Let us talk about pit bulls. Pitties, as they’re called by those who love 'em; spawn of the devil by those who don’t. They’re on my mind because they’re in the news again. An off-duty Vallejo police officer shot and killed a pit bull a couple of weeks ago while he was out walking his own dogs. The pit bull, a female called Charli, was a family pet; her owner, 15-year-old Sierra Blaylock, says her dog ran up to the officer’s three leashed dogs in an attempt to play. The officer says Charli was latched onto one of his dogs. The police department says it was a justified shooting.
At the Elk Grove Police Department's Citizen’s Academy, we talked about this when Maureen McCann, the Animal Services Supervisor for the department, came to explain the ins and outs of her unit. Let me say at the outset that I was surprised to hear Animal Services now comes under the province of our police department. As if they don’t have enough to do! Still, the Animal Services officers, three in all, cover Elk Grove’s animal population seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to midnight, not to mention being on-call 24/7. Last year they had 5,587 calls for service. These ranged from barking dogs to feral cats, from infractions of the leash law to problems in the dog parks.
They also handled a significant number of animal cruelty cases. I can’t tell you much about those. I spent that part of the presentation with my head under the desk, playing with Ms. McCann’s long-haired chihuahua, Cheeto. I am an absolute sap when it comes to animals. The idea of them suffering is excruciating for me. So I stayed under the desk rubbing Cheeto’s ears and belly, while McCann showed photos of the abused dogs, horses and livestock her unit has rescued.
It seems to me that a toy chihuahua is about as far from a pit bull as one can get, but really the main difference between them, according to the research I’ve done, seems to be their size. They are both still animals with the instincts and breeding that go back thousands of years. That means that both breeds can be aggressive, if they are not properly socialized.
Dogs are, by nature, aggressive when they perceive a threat. Socializing a dog, training it to respond to commands before its own primal instincts is hard work. It requires consistency and lots of time. Programs like The Dog Whisperer and It’s Me Or The Dog give the impression that dog training is something that happens almost magically and definitely within the time it takes to run a 30-minute episode including commercials. It doesn’t.
If you watch those programs, as I do, you’ll know that most of the time the problem with the pet is really with how the owner views the pet. Those of us who love our dogs can recite chapter and verse about how smart they are, how sweet, how they’re just big babies and members of our families. Most of the time. Then there are those occasions when they go bananas, and some inner devil takes over. I’ve seen it with Molly, my bichon poodle, who is about as mellow as you could want—until she thinks I need to be protected. Then she’s a growling, snapping terror. I know that now, and I try to be ready for it.
I try to be what Rachele Lizarraga, press relations liasion for Chako Pit Bull Rescue, calls a responsible dog owner, “educating yourself about the breed and knowing what a correct temperament for your dog is. You need to know when your dog is behaving in a way that’s a danger. You need to not ignore the warning signs.” Lizarraga talks about the danger of dog owners anthropomorphizing their pets, treating them like people instead of the animals they are.
“When you anthropomorphize your dog, you can end up with a dangerous canine,” adds Lizarraga. “It’s like treating a very young child as if it’s adult. You wouldn’t let your three-year-old run loose in the street, would you? Dog owners need to set up clear and consistent boundaries for their pets.”
Lizarraga believes the lack of boundaries contributes to the negative rap pit bulls get. While wishing that the Vallejo case didn’t end so drastically, she agrees that the officer was within his legal rights to shoot the dog. “Bottom line, this was a case of owner irresponsibility: the dog should not have been off-leash,” Lizarraga says. She also confirms the similarity between chihuahuas and pit bulls. “Both breeds have been overbred, and we’re seeing a lot of chihuahuas with very nasty tempers in shelters now. People think it’s cute and funny when their little chihuahua acts tough—until it bites a child.”
Of course, a snarling, biting toy chihuahua can usually be pulled off the victim; a pit bull cannot. The thing is, neither should have to be, and it is wholly our responsibility as pet owners when disaster happens.
P.S. So I’ve just come in from getting my mail. Molly always comes with me; it’s a high point of her day. She always stays on our lawn, however, because she knows not to cross the street. At least, I thought she knew. Today, a pit bull that I didn’t see was walking with its owner across the street. Molly was over there in a flash, ignoring my commands. She wanted to get to that dog. Fortunately the pit bull owner was a responsible dog owner: His dog was leashed. He scooped it up and held it above Molly’s reach. Tragedy averted, and lesson learned. No one, not even those of us with little cute dogs, can claim the laws of canine behavior don’t apply to us. That was Molly’s last trek outside without a leash.