AS SOME PIT BULLS make local headlines, others quietly serve as family pets, therapy dogs, search-and-rescue partners -- even teachers.
For example, Petunia visits area classrooms with the Greenbelt-based Partnership for Animal Welfare's Responsible Pet Owner (RPO) program. "Petunia waited while 40 children petted her," said Towson parent Karen Sindall. "I've never seen a more warm, loving and patient dog."
Yet Petunia is a pit bull, a name applied to several breeds originally bred for strength, agility, dog-fighting and -- worth noting -- absence of aggression toward humans, because handlers had to work closely with the dogs. Today, bull breeds score high on temperament tests, and the majority are family pets.
A dog breed is not responsible for attacks. Its owners are.
Many problem owners have dogs for reasons tied to machismo and money. Sewell Price, the assistant supervisor of the Animal Control Division, Baltimore County Health Department, notes, "Some of these animals spend 365 days a year on chains heavy enough to hold the Titanic." Researchers have confirmed the link between chaining and attacks.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates that 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs annually. Bites are inflicted by a range of breeds, according to studies by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Those that bite generally are male, not neutered and chained. Clearly, we must change the focus from breed to behavior, including owner behavior.
"Any animal treated the way some of these dogs are will display unstable, aggressive behavior," said Baltimore-area animal behaviorist Kathy Graninger. Some aggressive dogs are being mated by backyard breeders.
Some jurisdictions hopped on the breed-ban bandwagon, but many bans have been repealed because of problems with breed identification snafus and ineffectiveness. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, (ASPCA), AVMA and the National Animal Control Association oppose breed-specific legislation.
After Prince George's County's pit bull law took effect in 1997, dogs based on breed were confiscated. Yet after the breed's population dropped, the bites attributed to pit bulls remained level, according to county health department statistics.
"Every day we receive calls, the majority just because the dogs are illegal, not because they are threatening anyone," said Rodney Taylor, the director of Prince George's animal management division.
People who don't obey leash laws won't obey breed restrictions.
"The ban just makes [law-breakers] want the dogs more because of the thrill of having something illegal," said Judy McClain, Prince George's ASPCA cruelty coordinator. Those who want a macho dog will find other breeds. And a biting dog is a problem, whether a Pomeranian or collie.
A study published in the September edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends non-breed-specific dangerous-dog laws that place responsibility on the owner. Baltimore County enacted such a law in 1998 in which owners face a maximum fine of $500 for animal-control violations. The county's Animal Hearing Board can require that the owner train the dog, get it neutered, confine it in a kennel or surrender it.
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson recently proposed legislation requiring certain breeds, including pit bulls, to be registered and have an implanted microchip indicating they've been neutered. This novel approach is based on studies indicating neutered dogs are less likely to bite.
Instead of making the microchipping and registration breed-specific, however, the law can be applied to all dogs to improve owner accountability.
Other preventive steps should be taken now, such as enforcing laws already on the books, regardless of breed. That includes leash laws, which would eliminate 90 percent of animal control problems, says Baltimore County's Mr. Price.
With an eye on irresponsible and abusive dog owners, Del. Kenneth Montague Jr. of Baltimore City will introduce a bill in the General Assembly to increase penalties for intentional animal abuse, acknowledging the demonstrated link between animal abuse and human violence. Companion legislation will be introduced by Sen. Philip Jimeno of Anne Arundel County.
The legislation will make mutilation, torture, cruel killing or beating of an animal, injuring a police animal in the line of duty or organizing a dog fight a felony, with a sentence of up to three years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. Supporters of the bill were to gather in Annapolis tomorrow.
The key to proper dog behavior is owner behavior.
Robin Tierney is a volunteer and responsible pet ownership educator with the Partnership for Animal Welfare Inc. She has written guide books and numerous articles about canine behavior and care. She lives in Laurel.