Breeding vs. training

Saturday, April 28, 2007
Antonio Johnson's unnamed 6-week-old pit bull and Rottweiler mix, center, looked up at Boss, Mark Simmons' 8-month-old pit bull, while Violet, Elic Payne's 7-month-old pit bull, walked behind. The men brought the dogs out for some exercise Friday afternoon along South Ellis Street in Cape Girardeau. Johnson said that if a pit bull is vicious, that's because of the way the dog was raised, not because of its breed. (Kit Doyle)

Friday afternoon, a dog allowed to run loose on South Benton Street in Cape Girardeau was corralled and taken to the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri by police. Neighbors said it was chasing children and attacking other neighborhood dogs.

The white-and-brown-patched culprit was a pit bull.

"I don't think people should be allowed to own these types of dogs. I just don't think those dogs are safe," said Ann Jordan, who called police about the dog.

Experts differ on whether dogs such as pit bulls, Rottweilers and mastiffs are deadly or just misunderstood.

In some places legislators have stepped in. A string of deadly dog attacks in Illinois last year caused the state legislature to pass a bill prohibiting convicted felons from owning dogs that are not spayed or neutered. The law also prohibits felons from owning a dog declared to be vicious or dangerous.

Experts in Southeast Missouri say there are a large number of potentially dangerous dogs in the area, but add that the danger is a result of bad ownership, not bad breeds.

"Often a man or woman will use a dog as a status symbol or a symbol of power. What is wrong with having a good companion animal and showing you're a decent human?" asked Marilyn Olson Neville, a local pet advocate and dog trainer.

Neville said many of the problems with breeds like the pit bull stem from an animal being chained or tethered for long periods of time. There, the animal becomes bored and feels teased. That causes it to develop aggression, she said. Neville advocates laws against chaining or tethering animals.

"Why have a dog if you're going to leave it on a chain or in a kennel?" she asked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that a chained dog is almost three times more likely to bite than an unchained dog.

Ty Metzger, nuisance abatement supervisor for the Cape Girardeau Police Department, said dog complaints account for about one-third of total calls to police. He said he responds to six to 12 animal calls daily.

Dog breeds known to be aggressive, he said, probably account for a slightly higher percentage of the calls, but he believes they have an undeserved reputation.

"It's not fair to the animal to have this bad rap as a fighter, because it's often owned by certain types of criminal-minded people who mistreat it," Metzger said. "It's no different than a firearm or any other weapon. In the wrong hands it can be dangerous."

Even so, in his line of work, he has seen evidence of pit bulls used for dog fighting.

"We have had lots of calls of so-called dog fights, but when we get there, everyone is gone," he said.

But the evidence, he said, is plain.

"We have seen lots of animals where we see scars on their faces, it's one of these deals where we've gotten there and they'll say, 'I've got two dogs and they don't get along.' Well, unless someone will come up and say these guys were letting these dogs lunge at each other ... there's not much we can do," he said.

Metzger said he has never made an arrest for dog fighting or witnessed it. Over the past two years, he said, his division has adopted a "zero tolerance policy" for animal licenses and has begun writing tickets for dog-at-large calls almost automatically.

Dr. Ann Seabaugh, a veterinarian at Cape La Croix Pet Hospital, said she sees no dogs exhibiting signs of fighting at her practice on the west side of town, but when she worked for 13 years at Cape Small Animal Clinic on Christine Street it was different.

"We did see a lot of fight dogs over there. You'd get dogs in all the time that looked like they had been in fights," she said. Seabaugh also said she fielded questions about how to make dogs better fighters.

"Just idiotic people wanting to know how to make dogs meaner. One person called to ask me if feeding gunpowder would make the dog a better fighter," she said.

Christi Foutz, a veterinarian at Skyview Animal Clinic on South Kingshighway, says she sees two or three dogs per year that she suspects could be involved in fighting. She said it's "not a big problem," at her practice.

Pit bull owners say they prefer the breed for many reasons.

Antonio Johnson, 16, of Cape Girardeau was out walking his 6-week-old pit bull-Rottweiler-mix puppy down South Ellis Street Friday afternoon. He said he would never fight one of his dogs, but he likes their aggression.

"They're smart. They're really good dogs for protection," he said.

But he doesn't like the fact that pit bulls are branded as killers.

"They're not vicious; it's just the way people raise the dogs. You could take a German shepherd and make them do the same thing," he said.

The pit bull owners said their dogs are valuable commodities in their neighborhood. Johnson said his pit bull mix could sell for $800 to $1,200.

Mark Simmons, originally of Mississippi, said he has seen the darker side of dog ownership in the South.

"I'm not going to lie, I've seen a lot of dog fights," he said. "They look tight when they're back there on their back legs and ready to attack."

Both said they knew nothing about dog fighting locally.

Melanie Coy of Cape Girar?deau has been training dogs since 1984. She owns a pit bull and focuses on what she calls the "hit parade" of dogs bred for aggression.

Pit bulls and other terriers were originally bred to hunt vermin. The breed should be low to the ground and lean, but are too often bred to be heavy and aggressive.

"There is too much backyard breeding going on and people just don't know what they're doing," she said, adding the ideal weight for a pit bull is about 65 pounds but many now weigh well above 100 pounds. "We've got dogs out there that are human-aggressive and too big for what they're supposed to be."

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