The Stigma of Aggressive Dog Breeds Among the Homeless
By Devin Morrissey
There are 640,000 homeless people in the United States, and roughly 5-10% of them have dogs and cats as their companions. These pets provide affection and care for people who are without homes, and in some cases, without family or friends. Dogs offer added security and emotional support to their homeless owners. In a world where the homeless are often overlooked, their pets are lifelines with other people in their respective communities.
Unfortunately, some homeless people own dogs that are labeled aggressive due to social stigma, fear, and misinformation. Because of this, some municipalities are passing breed-specific legislation (BSL), also called discriminatory legislation, which bans or restricts ownership of certain dog breeds based on their appearance. Sadly, pit bulls are at the top of those breed legislation lists. Understanding the history of this breed and the legal challenges it faces is key to determining what the homeless can do to limit or avoid pit bull stigma altogether.
It is worth noting that, according to Genevieve Frederick from Pets of the Homeless, 26% of the dogs they have treated as an emergency case are Pit Bull Terriers or mixes. However, this fact alone does not justify blanket legislation against all dogs from these breeds. Arguably, each dog should be regarded on a case-by-case basis.
From America’s Dog to America’s Fear
Once known as “America’s Dog,” the pit bull was celebrated for being smart, uncommonly loyal and friendly. The American pit bull encompasses a variety of breeds, including the American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Bull Terrier, and American bully. “Pitbull” is the name that has collectively described these breeds, even if it isn’t entirely accurate. Despite their ancestors’ origins as bull and rat fighters, pit bull dogs earned reputations as working-class companions with a sweet and kind nature.
Unfortunately, over time pit bulls and their strong, muscular builds became synonymous with dogfighting and illegal activity, and therefore, with fear. More pit bulls are abandoned at shelters and rescues than any other breed, which means thousands of these dogs are euthanized annually. Meanwhile, the American media focuses on articles about the pit bull’s “killer nature” and role as violent guard dogs for drug dealers and gangsters. Pitbull bites and attacks are more frequently reported in the local and national news, even though any dog can become aggressive if he is not socialized but rather abused and mistreated. The pit bull’s reputation took a significant hit, one that is slowly beginning to change today.
The Purpose of Breed-Specific Legislation
Although the laws that ban or restrict pit bull ownership are called Breed-Specific Legislation, they are often the exact opposite of their declared intention. These laws target dogs that look like a specific breed of dog, even though many of the dogs targeted by BSL laws are not pit bulls at all. The purpose of BSL laws is to make the community safer by removing or limiting so-called aggressive and dangerous dog breeds from an area.
Sadly, these laws have done more harm than good. The stigma surrounding pit bull breeds makes them seem to be the most violent dog breeds, resulting in bans and laws against them. However, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, “any dog may bite, regardless of the dog’s breed or sex, or reported breed or mix of breeds.” In fact, research shows the breeds most likely to be aggressive are purebred Jack Russell Terriers, Golden Retrievers, and Cocker Spaniels.
Additionally, enforcement of BSL laws is costly as money is spent defending lawsuits as well as for the kenneling and care of dogs who are removed and impounded. Michigan State University College of Law Animal Legal & Historical Center notes that BSL laws are discriminatory and “impermissibly vague because of the inherent difficulty in identifying the breed of a given dog.” Relying on visual identification is unreliable as a dog’s physical traits are not enough to determine its breed.
Just because a dog looks like a particular breed does not mean he will behave in a specific way. Recent surveys show that many dog breeds are misidentified, even by shelter volunteers. In this regard, the very goal of BSL laws fails because the law indiscriminately targets a dog for his looks as opposed to his actual genetic makeup. Innocent dogs are punished, and their owners along with them. Thankfully, more authorities today realize that BSL legislation doesn’t work, and some states are now enacting anti-BSL laws.
How the Homeless and their Pit Bulls Can Stay Safe, Together
Even as attitudes begin to change toward pit bull breeds, the stigma remains in the eyes of many members of the public and can make life for a homeless owner with a pit bull difficult and dangerous. Sometimes, dogs act out due to environmental changes or perceived threats, such as postal workers, who are still often on the receiving end of many attacks, police officers, or strangers.
And just as there are benefits and challenges to a professional bringing his dog to the office, many of those same ones exist for a homeless pit bull owner who must bring her dog to that same office to receive care or services. While the dog may offer comfort to its owner in the wake of fear, it may also turn that fear into aggression. However, there are steps that the homeless can take to make their journey with their loyal, four-legged friend a safer one:
- Contact local shelters to find out which ones allow pets, including pit bull breeds. Shelters that are friendly to pits and terriers can be hard to find, but more cities now offer shelter options like the Sleepbus, which provides a place for the homeless and their pets.
- Many volunteer organizations and rescues, like Pets of the Homeless and The Guardians of Rescue, regularly go to homeless sections of cities to care for people’s pets. These groups not only bring food and water for dogs but also arrange for any medical care the pets need. Connect with these rescues to keep your dog healthy and full.
- Spaying or neutering dogs is an excellent way for homeless owners to help end pit bull overpopulation and eliminate any reproductive or aggressive behaviors. Rescue groups can help homeless owners find low-cost or free clinics for this procedure.
- If a homeless person’s dog bites a child or an adult, which can happen if the dog feels threatened or thinks the owner is in danger, the owner may be liable for the event. Organizations such as Project HELP provide homeless legal protections through local attorneys and paralegals around the country, and you can turn to them for legal assistance should you and your dog face charges or lawsuits.
Homeless people and their dogs must remain together. Pets give their homeless owners hope and keep them grounded. These working dogs provide much-needed love and support for people who need it most. With medical care and training, pit bulls and their homeless owners can coexist with the general public to allow these beautiful and necessary relationships to thrive and flourish safely.