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October 20, 2013

A Special Breed: Pitbulls remain most abundant mix, face misconceptions

TERRE HAUTE — Matching the right pet with the right owner can be a challenge for those in the pet adoption business. That is especially so when the pet adoption pool leans heavily to one type of animal breed.

Such is the case at the Terre Haute Humane Society animal shelter, where about 70 percent of the adoptable canines housed in the facility are pitbull mixes, said shelter director Charlie Brown.

“We run high on pitbulls,” Brown told the Tribune-Star recently. “It’s a national issue, not a local issue.”

Pitbulls happen to be the currently popular breed mix, Brown said, not unlike 100 years ago when they were considered America’s most popular family dog — reportedly owned by notable people such as Helen Keller and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But some popular misconceptions — and highly publicized attacks by pitbulls — have given the dogs a sometimes unpopular status among the public, including accusations of being overly aggressive.

“Just like with race horses,” Brown explained, “there are horses that can race, and then horses that are bred to race. A typical pitbull is not a fighting dog, though some of them have been bred to fight.”

Twenty years ago when he got into sheltering animals, Brown said, the popular breed was a black Labrador mix. Other popular mixes have included German Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers. All are large dogs with reputations for being protective of property and their personal space.

Pitbulls are not a distinct breed of dog, but they are easy to distinguish based on certain physical characteristics such as a square-shaped head or bulky body type.

The term pitbull is a generic term used to describe dogs with similar physical characteristics. According to an online dictionary, the term applies to one of several breeds, including the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, bull terrier or any mix. Any dog that is mixed with a “bully breed” might also be called a pitbull.

No breed specific data is available from the county or state health departments about dog bites. Only animal bites in general are tracked, and that is for the purpose of preventing rabies in humans. Neither do the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track breed-specific data.

However, the Insurance Information Institute, a non

profit communication organization supported by the insurance industry, reports that while the number of dog-bite insurance claims fell in 2012, the costs of settling dog-bite claims is riding. According to data from State Farm Insurance, the largest writer of homeowners insurance in the United States, Indiana ranked seventh in the nation in dog-bite claims with 148 in 2012.

Owners of pitbulls often assert that those pets are friendly, affectionate, fun and — too many times — misunderstood or unfairly portrayed in the media as being attack dogs.

A pitbull owner himself, Brown said he has no problem letting his dog play with his small child.

But, the misconceptions about pitbulls being naturally aggressive or having “locking” jaws that don’t let go once biting a person — both false — don’t help the canines who are in the animal shelter waiting to be adopted.

“It can be hard to adopt them out,” Brown said. “People have misperceptions of pit mixes. And another issue is inventory. People who come here to adopt want selection, and when 70 percent of our dogs are one breed… .”

The Code Enforcement Division of the Terre Haute Police Department has plenty of experience dealing with pitbull mixes in the city.

But according to animal control officer Laurie Tharp, a lot of the problem is because of negligent dog owners.

“I think there’s a lot of irresponsible dog owners who don’t get their pets spayed or neutered. And then when they let them run loose,” Tharp said, “they breed with other dogs, and they end up with puppies that they give away, and those don’t get spayed or neutered either.”

She agrees with Brown that pitbulls are just today’s popular mix, and that years ago, the problem dogs were Dobermans and German Shepherds, as well as Rottweilers.

“Pitbulls are nice dogs,” Tharp said. “It’s all in how you raise them. But when you get the inbreeding going on, you do get some mean ones out of it.”

She said that animal control officers often have to deal with the same people repeatedly about irresponsible animal care.

“They like the puppies, but when those dogs get 8 or 9 months old and they grow up, then they’re not puppies anymore,” she said. “They get thrown out or put on a tether, and the people get another puppy.”

Tethering a dog is against the law in Terre Haute. The limit is a couple of hours at a time each day. That allows the dog to get some air and gives the pet owner time to clean up after the animal.

It is against the local ordinance for a dog owner to tether a dog when the owner has to work, leaving the animal tied up for eight hours or more.

Dogs that are tethered must have water and shelter at all times. The ordinance doesn’t require food because it can be hard to tell when a dog was last fed, Tharp said. However, if the animal has poor body condition and is visibly underweight, the code enforcement officers will confront the owner about the animal’s care.

When officers respond to a problem animal concerning tethering, Tharp said, they will give an oral warning on the tethering ordinance. If officers are called a second time, they will issue a citation through City Court that can result in a fine up to $300.

The solution to the pet overpopulation problem, Brown and Tharp agreed, is spaying or neutering animals.

The Terre Haute Spay-Neuter League offers on services that control the pet population. The animal shelter also promotes low-cost spaying and neutering.

“It comes down to personal responsibility,” Brown said. “There are absolutely areas out there in this country that have ‘gotten it’ and understand. They don’t have the pet overpopulation, and part of that is due to spay and neuter leagues.”

In Terre Haute, the Spay-Neuter League offers a monthly signup to have dogs and cats transported for reduced-cost surgery on the third Thursday of each month, excluding December. For more information on that service, call 812-235-6465.

For more information about adopting an animal from the Terre Haute Humane Society, visit www.thhs.org or call 812-232-0293.

The shelter is located at 1811 S. Fruitridge Ave., and is open from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and from noon to 4 p.m. on weekends.

For more information and facts about dog bite incidents about dog bites, go online to the American Humane Association at www.AmericanHumane.org and search for dog-bite incidents.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254.

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