bull is somehow more dangerous than that of any other breed, despite a widespread myth that pit bulls are incapable of unclenching their jaws once they’ve clamped down on something. However, she acknowledged that persistence is a trait common to terriers.

“Historically, terriers were bred to go after game and not give up until they got it. With what people refer to as ‘pit bulls,’ you’ve often got a combination of different breeds, including American Pit Bull Terriers. We’ve seen the same sort of behavior in Jack Russell Terriers, but because they’re smaller, people don’t worry about them as much,” said Duffy. 

Both Duffy and Serpell expressed skepticism that a breed ban would be effective in reducing dog bites or protecting dogs from abuse.

“You can ban breeds ad nauseum, but you could still get bit and you won’t solve the problem,” said Serpell.

 “I can understand [Solesky’s] point, but even if we got rid of pit bulls altogether, people will go find another breed to abuse. That approach doesn’t really work; it just keeps moving the target,” said Duffy. She said legislative efforts to prevent dog attacks and protect animals are most effective when targeted at neglectful and abusive owners. 

“We have lots of evidence that chaining a dog up in a yard makes a dog more aggressive and tend to have behavioral problems, so what we need are laws that go after the owners who are mistreating the dogs in the first place, and for police to have more authority to fine people or take dogs away from abusive situations,” said Duffy. 

In March of last year, new tethering regulations went into effect in Montgomery County. It is now against the law to tether a dog for longer than two hours during any 24-hour period, and there are strict rules about the size and length of the tether. A violation carries a $500 fine.

“Criminal charges may also be filed if there’s any cruelty involved, such as not providing sufficient water, shelter, or veterinary care,” said Trish Ranshaw, office services coordinator for the Montgomery County Animal Services Division.

Activist Colleen Lynn founded the nonprofit website after a pit bull attacked her in Seattle. She said she is bothered by the promotional efforts by the Montgomery County Humane Society. 

“This PR campaign to make them seem snuggly is over the top,” said Lynn. “Herders will herd, pointers will point, and when it comes to aggression, pit bulls have undergone hundreds of years of selection for fighting. We’re talking about something that’s dangerous, and advocates don’t want to acknowledge it, but we have to.” 

“It’s not really the public’s problem that the breed stewardship by the pit bull community has been so horrible for the past several decades,” said Lynn. “And now humane groups refuse to stand by any breed specific law, and are pushing them out to an unwilling public and undertaking a huge campaign to make the potential adopter feel guilty for ‘discriminating’ against pit bulls. It’s ridiculous and irresponsible.”

But pit bull supporters couldn’t disagree more vehemently.

“The idea that they’re inherently angry or will attack without provocation is a huge misconception,” said pit bull owner Mary Collins, who lives in Gaithersburg with her husband Ryan and their 2-year-old daughter, Graycie. Collins grew up with collies and labs, but got interested in pit bulls after friends who owned them raved about the breed. After a bit of research, they adopted two pit bulls from rescue leagues – Tulabelle and Gus, now ages 5 and 4 respectively. 

“They’re so wonderful with Graycie, and she just loves them,” said Collins. She said she has sympathy for Solesky, but disagrees that a breed ban is the appropriate solution to mitigating dog attacks.

“My heart goes out to him,” said Collins. “To have my daughter and think something like that can happen to a child, it’s awful… but dogs are going to be a product of their environment. Behind every terrible dog is a terrible person who abused them. To punish a breed that is capable of such love and gentleness, I just don’t see that that’s the right answer.”

Collins said she feels it is her role to educate people she meets about the positive qualities of pit bulls.

“A one-on-one experience with healthy, balanced pit bull can change someone’s mind,” said Collins. “Maybe when they meet us, a light bulb goes off and the person will realize these can be great dogs.”


The Montgomery County Humane Society:

The American Kennel Club:

Dogs Bite:

For more information about dog laws in Montgomery County, contact the Montgomery County Department of Police Animal Services Division at 240-773-5960 or visit

Reader Comments - 2 Total

captcha bd2c494657c4451dbbc99a4c19b334d6

Posted By: A former Pitbull owner... On: 3/9/2013

Title: umm...

Inbreeding is the problem, not the breed itself. However it must be said, Pitbulls are not a breed recommended to everyone. They are a very strong, with a high energy drive that is, unfortunately, too much for most people to handle. When owners realize this, they tend to lock them away, or keep them on a chain, cutting off all socialization. This is a recipe for disaster. And it doesn't just apply to pitbulls; its all dog breeds! There have been many studies done on pitbulls (amstaffs, espt, and apbt) and they found them to be much less aggressive towards humans than German shepherds, cocker spaniels, dobermans, chuiwuawuas, and the majority of other dogs surveyed. Pitbulls are not antisocial dogs and as such, any behavior uncharacteristic of the breed falls directly on their owners. I babied my pit to where even as an adult he squeaked and cried whenever he'd call for me or see another dog. Many people i met, including people that worked at the vet, felt as the commenter below did but after meeting Bummer, my pitbull, or spending some time with him their minds changed almost instantly. It was amazing to see the effect my dogs personality had on them; children as well. And just fyi, Bummer was a big boy. At almost 70 lbs, he was pure muscle.

Posted By: Sick and tired On: 1/5/2012

Title: Pit Bull Awareness Day Event

Shame on all the animal organizations that actively promote the adoption of pit bulls and other gripping dogs. These "rescuers" don't give a rat's behind about the people and other pets that get mauled and killed on a daily basis from these monsters. It's NOT "all in how you raise them." Only a fool denies the influence of genetics. I used to donate tons of dog food to my local animal shelter, but ever since the population at the shelter had become almost 100 percent pit or pit mix, I stopped donating. I do not want to have any human or family pet blood on my hands by donating food and thus aiding and abetting a pit to stay alive even one day longer to get "promoted" onto an unsuspecting, naive family. I'm sick and tired of all the maulings and killings that these dogs do. And, yes, I've DONE my research with an open mind and believe these animals should be banned nationwide, if not worldwide, for the good of society. And, let's get a grip (no pun intended!) but there is NO media conspiracy, and no case of "mistaken identity." Very sad when people can't see what's going on right in front of them. Better to deny what these dogs are than to hear the cries of the victims. Very sad.


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