Pitbulls: Unleashing hell

Are pitbulls an 'ugly, dangerous, unpredictable breed', or does the problem lie with their owners?
Are pitbulls an 'ugly, dangerous, unpredictable breed', or does the problem lie with their owners?

Pitbulls are widely feared and reviled for their instinctive aggression, and recent attacks have reignited the debate over whether they should be outlawed. But does the blame for a dog's viciousness lie with the breed or owners? Tim Hume investigates.

THE DOG attack which left eight-year old Andy "AJ" Maninoa with half his face torn off earlier this month was chilling, ferocious, but hardly extraordinary.

Everything about the incident, which took place at a Housing New Zealand halfway house, followed a depressingly familiar template. The dog, Red, was known to Waitakere authorities as an aggressive animal. The owner, 30-year-old Linda Sale, had never voluntarily registered the dog. Red was microchipped only after having been impounded for straying on to the streets without the muzzle which, as a menacing dog, it should have worn. That registration had lapsed and had never been renewed. Sale had been warned just days earlier about the animal running loose, although it had been chained up in the garage at the time of the attack. The dog savaged AJ, whose family were visiting Sale, when he entered his territory, approaching for a pat.

Waitakere City Council animal welfare manager Neil Wells says pitbulls can make perfect family pets  if treated correctly.
Waitakere City Council animal welfare manager Neil Wells says pitbulls can make perfect family pets if treated correctly.

Sale's boyfriend flipped the bird at the press as he surrendered the dog to the council. Predictably, Red was a pitbull.

AJ was left with more than 100 stitches in his face and faces a future of painful medical procedures and permanent scarring. He told his mother he was grateful his younger brother and his sister had been spared. The fact that Red was destroyed did little to placate many horrified observers, who called for common sense to prevail and the entire breed to be banned.

Former broadcaster Brian Edwards piped up on his blog, calling for the outlawing and neutering of all pitbulls, so that this "ugly, dangerous, unpredictable breed" would be eventually eradicated. By some reckonings, his stance is moderate. In Australia, the president of the Victorian RSPCA has called for the mass extermination of the state's American pitbulls.

Equally feared and reviled, controversial even before they were first imported in 1987 despite opposition from the SPCA, pitbulls have a notorious public image. Which only adds to their appeal to a certain demographic.

"There are some breeds of dogs – and there are very few – that are instinctively aggressive, and obviously the pitbull is top of the list," says Auckland SPCA director Bob Kerridge. "You breed a dog that's strong, aggressive, unpredictable – you're going to have problems."

Initially bred by British noblemen who sought to combine the strength of a bulldog and the gameness of a terrier, the muscular, strong-jawed pitbull was the perfect fighting machine, used for the cruel pastimes of bull baiting and dog fighting. The breed is noted for its readiness to fight, its high tolerance to pain, and the savagery of its attacks, inflicting the maximum amount of damage by ripping throats and tearing out bellies, rather than biting and holding like some other breeds.

"When we jumped up and down and warned we don't want these dogs brought in the country, the main point was the wrong sort of person would want to own one," says Kerridge. "Why the hell would you want a dog with those traits?"

There are now about 7000 registered American pitbull terriers in New Zealand, with perhaps two to three times that number of unofficial lookalikes from the proliferation of "puppy mills" providing cheap dogs to keen owners. Purebred dogs might sell for up to $1500, puppy-milled ones for $50. pitbull bloodlines run deep into the local dog population.

A lot of New Zealanders love their pitbulls. And they're not all irresponsible bogans. An angry, increasingly politicised and organised core of pitbull defenders is mobilising to salvage the name of the breed and fight restrictions placed upon it.

"These are in fact the dogs least likely to bite you, who have arguably the best traits for a family dog," says Karen Bachelor, registrar of the American pitbull Terrier Association. She argues the pitbull's pit-fighting origin meant it was less inclined to attack humans. "They might bite your neighbour's dog, might kill your neighbour's cat. But they don't bite humans. Any pitbull that bites its handler is a dead dog."

Bachelor is the local face of an international movement which has emerged in reaction to "breed-specific legislation" around the world in recent decades. This online advocacy network sees the beloved pitbull as an unfairly persecuted minority, victim of a sort of canine genocide. Their websites are testament to the depth of their feeling over the issue. They have slogans ("Target the deed, not the breed"). They co-opt stirring poetry ("When they came for the pitbulls, I remained silent..."). They even have their own cause celebre political prisoners (a pitbull named Bruce who was held in a crate for three years at the hands of Northern Ireland customs). "He'd done nothing wrong but have that particular look about him," says Bachelor, who has owned nine pitbulls over 16 years.

In her eyes, the dogs are victims of rash legislation, of media hysteria, of unsound research – but most of all, of the irresponsible, undesirable lowlifes who are drawn to the breed as a macho muscle dog. The pitbull's very notoriety attracted "psychopathic nutters who shouldn't be able to keep fleas, let alone the dogs to feed them on".

"That's where it comes unstuck, not because of the breed, but because of the owner," she says. "The unfortunate thing is, thanks to the hype, they just want a pitbull."

If pitbulls did attack, it was only because they had been conditioned into violent "weapon dogs" by their owners.

"They take their pussy little pitbull home and they have to beat him into being nasty," she says. "They have to `improve' on that dog, cross-breeding it with rottweilers, bull mastiffs and shar peis. And then you have the weapon dog, because that's what they're after in the first place. Breed the musculature on a dog more inclined to be human aggressive – then all you need is some nutter going, `Get him, get him'..."

THERE'S A movement of support for Bachelor's position, which argues that laws targeting specific breeds are misguided and ineffective. Research published in 2007 demonstrated that Spain's experiment with dangerous dog laws, targeting American pitbulls and staffordshire bull terriers among other breeds, had failed to reduce dog attacks. Italy and the Netherlands have recently repealed their breed-specific laws, as have many territories across the United States. And, with the number of ACC claims for dog bites rising 26% since the year prior to breed-specific dog laws being introduced in New Zealand in 2003, it would appear they are not working here either. Three of the five fatal dog attacks recorded in New Zealand occurred in the past seven years.

It's imposssible to verify exactly how many dog attacks take place each year, as many go unreported. By one estimate, 75% of dog bite victims are the owners, who are typically reluctant to report their own pet to authorities.

What is clear is that dog attacks are on the increase, constituting "a significant public health problem" according to reports in the New Zealand Medical Journal. ACC claims for dog bites have risen from 7638 in 2002 to 9647 in 2008, with active claims now costing the taxpayer $3.8 million a year, an increase of 161% since 2002.

Animal control veteran John Payne has compiled statistics on attacks in the central North Island since 2007. His breakdown found the American pitbull terrier accounted for 18.7% of 510 attacks in the region in that period, despite constituting just 1.4% of the population there. Staffordshire bull terriers, another breed often categorised as "pitbull", accounted for 9% of attacks and 4.5% of the relevant population. The breed responsible for the second highest number of attacks, however, was New Zealand's most popular dog, the labrador.

Neil Wells, the Waitakere City Council animal welfare manager who oversaw the response to the attack on AJ, has 30 years of experience in the sector. pitbulls are the breed his staff has the most problems with, but he doesn't believe that's due to the breed being inherently more aggressive or unpredictable than others.

"It really comes down to how they're socialised, how they're treated. If a pitbull pup is adopted by a family, it can make a perfect family pet. If a pup from the same litter gets in the hands of macho males who just want to use it for an extension of their ego, we're going to have problems with it."

The more notorious a breed, the more popular it becomes with the wrong kind of owner and the more problems it will pose to dog control. (When Seattle woman Diane Whipple was killed by two presa canario mixes in 2001, breeders there reportedly received an influx of calls for puppies.)

"It goes in flavours," says Wells. "Before anybody had ever heard of pitbulls, the macho dog to have was a rottweiler. Before that it was dobermans and before that it was Alsatians. If we removed every pitbull or pitbull cross in New Zealand we would not solve the dangerous dog problem, because another breed would take its place."

Wells says the popularity of pitbulls seemed to really take off when government legislated against them in the wake of a vicious attack on seven-year-old Carolina Anderson in 2003 (despite the attack having been committed by an American staffordshire bull terrier). Schedule 4 of the Dog Control Act classified the American pitbull terrier, dogo argentino, Brazilian fila and Japanese tosa as menacing dogs, making it illegal to import them, requiring them to be muzzled in public, and stipulating that local authorities may order them to be neutered.

It's not hard to get a glimpse of the mentality behind antisocial dog ownership in New Zealand. An attachment to muscle dogs is a deeply ingrained element of gang culture here, as overseas. They're far from the only reprobate dog owners but they tend to be involved in some of the worst abuses, including the ugly bloodsport of dogfighting. On Bebo pages, gangs like the Killer Beez show off their pitbulls along with photos of their motorbikes and other status symbols. The identification of New Zealand's largest gang, the Mongrel Mob, with the symbol of the bulldog runs far deeper than simply using it as a mascot.

"We took on the ferociousness, the staunchness, and all its character," says former chapter president Tuhoe Isaac, who has a tattoo of the bulldog across his back.

Mob members famously salute by barking like dogs. Once, they performed it on One Tree Hill, barking at the spirit of the great dog in the sky to mark the initiation of a new chapter. "It was a god to me, " says Isaac. "The bulldog was everything, that's what we lived for. It represented everything that was antisocial."

CROSSBREEDING, AND the fluidity of breed definition, seriously muddies the waters when it comes to identifying which breeds are responsible for attacks.

When jurisdictions with breed-specific laws talk about "pitbulls", they can be referring to the American pitbullterrier, the American staffordshire bull terrier and the staffordshire bull terrier. Various mastiff, shar pei, and rottweiler crosses are also commonplace.

Dog laws have also driven many pitbull owners to register their dogs as different breeds. And, say Bachelor and Wells, attacking dogs are routinely misidentified by dog control officers or the media as pitbulls, due to the stigma that surrounds the type. Wells recalls a biting labrador being labelled a pitbull.

But Brent Lincoln, animal services team leader at the Tauranga City Council, rubbishes the suggestion that pitbulls are not the most dangerous and problematic dog. "If they attack, they probably attack more seriously than other dogs."

Kerridge says that although pitbulls are a special category because of the dangers they pose, SPCA opposes breed-specific legislation. "We are opposed to breeds being targeted because they're seen to be inherently dangerous – because outside of the pitbull, that's not a fact." He says the dog control act is a failure in its present form. "It punishes the dog. Yet I've told you that nine times out of 10, it's the owner."

For Bachelor, there's no question that owners are to blame for the pitbull's bad reputation. She even blamed herself when her own pitbull attacked her. She can't remember how many stitches she received, but the bite was serious, down to the bone. She insists she was in the wrong, though, for "having waded into a raging dog fight assuming the dog wouldn't behave like a dog, just because it was my dog".

"Whether it's a pitbull or a corgi, we're in charge of the situation, we set them up for it and they pay with their lives. It's time we stop making them pay when we get it wrong."

Bad dogs in recent history

German shepherds have a loyal nature and bond well with people they know. However, they can become over-protective of their family and territory, especially if not socialised correctly. Highly intelligent and obedient, these dogs have a very individual personality that is characterised by self-confidence and a cold distrust of strangers. Keen and alert, they have a lot of loyalty and courage. They are very confident, but not hostile toward others. These dogs also tend to learn very quickly. Some of their notoriety stems from their use as the dog of choice for the Nazis in Germany during WWII.

Doberman pinschers were originally bred as personal protection dogs. Breeder Louis Dobermann had to travel often through bandit-infested areas and decided to build a watch-dog capable of handling any situation that might occur. It had to be large and intimidating, fearless and willing to defend its owner, but sufficiently obedient and restrained to do so only on command. As a result it became a favoured watch-dog, police dog or war dog and got a nasty reputation. Well-bred rottweilers are calm, clever, solemn, confident and brave. However, they do have territorial instincts and can be aggressive when it comes to defending their families.

Rottweilers are very strong dogs, and it is also very important to properly socialise these dogs from puppyhood onwards. Their intimidation factor comes from their huge size and powerful bite which creates more pressure than any other dog.

The bull terrier is a muscular and well-built dog. They have a sweet nature and can be very loving but require an experienced owner as they can become overbearing without the right tuition and socialisation. Strong-minded and stubborn with extrovert personalities, these dogs can be hostile if not raised correctly. They are natural fighters and are usually hostile towards other dogs. They can be fine around children but it's recommended they are kept away from young children.

Sunday Star Times