The pit bull: a canine villain, or the perfect companion?

Twelve years ago, Jodi Dunlop was fresh into her career with the BCSPCA. She loves animals. She is made to work with animals. However, Dunlop holds panicked memories from her beginnings that she still can’t quite reason with today. Rolling up the pant of her left leg, there is a visible scar just below her knee. It is slightly faded, but not enough to not cast a reminder. The scar came from 12 years ago when she started working for the BCSPCA, from something she loved and still loves, a pit bull.

Dunlop, now the branch manager for the Vancouver SPCA was accompanying another staff member with the pit bull to the kennel prior to the attack. The staff member had gotten locked in with the dog, who was jumping all over her, making it difficult for her to get out. With no warning or reason, the pit bull moved to Dunlop, taking hold of her just under her knee.

“The staff member that held the dog panicked and started hitting the dog, which makes it worse,” Dunlop said. “I explained to her that the dog had too big of a bite and would let me go, and when he does, pull him into his kennel.”

The pit bull let go, but not for long enough. Before Dunlop or staff could utter a word, the pit bull latched back onto Dunlop.

“We had no chance,” said Dunlop.

Although an attack from a dog that has strong, powerful jaws like pit bull breeds do, Dunlop felt no pain. She could hear her staff member continuing to panic, so she moved to focus on calming her while trying to figure out how to get the dog to let go.

Gerry (not the dog who attacked Dunlop), a pit bull up for adoption at the Vancouver SPCA branch.

“I tried several things, distracting him, trying to get him to grab my shoe. I ended up using my clipboard which I put between my body and his mouth and I started to push it down until he finally let me go,” Dunlop said.

The dog shook and pulled and didn’t let go without a fight. It took a whole tiresome half an hour to finally break the dog free from Dunlop’s leg. 
 “I was nervous after that because I really did think, ‘oh no, is this it for me and that breed?’” Dunlop said.

Dunlop’s question to herself 12 years ago is one very relevant to dog owners and non-dog owners minds alike today.

There has been a tug of war between two sides of the pit bull, with attacks steadily growing to be a large, controversial topic of discussion. The media has most recently been highlighting attack after attack by pit bulls on other animals, adults and even children. Bans have been put in place on pit bulls in cities like Winnipeg, the province of Ontario, the U.S. military base and a recent controversial close call of a ban in Montreal.

The one ‘true’ pit bull breed is the American Pit Bull Terrier. But, other breeds such as the American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully and Staffordshire Bull Terrier are seen under the pit bull name and also many other dogs get viewed as pit bulls for similar “bully” looks.

In early days, the pit bull was bred to fight other dogs and animals, often in a pit. Even in recent years, although frowned upon, there have been reports of people starting dog fighting rings involving pit bulls.

As history evolved, pit bulls became of use on farms, helping with hunting, protection, and livestock. They also became celebrated mascots for war and worked alongside the military. They were also therapy dogs, comforting wounded soldiers in the First World War. In the early 1900s, pit bulls were trusted so much they became popular nanny dogs for families.

PHOTOS: Left, Sgt. Stubby – the most decorated war dog of World War I and the only dog to be promoted to sergeant through combat. Right, a pit bull and a young child during the years when the pit bull was considered the perfect nanny dog.
Due to the media coverage of pit bulls attacking humans and animals, Bill Tieleman, owner of West Star Communications and columnist writer has written a number of pit bull opinion pieces in 24 Hours newspaper and The Tyee.

“I sort of came across a number of different stories the last few years and as I read them it troubled me,” Tieleman said. “The more reports I read of child fatalities, elderly people fatalities, of pit bulls attacking children in their homes for suddenly no reason, this is kind of crazy.”

According to the National Pit Bull Victim Awareness website, in a 30-year study of dog attacks in Canada and the U.S., 3,394 people were attacked by dogs in a fatal and disfiguring manner, with 60 per cent of these attacks by pit bulls and pit bull mixes. In an eight-year period from 2005 to 2012, pit bulls killed one American citizen every 19 days. According to the website, attacks in Canada are on the rise.

In the beginning of 2015, a young child was attacked by a pit bull with her mother in Crab Park in Vancouver. The girl was bit in the face and leg, with serious damage requiring 14 stitches. Approximately a month later, a small dog died after an incident with a pit bull in Surrey’s Holland Park.

In Fort St. John on Christmas Day in 2015, a man was left with possible amputation of both hands after pit bulls invaded his home. The man compared the incident to be like a shark attack. Hearing of attacks like these were examples of what caused Tieleman to write his controversial opinions, despite the backlash he would certainly receive.

“I just think that all the evidence to me points to the fact that this is a breed which is extremely dangerous to humans and other dogs,” Tieleman said.

Tieleman would like to see there be a province-wide ban on pit bulls in British Columbia, along with introduced restrictions such as mandatory leashes and muzzles in public.

“A ban on pit bulls would be preventative, it would reduce a number of fatalities and serious injuries from dog bites and dog attacks,” Tieleman said. “It’s unfortunate for people who are pit bull owners and advocates but that is for the good of society, that’s what we have to do.”

Rachel Nelken, a Vancouver resident and community council member for the BCSPCA’s Vancouver and Burnaby branches is a proud pit bull owner and advocate.

Donny, her pit bull mix, is a rescue who is nothing short of harmless and loving in her and many others eyes. 
 “I play around with him and I’ll do a light tugging of his ears and tail, kind of to see what he’ll react to, he doesn’t react to anything,” Nelken said. “He is the gentlest, most easy going dog. He’s just a big suck.”

Rachel Nelken’s pit cross mix, Donny. Photo courtesy of Rachel Nelken.

Nelken has even brought Donny to the hospital around ICU patients. “He’s so gentle and he just brightened everyone’s day: staff, patients and visitors,” Nelken said.

While in the media often casts the pit bull as the attacker, Nelken, however, has seen the other end of it, with her pit bull being attacked by another dog let off his leash in a park, leading to a highly expensive surgery.

“This guy knew his dog had these issues and he still let her off the leash. If you know you have a reactive dog, maybe they can’t be off leash. So, I think a lot of it has to do with the owners,” Nelken said.

Pit bulls could be argued to be one of the most misunderstood dogs, with many myths and stigmas surrounding them. Some of the misconceptions surrounding the pit bull breeds are that they are naturally aggressive, that their jaws lock, they are very temperamental and they can turn on people quicker than other dogs.

“They do have a high threshold for pain but that’s another reason why years ago, I’m talking decades ago, pit bulls were bred as nanny dogs to be raised with children,” Nelken said.

The Breed Specific Legislation is a law that targets mostly pit bulls and pit bull type dogs, putting strong restrictions on them when they are out in the public and not allowing any breeding of the dog to continue.
 “It’s not getting to the root of the problem. You’re taking isolated incidents; judging an entire breed based on those incidents and enforcing the elimination of the breed. When in reality, there are so many layers to consider,” Nelken said.

“What was happening at the time of the attack? How has the dog been raised? What type of triggers may have been there? I think a lot of that is the owner’s responsibility to understand.”

The misunderstanding of the pit bull doesn’t come easy, but the stigmas never stopped Nelken from feeling love and pride as Donny’s owner.
 “I think it’s important to also be proud of the pit bull breed. Whenever anyone asks me what kind of dog Donny is I don’t lead with ‘he’s a lab cross,’ I proudly say he’s a pit cross. I want to help raise the awareness that pit bulls aren’t bad dogs,” Nelken said.

Jodi Dunlop was left nervous and cautious after her half-hour struggle between man’s best friend and herself. The bite from the pit bull was deep enough to leave her bone exposed.

“By the time he let me go, I was physically and mentally exhausted from holding myself up so he couldn’t pull me to the ground and from keeping myself calm and the staff member calm,” Dunlop said.
 She was in and out of the hospital for three months on IV antibiotics and had to go back twice daily to get drains and bandages changed.

Dunlop was left in a state of limbo. She was nervous to go back to work, she was even left feeling cautious of her own smaller dogs for some time being.

“When I finally got the okay to go back to work from the doctor, I’m not going to lie, I was nervous because to this day, I really am not sure why the dog attacked me,” Dunlop said.

Gerry, a dog up for adoption at the Vancouver SPCA taking a nap. Gerry is one loved by many at the branch. Photo courtesy of Vancouver SPCA website.

The incident Dunlop experienced is similar to ones that can be seen reported in the news. Situations like hers have left some people to turn their backs on pit bulls and cast them as “canine villains.”

Dunlop may have been nervous after, but having experience in her past years with the Ontario SPCA before the BCSPCA, she decided she knew it wasn’t the end for her and pit bulls. It was just the beginning.

“I love them. My incident was very unfortunate, I was hurt very badly. The dog was left confined, it was not socialized. The owners of that particular dog did everything wrong. I look at the person that owned the animal. I believe it was their fault that that happened to me,” Dunlop said. “Pit bulls, raised properly, can be just as lovely as any breed out there.”

Dunlop has learned more about pit bulls the longer she works within the SPCA. Some pit bulls they receive, like the one that attacked her, come from unloving situations. Pit bulls can be taught to fight and can be extremely unsocialized. With this issue of the pit bull, a Breed Specific Legislation would in no way be effective in Dunlop’s eyes, but rather again, the owners are the one’s to watch.

Gerry, a hyper and playful pit bull up for adoption at the Vancouver SPCA branch. Photo courtesy of Vancouver SPCA website.

“I was in Ontario when they put the pit bull ban in and there were so many people against, so many people for it. It did go through, unfortunately. They have looked at their legislation now and realized, it hasn’t changed the amount of dog bite reports they’re getting,” Dunlop said. “We need to start looking at people and how they’re raising their animals.”

Another big question in the pit bull conflict is the media and how extensive pit bulls are covered. The pit bull is reported quickly and frequently, while other dogs aren’t seen in the same light.

“You don’t hear about [other dogs]. There was another incident where a pit bull attacked a Yorkshire Terrier, almost killed it. We heard about it, it was all over the news. However, the other day we had a person call [the SPCA] that rescued a Great Dane that almost killed someone’s Chihuahua, never heard about it in the news,” Dunlop said. “You keep hearing about them all the time, you start believing they really are that bad.”

Pit bulls have been put under the microscope for years now, and it’s not the first time a breed has been considered dangerous. In the 70s, it was Dobermans. In the 80s, German Shepherds, 90s the Rottweiler and now today, pit bulls.

The pit bull conflict is one with two sides, split down the middle. The pit bull has been battled over back and forth for almost 30 years now. The argument is still highly prominent in today’s news and society. Are they as much of a slobbering, loving “man’s best friend” as any other dog? Or, do they pose a real threat?

A popular belief is said that we, as human’s, have the power to speak for nature and animals – those who have no voice. Currently, it’s hard to tell where this debate will leave the misunderstood, once fighter, once nanny, pit bull. It could rage on, or people could carry on the history that has been seen and move on to the next “canine villain.”

“Any dog has the potential to be aggressive,” Dunlop said. “And in the wrong hands, it will be.”



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