A friend of mine’s boyfriend was walking their two pit bulls in Berwyn recently when the comments started – How much for your dogs? I bet they’d be good at fighting? Like many people that have pit bulls as pets, it’s a stereotype that she deals with on a routine basis.
“I was fighting mad when he came home and told me about it,” says Tracey Gold. “He just walked away but this continued stereotype about pit bulls just gets me going. First of all, we’ve spent so much effort and money working with our dogs so they are good citizens. I also volunteer with Safe Humane Chicago and volunteer with Ruby for their Lifetime Bonds Program.”
Gold is not alone. If you have a dog that looks like a pit bull, you’ve probably heard the comments or dealt with people who react negatively toward the breed. The interesting thing is that many dogs that “look like” a pit bull – boxy head, muscular body – are not. Current DNA testing tells us a lot about a dog and what you see and what the DNA says are often different breeds.
Can you spot the pit bull?
“We have two sheets we use when we are out educating,” says Cynthia Bathurst of Safe Humane Chicago. “One sheet shows pure-bred dogs, and the viewer is asked to pick out the pit bull from the look of the dog. They are usually wrong. The other from the National Canine Research Council shows mixed breed dogs identified by a shelter or other authority and demonstrates that few dogs identified as pit bulls have DNA traceable to any pit bull type dog. A small percentage of a dog’s genes account for their head, and often the head shape is a deciding factor in someone calling a dog a pit bull.”
If you look at the pictures at the top of this post, you can see what Bathurst is talking about. Are you able to guess which dog is the pit bull? Only three of the dogs have pit bull or Staffordshire Terrier DNA. If you look at a portion of the graphic below, the dogs with DNA are number 9 with significant traces of American Staffordshire Terrier and Boxer and number 11 has distant traces. Few people would guess that number 7 has some Staffordshire Terrier (along with Australian Cattle dog) - here's a link to the full poster.
This information is great when you’re discussing dog breeds and even breed discrimination. But, what do you do when you encounter people on the street or elsewhere that are buying into the tough dog or fighting dog persona of the pit bull? After all, people on the street are often basing their opinions on looks alone.
“First and foremost, you need to make sure you and your dog are safe. Don’t take the chance of making your dog a target –walk away,” says Bathurst. “If it’s a safe situation and you feel compelled to talk, say it as politely as possible. Point out that your dog is a family dog and isn’t for sale. If they say they want to breed your dog or want your dog, let them know your dog is fixed and microchipped.”
Educating in communities
Safe Humane Chicago’s High School Youth Leaders Program tackles some of these issues in the classroom. The Youth Leaders are mentors from the city’s high schools who visit elementary schools in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. The idea is to act as mentors to teach younger children how to connect more positively with dogs, how to interact more safely and how to be responsible dog owners.
“This is so important not only to teach them about the importance of how to treat pets, but how to treat everyone,” says Bathurst. “There are many lessons that tie in with bullying or domestic violence – two problems that are a part of everyday life for these students. Many of these students have not had positive experiences with pets and animals depend on us for their quality of life.”
Safe Humane also sponsors the Lifetime Bonds program for 14 to 18 year old youth offenders incarcerated at the Illinois Youth Center. This program works with teens in the juvenile justice system – many whom have not only seen or been a part of dog fighting, but have little positive connection with animals. The goal is to get them to connect in a more positive way with animals and, as a result, with people as well.
“So many of these young men are terrified of the dogs when we first start to work with them,” says Gold, who volunteers with her red pit bull Ruby. “We start off the program with our ambassador dogs – like Ruby – and teach them how to not afraid, how to interact and how to train dogs. We bring in the Safe Humane Court Case Dogs from Chicago Animal Care and Control later in the program.”
By the end of the program, the transformation is amazing. It’s all part of building understanding and being champions for not just pit bulls, but all animals. Gold added that because she sees this transformation on the program, the comments she and her boyfriend hear on the street frustrate her and make her realize there is still work to do.
“Pit bulls” in Chicago are really Chicago dogs who are born in our community. They are a mix of a lot of different dogs,” adds Bathurst. “I do think that people are gradually becoming more educated about pit bull type dogs and dogs in general. They are understanding how a dog is treated comes into play and that any type of dog can be aggressive. Big, strong dogs present a much bigger problem when they become aggressive. Dogs of any kind should be treated as part of the family, should be allowed to just be dogs.”
Animal Farm Foundation has created an infographic and blog post that looks at why it's so important to look a dogs as individuals beyond the basic DNA. Every dog is getting their DNA from two parents and it's hard to predict behavior based on DNA since we don't know what part of the DNA is making up their behavior. I'll have more on that later in the week.
Safe Humane Chicago
You can support the work being done by Safe Humane Chicago and learn more about many of theses programs by visiting their Website and donating online. Along with the Lifetime Bonds and Youth Leaders Programs, Safe Humane Chicago also works on transforming the lives of dogs in the Court Case Dogs Program. Check out that program in the video below - Because of Francis - and learn more about the programs online and by following them on Facebook.
October is Adopt a Dog Month and Pit Bull Awareness Month.
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