When people come looking for a dog to adopt, the first thing they say is “no pit bulls,” said Beata Liebetruth, shelter manager at Home at Last Humane Society.
On the wall at the animal shelter in The Dalles are pictures of dogs up for adoption. Two are pit bulls. They’ve been there far too long in what is a loud, cramped, stressful environment, Liebetruth said.
Ripley, a young pit bull, came to the shelter last October as a pup. “He basically grew up here at the shelter because nobody adopted him because he’s a pit bull,” Liebetruth said.
He was finally adopted out, but “unfortunately two days later he came back. He got into a fight with two dogs in the back yard. He injured one of the dogs. They returned him and said, ‘You adopted a vicious dog.’”
She disputes that, saying the dog wasn’t previously vicious.
An ongoing study by Merritt Clifton, who has tracked fatal and non-fatal dog attacks since 1982 in the U.S. and Canada, shows that more than two-thirds of pit bull attacks were done by dogs with no previous history of dangerous behavior.
Liebetruth said Ripley is now unadoptable and the shelter is hoping to find a pit bull rescue to take him in.
“I feel they get such an unfair shake,” Liebetruth said as she played fetch with Ripley in an outdoor enclosure. “Every time in the media, if a pit bull is involved, they blow that up.”
But the statistics are grim. Fatal dog attacks are rare, but the most common culprit for this rare event is a pit bull or pit bull mix.
The website dogsbite.org, which focuses on pit bull attacks, stated that in 2015, pit bulls accounted for 28 of the 34 dog bite fatalities in the U.S., or 82 percent. Pit bulls make up about 6.6 percent of the total U.S. dog population, according to the site.
Rottweilers are a distant second in terms of fatal and disfiguring attacks, and they account for only 10 percent of the total done by pit bulls, according to Clifton.
Liebetruth said pit bulls make up the largest share of animals at shelters – Clifton said they totaled 32 percent of the shelter population in 2014 -- and combine for 40 percent of the 1.2 million animals euthanized yearly. They are the most likely to be euthanized and only the third most likely to be adopted, she said.
She said pit bulls are not different in a way that makes them dangerous.
Pit bull opponents like Clifton contend that pit bulls do show differences from other breeds. They say smaller breeds are also known to bite, simply out of defense, and herding breeds can bite because that is their herding behavior, but they contend pit bulls are stronger, don’t show warning signs before they bite, and tend to not let go once they bite, causing more damage to bite victims.
Liebetruth said irresponsible pet owners can make pit bulls a threat by not socializing or training them well. “They really get an unfair shake, these dogs. There’s thousands of pit bulls on any given day that need rescue.
“Perhaps the most important characteristic of pit bulls is their amazing love of people,” she said. “Many people are surprised by the loving personality of these dogs the first time they meet one. Pit bulls are remarkably affectionate and truly enjoy human attention. They are wonderful cuddlers and love nothing more than a belly rub. In fact, most pit bulls think they are lap dogs.”
Some people do want to adopt pit bulls, but it’s no simple thing. Liebetruth said it took one family three weeks to get their insurance requirements squared away before they were able to recently adopt a pit bull, Misty, from Home at Last. Most insurance companies won’t insure pit bulls as pets, she said.
“With pit bulls, we counsel them very, very carefully,” Liebetruth said. “It is a dog you have to have control of at all times. Of course, all dogs should be controlled.”
All dogs who are taken to the shelter are assessed for behavior to see if they can be accepted. “We don’t just take any dog walking through the door,” she said.
The shelter can’t train or rehabilitate dogs, “that’s not our role,” she said.
Just three days after Ripley came to the shelter last October, another pit bull, Dynamite, came. He’s still there too. “We send him to Cascade (Pet Camp in Parkdale) just to give him a break from being in the kennel 24 hours a day.”
Dynamite is a pit bull mix who might have some Akita in him, she said. “He’s just a great, active, young, healthy, playful dog.”
Kodiak is another pit bull at the shelter. “Kodiak is a real lap dog,” Liebetruth said. Along with Ripley, all three were strays brought in to the shelter by the city’s animal control officer. Kodiak and Dynamite are two of the nine dogs up for adoption at the shelter right now.
While a rumor circulated that the animal shelter was no longer accepting pit bulls, Liebetruth said that wasn’t the case. The only reason a pit bull would be turned away was if the dogs were aggressive – as is the case with any other breed of dog. “The only other reason could only be if we, at the time, already had five or six pit bulls here.”
She said the shelter can’t function if potential adopters come and the only dogs available are pit bulls. “You can see, we have pit bulls here for months and months and months,” she said.
The topic of the safety of pit bulls as pets is one of sharply opposing viewpoints and conflicting arguments from various entities.
According to Clifton, the federal government stopped tracking fatal dog attacks by breed in 1998. But he tracks deaths and maulings in the U.S. and Canada, where he lives, and Dogsbite.org tracks U.S. incidents.
On the question of which breed bites more, Dogbite.org contends animal control or health departments in at least 28 states have reported pit bulls outbiting other dog breeds.
Clifton said pit bull advocates have pressured reporting agencies and even some media into not reporting the breed of biters. He said the amount of “unknown” breeds listed in statistics has increased sharply in recent years.
An Oregonian story in March 2015 found pit bulls responsible for more bites in the Portland area than other breeds.
In The Dalles, though, over the least two years, of 18 dog bites reported, only two were from pit bulls, said Lisa Stuck, animal control officer for The Dalles Police Department.
However, she noted that so far this year she’s had four aggressive dog calls, and three were pit bull attacks on other dogs.
But Stuck has had her own extensive, positive experience with pit bulls. “Generally they are great with people. I have fostered around 20 pit bulls and only one had to be euthanized because he just became aggressive. All are in loving homes with great owners.”
She did say that pit bulls “are the most over-bred dog. Rescues are over-full of unwanted pit bulls.”
Clifton’s website contends a pro-pit bull push by a variety of animal welfare entities followed the 2007 case of NFL player Michael Vicks’ arrest for dog fighting using pit bulls.
The Best Friends Animal Society, a well-known national organization, has made it a priority to end pit bull discrimination. It rescued 22 of the pit bulls taken from Vicks and gave them safe haven at their sanctuary in Utah.
Pit bull ownership is banned on military bases and in over 700 U.S. cities, and Best Friends is working to reverse that, saying of pit bulls: “The simple truth is that pit bull terriers are just as safe and gentle as any other breed. The scientific studies have proven it.”
However, a link on its website to a study saying pit bulls performed well on animal behavior studies was broken.
As for Ripley, the search is on for a rescue to take him in. Home at Last is a no-kill shelter, meaning it has at least a 92 percent save rate. The facility hasn’t had to euthanize an animal in a long time, and the only reason it would do so is if the animal is suffering beyond help.
“That’s why I’m torn with Ripley,” Liebetruth said. “He does not deserve to die.”