It’s Pit Bull Awareness Month, which is a time to celebrate this misunderstood (but very common) dog breed and help get them adopted. One barrier to finding these dogs loving homes are breed-specific laws and housing restrictions, which were intended to protect people from unsafe dogs but have long failed to do so.
|Aruba (left) and Drizzy (right), two pit bulls who found loving homes. Photos by the author.|
Meet my dog Drizzy. My partner and I adopted him last summer. Like many dogs, he can usually be found going for long walks or destroying squeaky balls. We’ve enjoyed him so much that last summer, we fostered another dog named Aruba. She’s an eight-month-old puppy who was found as a stray.
Both Drizzy and Aruba are pit bulls. Drizzy came from a rescue in Virginia, and we own a home in Montgomery County, so there was no issue when we wanted to adopt him. It wasn’t so easy for Aruba. She came from the shelter in Prince George’s County, which has banned pit bulls since 1997. Anyone caught with a dog suspected of being a pit bull can get fined up to $1,000 or even go to jail.
Instead, dogs like her usually end up at other shelters or with groups like Vindicated Pit Bull Rescue, which saved Aruba. In turn, they have to find a potential adopter outside of the county. But that family can’t live in an apartment complex or a homeowner’s association, because they often ban them too. Despite being a puppy with no record of harming anyone, she was treated like a danger because of how she looked.
WTF are pit bulls?
There’s actually no such thing as a pit bull: the term can refer to several different breeds, including American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but is often used to describe dogs with big heads and stocky builds. As a result, studies show that even shelter staff and veterinarians have a hard time picking out pit bulls based on physical features.
Due to overbreeding, many “pit bull type dogs” are mixed breeds. For example, a DNA test for Drizzy found that his top four breeds are American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Chow Chow, and German Shepherd. When I take him for walks, people usually either clock him as a pit bull or a lab.
Pit bulls were bred for a variety of reasons: some were family dogs, or helped around the farm. One (alleged) pit bull mix named Sergeant Stubby served in World War I and returned to the US a hero. Others were bred to fight, and this led to stereotypes that the dogs were inherently dangerous.
People were mad
Starting in the 1980s, a series of high-profile pit bull attacks led to communities around the United States instituting bans on owning or breeding pit bulls. The dogs were frequently associated with criminal behavior. A 1999 article in City Journal compared their presence in a neighborhood to “drug dealing, prostitution, or aggressive panhandling.”
Breed ban supporters relied on myths about pit bulls, like that they had locking jaws or were overly aggressive. Then DC councilmember Jim Graham, who repeatedly tried to pass a pit bull ban, told the Washington Post that “In the wrong hands, these dogs are lethal weapons.”
In some ways, this was a natural reaction. A news story would appear about a dog attacking somebody (like in Takoma Park in 2007) and elected officials would propose a ban, assuming this would keep people safe. Prince George’s County banned “pit bull type dogs” in 1997 after a dog attacked an 11-year-old boy and, over the next four years, euthanized 2,400 dogs.
Breed specific laws didn’t work
But pit bull bans didn’t make communities safer. The town of North Beach, Maryland got rid of its ban because, as one councilmember put it, there was “no practical way to prove whether the dog that attacked is in fact a ‘pit bull’.” In 2005, the animal control director in Prince George’s County said that 70% of the pit bulls they impounded were “nice dogs,” and that the law prevented them from going after dangerous dogs. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his 2006 New Yorker feature about pit bulls, actual data shows that dogs of all breeds can bite and attack people.
Today, most jurisdictions in the region no longer have pit bull laws. Virginia bans breed-specific laws entirely. DC restricts dogs that “without provocation” cause a serious injury to a person or another animal. The focus is now on bad owners, not dogs. And shelters that once euthanized pit bulls, like the Humane Rescue Alliance now fight breed bans.
The holdout is Prince George’s, which upheld the ban in 2019. Leaders admit that it didn’t actually keep the dogs out of the county, which still impounds hundreds of suspected pit bulls each year: “If we’re sitting up here and say that pit bulls don’t exist in Prince George’s County, we’re all lying to each other,” councilmember Sydney Harrison told WTOP.
This is a housing issue
If you want to rent a home in Prince George’s County, your lease will likely include some variation on this phrase: “Tenant certifies that Tenant does not own a pit bull nor will Tenant acquire, harbor or maintain a pit bull upon the premises during the term of this lease.” This is common in other jurisdictions too.
When my partner and I rented an apartment in Montgomery County three years ago, the lease listed 38 restricted breeds, including American Pit Bull Terrier, German Shepherd, Husky, and more obscure ones like the Briard, Jindo, and Kuvasz. If your dog wasn’t on the list, the property manager could still reject them after a “visual inspection” or if another resident objected.
Thus, you could lose your housing because of somebody’s perception of your dog. The Best Friends Animal Society found that 13.7% of dogs surrendered to shelters were there because of their owners’ housing issues, like getting evicted.
That’s if you can find housing in the first place. “Pet-friendly” apartment complexes may still have restrictions and tend to be more expensive or charge extra in pet rent, putting them out of reach for many pet owners. Many landlords require rental insurance, but insurance companies can deny or restrict your coverage if you have a pit bull). Until 2014 in Maryland, landlords can be held liable if a tenant’s pit bull attacks somebody. Even if you own a home, homeowner and condo associations can restrict or ban pets.
So people can end up in really tight situations. The New York Times interviewed one man who wanted to move closer to family in Colorado, but had to wait until Denver repealed its pit bull ban last year. One Arlington resident described how she and her roommate, unable to find a rental that would take a pit bull, and ended up in a house that lacked running or hot water.
|Drizzy in front of our house.|
After a month with us, Aruba found a loving home outside Prince George’s to a family that owned a home. But many pit bulls in our region aren’t so lucky. In 2019, the county euthanized 400 dogs who could not find homes.
To be honest, before I adopted Drizzy I thought they were dangerous too. I couldn’t have told you what a pit bull even looked like, but when I first saw “PIT BULL” on his medical papers, I was worried. I couldn’t square that with the sweet, goofy dog we had just brought home: is this what people were so afraid of? But I have learned these misconceptions about pit bulls have real consequences for innocent dogs and their families.
This Pit Bull Awareness Month, I hope you’ll take time to learn about this awesome but misunderstood breed, and how we can give them a chance at better lives.