The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

April 27, 2014

Pit bull controversy: bad dogs, or bad rap?

JOHNSTOWN — Pit bull dogs have been making headlines for decades often tied to vicious fatal or disfiguring attacks on humans or other pets.

Most recently in our area, 56-year-old Hornerstown resident Robert Williams was mauled April 18 along Pine Street. The owners of the two brown pit bulls that savaged Williams will be charged with harboring dangerous dogs, authorities said.

Hold owners responsible?

One school of thought would name the dogs’ owners as the dangerous party. Where is that line drawn? What can owners do to keep a beloved pet from harming someone else’s beloved family member? And how does the frightening stigma toward the breed develop and affect legislation?

First, how does the state classify a dog as “dangerous?”

Any dog that has, without provocation, attacked a human – or, has a history of attacking – and caused injury fits the bill. The law also covers domesticated animal attacks that occur off the owner’s property and dogs used in criminal acts.

There are over 700 such dogs around the state, as John Finnerty, CNHI Harrisburg Bureau, reported in October, but only two in Cambria County. Most of those cases are listed as “open” and a district judge has not made a determination.

According to 2014 data from the state Department of Agriculture, there were 116 dangerous dog law citations and only one misdemeanor charge issued last year in the state. In 2012, Pennsylvania dog wardens responded to 1,100 attacks, according to the department.

Included in that data was an attack from 2007 in which a rottweiler attacked three children with whom it was familiar in Somerset County.

Multiple calls made to the city’s animal control officer inquiring about local dog attack information were not returned.

Once a dangerous dog is registered, owners incur a $500 annual fee, are required to place warning signs on and around their homes, muzzle the dog when out of the yard and maintain $50,000 in liability insurance in case the dog attacks.

The state also may perform follow-up inspections, but they’re not required.

It was found in state Auditor General Eugene D. Pasquale’s late 2013 audit of the department that nearly one-quarter of owners failed to renew the annual license for their state-registered dog and no effort was being made to reign in the offenders.

Some adopt bans

Many cities across the country have breed-specific bans in place, even in states with clauses prohibiting them, according to DogsBite.org, a nonprofit website that compiles attack statistics.

There are currently no breed-specific laws in Pennsylvania, but bans are common in Ohio.

It’s an issue that Cleveland-area filmmaker Jeff Theman tackled in his 2013 documentary “Guilty ’Til Proven Innocent.” The Best Friends Animal Society, one of the largest animal welfare organizations in the country, has begun sending copies of the film to lawmakers around the country who are looking to pass or repeal these laws.

Theman focused on the swell of anti-pit bull fervor that followed a high profile fatal attack in Dayton, Ohio, in 1987. According to Theman, a hearing was held the day after and an amendment was submitted that included pit bull language.

“The laws (were) kind of disguised … as a way to target pit bulls by social classes,” he told The Tribune-Democrat in a phone interview. “Laws can’t be too vague and they can’t protect classes, race or gender. The dog owners aren’t a protected class.

“The people that created these laws back in the 1980s – that’s when they had the perception that if we can go after the dogs, we can go after the (owners). … It was definitely racially motivated – it wasn’t just social class.”

Owners were held to $100,000 in liability insurance, public muzzling and confinement requirements, such as a

6-foot fence.

“They really treated these dogs like lions and tigers,” he said.

DogsBite.org data from 2014 showed that 74 percent of attacks from 2005 to 2013 were caused by either pit bulls or rottweilers. Children are the most statistically likely victims, followed by seniors and postal workers.

In the April 18 Hornerstown attack, Williams’ face was left marred. Police said he may never regain full use of his right arm.

A statistical report from The American Society of Plastic Surgeons showed more than 27,000 people underwent reconstructive surgery in 2012 as a result of dog bites.

A 30-year summary on dog attack deaths and maimings published in 2012 showed that nearly one-quarter of all fatal pit bull attacks in the U.S. and Canada since 1982 occurred in 2010 and 2011.

During Ohio’s anti-pit bull crusade, however, Theman said the negative media hype swirling around wasn’t helping.

“A neighbor will tell on another neighbor saying, ‘I think there’s a pit bull living there,’ because of the hysteria,” Theman said, although not all of the dogs look alike.

Law’s discrepancies

Then what to do with discrepancies in the law’s definition of a pit bull?

There are five main “bully” breeds that fit the common angular and muscled description of a pit bull: The American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and two subtypes of American bulldog. On average, they range from just over a foot in height to more than 2 feet, and weigh anywhere between 25 to 120 pounds.

That’s why Theman says legislation should focus on behavior.

Although Ohio’s law now determines dangerous dogs solely on behavior and Cleveland changed its dog ordinance in 2011 to lift the restrictions, many municipalities still prohibit the breed, like Lakewood and Garfield Heights in suburban Cleveland. Theman said it’s only selectively enforced.

“We’re really missing the boat,” he said. “We’re putting all of our efforts … trying to round up all the blocky headed-looking dogs and those are not the ones that have done anything wrong.

“Behavior is what we need to look at, especially in these economically depressed times. Cities don’t have money to be going door to door looking for certain types of dogs,” he said.

According to test results compiled by the American Temperament Test Society, a Missouri-based nonprofit that passes or fails particular dogs on behaviorally analytical exams, the American bulldog scores 85.9 percent on average, with about 200 dogs tested.

‘Always something behind it’

“I really do blame the owner,” said Tim Holsopple of locally based Operation Pit Bull, an education and awareness organization he founded in 2002. “I don’t blame the dogs because I don’t know the situation. Dogs don’t do something just because. There’s always something behind it – either there’s genetics or they’re provoked.

“If the dog isn’t raised right or abused, there’s a chance they could become aggressive toward other people or other animals,” he said.

Holsopple said an attack can come from any dog. It’s important to be mindful of any behavior that would communicate the dog’s aggression, especially with such a swift and powerful breed as the pit bull.

“If it’s just me and I don’t have my dogs with me and I come across a stray dog on the street, usually, I don’t make direct eye contact – they see that as a challenge,” he said, adding that turning to one side can make you appear smaller, and therefore less threatening.

“I also keep my hands to my side. Any leaning forward to a dog could be (perceived) aggression.”

A dog’s bark is not always a sign of violent intent, Holsopple said. Usually, it’s exerting its territorial nature or it may have puppies nearby that a passerby might not notice.

Although the urge to bolt in the opposite direction when faced with a snarling canine can be strong, Holsopple said it’s the wrong thing to do. The dogs with a high prey drive, like breeds used in hunting, will give chase.

Rehab for dogs

A documented attack or a history of violence, however, isn’t always the end of the road for the domesticated pit bull. Volunteer rehabilitation efforts are often successful.

Holsopple said he works with the Cambria County Humane Society to evaluate the dogs emotionally.

“Some of Michael Vick’s dogs are now with families – only a handful were put down,” he said.

Not only does Operation Pit Bull help connect pit bull owners with behavioral trainers or find bully-friendly homes and rescues for people who can’t take care of them, it also focuses on helping owners manage their pets’ energy in healthy ways, like weight pulling and agility exercises.

Holsopple said one of his three pit bulls has a 6-foot vertical leap and can pull over 1,600 pounds with a specialty harness – a pure athlete, he said, and all of 50 pounds. The pup’s next meet will be at a weight pulling competition June 13-15 at Windber Stadium.

“We try to find positive ways to burn that energy. A lot of time, (pit bulls are) used for the wrong reasons,” he said. “We’re giving them options for getting into positive sports.”

For more information about Theman’s documentary, “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent,” visit GTPIfilm.com.

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @justindennis.

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