Jacque Lynn Schultz, C.P.D.T., Companion Animal Programs Adviser. National Outreach
Good dog . . . or menace? Regardless of the answer, the pit bull population has increased so rapidly in many areas of the country that shelters are now struggling to deal with an overflow of image-plagued, hard-to-place dogs.
Over the past 10 years, pit bulls have gained more than just a foothold in the public’s awareness. Unscrupulous breeding and increased negative media attention have resulted in many apartment complexes, neighborhoods and even counties imposing bans on the breed, citing them as “inherently dangerous” to the general public.
During this same time, more and more animal shelters have seen the numbers of pit bulls entering their doors rise dramatically, creating a number of problems for shelter staff. The pit bull is a breed that is difficult to keep physically and mentally fit when kenneled for long stretches, due to its high energy and lightning-fast reactivity. “Pits” are hard to place responsibly, often attracting undesirable potential adopters who are only interested in them for protection or fighting purposes. Nevertheless, they are extremely loyal, fun-loving dogs who are quick to learn and an absolute joy when the right dogs are placed in the right settings. So what’s a shelter to do?
In March 2000, the ASPCA Shelter Pit Bull survey was sent to 100 representative animal care and control facilities and humane societies across the country asking them about their pit bull experiences. Forty-six shelters from 28 states responded. By examining the responses, we were able to amass information regarding the number of pit bulls being relinquished, adopted and euthanized at representative shelters, and also to discover the problems the shelters faced and the strategies they employed to overcome them.
How big is the pit bull problem? Thirty-five percent of the responding shelters take in at least one pit bull a day. In one out of four shelters, pits and pit mixes make up more than 20 percent of their shelter dog population. New York, Chicago, Boston, Phoenix and Honolulu each saw 3,000 to 7,500 pits turned in last year.
The problem with pits
Pit bulls are descendants of the original English bull-baiting bulldogs and have historically been bred to excel in combat with other dogs. Their strength, loyalty and genetic predisposition to engage in attack has made them a popular breed with less than upstanding individuals, who began to breed them for protection and fighting purposes. The social status attached to owning a “mean dog” has resulted in pit bulls being selectively bred not only for dog aggressiveness, but also for human aggressiveness. Furthermore, with the increase in backyard breeders and poor breeding standards, an increase in news stories about pit bull attacks on young children and other animals has developed. Pit bulls are getting a bad reputation, whether it’s their fault or not, and it’s that image that is creating problems in shelters across the country.
According to those who took part in the survey, 48 percent place pit bulls up for adoption, 22 percent place them under special circumstances, and 30 percent do not adopt them out. (“Special circumstances” varied from shelter to shelter, but included such restrictions as only putting up owner-surrendered dogs or puppies under six months of age, or stipulating that adopters must own their own home, have a fenced yard or be an experienced dog handler.)
While the majority of the shelters that do not place pit bulls cannot do so because of community breed-specific bans, some choose not to do so. When asked why, the director of one urban Midwest shelter stated, “We don’t adopt them out because we are concerned where the dogs will end up.” He went on to recount the story of a 14-year-old boy who, after refusing to fight his pit bull, watched as his own brother doused the dog with lighter fluid and set him aflame. This was one of hundreds of abuse cases that came in the shelter’s front door-pits burned, beaten, fought with or cut up into pieces. And while the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley successfully fought off a community breed-specific ban, they, too, choose not to adopt out pit bulls. Director Vicky Crosetti contends that while the dogs she sees are people-friendly, most are very dog aggressive. She fears that they may harm other pets in adopters’ homes or be stolen out of adopters’ yards by pit fighters who run rampant in her area. Sadly, in these, as in almost all cases, the dogs are euthanized.
While 17 percent of the shelters that responded to the survey felt that the pit bulls they handled were no different than any other dogs, breed-specific behaviors were noted by the majority. The following differences received the most nods by participating shelters: more aggressive toward other dogs (65 percent), more energetic (43 percent), more difficult to “read” (28 percent), more difficult to handle due to physical strength (26 percent) and do not kennel well (24 percent). The very traits that shelter workers found problematic are the essence of the breed-at least historically. A pit fighting dog needs strength, stamina and tenacity. It is to his disadvantage to give away his next move by telegraphing it to his opponent via his body language. Above all, he must be willing to fight other dogs. This said, should shelters put pit bulls up for adoption?
“Yes,” says nationally acclaimed dog trainer and shelter dog advocate Sue Sternberg, “as long as the shelter can keep them from lunging at other dogs while in the shelter and provide mental stimulation, training and calm time daily. And a knowledgeable staffer must do a hands-on temperament evaluation first.” Sternberg has designed a temperament test for dogs in shelters, which is approved by the ASPCA, that helps shelter staff better determine which dogs are adoptable and which dogs cannot be rehabilitated. She also warns that many inappropriate dogs appear friendly when in their cages (Author’s note: especially during the first few weeks at the kennel), so in-kennel evaluations are not adequate. “We must put up the crème de la crème . . . the pits we put up must be ambassadors for the breed. They cannot be dog-aggressive!” Is she suggesting shelters put up atypical pit bulls? In a word, “yes.” Sternberg believes that the pits that will make the best pets are the ones in which shelters should invest their limited time and money. As is true with many other breeds, the individuals with the highest working drives take the most effort to live with and are the dogs most likely to be returned to the shelter-unless adopted by dog professionals.
For pits’ sake
What does it take to have a successful pit bull adoption program? The first order is to carefully select which dogs are to go up for adoption. At Montgomery County Humane Society in Rockville, MD, all strays over six months of age are euthanized. However, pits turned in by their owners or stray puppies will be evaluated by one of the trainers who volunteer at the facility. The San Francisco Animal Care and Control Department (SFACC) uses two experienced staffers for each evaluation and begins by taking two pits of similar age, sex and size outdoors for a walk together. SFACC Animal Care Supervisor Katie Dineen found this to be the best way to ferret out dog aggression. Sternberg’s temperament test was the evaluation tool most employed by shelters. (Free copies are available to shelters; see box on p. 39.)
In order to keep the dogs from going kennel-crazy and improve their chances for adoption, some shelters are implementing training programs. While all of their shelter dogs go through the Good Dog! Program, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Lynnwood, WA, began a “pit bulls-only” class last March that combines temperament testing and training in the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen program. This 10-step program stresses responsible pet ownership for people and basic good manners for dogs, and all dogs who pass the test receive a Canine Good Citizen certificate from the AKC and are recorded in the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Archive.
Beyond the daily training session, each pit gets walked twice a day and is provided with a stuffed Kong® toy (a hard-rubber, beehive-shaped toy that can be stuffed with food and treats) when returned to the cage. Kong toys are the preferred toy for pit bulls because they are able to withstand the dogs’ strong jaws and biting power. PAWS’ program meets the mental and physical needs of their pits by providing exercise, training- and a great chew toy! Other shelters that don’t have the budget or space for in-house training programs have found that pit bull returns began to drop after they made signing up for obedience classes a mandatory requirement prior to adoption. Home inspections, pre-adoption sterilization, microchipping, in-depth supplemental applications and extensive counseling were some of the other special programs put in place to encourage successful adoptions. Since these procedures take time, most adopters have to wait nearly a week before getting a dog. This allows them time to mull over their decisions and properly prepare for the new arrival. It prevents impulse adoptions.
While pit bulls who test as being dog- and people-friendly make excellent companions, it is not in a shelter’s best interest to kennel an overabundance of pits. Their energy and arousal level stress out the dogs kenneled next to them. Adoptions fall off when kennels are filled with only one type of dog, and the shelter’s reputation as a great place to get a family dog suffers. Shelter staff interviewed noted the high number of lactating females who were turned in, looking as if they had birthed many litters. For communities that find themselves inundated with pit bulls, stopping them at their source must be a top priority. But short of a breed ban, what can a community do?
One solution is to offer pit bull owners free sterilization for their dogs. In New York City, the ASPCA offers free spay/neuter surgery to owners of pit bulls and pit mixes both through the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital and, if the pit is under 40 pounds, on the Care-a-Van, a mobile surgical unit that visits neighborhoods and assists small rescue groups. The San Francisco SPCA not only offers free sterilization to its pit bull- and Rottweiler-owning citizens, it throws in a $5 cash bonus, too. And at press time, PAWS was debating whether or not to pay a cash incentive along with a free sterilization program.
If your community is facing a pit bull dilemma, what can you do to help? If your local shelter doesn’t already have an evaluation program, encourage it to temperament-test pit bulls and pit mixes before putting them up for adoption. Volunteer to help keep evaluated shelter pit bulls mentally and physically fit while awaiting adoption by exercising them or taking them to obedience classes. Lead a chew toy drive at work to collect rawhides or hard rubber playthings to keep them busy while kenneled. And encourage your shelter or local veterinary hospital to offer free sterilization to owners of pit bulls. If they can’t afford such a program, help create a fund-raiser to support one. It’s a win-win situation.
(*For the sake of this article, the term “pit bull” includes American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and all pit bull mixes.)