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WASHINGTON -- For any animal, a stay at a shelter or dog pound is often a harrowing experience. But for one type of dog, the "pit bull," admittance to a government-run facility in Ohio such as the Lucas County dog pound is almost a guaranteed ticket to oblivion.
Strict state laws regarding ownership of "pit bulls" coupled with widespread public mistrust of the general breed have made it extremely difficult to find homes for these animals. That, together with an overabundance of "pit bulls" because of overbreeding and abandonment, means that when such dogs enter a pound they are the least likely to leave.
The adverse topic of "pit bulls" and their fate is a hot-button issue at a national conference in Washington hosted Saturday and Sunday by the No Kill Advocacy Center and attended by The Blade. Sessions include "Rethinking Pit Bulls" and "Turbocharging Pit Bull Adoptions."
At the Lucas County dog pound on South Erie Street, between 35 and 40 percent of the dogs that end up at the facility are "pit bull" types, Dog Warden Julie Lyle said. These include the breeds American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bulldog, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier, as well as "pit bull" mixes.
Unlike other kinds of dogs, which are destroyed only if they fail a behavior or medical evaluation, the pound puts "pit bulls" to death simply because there is no room for them -- resulting in a disproportionately high number of "pit bulls" being put to death.
"There's just nowhere for them to go," Ms. Lyle explained recently. "There's just way too many being born and becoming homeless."
Similarly, the Toledo Area Humane Society destroys more "pit bull"-type dogs than other kinds of dogs, although officials there maintain this is a result of stricter behavior testing for the animals. Kill rates for "pit bulls" at the Humane Society are 18 percent, compared with the overall dog euthanasia rate of 10.5 percent. The society takes in some of the "pit bulls" from the Lucas County pound as well as from people who surrender them.
The situation is mirrored at pounds and shelters across the country, according to Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the United States. An informal survey conducted by the society found that, on average, 30 percent of dogs entering shelters are "pit bulls" -- with the rate shooting past 70 percent in some urban shelters, he said. In turn, kill rates for the dogs are high.
A big part of the problem is the sheer number of "pit bulls," the result of both purposeful and accidental breeding, Mr. Goldfarb said.
Breeders have flooded the market with the dogs, mistakenly expecting to make a lot of money from people who see the animals as a status symbol or who want to use them for dog fighting, which is illegal.
These animals often end up on the street, where they breed again and eventually fill pounds and shelters.
Even those people who acquire "pit bulls" intending to take good care of them may find themselves unable to provide the kind of stimulation and exercise that the dogs need, Mr. Goldfarb added.
"While some dogs are content to spend eight hours a day sleeping on a couch, other dogs are not," Mr. Goldfarb said. "['Pit bulls'] really need that extra stimulation, both physical and mental -- and social as well -- to really feel like happy, complete dogs."
That kind of stimulation is often lacking in traditional shelter environments, where staff and resources tend to be limited. So when a "pit bull" enters a dog pound it is at particularly high risk of developing behavioral or other problems, experts maintain.
"Pit bulls" also are especially likely to have suffered abuse at the hands of dog fighters or other individuals, another factor that often hinders their chances of being considered adoptable.
ABOUT THE BREEDS
“Pit bull” is a general term that encompasses several different breeds of dog.
The three most common types are:
American Pitbull Terrier
■■Weighs between 35-65 pounds.
■■ Coat is short and smooth; colorings include red, black, fawn, brindle, and solid white.
■■ Head is proportionate to body.
■■ Loyal and obedient but needs a firm owner so it will know who is in control.
American Staffordshire Terrier
■■ Weighs between 65 and 90 pounds.
Coat is thick but short, in a variety of colors.
■■ Muscular body, with a square build.
■■ Very friendly and devoted to its owner.
Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Weighs between 28 and 38 pounds.
■ ■Coat is smooth and short; colors include fawn, white, black, blue, and brindle.
■■ Known for its broad head.
■■ Good with children but sometimes aggressive with other dogs.
When "pit bulls" are screened for adoption, they face more stringent standards in behavioral testing than other dog breeds. At the Lucas County dog warden's office and the Toledo Area Humane Society, "pit bulls" must score a one or two on a five-point scale on all elements of the standard "SAFER" evaluation, which measures whether a dog is aggressive. If they score higher on any portion of the test, they will be put down. Other types of dogs can score a three or four on some elements of the test and still be put up for adoption, officials said.
Stricter testing standards are necessary because of the large size and strength of a typical "pit bull," said Jean Keating, a local dog advocate and founder of the recently established Lucas County Pit Crew, a rescue group dedicated to helping the breed. The organization has been taking in "pit bulls" from the Toledo Area Humane Society since September, Ms. Keating said.
"I think you have to be very careful with who you are putting up for adoption, basically because of the size and weight more than the breed," Ms. Keating said. "You have to make sure this is a safe animal because you're putting it out in the community with children and old people. … Even with a dog that size to jump on a child could be really hurtful."
Still, Ms. Keating and other animal rights advocates insist that the commonly held notion that "pit bulls" are innately aggressive is false. They say the dog has been vilified over the past two decades because of its association with dog fighting and criminal elements in society. However, with humane care and training, the animals are no more likely to be vicious than other kinds of dogs, activists say.
" 'Pit bulls' are very athletic dogs, they're very intelligent dogs, and I think when you have those two traits it's easy for the wrong kind of person to manipulate them and use them for vicious purposes," Mr. Goldfarb said.
"When you give a dog proper training and socialization and even basic care it can really go a long way toward creating a wonderful family pet."
In Ohio, however, "pit bulls" are considered innately aggressive by law. As a result, people who want to own a "pit bull" must take out liability insurance, confine the animal in a fenced and locked yard, and abide by other restrictions. The Ohio House recently voted to end this breed-specific labeling, although the measure has yet to be approved by the Senate.
As it stands, the Ohio law has played a role in increasing destruction of "pit bulls" by discouraging people from adopting them, advocates say. People are less likely to adopt "pit bulls" from a pound or shelter because they are worried about the insurance requirements, might not have a fenced yard, or live in a rental unit where the landlord is unwilling to risk having a "pit bull" on the premises, Ms. Keating said.
"Some people think, 'Why should I go through all that when I can go to the Humane Society and I can get a boxer or a lab or a German shepherd?' " Ms. Keating explained. "Some people aren't willing to jump through these extra hoops to own a 'pit bull.' "
Despite the difficulties, there are ways shelters and dog pounds can increase "pit bull" adoptions, Mr. Goldfarb offered. These include espousing the virtues of "pit bulls" such as their athleticism and intelligence, teaching them tricks and providing them with behavior training, offering free and low-cost spay/neuter services for "pit bulls," and hosting events specifically to celebrate "pit bulls" and present them to the public.
"It's really important to market your 'pit bulls,' " Mr. Goldfarb said. "Show off their wonderful traits."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272