Does She Look Like a Killer to You?

Maryland court rules that my dog is a monster.

Two years ago, when I told people I knew I was getting a pit bull, reactions were pretty much evenly split between “Really? That’s great. They are such sweet dogs,” and “Are you crazy? Aren’t they unpredictable?”

Not for the first time in my life I threw caution to the wind, and—on a hot June day—I accompanied my then-fiance to Animal Control in North Philadelphia and left with a shivering, terrified and very lucky female American pit bull terrier-pointer mix we named Mara.

Mara was a hard case. But we knew that when we rescued her. (We had asked for the dog they were having the hardest time placing). When we brought her home she was sick, underweight and nearly hairless. Snot dripped from her nose, and she exhibited a serious bout of separation anxiety every time we left her alone; she ate through two lesser-made crates before we finally found one that could hold her. I won’t lie to you: The first few months were tough—kind of like having a newborn who can bite through metal (or so I’ve been told).


That was then. Today Mara is a well-adjusted, loving and supremely grateful dog that sleeps at the end of our bed, snuggles with our cats and has never met a person she didn’t want to lick. In other words, she bears no resemblance at all to the raging people-killer a Maryland court recently determined her to be.

Maryland Court Rules Pit Bulls “Inherently Dangerous”

This week, legislators gathered in Annapolis to reconsider an April ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals that imposes strict liability on owners of pit bull-type dogs and the landlords who rent to them, based on the assumption that the animals are born with an “aggressive and vicious nature.”

The case stems from a 2007 dog mauling in which a 10-year-old boy was seriously injured by an American Staffordshire terrier, requiring several surgeries. The parents of the child sued the dog’s owner and his landlord, and the case went all the way to Maryland’s highest court. In deciding in favor of the plaintiffs, the court cited statistics suggesting that pit bulls are responsible for a higher incidence of fatal attacks than other breeds, and extrapolated the data to conclude that the dogs are “inherently dangerous.”

Under the new precedent, it’s no longer necessary to prove negligence in bite cases where a pit bull or pit-mix is concerned. The way the court sees it, simply owning one is negligent enough.

Well, I can think of about a dozen people off the top of my head who own pit bulls who could present a solid argument as to why that’s complete bullocks. But personal bias aside, the court’s finding simply doesn’t hold water. For one thing, equating an ability to inflict harm with a propensity to is irresponsible, shortsighted and a “slippery slope” if ever there was one.

It may be true that due to certain characteristics (for instance, strong jaws and a high tolerance to pain), when pit bulls do attack there is a higher chance of serious injury. But if that were the only criterion for treating them differently than, say, a cocker spaniel (the breed responsible for the highest number of attacks on humans), then people who drive SUVs should be held to a stricter liability than those who drive compact cars when they are involved in a fatal accident, since a person is more likely to die after getting hit by a Chevy Tahoe than a Honda Civic.

But that’s not the only problem with the ruling. More significantly, it discriminates against a breed that most dog experts—including the American Kennel Club—say doesn’t even technically exist. While the term “pit bull” has historically been used to describe one of three standard breeds—the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier—the AKC does not recognize the “pit bull” as a certified breed.

Meanwhile, more than 30 different dog varieties—including boxers, chows, mastiffs and even Boston terriers—have been erroneously lumped under the pit-bull umbrella, mostly out of ignorance and fear. A lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a pit bull, let alone a pit bull mix, will not only complicate enforcement of the law, but will lead to discrimination against any short-haired, stout-bodied canine with a big head. Not exactly justice at its finest.

Dog Owners Fight Back

Fortunately I’m not the only one who took personal offense to the Maryland court’s action. Within days of the ruling, dog owners and animal rights advocates hit the bricks (and the Internet) to draw attention to the ruling and pressure lawmakers into action.

Their protests worked, and by the end of May, Maryland House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller had appointed the bipartisan, 10-member “Task Force to Study Court Decision Regarding Pit Bulls” to consider the issue and decide whether to overturn the ruling or not.  Their first meeting was June 19th. Meanwhile, five anti-breed-specific bills were introduced in Maryland’s special legislative session in the weeks following the court decision in an effort to dismantle it through legislative channels.

Why Pit Bulls Are No More Dangerous Than Chihuahuas

Unfortunately, Maryland is not the only state or city that stereotypes against breeds designated as pit bulls. Discriminatory legislation targeting so-called “Bully Breeds” is in effect in dozens of cities and counties across the country. In Denver, for instance, animal control officials can confiscate your dog  and have it euthanized if it’s determined to be a pit bull (or displays “the majority of physical traits” of one). Imagine explaining that to your six-year-old. In other places (like Maryland’s own Prince George County), owners can even get jail time for “harboring” a pit. The laws are largely based on the erroneous belief that bully breeds are more aggressive to people than other dog varieties. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While pit bulls may be able to do more damage than other dogs when they attack, they are actually less likely to.  That’s because unlike German shepherds and Doberman pinschers—which were bred to control people—Staffordshires and pit bull terriers were perfected as fighting dogs (as horrible as that sounds) and, as such, were selectively bred to respond to their handlers, not attack them.

In fact, most studies show (and anyone who has ever owned one can back this up) that pit bulls are actually less aggressive to people than many other breeds. Research confirms that smaller dogs are most likely to attack humans—with the dachshund, the Chihuahua, and the Jack Russell terrier cited as the most likely to bite, according to 2008 statistics in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science from a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, those dogs don’t typically kill people when they attack, which is why we don’t hear about more Chihuahua maulings on the news, while the media is more than willing to advance the stigma against pit bulls.

Any way you measure it, serious dog attacks are rare in the U.S., and death by dog even rarer. Each year, 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs, according to the Centers for Disease Control,  resulting  in approximately 16 fatalities—roughly 0.0002 percent of the total number of people bitten. For the years 2000-2008, dog bites accounted for less than one percent of the injuries treated in emergency rooms, the CDC reports. But you wouldn’t know that from media reports that continue to advance the sensational notion that packs of uncontrollable pit bulls are roaming our city’s streets looking for their next victim.

Next time you see me on the street walking Mara, come say hello. I’ll show you just how wrong they are.