Lest the Exception Prove the Rule

The City Council of Elgin, a suburb of Chicago, is considering several new restrictions on pit bulls and other dogs deemed dangerous by animal control. The proposal narrowly won preliminary approval last week, and faces a final vote on March 10th. If approved, the new measures would take effect on July 1st.

The American Pit Bull Terrier is a medium sized breed of dog. It has short hair which is relatively smooth to the touch. Pit Bulls come in all colors and patterns. –APBT Registry

While not technically an outright ban of the breed, whose loose definition alone presents a serious obstacle to fair enforcement, the new restrictions would be onerous to the point of making pit bull ownership (at least presuming compliance with the law) unbearably burdensome for many residents.

Under the new law, pit bulls would automatically be classified as dangerous, thus meriting the following restrictions:

  • Their owners would have to register with the city for a three-year, $100 license.
  • They would have to be microchipped, and would have to wear registration and rabies tags at all times, along with proof of spaying or neutering.
  • They could not be released into any yard without of a 6-foot locked fence.
  • When on public property, they would need to be muzzled and controlled by adults only with non-retractable leashes no longer than 6 feet.
  • Their owners would have to carry liability insurance of at least $100,000.

Now, let me state point-blank that I happen to really like pit bulls. I like the way they look, I like the way they think, I like training them and hanging out with them. I oppose breed specific legislation, both on principle and out of practical concern over its predictable ramifications. I hate political grandstanding of all sorts. And I visibly bristle at the sort of sloppy reasoning that suggests such measures are either necessary or useful.

That said, I am also tired of some of the arguments trotted out in opposition to such madness. So for the moment I intend to play devil’s advocate.

To begin with, I could probably get by with fewer shouts of “But my pit bull is an angel!!” A because that halo didn’t come out of a box of Cracker Jacks and B because I am far from alone in not being persuaded by that as an argument.

As a rule, politicians are not kept up at night by the prospect of injustice. They are fully capable of living with the fact that your peace-loving pit bull will be unfairly put upon in the name of serving the greater good, or at least in the name of appearing to serve the greater good.

According to Elgin City Attorney William Cogley,

[Pit bulls] can present a danger distinct from other breeds [and for every story about a loving, gentle pit bull, he could] recite an anecdote of a sudden attack on a child resulting in horrific results.

Fact is I bet he couldn’t, but that’s not the point. Very few people, even among our own elected representatives, are unsophisticated enough to believe that every pit bull in the universe poses an urgent and individual threat to public safety. A few do, I suppose, and if one such number currently sits on Elgin’s City Council, then it may yet be worth trotting out that boa-bedecked therapy pit after all, but I’m kinda dubious.

Petey of "Our Gang"

Understand, I’m not saying it isn’t worth a shot, just that being recognized as exceptional is a very different ball of wax from being recognized as representative. Then, of course, there’s the problem that your pit bull being so darn exceptional, just reminds us that he or she is an exception.

Exception probat regulam [Lat.], the exception proves the rule. A legal maxim of which the complete text is: exceptio probat [or (con)firmat] regulam in casibus non exceptis–’the fact that certain exceptions are made (in a legal document) confirms that the rule is valid in all other cases.’ –Alan Bliss, A Dictionary of Words and Phrases in Current English

In other words, the fact that Petey from Our Gang was a pit bull doesn’t negate the fact that there are legions of quite nasty ones as well.  And in fact, spotlighting the admirably affable temperaments of a few, may inadvertently throw the rest into starker relief. And no, I’m not saying the majority of pit bulls have poor or dangerous temperaments, only that the exaltation of a handful cannot in and of itself undermine the widespread prejudice that exists. We need to argue for the breed as a whole, lest the exception only serve to prove the rule.

Second, I could do without the racial profiling analogies, and not because I’m for racial profiling. Or because racism itself isn’t a very real factor in the promotion of BSL and related legislation. It is frequently a certain human demographic that is the real target, dogs being merely the mechanism by which law enforcement hopes to train its scope.

BSL empowers police to profile in those cases, using pit bull ownership as a proxy for race. But breed discrimination is not the same as racial profiling for the same reason that crating your new puppy is not the same as crating your kid: because dogs aren’t people. It may be tempting to exploit such a metaphor for short term gain, but I for one am not interested in equating dogs and humans, even metaphorically, in any political or legislative context.

Convenient or not, breed does make a difference, even if it is ultimately not the defining difference in most cases. Owning a pit bull, or any number of other formidable breeds, represents a higher level of responsibility than, say, owning a Shih Tzu. It’s easy to agree that pit fighting and criminally negligent ownership is the real scourge; that nearly every dog, no matter its heritage, has the capacity to be a safe and reliable companion with proper guidance. But good intentions are never enough and have in fact been many a dog’s undoing.

If you own a pit bull, congratulations. It’s a wonderful breed. But don’t forget that he’s a pit, don’t walk him on a retractable leash, and don’t assume that because you are a good person, he will be a good dog; appreciate him for what he is and for God’s sake train him.

In the meantime, let’s promote and actively lobby for real solutions: enforcement of existing laws, public education, and reasonable incentives to voluntarily spay or neuter, and train. Not just in response to bogus breed specific legislation, but all the time.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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  1. Josh Moran’s avatar

    Firstly, I rather enjoy your blog. I am a regular visitor, and I like your comments on Lou’s forum as well.

    The subject of this article is one that I ponder often, being the owner of two Pits. And I often come to a lot of the same conclusions. My older male can do some impressive “tricks,” but even so, sometimes when I take him for walks, people grab their kids and run inside(no exaggeration). Which always leaves me a little perplexed by the way.
    My question is, what is it you try to do in your city to change the perception some people have? Or do you not waste your breath? I have found that I don’t like making the comparison to racism, but a lot of people’s prejudice is much like racism. It doesn’t seem to matter what they hear or see, Pit Bulls are Satan’s Spawn. I would appreciate another Pit lovers thoughts.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      Very glad you like the blog. Please keep reading and commenting.

      I consider myself as having a deep affection for the breed, although I’m not fond of such statements generally. When people ask what is my favorite breed, I tend to answer that I don’t have favorite breeds so much as favorite dogs. I guess I balk at the whole notion of classifying dogs primarily by breed, as opposed to type or temperament or other more salient attributes.

      That said, I do like pits. Not all, but many.

      As far as public perception, I think it varies radically according to region and even individual neighborhood. Chicago is by and large a very pit bull friendly town. Nearly everyone has one around here, or so it seems, from my UPS guy to the gal that did the flowers for my wedding. Photographers, vet techs, yoga instructors, teachers, mothers, you name it. I even know a principal of a local charter school who was thinking of adopting one.

      But this is where it gets tricky. Because everybody probably shouldn’t own one. And some fraction of really well-intentioned people will inevitably contribute to the poor reputation of the breed by virtue of failing to respect their genuine capacity for (mainly dog-dog) aggression.

      This proclivity is distributed unevenly, and anyone who knows pits can easily tell the difference between one that stands to make a lovely family pet and one that should perhaps be put down. But fans of the breed rarely talk about the truly nasty ones, or acknowledge that proclivity. Which I believe is a problem, because it contributes to the myth that every pit bull is a potential ticking time bomb.

      In this respect, pit bulls suffer from friends and foes alike, in so far as very few people seem to have an appreciation of their whole nature, or an interest in acknowledging it.

      As for how to counter the irrational fear of them, I think the first step is to recognize that the fear is not entirely irrational. The media feeds it with stories true and false, of course, but so do actual pit bulls and their owners in many cases. There are people raising dogs to fight in my neighborhood. And there are 90 lb. women walking 80 lb. pits on 30 ft. retractables. None of them are contributing to a more positive image of the breed.

      What does? Dogs that are calm and under control, that take commands promptly and treats gently. I walk my lab and pit through my neighborhood nearly every day. Kids pet them both and feed them treats. I don’t know that it accomplishes much, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

      Bottom line, I think the best thing any of us can do for pits is to train the bejesus out of them, and encourage other pit bull owners to do the same.

      That, and calling the media on bogus stories, which are pretty rife. The blog For The Pit Bulls does a great job of that, incidentally, and with a lot of wit.

      As fo BSL, I’m against it, of course, but I think it will remain a temptation as long as we continue to treat breeds as if they were brands. If we could admit that all golden retrievers aren’t great with kids, or that all doodles aren’t non-shedding, we’d be a hell of a lot closer to recognizing that all pits aren’t a threat to society.


  2. metisrebel’s avatar

    Well we’re on a few of the same paragraphs if not some pages.

    All I can say is that it HAS helped in Ontario. The shelters are not stacked with pitbulls, any responsible owner who de-sexed, leashed and muzzled their dog did not lose them and it has forced the breeders to stop breeding mountains of pit bulls because it is illegal to sell them.

    I happen to like them but they are not Fluffykins and they’re not for everyone. In fact, I still see far too many dragging non-assertive owners down the street towards my dog without muzzles, and usually on harnesses.

    Which isn’t increasing my confidence that the ban should be lifted, at this point.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      I completely agree they’re not for everyone, but neither are Rotts or GSDs or JRTs. The problem, at least in part, is the lie being told by some, that they are essentially angels with fur (this would be one of those paragraphs we agree on). Pit bull rescues need to step up to the plate and start educating, rather than just promoting, in my opinion. Some are, but many aren’t.

      Beyond that, I think pit bull “lovers” need to acknowledge the enormous variety within the breed type, and quit pretending that all pit bulls are equally capable of making great companions.

      The nastier ones are truly hideous from a behavioral standpoint. But the better ones are damn near the ideal dog in many respects. Treating all pit bull types as if they belong to the latter category is not helpful.


      1. metisrebel’s avatar

        The problem comes in because the “pet bred” pitbulls can’t be distinguished from those who are not–just as those who have good skills for raising a pitbull can’t be distinguished, under present circumstances, from those who don’t.

        To do that would require that pitbull supporters go to the wall and agree that the dogs need to pass some kind of “basic good canine” test, but they claim that’s “discrimination”.

        Me, I’d see that as a gesture of “good faith” for the public. Because let’s face it–”breeds” are designed by humans and there’s no “reason” for getting a pitbull that couldn’t be equally applied to a number of other breeds that have a more stable public image.

        I also agree that it’s the pitbull community who needs to step up to the plate, here. Some try but it’s far from even a large minority of owners, never mind a majority.

        In some ways, I think pitbulls’ looks are their own worst enemies. The puppies are so demmed cute and amusing then they grow into huge, powerful, strutting, scary-looking animals which causes people to respond to them differently than say, a wiggling, wagging Labrador. Dogs pick up on those responses and anyone sensible who has handled guarding breeds knows that’s a factor when training.

        A puppy doberman or GSD doesn’t have near the same “cuteness” level. It looks like the adult, just smaller.

        Even with BSL legislating muzzles here, the majority of pitbull owners are NOT muzzling their dogs which doesn’t inspire my confidence that the ban should be lifted any time soon. I could at least argue they are *trying* to comply and “do the right thing by the dog” if that was the case, but sadly, it’s not.

        BSL doesn’t happen over night in most places. It’s often a decade in the making while more and more out-of-control pitbulls are bought, stack up in the shelters and die.

        BEFORE it gets entrenched, that’s the time to get spay/neuter/training etc. moving along instead of complaining because the people demanding it aren’t just being shrill–they’ve often witnessed their own, or other dogs/humans attacked. {Yes, been there, done that}.

        Once has come to legislation, IMO the solution is to *comply* and prove *good faith* then work to lift the ban incrementally while installing the supports that will ensure that pitbulls are seen as one of the “best dogs” for the right owners.


        1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

          The problem comes in because the “pet bred” pitbulls can’t be distinguished from those who are not–just as those who have good skills for raising a pitbull can’t be distinguished, under present circumstances, from those who don’t.

          To do that would require that pitbull supporters go to the wall and agree that the dogs need to pass some kind of “basic good canine” test, but they claim that’s “discrimination”.

          Well, I have to differ with you slightly, because I think it’s totally feasible to assess a dog’s baseline temperament and sociability, whether it’s a pit bull or any other breed. And I’m very much in favor of doing so, but for all dogs, not just the ones that someone thinks look like a pit.

          I don’t know too many pit bull folks that are wholesale anti-assessment/testing, as long as the same standards are being universally applied.


          1. metisrebel’s avatar

            I might be inclined to agree except for the problem with the Assessment as the standard set by Sue Sternberg.

            They are, in some cases, ridiculous. Stick a rubber hand in my dinner in a threatening environment and I’m likely to rip your arm off, never mind growl ;)

            I did assessing for awhile and used real criteria such as walking the dog outdoors around people, children, skateboards, bikes, traffic, etc. There’s a world of difference between shy and neurotic, for example.

            First I let the dog settle a bit because it’s rather unfair to assume it’s a particular temperament after 12 hours of solid barking and noise in the shelter, it’s nerves are bound to be frayed. Secondly, I took it out several times [usually three] and checked it–not just once. Plus, I wasn’t after deciding for it to be euthanized–but what kind of owners might do well with it. That included pit bulls which were 60% of the dogs, there.

            I in fact, argued a number of times FOR the dog to be given consistent handling by kennel attendants to see the results–who wound up euthanized anyway due to lack of knowledge in being consistent with the dogs :(

            My next question would be “who is assessing the dogs and what for”? Because there’s a qualitative difference between the sort of dog I can handle and the one a Your Average Owner, could handle.

            Are we talking about only rescue/shelter here? Or city licenses for dogs? Or something else?

          2. ruthcrisler’s avatar

            I agree Sternberg’s assessment is far from perfect. However, it’s not the only one in current use, and is something of a work in progress, in any event.

            Bottom line, any serious (or even half-assed) attempt at temperament testing is preferable to inferring temperament based on visual appearance alone, which is essentially what BSL accomplishes.

            I take your point that competent assessment isn’t the norm. And also that it’s critical to appreciate the differences in lifestyle and handling ability among the vast pool of prospective adopters.

            The rescue folks I most respect are those that scale both dogs and adopters, and make an earnest attempt to make truly suitable matches. Again, not the norm, but if you and I could rule the world…

            Now, on the subject of city licenses, I can say that at least here in Chicago, the law requiring every dog to be licensed is totally unenforced. Same for animal abuse and even pit fighting. So, among other things, I’d like to see some effort dedicated to enforcing existing laws, before enacting new legislation.

            It’s a complicated subject, and I’m variously put off by both sides in the debate. No easy answers, to be sure. But as I type this, I look at my own adopted “pit bull” and frankly wish I could clone him many times over, because he’s approximately the best dog ever…reliable with kids, non-reactive to even pretty freaky people, and highly social with dogs, despite living for two solid years at a shelter in NC. For all I know, he’d never interacted with another dog off-leash prior to my adopting him at age 2 1/2. And he’s ridiculously good-looking on top of it all.

            There should be more dogs like him. Just saying.

          3. metisrebel’s avatar

            I guess that opens up the statement “But would he be such an awesome pitbull if someone was treating him like a Fluffykins?” and “who bred him for good characteristics?”

            You could be describing my Alaskan husky in that statement who made it through 2 shelters with a broken leg and never bit anyone :) Funny thing too–when I was training–I wasn’t overly fond of huskies because they weren’t a protection breed, teaching “come” was a headache [before trainers used ecollars], they are *very* pack mentality dogs, were often hyper due to the amount of exercise they needed and couldn’t get due to lack of recall and they had a wicked reputation for biting children. Yet they all seemed to love other dogs and if treated like pack sled dogs–did really well.

            In my dog survey the *best* trained dog was a Pit. He was even better than the local service dog. AND his owner was a young black man. Talk about the walking death of a stereotype…

            The problem here is that the rest were pretty much atrocious [even if not vicious] due to poor handling–and that’s in a place *with* BSL where badly behaved Pits don’t survive.

            I want to scream “IDIOT!” at every small woman being dragged down the street with a huge pit bull on a harness who weeps, “They’re so misunderstood.”

            I don’t think there’s an easy answer either. I did NOT support BSL when it came here but seeing the results? I have to concur that it helped. Forced spay/neuter has at least stopped mountains of them being killed yearly by shelters.

            Not because the Pits are born awful but because owners aren’t improving and because it’s illegal to buy one–the breeders are effectively put out of business and there’s no second chances for any that attack. It also effectively puts the dog fighters out of business because any neighbour could call the police [not animal control] on a kennel full of them and they’d be removed.

            I’m not even pro “keeping the ban’ forever. I’m pro *slowly* lifting it, one rule at a time and seeing if pitbull lovers answer the clarion call.

            I don’t know if you saw the video/tv show on how the Russians created tame, dog-like foxes but it is amazing from the perspective of how *breeding* for submission, stability and tameness created actual *pets* out of wild animals. It proved conclusively that it isn’t just about consistent handling so much as it is about the actual inbred characteristics of tameness and willingness to work with humans. I suspect that’s why so many people are Labrador fanciers–due to their reputation as easy-going even when most of the owners aren’t the foamiest beers in the six-pack.

            So, the ball is in the court of the *breeders* to create pit bulls that are highly domesticated and not dog aggressive–the kind that pit bull lovers claim that *all* of them are–which is untrue.

            But it could be true in a few generations.


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