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Diane Mufson: Reputation shows pit bulls don't make good family pets

Feb. 18, 2009 @ 08:07 PM

The selection of a dog as a family pet has been in the news lately as President Obama's family tries to choose the right pup for the Obama girls. It's clear from their deliberations and a variety of news reports that all breeds of dogs are not equally good as family pets.

Having owned three wonderful dogs of different breeds (two were recognizable breeds) and being a frequent admirer of dogs and puppies, I believe it's obvious that despite the all important training and care, the breed of a dog has much to do with the animal's demeanor.

No breed or mix of breeds can be guaranteed as ideal for a family pet, but some are clearly better than others. Yet some folks who want a family pet insist that a pit bull or other breed known for aggressive behavior or viciousness is a fine choice for a home with young children. It isn't.

While some carefully raised pit bulls may grow up to be good pets, reports of pit bulls attacking people, especially young children and infants, occur often enough to be a valid concern around the globe. Some countries and metropolitan areas forbid pit bulls and similar breeds to reside in their community.

Breed-specific legislation causes many pit bull lovers grief because they insist that pit bulls are rarely dangerous. While there are some well-trained pit bulls that may be safe for adults who know how to handle them, there must be some reason why Britain, Ontario, Miami-Dade County in Florida and other communities restrict ownership of this breed. Australia, Germany, Israel and New Zealand prohibit importing pit bulls.

In recent months, this newspaper reported that a young girl in Ironton was mauled by the family's pit bull. And in 2005, a 2-year-old Huntington girl was violently and fatally attacked by the same breed of dog.

Pit bulls sometimes receive unusual publicity. In December 2008, The Herald-Dispatch ran an Associated Press story about a burlesque dancer that said, "It's no accident that her fellow burlesque dancers and pinup models feel a kinship with pit bulls. 'They're people who chose to be on the outside and do it their way, who are used to being the underdog.' "

Dogs need to be chosen on more than just an emotional identity.

The tendency for pit bulls to become vicious has been observed in varying situations. And while there must be some golden labrador, beagle or other generally child-friendly breed to show similar behaviors, these episodes appear rare. Many groups that compare dogs place pit bulls No. 1 on the most dangerous breed list.

One of the hallmarks of pit bulls is that when they bite, they hold on to the object they have sunk their teeth into, making it very difficult to extricate a person, but especially a child, from their jaws. No doubt that reputation led to the phrase "a pit bull with lipstick" during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Having a dog in the family can be a wonderful experience, but the breed or breeds should be carefully chosen. Pit bulls are not the ideal animal for families with children or those who live close to or interact frequently with young people. Evidence of past attacks and restrictions on owning pit bulls in various communities and countries attests to widespread problems with this breed.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Huntington. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to the Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her e-mail is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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