Changing public perception of pit bulls

Posted July 17, 2010, at 7:35 p.m.
Southern Maine Pit Bulls educator Jessica Dolce shows off &quotJack" a 3-year-old neutered male Pitbull at the Bangor Humane Society, Saturday, July 17, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York)
Southern Maine Pit Bulls educator Jessica Dolce shows off "Jack" a 3-year-old neutered male Pitbull at the Bangor Humane Society, Saturday, July 17, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York)
Southern Maine Pit Bulls co-founder Jessica Dolce, right, receives a kiss from Crystal, a Bangor Humane Society shelter dog, who is being held by Adam Ricci, the other co-founder of SOME Pit. The group gave a presentation Saturday iin Bangor about the misconceptions of pit bulls, which they describe as &quotsocial, affectionate, face licking sweethearts." (Bangor Daily News/Nok-Noi Ricker)
Southern Maine Pit Bulls co-founder Jessica Dolce, right, receives a kiss from Crystal, a Bangor Humane Society shelter dog, who is being held by Adam Ricci, the other co-founder of SOME Pit. The group gave a presentation Saturday iin Bangor about the misconceptions of pit bulls, which they describe as "social, affectionate, face licking sweethearts." (Bangor Daily News/Nok-Noi Ricker)

BANGOR, mAINE — Pit bulls have had a bad rap, representatives from Southern Maine Pit Bulls, or SOME Pit! said at a presentation Saturday at the Bangor Humane Society.

“They are social, affectionate, face-licking sweethearts,” Jessica Dolce, co-founder and educator for SOME Pit! said after the hourlong presentation.

The term “pit bull” refers to three breeds: the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier. Dolce said that media reports about pit bull attacks have made the public scared of the dogs.

“I don’t blame people for being afraid,” she said. “That’s the information they’re receiving. It’s caused a hysteria.”

Dolce and Adam Ricci, training coordinator and co-founder of SOME Pit! said that explaining to people the misinformation that surrounds pit bulls can change people’s perceptions. The duo travel the state educating people about pit bulls and asking pit bull owners to be educators themselves by being good examples while out in public.

“You need to be ambassadors for the breed,” Dolce said. “You have to hold yourself to a higher standard. It’s not fair, but the truth is people have all these misconceptions.”

While Dolce says the news media exaggerate the number of pit bull attacks — “pit bull attacks equal ratings,” she said — the breed can be dangerous if not properly trained.

Most pit bull bites are by “intact dogs on chains,” Dolce said, adding that pit bull owners should spay or neuter their pets, never chain them, and should train and socialize their animals.

“The real culprits are the careless owners and criminals,” Dolce said, listing NFL quarterback Michael Vick as one.

Vick pleaded guilty to operating a dogfighting ring in 2007, and served 23 months in prison or home confinement. He also agreed to pay to care for the 54 pit bulls seized from his Virginia home.

Several of Vick’s fighting pit bulls went on to give back to their communities, Dolce said. His dog Jonny Rotten was renamed Jonny Justice and is Paws for Tales-certified in San Francisco and helps children with their reading; Leo lifts the spirits of cancer patients at the Camino Infusion Center in Mountain View, Calif.

The National Canine Research Council estimates that dogs cause 25-30 fatalities each year, and according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year with one in five injured badly enough to require medical attention. From 1979 to 1998, more than 300 people were killed by dogs, and pit bulls tallied 76 of those deaths.

California animal behavior specialist Richard Polsky tracks dog attack fatalities nationwide on his website dogexpert.com. His data show that pit bulls or pit bull mixes account for nearly half of all deadly dog attacks. For 2009, 15 of 32 dog-related deaths were pit-bull related, and for the first six months of 2010, six of 10 dog-related deaths involved pit bulls.

The data are shocking, but considering there are an estimated 72 million dogs in the U.S., people are “five times more likely to be killed by a cow,” according to Dolce.

Patt Pinkham, Bangor animal control officer for the past 27 years, has plenty of experience dealing with dogs and says pit bulls are no different from other breeds.

“My theory is all dogs have teeth, so any dog is capable of biting given the right circumstances,” she said. “A bite is the last resort with most of these dogs.”

Bangor handled around 3,500 animal complaints in the last year, and about 100 of those concerned pit bulls, Pinkham said. In that time period, approximately five of the 110 cat and dog bites in Bangor involved pit bulls, she said.

The group of 22 people at the SOME Pit! seminar Saturday included shelter volunteers, those thinking about adopting a pit bull and others who own pit bulls.

“I used to have a pit bull but had to give her up when I moved,” one man said. “I want another one.”

Hampden residents Maggie and Bill Villarreal said they adopted their 11-year-old pit bull, Hondo, from their son nine years ago.

“We love our dog,” Maggie Villarreal said.

No matter what breed of dog people own, they must be responsible for their pets, she said.

The couple acknowledged that the public is apprehensive about their loving and friendly dog because of his breed.

“He [gets] walks every morning, and we’re cognizant of the fact people are wary,” Bill Villarreal said.

Shelter volunteer Karen Littlefield of Stillwater, who began working at the shelter in January and is qualified to take dogs home, said she has had a major change of heart over the last seven months.

When she was first assigned a walking detail with a pit bull, she responded by saying, “I’m only here for the easy dogs,” she recalled Saturday. “Now my husband is asking, ‘Are you ever going to bring home any dogs that aren’t pit bulls?’

“Out of all these dogs, the pit bulls are the easiest” to handle, Littlefield added.

SOME Pit! has three seminars in the next month, including one in Westbrook and another one at Portland’s Irish bar Brian Boru on July 29.

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