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Should You Adopt A Pit Bull?

Once proudly heralded as "America's Dog" the pit bull has become America's most argued about dog.

Laura Ingalls Wilder had one, as did President Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller and Fred Astaire. TV personality Racheal Ray has one named Isaboo. Singer Pink and tennis superstar Serena Williams own them too.

American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers, recognized breeds, are often lumped by public perception into a group that include various mixes of bulldog breeds, terriers and other dogs. All are widely referred to as "pit bulls", causing confusion as to what a pit bull actually is.

The confusion extends to their reputation.

They are undoubtedly strong, sleek, sensitive, stubborn and extremely smart, all traits handed down by their terrier and bulldog ancestors. Their history is one of farm dogs and military mascots, TV stars and playmates for children but also bull baiting and dog fighting. When it is reported that a pit bull has attacked a person it fires up a maelstorm of media attention and public sentiment against them. 

Many say pit bulls are darlings while others insist they are dangerous.

Kevin Hearst, Chief Cruelty Investigator of the DeKalb Animal Services Task Force sees a lot of dogs come through the county animal shelter. He reports that the number of pit bull intakes are extremely high and that 65-70% of the animals they pick up are pits or pit mixes.

"They are usually very social and lovable," Hearst said, "one of the most loyal dogs I've ever seen in my life."

"I've  also seen them go after children and other people," he continued. "Usually because of something someone did or because there was some confusion going on. You have to think of these dogs as kids. You must be able to read them and you must know how to take care of them."

One way to take care of your pit bull is never to tie or chain them outdoors. It increases their isolation and inhibits their ability to release their natural energy and curiosity. Chaining a dog outside increases their prey drive according to Hearst and is a recipe for trouble. 

This sentiment is echoed by Debbie Setzer, the community outreach director for LifeLine Animal Project . She has had extensive experience with the rescue group in saving homeless and abused dogs, including pit bulls. 

"Any dog that is tied up outside is proved more likely to bite, it doesn't matter what the breed is," she said. She added that if a dog tied outside is not spayed or neutered, it vastly increases the chance that the dog might hurt someone.

When it comes to placing pit bulls for adoption, LifeLine, along with other Atlanta rescue groups, screen potential adopters carefully.

"Pit bulls are family dogs," Setzer explained. "A good home for them is an active and structured home. They love their family and people in general. They can live in a house and they also make fine apartment or city dogs. They are great dogs for runners or hikers but it's best not to take them to dog parks."

Setzer says that problems arise when this outgoing breed isn't trained or socialized properly, when there are several other dogs in a house or there's a situation with other dogs that creates competition.

Both Hearst and Setzer agree that pits, contrary to popular belief, are not good protection dogs.

"They have a prey drive but are not really protective," said Setzer.

"I don't recommend them as protection dogs at all," said Hearst.

Many apartment complexes, citing liability issues, do not allow pit bulls. Some cities, Miami among them, have a law against owning them. In much of the UK they are banned or subject to strict regulation.

Animal advocates blame habitually irresponsible owners and careless, money-minded backyard breeders for the current problems haunting the dogs they loving refer to as "pibbles."

Hearst agrees. "There are two kinds of pit bull owners. Responsible and irresponsible," he said.

Despite all the controversy, the pit bull remains an extremely popular dog.

"I had a Staffordshire Terrier named Scooter," reminisced Patricia Kilpatrick, co-owner of Harmony Yoga and Wellness in Tucker. "Rescued from a breeder who was fighting dogs. She was the sweetest dog I have ever had. Her best friend was a kitten. They would sleep together."

"It is not a dangerous dog but it has a dark history," said Hearst, referring to their use in illegal dog fighting, "So many of them are good. I want people to understand there is a capacity there for them to do great bodily harm, but 70 percent of them will try to lick you to death."

Rescuers advise those who want to adopt or foster a pit bull to learn all you can beforehand, be prepared to patiently work on socialization and training and consider if your home and lifestyle is right for this lively and focused breed.

The right homes and training produce happy, companionable dogs.

"It takes commitment, " insisted Setzer.

Stephanie Sorensen August 02, 2011 at 01:22 PM
Debbie - While I agree with you that pit bulls are definitely not the dog for every family, and you really need to research them before deciding to get one, I do not agree with your solution of letting them go extinct. Most of them are really great dogs that just want to be dogs. They don't want to fight. Why do you think so many of Vick's dogs were killed on the property? It is because A) they would not fight, or B) they did not win their fight. I have a wonderful female pit bull, 6 years young now, and I can take her anywhere. She is good with dogs and great with people. It is because I did what any other responsible dog owner does: I socialized her young, I trained her, and I have managed her to the point that she knows right from wrong. She has NEVER mauled another dog. Ever. And I've seen her get upset. Those that "snap" are simply dogs that have not been managed correctly. Regarding Rachael Ray's dog Isaboo, my guess is that she has no business owning a pit bull. She does not know how to manage that breed. I do agree there is a problem with a large percentage of these magnificent dogs ending up in the wrong hands. It happens with every other breed too; however, those instances are overlooked because most other breeds aren't capable of the damage a pit bull can do. But I myself, after having Scarlet as my first, will own a pit bull for the rest of my life. They are incredible dogs, very loyal, very smart, and very capable of living normal lives in society.
Therra C. Gwyn August 02, 2011 at 01:23 PM
It's been proven impossible in the past to eradicate an entire breed, be it of dogs or of humans, and history has shown that it's been been attempted. Pit bulls will never be extinct. According to the experts (people who routinely deal with the breed on a local or national level in county/governments services and animal shelters) not all pit bulls are aggressive or troublesome in the way you describe. Not all pit bulls maul. In fact, most of them don't. Is it fair to kill non-aggressive animals too? I totally agree that not everyone should own one and the right family fit and training is key. Some think that punishing a dog for bad ownership is cruelty, some think it is just practical. I believe if there were an easy answer everyone could agree on, it would have been implemented by now. I feel that spay/neuter is the most humane answer to pet overpopulation. Pit overpopulation is a true problem and they are suffering mightily for it.
Stephanie Sorensen August 02, 2011 at 01:25 PM
Aggression is usually not unpredictable. You just have to know what you're looking for. And it is not common in any breed. They always give warning signs. We, as humans, just aren't usually paying enough attention to catch the triggers.
MB in ATL August 02, 2011 at 05:15 PM
Debbie this article isn't promoting pits. It's promoting what the true situation is. I'm tired of reading that they all are bad dogs, that's not true but it's not true they are all the perfect safe dogs either. That's what it says here. Did you really read the article?
Desmond D'Silva January 01, 2012 at 04:51 PM
Debbie Bell are you mentally challenged? Then again don't answer LOL

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