Understanding the gentle giant

Angel3withme thumb copyAngel's silver collar jingles against her pink dog tag as she kicks up snow. She runs toward the two white and brown shih tzus who have just entered with their owner into the off-leash area down the street from our Beddington house in N.W. Calgary.

Angel approaches the dogs less than half her size excitedly, wagging her tail back and forth and panting with excitement at the middle-aged woman's feet. She desperately wants to be pet by this new person.

 "Don't worry, she's really friendly. She just loves little dogs," I say to her.

This is a phrase I recite without thought. It is an immediate reflex when my nearly 90-pound three-year-old pit bull approaches people and small dogs. It is not a warning, but a defence of my girl that really means, "please don't judge her, all she wants is to play."

{acepolls 25}

While the two shih tzus take to Angel's excited but gentle demeanour immediately, the owner is a bit hesitant as she reaches down to stroke her short black and white hair. "Oh, she's so nice and energetic!" she says with surprise.

It is never the dogs who are surprised that Angel isn't acting aggressively towards them; dogs don't judge each other based on breed, only on the energy they put forward in their approach. It is the humans who are surprised and often ask me if she really is a pit bull because they are in such disbelief. Even more, her name usually generates a chuckle. I've heard it a million times: "she doesn't look like no Angel!" Oh, but she is.

Defining the pit bull

As a pit bull owner, I find myself defending my dog's breed all the time, mostly due to lack of understanding.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary online defines a pit bull as "a dog (as an American Staffordshire terrier) of any of several breeds or a real or apparent hybrid with one or more of these breeds that was developed and is now often trained for fighting and is noted for strength and stamina." It also notes that the term may be used to mean "an aggressive and tenacious person."

"Knowing how to read a dog's body language and respecting its space and canine behaviours is 'safer for everyone.'"

- Barbara Walmer, department head of behaviour at The Calgary Humane Society.

Chako Pit Bull Rescue lists the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier as a few of the breeds that are often referred to as pit bulls.

I admit that the words "fighting" and "aggressive" are what I thought of when my boyfriend told me he wanted a pit bull two years ago. When I would tell friends and family that we were considering it, they would say things like, "You can't trust those dogs" or "You never know, one day they could just snap." I went back and forth constantly, not knowing what to believe and worried about owning a dog that I perhaps couldn't trust or handle.

And when I met Angel at only one year old, everything changed. It was love at first lick.

"She really likes you," her then-owners said to me as I was crouched down in their driveway, level with Angel's puppy dog eyes. When she came home with us the next day, I made the decision to make her the best that she could be.

For as long as we have her, Angel, my boyfriend and I will have to face the judgements and fears of others based on how she is defined.

Refocusing to find a solution

On Jan.12, the Calgary Herald online reported that Calgary bylaw officials laid multiple charges against four dog owners in relation to "two serious pit bull attacks" that have occurred in recent weeks, one of which was fatal for a Pomeranian involved.

Angel1Three-year-old pit bull Angel runs off her energy at an off-leash Beddington dog park in N.W. Calgary. Regular exercise has helped to make her into a friendly and well behaved dog.
Photo by Alyssa Quirico/Calgary Journal

Photos of stitched-up canine victims above stories detailing the attacks seem to be flooding online media since the incidents occurred. When searching "Calgary pit bulls attack" in Google, nearly 40 stories result in only the first four pages, all published within the last two weeks. The number of written comments from the public is growing each day. While many pit bull supporters have posted stories and testimonies of their pets, others scrutinize them using words such as "evil", "aggressive" and "vicious."

As a dog owner, I feel for the dogs and people involved in these incidents. It is safe to say that any dog could react negatively if provoked, just as any person can be when pushed to their limits.

Facts

  • Barbara Walmer, department head of Behaviour at The Calgary Humane Society, says that people seem to be drawn to adopting pit bulls more in the last few years. She says it is likely because they are fun to train, quite people-focused, have an easy coat to care for, and are very cuddly.
  • Walmer says that while humans like to approach dogs by patting them on the head, this is not the way that dogs like to be greeted by other dogs or by people. Instead, she suggests learning about how to read a dog to then determine whether to ignore or to pet the dog if allowed.

  • The Calgary Humane Society currently has one purebred pit bull and two pit bull mixes available for adoption. If interested, contact them at 403-205-4455.

  • Pit bulls have been banned in Ontario since 2005 and in Winnipeg since 1990. Alberta, however, supports the breed with pit bull rescue organizations such as Prairie Pit Bull Rescue and Pit Bulls for Life Foundation of Alberta.

Luckily, I have never been in such a situation with Angel. My biggest issue with her is controlling her whining when she is not the centre of attention. Of course, she is not perfect. She barks and whines at the odd dog as we walk past yards, but not usually unless another dog is doing the same. It is how they communicate. With one command, she settles. I really think this is because she has spent so much time around other dogs and people, so she is comfortable. If she does not like the behaviour of
another dog or person, she just walks away.

I strongly believe that more attention should be paid to the owners and most importantly, to why these situations happened in the first place. City officials and the media should help take the public's attention away from these fearful dogfights. If they could instead bring their attention toward asking why this happened and what can be done to prevent it, perhaps we can find a solution and avoid more hurt in the future.

Barbara Walmer, department head of behaviour at the Calgary Humane Society, says that making generalizations about any type of dog "can be a concern." She says that focusing on educating the public about how to approach a dog is key. She stresses that knowing how to read a dog's body language and respecting its space and canine behaviours is "safer for everyone."

Thankfully, we live in a province that does not currently have a ban on pit bulls. Ward 10 Ald. Andre Chabot said to the Calgary Herald, "It may be pit bulls this week, but it could be German shepherds the next. So which breed do you ban? Where does it end?"

And not only are there stereotypes about pit bulls, but also about their owners. This summer, my boyfriend and I had a terribly difficult time renting a house. One landlord admitted after meeting us that we were not what he had imagined when he thought of pit bull owners. Instead, he said that he pictured a young guy covered in tattoos and piercings wearing a white tank top and baggy jeans.

Angel2cuddle copyThree-year-old pit bull Angel relaxes on the couch with a young boxer puppy. Exposure to other dogs from a young age has made her very comfortable and approachable in social situations.
Photo by Alyssa Quirico/Calgary Journal
We definitely do not fit this description. My boyfriend does not have any tattoos or piercings and wears well fitting clothes. At just over five feet tall, I have had my fair share of stares as I walk Angel with ease.

So when it comes to raising a dog of any kind, nurture can override nature. In the words of the infamous pit bull advocate and dog trainer Cesar Millan, exercise, proper discipline and affection will always create a happy and balanced dog. Walmer says that people need to consider these responsibilities and take them seriously before owning a dog. She adds that ample time and effort needs to be invested by owners into their dogs to ensure that they lead the best life possible.

At the end of the day, there really is nothing better than coming home to my gentle giant for a long snuggle on the couch.

 aquirico@cjournal.ca

Correction: In the second last paragraph, Cesar Millan was incorrectly spelled. The Calgary Journal regrets the error.

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