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Don’t Just Focus on Dog Breed

SANTA FE, N.M. — If you’ve been following the news recently in New Mexico, you likely have heard about two cases of dogs fatally attacking people. You also will have heard two words over and over again: pit bull.

That is the loose categorization of the “breed” that was involved in the death of a man in Santa Fe on May 3 and a toddler in Las Cruces on May 8. It is important to try to understand why such tragedies happen – and there’s no doubt that they are tragedies – and that includes exploring trends and contributing factors.

While it’s understandable to fixate on breeds, such simplification of the problem is a missed opportunity to truly make our communities safer. If all we do is convince ourselves and our lawmakers that pit bulls are the primary danger of the dog world, then we will only continue to see dog bites – and deaths – from other breeds.

Like a husky in Pittsburgh that killed a three-day-old baby in its home in February. Or a golden retriever mix that killed a two-month-old girl in South Carolina last month. Or a 20-day-old baby in Virginia that was mauled earlier this month by a Jack Russell terrier.

All of these are heartbreaking, but the silver lining is that each tragedy can offer lessons for how to prevent such attacks in the future. Rarely, though, does the breed of dog hold the answer.

Make no mistake, pit bulls can be incredibly strong, but the misperception that their jaws can “lock” onto something simply is not true; their bite is the same as other dogs. And, like all dogs, they’re animals. Just because canine and human have lived together for more than 10,000 years doesn’t mean dogs don’t display traits and behaviors that we still fail to predict or control.

But those of us working each day with dogs, including pit bulls, know that there are common factors behind most attacks. Often the aggressive dog – including in the Santa Fe and Las Cruces cases – are unneutered males. Many times the dog is left alone with a baby or child. And, sadly, we regularly see pet owners who have their dogs isolated from people and other dogs – often chained up 24/7– which gives them no opportunity to learn how to properly interact with others.

Despite all we know, the media and lawmakers keep returning to two words: pit bulls. There are renewed calls in New Mexico for “breed-specific legislation” that would ban pit bulls. But we need only look to Denver and Miami’s Dade County for examples of how such bans have failed. For all the taxpayer dollars spent there to eradicate pit bulls, they’ve only driven informal breeding further underground, making it even harder for animal services to ensure that these animals are safe, spayed/neutered and registered. And do you think someone with an “illegal” pit bull will walk into a dog training class to ask for help?

Each day, our shelter accepts every animal that comes through our doors – more than 4,000 annually. Some are pit bulls, and we treat them just as we do any other dog: We work to ensure that they are safe, well-adjusted animals before making them available for adoption.

We know from experience that there are numerous factors that make some animals a threat, and it’s that comprehensive understanding and approach – not focusing on breeds alone – that will make our communities safer.

If media and lawmakers truly want to reduce dangerous behaviors in dogs, the conversation shouldn’t just end with two words, “pit bulls,” but rather begin a meaningful dialogue about what we, as a community, need to know and do to ensure that all dogs and the people around them are safe.