A pittie-ful situation
Some see the breed as the devil incarnate, out to ravage men, women and children, not to mention other dogs, with vise-like jaws, lots of teeth and a hair-trigger temperament that has earned it a reputation as the fiercest canine on the planet. Others see a playful, intelligent pooch that’s loyal, wonderful with kids and simply misunderstood by humans.
“There’s two camps that I see mostly,” says Nate Shephard, who has as many as 14 pit bulls in his Springfield home at any given time and likens them to 50-pound Yorkshire terriers. “There’s people who hate them and people who think that they can’t do anything wrong. Both sides are dangerous to the breed.”
One thing is certain. There are usually pit bulls and pit bull mixes available for adoption at the Sangamon County Animal Control Center at 2100 Shale St., and Friends of Sangamon County Animal Control is hoping to do something about it with a so-called Pittie Party scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 25, which is National Pit Bull Awareness Day. There will be reduced adoption fees, a pit bull parade and door prizes at the two-hour event scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m.
There is no National Toy Poodle Awareness Day or National Tabby Cat Awareness Day, but when it comes to pit bulls, there is a certain stigma that helps explain why there are plenty of pit bulls available for adoption. Shephard, who takes in pit bulls from local animal welfare groups until permanent homes can be found, says that too many people are naive when they bring a pit bull home. Having acquired his first pit bull as a puppy about 20 years ago, he speaks from experience.
“Just like everyone else, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Shephard says. “When she turned six months old, she got wild. I got her a buddy, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. It doubled my trouble.”
Don’t train a cocker spaniel properly and you might end up with a dog that barks too much or won’t listen when someone tells it to stay off the furniture. Don’t pay enough attention to a pit bull, however, and you’ve got bigger problems.
“They were bred for fighting for a long, long time,” Shephard says. “Just like any other working dog, they have some biological requirements that people overlook sometimes. Absolutely, dog fighting is not acceptable in our society anymore, and it’s disgusting and gross. But that’s what the dogs come from. They have to have an outlet for that energy, a constructive outlet for that energy. If they don’t have an outlet for that energy, it turns into destructive behavior.”
Which means, among other things, that pit bull owners have to socialize their pets to ensure that they will get along with other dogs. Regular walks are important, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to walk a dog, and walking a pit bull on a tight leash creates instant frustration, Shephard says. He recommends requiring the dog to walk right next to you on a 15-foot leash with plenty of slack.
“It’s all patience – patience and clarity,” he says.
Owners must be specific and clear when it comes to communicating expectations to a pit bull, Shephard says, and everyone in the household has to be on the same page. It won’t work if one person doesn’t allow the dog near the dinner table but someone else lets it beg for food. As with any other breed, prospective owners need to consider whether they have sufficient time and patience to handle a pit bull’s predilections and needs.
“They’re fantastic dogs,” Shephard says. “I love them. They’re not for everyone, obviously.”
But there are a lot of them. In 2013, 594 of the 1,958 dogs taken into the county animal control facility were considered pit bulls, according to Greg Largent, director of the Sangamon County Animal Control Center. Sheer numbers alone create challenges in finding homes, he said.
Jill Egizii, a volunteer with Friends of Sangamon County Animal Control, says the stereotype can be difficult to overcome.
“We find there are people who will come in and say ‘I want a dog, but there’s no way I want anything with pit in it,’” Egizzi says.
But the negative feelings can disappear. Pound pit bulls, she says, tend to fall into two categories: dogs that are low key and dogs that live to be petted.
“There have been cases where people say, ‘Absolutely no pits,’ and they walk out with a pit,” Egizzi says. “They will spend time with them and they’ll completely change their mind.”
Names can be a hurdle, and so a pit bull named Monster that was given up for adoption was rechristened Monty, Egizzi recalls. Similarly, a litter of pit bulls that included pups named Budweiser and Cigs was renamed.
“They (the original owners) named them after their pastimes, smoking and drinking,” Egizzi says.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.