EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 12, 2013

Pit bulls: Bad breed or misunderstood?

Experts say perception isn't always the reality

By Alex Lippa

---- — When pit bulls make headlines it’s usually bad news.

The general public’s perception of the breed isn’t based in reality, many experts say, but it hurts the dogs that linger in animal shelters or are targeted by neighbors and local officials.

Joleen Malot sees it all the time at the Salem Animal Rescue League.

“Most people automatically tell me they don’t want a pit bull,” said Malot, operations manager at SARL. “I think people believe that they’re vicious.”

But that may be perception more than reality. While no official statistics are kept on a state or national level, many experts agree pit bulls are no more likely to bite than another breed.

“They rarely show aggressive behavior,” said Michael Fraysse, a veterinarian at Hampstead Animal Hospital. “They tend to be easygoing animals who rarely bite.”

That’s not always the case.

Last month, Oliver, a pit bull and Labrador retriever mix, bit Sarah Stewart, 6, when she tripped and fell on him in Londonderry. Oliver was quarantined for 10 days. His owner, Lisa Palmieri of Londonderry, faced fines of $100 for having a vicious dog and $25 for failing to keep his rabies vaccination current.

Oliver was released, but didn’t move back to the neighborhood.

Derry police quarantined Mystique, 2-year-old brindle pit bull a week ago after it attacked a 10-year-old boy, biting his leg and arm. Derry police Capt. Vern Thomas said no charges have been filed against the owner and it remains under investigation.

Many believe pit bulls are unfairly maligned. Salem Animal Control Officer Corie Bliss said pit bulls aren’t the top breed of dogs which she responds to for dog bites.

“It’s extremely unfair to discriminate against breeds of dogs,” Bliss said. “Even the friendliest of dogs can sometimes bite.”

She said the department doesn’t keep track of just how often a specific breed bites a person. But she does know which breed she has to respond to the most — and it isn’t pit bulls.

“It’s Labradors, just because they are of the highest quantity,” Bliss said.

The last study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked fatalities from dog bites between 1979 and 1998.

In that 20-year period, the CDC found “purebred pit bull types” were responsible for 66 deaths, while Rottweilers were blamed for 39 deaths.

Data was collected from news accounts and the Humane Society of the United States’ registry databank. The study also concluded fatal attacks represent a small portion of dog bite injuries and breed specific ordinances should not be a factor in public policy.

By its own account, the CDC doesn’t identify specific breeds most likely to bite or kill.

Some 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, according to the CDC. Of those, 0.0002 percent are fatal.

“There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill,” the CDC says on its website.

Malot said the perception of pit bulls hurts their chances of being rescued. Pit bulls often stay at the shelter for six months, she said, as opposed to other breeds which are adopted within a few weeks.

Eric Tombarello, owner of Elite K-9 Kennels in Derry, breeds purebred pit bulls. He said human aggression is not part of a pit bull’s personality.

“That’s more of a trait of a Rottweiler or a Doberman,” he said. “I would take a pit bull over any other dog as far as a family dog is concerned.”

Christine Morrissey of Salem has a pit bull, Luna.

“They’re very affectionate and really just a good dog,” Morrissey said. “She, in particular, is really good with children.”

But Morrissey said pit bulls aren’t for everyone.

“This type of dog is not for a first-time dog owner,” she said. “They need a lot of attention, discipline and exercise. This isn’t the type of dog you can just leave at home all day. A lot of socialization is good for them.

Sheila Johannesen, animal control officer for Danville and Hampstead, agreed pit bull behavior often depends on the owner.

“If a pit bull is brought up correctly and with proper training, then there should be no issues,” she said. “A lot of these people with pit bulls that are in situation where they are a danger to public have not had proper training. In all fairness to some of those pit bulls, even the friendliest of breeds would have probably done same thing.”

But it’s a stigma that sticks.

Bill Verge, owner of Verge Agency Insurance in Plaistow, said he won’t sell homeowner’s insurance to anyone who has a pit bull.

“I don’t know of any company which would write a policy for a homeowner with a pit bull,” Verge said. “Anytime anybody puts in an application, we ask them and if they do we can’t write them an policy.”

Verge said pit bulls and Rottweilers are among the dogs which are on insurance providers’ prohibited list.

Many communities have restrictions on pit bulls; some even ban them.

In 1991, Haverhill, Mass., adopted an ordinance requiring all pit bulls to be muzzled and leashed when off their owner’s property. In 2008, the ordinance was changed. Since then, “dangerous dogs” are covered by the muzzle/leash requirements. A dangerous dog is defined as one that has bitten or attacked any person or has tried to.

“We just didn’t want anything directed toward a specific breed,” Haverhill City Councilor Bill Macek said. “After we had a dog bite which was in the news, there was a point that was made, that not all dog bites come from just one or a few breeds.”

K.C. Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, fights back when communities target specific breeds.

“They have a bad reputation that they just don’t deserve,” she said of pit bulls. “The only information that reaches the public eye is the one in a million incidents. We also get news clips all the time about pit bulls and they don’t even vaguely resemble pit bulls.”

Many people say it’s more about the owner than the dog.

“People train them to be mean and that’s not the pit bull’s fault at all,” said Deanna Obrey of Londonderry, who owns two pit bulls. “It breaks my heart because they are some of the best pets and just loving dogs. “