This column was originally published in April 2017.
By now, you may have heard about the dog that bit a 3-year-old girl in the leg in Elmwood Place. Police said the child was in surgery for three hours, but she’s now stable.
Police identified the dog in the attack as a pit bull — but that’s incorrect. Furthermore, it’s irresponsible.
Over the span of a few hours, I doubt police did a DNA test on the dog. And, truly, that’s the only way we could know if this dog really is a pit bull (or a breed that’s commonly known as a pit bull, as pit bull isn’t a breed in and of itself).
This might be a spiel that you’ve heard or read before. But we’re still hearing about “pit bull attacks."
Full disclosure: I’m dog-crazy. I volunteer at my county animal shelter and I ogle at dogs on Pinterest and Instagram. I’m the proud owner of two “pure” mutts that my family found six years ago in a box on our road. Because of all of this, I feel a compelling need to defend any and all puppers.
But this column isn’t meant to defend the dog who bit the little girl — its meant to defend the dogs who spend years in shelters because they look like pit bulls.
Often, a dog that’s thought to be a pit breed is actually a mix — Staffordshire terrier, American bulldog, boxer and/or mastiff. The boxy head, muscular torso and big smile are usually enough to indict a mutt on figurative charges of being a pit bull.
A study conducted at the University of Florida found only 36 percent of sheltered dogs labeled as pit bulls had “true” pit bull DNA, and only half of dogs labeled as pit bulls had any pit bull-type breed DNA.
In another context, this wouldn’t be up to snuff for journalists. We wouldn’t say a Reds game was sold out when only half of the seats were filled, nor would we report a political candidate won in a sweeping victory when, in actuality, said candidate received about a third of votes cast.
"But it’s just a dog breed,” you might say. “It’s not a big deal.”
Well, not to be dramatic, but it is a life-or-death situation for many shelter dogs, who are euthanized if they can’t be adopted.
Another study, this one from Oregon State University, says being labeled a “pit bull” significantly decreases a dog’s chances of being adopted. When a dog is called a “terrier mix” or a “boxer mix,” however, potential adopters give them a second glance.
Sadly, dogs labeled as pit bulls spend more than three times longer in shelters than other dogs, the study says.
Researchers suggested removing breed labels altogether, as a “relatively low cost strategy that will likely improve outcomes for dogs in animal shelters.”
So why don’t we do the same in how we talk about news stories?
Reporting on “pit bull attacks” does nothing but perpetuate stereotypes about certain dog breeds and aggression — stereotypes that are totally incorrect.
A bad or aggressive dog’s behavior is most heavily influenced by its owner, a study from the University of Bristol says. Breed may influence a dog’s temperament — Chihuahuas are “yippy,” Jack Russells are jumpy and Greyhounds are skittish — but it won’t influence a dog to show aggression toward humans, other animals or strangers. That’s at the hand of owners.
“It’s neither accurate nor wise to judge a dog by her breed,” the ASPCA says on its website. “Far better predictors of aggressive behavior problems are a dog’s individual temperament and her history of interacting with people and other animals."
Need more proof? Here’s my coworker Emmalee’s sweet dogs, Mase and Sasha:
And here are some of the lovely pit bull-looking dogs that I’ve met at the Warren County Humane Society and during WCPO’s pet pals segment — watch Saturdays on Good Morning Tri-State!
If you feel compelled to help pit bulls in Greater Cincinnati, you can donate money, dog food or time to Cincinnati Pit Crew, Adore-a-Bull Rescue or any of the awesome rescues in town. Most animal rescues don't have physical facilities, so they're always in need of foster families for pets looking for homes.
Marais Jacon-Duffy is a web editor at WCPO and she really, really loves dogs. This column represents her opinion.