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Experts say pit bulls make great pets, so why do they have such a bad rap?

Experts say pit bulls make great pets, so why do they have such a bad rap?

Experts say pit bulls make great pets but they're not allowed in the military family housing on Scott Air Force Base as well as other apartment complexes across the metro-east.
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Experts say pit bulls make great pets but they're not allowed in the military family housing on Scott Air Force Base as well as other apartment complexes across the metro-east.

Q: Why do some communities and kennels ban pit bulls? Are these dogs more dangerous than other breeds? — Anonymous

A: There are strong advocates on both sides of this question. Opinions about pit bulls range from a belief there should be a general ban on the breeds labeled "pit bull" to those who claim the dogs are victims of "public ignorance."

Some pit bull owners describe their pets as "gentle cuddle bugs" who love to sit on laps. However, statistics from dogbite.org, a victims' advocacy website that uses public records and national media reports to track dog attacks, show pit bulls are eight times more likely than any other dog breed to kill its primary owner.

Scott Air Force Base housing also does not allow ownership of pit bulls, a handful of other breeds, or any dog with "aggressive or dominant behavior." Apartment complexes throughout the metro-east often have breed restrictions in their rental policies because of insurance concerns surrounding pit bulls.

Beginning July 10, Delta airlines will no longer allow "pit bull type dogs" as service animals or support animals on board its flights.

The village of Cahokia had an ordinance forbidding the ownership of pit bulls that can still be read in the city ordinances. But when the state of Illinois banned breed specific laws, the village went with the state's law.

On May 30, 2018, a 9-month-old baby girl was mauled to death in her bouncy chair at her grandmother's house in Miramar, Florida, by the family's pit bull. The dog had been raised by the family since it was a puppy.

The child's mother said her baby was "the best thing to ever happen to me," but she didn't blame the dog or its breeding. The Miami Herald reported it wasn't clear if the dog was going to be put down.

Some say the media has given unfair attention to attacks by pit bulls, sensationalizing the issue and giving the dogs a bad reputation. The groups claim proper education, training and responsible pet ownership are the ways to bring the pit bull back into the limelight where they believe it belongs.

Pit bulls, in brief

Pit bull is not a breed in itself. It is descriptive of a handful of recognized dog breeds including the Staffordshire bull terrier, American pit bull terrier, and American Staffordshire terrier.

The American Kennel Club, founded in 1884 and an advocate for responsible dog ownership, describes the bulldog, bull terrier and American Staffordshire terrier as "several of today's most loved breeds."

The club's website says the dogs were bred originally for blood sports including dog-on-dog fights, or bear and bull baiting. The dogs would be released in packs on a larger predator and spectators would bet on the outcomes.

When these types of activities were outlawed, though dog fighting still continued illegally in some places, the pit bulls were bred for a different purpose — family dog.

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BND reporter Kara Berg's terrier and pit bull mix, Hubble, is 3 years old. Kara Berg kberg@bnd.com

Michelle Parker, owner of the Spencer Kennel in O'Fallon, said the breed was used as a "nanny dog." She said, "A lot of the 'bully breeds' were. The American and English bull dogs were nanny dogs and lot of militaries used the pit bulls."

The breed has been represented in popular culture as a family-friendly and loyal companion. An American Staffordshire named Bud went on one of the first cross-country car trips and was featured in a documentary by Ken Burns called "Horatio's Drive."

The dog Petey, of "Little Rascal's" fame, was also an American Staffordshire. Formerly called "Our Gang," the "Little Rascal's" comedy series followed a group of neighborhood children on their misadventures while accompanied by their faithful friend, the pit bull with a circle around his eye.

A series of advertisements by Anheuser-Busch in the late '80s to sell Bud Light featured Spuds McKenzie, a bull terrier.

Parker said, "(Pit bulls) are giant babies. We've worked with them daily for 28 years and they're fabulous dogs. Never been bitten by one, when I've been bitten by almost every other dog on the planet."

She said the last attack by a dog that required her to seek medical attention at a hospital emergency room was perpetrated by a full-blooded Labrador.

Banned on Scott Air Force Base

The Illinois General Assembly animal control statute reads: "Vicious dogs shall not be classified in a manner that is specific as to breed." But Illinois municipalities that have "home rule" may still pass breed-specific laws.

Pit bulls were banned in Cahokia at one time. Rich Duncan, Cahokia village clerk, said the city went along with Illinois' animal control statute after it was passed.

Cahokia has home rule, but has chosen not to have its own separate ordinance.

Duncan said, "If we wanted to, we could abolish the state statue and bring it back as a city ordinance, but we haven’t had any problems with pit bulls that I know of in the city of Cahokia."

The now-defunct village ordinance reads: "Keeping of pit bull dogs prohibited. It shall be unlawful to keep, harbor, own, or in any way possess within the corporate limits of the village any pit bull dog..."

The American Kennel Club opposes breed-specific laws because the club believes they are difficult to enforce, they penalize responsible pet owners and increase costs to the community, among other reasons. Its website says, "Deeds, not breeds, should be addressed."

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Michelle Parker, owner of Spencer Kennel in O'Fallon, says pit bulls are "giant babies" and "fabulous dogs." Jamie Forsythe jforsythe1@bnd.com

Pit bulls are not allowed in the military family housing on Scott Air Force Base as well as other apartment complexes across the metro-east.

The base pet policy, available for viewing through the website www.scottfamilyhousing.com, says, "Certain breeds of dogs are not allowed, including pit bull, rottweiler and doberman pinschers."

Master Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher, of the 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs office, said in an email, "Air Force instructions prohibit certain dog breeds from base family and privatized housing. This includes dogs of any breed, including mixed breeds, that are deemed aggressive or potentially aggressive such as the pit bull (American Staffordshire bull terrier or English Staffordshire bull terrier), rottweiler, doberman pinscher, chow, and wolf hybrids."

He said this prohibition also includes other breeds of dogs or individual dogs that demonstrate a propensity for dominant or aggressive behavior. There are exceptions made for certified service animals.

Doscher said, "All services have banned breed policies, though implementation of those policies vary."

'Stereotyping' pit bulls

Parker said Spencer Kennel requires the animals it works with to be spayed or neutered but doesn't have any breed requirements.

"Pit bulls, most of them have very docile personalities," Parker said. "They are extremely accommodating." She currently has six pit bulls for adoption out of 10 available dogs.

Her latest rescue pit bull was thrown out of the back of a car in East St. Louis and abandoned.

Parker said: "We believe everybody needs a chance at rescue. I never turn them away for breed. But other kennels do. They say it’s for insurance, but I’ve never had an issue with my insurance."

Kennelwood Pet Resorts has locations across the metro-east including one on U.S. 50 in O'Fallon.

From its website, the organization's safety policy states: "For the safety of all animals and employees, and at the discretion of Kennelwood Pet Resorts, some pets will not be permitted. Examples include but are not limited to American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, wolves, wolf hybrids or mixes that have the appearance or characteristics of one of these breeds."

Officials from Kennelwood did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its safety policy.

Other kennels and doggy day cares across the metro-east have similar policies, according to Parker.

Parker said: "It’s stereotyping. It’s because you never hear anything good about (pit bulls). All you hear is the bad."

Pit bulls are like people

Dr. Lauren Ausfieker, a veterinarian who joined the Belleville Animal Clinic's team at 1600 North Belt East last week, said, "I don’t think any breed is more dangerous than any other breed."

She is a 2016 graduate from the University of Illinois and is from the Mt. Vernon area.

"I know in the media it is kind of a conception that pit bulls are more dangerous than other breeds," Ausfieker said. "I think that stems from (the dogs being) one of the traditional breeds used for dog fighting. You automatically associate dog fighting with an aggressive breed."

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Owners of pit bulls describe the dogs as loving and cuddle-friendly animals. Media reports and statistics portray pit bulls in a different light. Kara Berg kberg@bnd.com

Ausfieker explained socialization and training from a young age have a huge effect on how a dog acts. Other factors to consider are whether the animal is ill, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered.

"Any dog can bite if they feel threatened. They have different responses, just like people," Ausfieker said. "Some people respond by yelling or screaming at what's upsetting them, other people respond by walking away. It is an individualized behavior response."

Pit bull's jaws do not lock "per se," according to Ausfieker. It is more about the size of the animal than anything extraordinary about the dog's jaw strength.

"A chihuahua’s bite will be less damaging than any breed with a larger mouth, based on the size of the teeth, jaw strength, etc.," Ausfieker said. "Any larger dog will have a more prominent bite than a smaller dog, like a 3-year-old compared to an adult."

As for being safe around children, Ausfieker advised considering each dog on an individual basis.

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Dr. Lauren Ausfieker, a Belleville veterinarian, said, "I don’t think any breed is more dangerous than any other breed." Jamie Forsythe jforsythe1@bnd.com

"Obviously, if you have small children you don’t want a large breed, hyper dog," she said. On the other hand, "There are other small dogs that don’t want to be bothered or have their tails pulled."

Children should be monitored around animals for everyone's safety.

Suggested reading

Interspersed with fascinating tidbits about dueling with rubber bullets and a strange sport called "auto polo," Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports by Edward Brooke-Hitching documents the now illegal practices of bear, dog and monkey baiting, and more.

Other blood sports using animals included mass hunts conducted in arenas by royalty and nobles where hundreds, if not thousands, of animals were slaughtered for fun. Other antiquated "entertainments" were shooting arrows at roosters and breaking apart a barrel with a live cat inside.

If you have a question for Ask Heidi, email it to questions@bnd.com or mail it to Belleville News-Democrat, ATTN: Ask Heidi, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427.
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