Local nonprofit Love-A-Bull educates about and advocates for America’s most debated ‘aggressive’ dog breed.
By Hannah J. Phillips
Crystal Dunn has worked with pit bulls for almost 15 years. Like many full-time animal-care workers, she started by volunteering at her local shelter. Living in Houston at the time, Dunn recalls working with pit-bull-type dogs, but she didn’t think any differently of them. Their goofy personalities and eagerness to please in training made it clear to her their reputation as an aggressive breed comes from a combination of misconceptions and human error.
“Since there are five breeds described as ‘pit bull,’ ” Dunn says, “it’s really just a general descriptor of a stalky, muscular dog ranging anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds. That’s a pretty broad brush to say they all have the same inclinations and drivers. You’re lumping couch potatoes with high-energy breeds and everything in between.”
The generalization gets even trickier when attempting to define what constitutes an “aggressive” breed. For some, this word refers to a boundary-sensitive dog that protects property. For others, the term means a dog that bites. But the reality, according to Dunn, is any dog has the propensity to bite, from the tiniest poodle to the biggest Great Dane. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention corroborates this data, noting the important thing is to know why dogs bite and that human behavior is often at the root.
“The dog threshold for tolerance may vary,” explains Dunn, advocating that dogs should be considered individually. “You hear stories of smaller dogs biting too, so it’s better not to stereotype any one breed. It really depends on how patient they are.”
Dunn started training dogs professionally in 2006 after noticing the emotional toll of her volunteer work at the shelter. Transporting dogs to and from adoption sites left Dunn feeling helpless and depressed, so she decided to address the root problem through education. In Houston, she worked with organizations that provided therapy-dog services to eldercare facilities and to children learning compassion. Moving to Austin in 2010, she connected with a local meetup group called Love-A-Bull and asked if there was any interest in incorporating a therapy-dog program. Dunn helped launch Love-A- Bull’s Pit Crew therapy-dog program in 2011 and today, acts as vice president of the board of directors.
At first, Dunn and the folks at Love-A-Bull had to convince quite a few people to let them bring pit bulls into the places where they wanted to volunteer. But once it caught on, they had more requests than they could handle.
“It’s been interesting to see the perception of pit bulls change so dramatically over the years,” Dunn says with a smile, attributing much of the change to the work the representatives of Austin Pets Alive! and the Austin Animal Center have done to make and keep Austin a no-kill city.
As the community learns the importance of avoiding pet overpopulation, they also learn more about the breeds that most need rescuing. Part of this education also has to do with changing negative media representation, which Dunn believes stems from a desire to drive online engagement.
“No one wants to read a headline about the ‘vicious Labrador,’ ” she says, “but put the words ‘aggressive pit bull’ in any story and you’ll rack up a ton of traffic, debate and shares on both sides of the breedism issue. It feeds a preexisting fear and reinforces what people think they already know.”
Love-A-Bull’s mission is to change that conversation through advocacy and education. Its programs not only sup- port the community, but also offer the media more opportunities to share positive stories about pit bulls. Apart from The Pit Crew, Love-A-Bull promotes responsible guardianship and provides spay/neuter clinics, foster programs and housing resources, and fights against breed-discriminatory legislation.
“Our temperament-tested therapy dogs become ambassadors of the breed,” Dunn says. “And that’s the magic of The Pit Crew.”
How to Start the Convo
Love-A-Bull’s Crystal Dunn offers some tips for how to be a responsible advocate for the pit-bull breed and start the conversation about destigmatizing the breed in your community.
Don’t shy away from calling your pup a pit bull. “The only thing that changes people’s mind is presence and willingness to discuss that topic. It’s common for pit-bull owners to call their dogs ‘mixed breeds,’ but the more we can use the term ‘pit bull,’ the more it turns the stigma.”
Know the burden of behavior rests heavier on pit bulls than on other dogs. “Since the breed is constantly under scrutiny, people judge more quickly if a pit bull makes a mistake. Don’t stop taking your dog in public, but be prepared to train them for those activities. That said, once you teach your dog how to respect certain boundaries and communicate, all the rest falls into place.”
If you do not get negative comments, listen to them. “The only way to target the real fear behind a negative comment is to hear the person out. You have to be patient enough to let them feel heard, and that makes them a lot more open to your response.”
Pit Bulls by the Numbers
5 Million According to Austin organization Love-A-Bull, there are about 5 million pit-bull-type dogs in the United States, most of which are well-socialized and well-behaved pets.
20 States Breed-specific legislation, or BSL, bans or restricts certain types of dogs based on their appearance because they are perceived as dangerous breeds or types of dogs. As of 2016, about 20 U.S. states maintained some sort of anti-BSL.
One in 112,400 While no dog breed is aggressive to humans by nature, pit-bull-type dogs get a bad rap for being biters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, resulting in approximately 16 fatalities. But as of 2016, the U.S. National Safety Council showed the chances of dying from a dog bite are one in 112,400. Americans are almost twice as likely—one in 63,225—to die from a hornet, bee or wasp sting than from a dog bite.
Dos and Don’ts to Decrease Dog Bites
While studies disagree about which breed is most likely to bite, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports any dog can bite. The important thing is to know why dogs bite, and human behavior is often at the root. Here are a few dos and don’ts to keep in mind:
Don’t: disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies
Don’t: pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first
Do: always supervise children around dogs of any breed. Studies show behaviors most likely to provoke a dog bite are grabbing, pulling and tugging.
Do: always ask that it’s OK to pet someone’s else dog before reaching out to pet it.