Bad dogs, or bad press? When it comes to pit bulls, it seems like most people assume it's the first. But it wasn't always that way.
A pit bull named Stubby earned the rank of sergeant in World War I and appeared on the cover of ``Life'' magazine. Loyal pet of the ``Little Rascals'' on TV, the breed also used to symbolize the nation in editorial cartoons and army posters at the beginning of the 20th century. At one time pit bull terriers were the classic American dog.
Despite this honorable history, they've fallen on hard times. But their defenders are working hard to redeem them.
This February, the ASPCA in New York City is introducing its Adopt-a-Bull contest, co-sponsored by the Animal Farm Foundation in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Open to adopters from shelters that use the ASPCA's Meet Your Match temperament testing, the grand prize winner will get a trip to New York and a $5,000 grant for their shelter.
``There are myths about every breed,'' says Dr. Emily Weiss of the ASPCA, who developed the Meet your Match program. ``If you read the breed description of American pit bull terriers, it doesn't say aggressive. They're incredibly social. They've been our heroes at war, our companions at home.''
In fact, it's only recently that pit bulls have become the dogs that we fear most.
Ledy VanKavage, senior director for legal training and legislation at the ASPCA, knows this from experience. She had a German shepherd in the 1970s, when that breed had a fearsome reputation.
``When I was a kid, once I was walking my German shepherd. A woman came up to me and said, 'That dog's going to rip your face off,''' she says.
That experience was good preparation, perhaps, because VanKavage now has three adopted pit bulls - which she dresses in frilly collars so that people will stop to pet them instead of crossing the street to avoid them.
Perceptions of breeds change over time not because the dogs change, but because they become popular with different types of owners. ``It's the fad dogs, not the bad dogs,'' VanKavage says of the changing fashions for ``dangerous'' breeds.
Behaviorist Weiss says that's what's important to is focus on the individual animal. Each dog that comes into the ASPCA goes through the same testing, to rule out aggression - which can appear in any breed - and to evaluate personality. Adopters are then given color-coded categories corresponding to the results of these tests, so they can look through the shelter for dogs that will meet their preferences.
``People walk in the door thinking they'd never have a pit bull. We've had people completely change their minds after seeing that animal as an individual,'' says Weiss.
This focus on the individual dog is helping pit bulls at other shelters as well. When Lisa LaFontaine was made the new CEO of Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C., she brought with her a new emphasis on temperament testing.
In the past, pit bulls that came to the shelter were euthanized. Now they've adopted out close to four dozen, and follow-ups show that all are doing well in their new homes.
LaFontaine has a personal reason to want the pit bulls that come from her shelter to be good ambassadors for the breed, her own pit bull mix, Nicholas.
``As someone who shares my life and my home with a pit bull, whom I love, I don't want to see dangerous pit bulls out there,'' she says. ``We did this very thoughtfully. We worked with the whole staff, we provided training.''
Employees were enthusiastic about the change, and perhaps there's no better advertisement for the breed than the attitude of shelter workers, who have more basis for comparison than any of us could have in a lifetime. According to LaFontaine, she and fellow pit owner VanKavage are not at all exceptional.
``I've seen a lot of employees of humane organizations who are really aficionados of pit bulls and pit bull mixes,'' she says. ``They're loyal, they're funny, they're energetic, they're people-oriented. I'm not surprised that people who see a lot of animals fall in love with them.''
Email Linda Lombardi at creaturewriter(at)gmail.com
01/21/08 13:35 © Copyright The Associated Press.