Who has suffered more, then? The pit bull for his association with man? Or man for his association with the pit bull? It should be pointed out that pit bull terriers serve man in a number of legal and interesting ways. They are not just guard dogs and fighters. The stamina and courage of the pit bull make the breed unparalleled as a hunting dog for wild pigs, a popular quarry in parts of the South and Southwest. Some ranchers, particularly those who graze livestock in brushy country where it is difficult to rope, use pit bulls as catch dogs for cattle. They can also be trained to herd sheep—pity the coyote that would bother a pit bull's flock. And, recreationally, pit bull owners have started to show enthusiasm for weight pulling. The pit bull's the hardest-pulling dog in the world," brags Ralph Greenwood of the American Dog Breeders Association. Last year in Seguin, Texas, a 78-pound pit bull named Bighead set a record by pulling 5,650 pounds over rails for a distance of 15 feet.
Clearly, though, steps have to be taken if man and the pit bull terrier are to continue to coexist. "Dogfighting needs to be prosecuted," says Blair of Tufts. "And effective vicious-dog legislation needs to be enacted."
There are a number of reasons why "vicious dog" legislation is preferable to ordinances that specifically target the pit bull terrier. As has been noted, it is virtually impossible to define a pit bull in legal terms. There is also the nettle-some question of punishing innocent, responsible bleeders of American Staffordshire terriers and American pit bull terriers for the abuses of irresponsible, often criminal, owners. And finally, the pit bull is not the only aggressive dog on the street. Rottweilers, Dobermans, German shepherds, akitas and chows are all breeds that can be aggressive and that are large enough to inflict severe damage on people and other animals. For that matter, any breed that is improperly raised or is allowed to run loose can become a menace. The population of this country is more than 240 million people, and "Ninty-seven percent of Americans now live in cities, towns or villages," says Loew of Tufts. "There are 50 million dogs in this country, more than at any time in our history. How are we going to live with them?"
"We suggest a procedure by which a dog can be identified as 'dangerous' or "vicious' that does not just take into consideration bites," says the Humane Society's Lockwood. "A dog that assumes a threatening posture when unprovoked, that lunges at its fence when someone walks past, that chases kids—that is a dangerous dog, even if it hasn't actually bitten anyone. The new thrust is to make owners responsible for their dogs before there's a problem."
This much we have learned from the pit bull: The so-called "one free bite" concept of dog control is out to lunch. This is the policy in effect in many communities where a dog is not considered to be a problem until it has bitten on two occasions. In the case of the pit bull terrier, that is usually two occasions too many. David Sholes, a Rhode Island state senator, proposed and drafted vicious-dog legislation for his state in 1985. It is now considered a prototype for others to follow. "We had a tremendous explosion of pit bull attacks, you were reading about a new one practically every week," says Sholes. "One child lost part of a buttock, another part of her face. A pit bull managed to get on a school bus and terrorize the children. It was apparent that the current law was not working."
The new Rhode Island law provides a workable definition of a "vicious dog": One that has either committed an unprovoked attack on a person or animal, or that approaches a person in an apparent attitude of attack when unprovoked. That is the key word: unprovoked. Any dog that is unlicensed falls into the "vicious" category until it is licensed. Rhode Island's procedure for having a dog declared "vicious" is as follows: 1) the complainant calls the local animal control officer; 2) the officer investigates the complaint and holds a hearing to examine the circumstances; 3) he then declares whether the animal in question is "vicious" or not; 4) if the owner of the dog disagrees with his verdict, he may appeal to District Court.
Should his appeal fail, the owner of the "vicious" dog must keep it in a secure enclosure, at least six feet in height, that is both childproof from the outside and dogproof from the inside. The dog is tattooed for identification. Furthermore, the dog owner must show that he has a $100,000 insurance policy for liability, and he is required to display a sign that can be read from the road: vicious DOG ON PREMISES. The dog officer has the right to inspect the enclosure at any subsequent time and without need of a warrant, and has the right to seize and impound the dog if any of the specifications are not met to his satisfaction. If the dog bites again, the owner is fully liable, much as if he had been keeping a wild tiger in a cage.
"Most owners would rather turn in their dog than comply," says Sholes. "So the net effect was to keep these vicious dogs off the street."
Of course the vast majority of problem pit bulls are unregistered and unlicensed. These are the animals that law enforcement officials must focus on, and quickly. Unlicensed dogs should be impounded. And anyone who knows of individuals who are keeping unlicensed dogs, or whose dogs are allowed to run loose, should be encouraged to report them to the proper authorities. "We've got to make bad-dog behavior impersonal," says Loew. "It should be like asking someone who is smoking in a no-smoking area to stop. No offense, but your dog is a problem."
"For a long time the judicial system has not taken dogfighting and dog-biting seriously," says Lapham. "That laissez-faire attitude cannot persist. Dogfighting is not just aberrant behavior in a civilized society, it has become a lethal liability within that society. The best new ordinances and leash laws in the world will be worthless unless the courts deal with these people seriously. They have to send a message that says: You want to own these dogs, fine. But you'll pay the consequences if you screw up."