A breed apart?

The abandoned puppy was barely surviving and was in terrible condition when Emily Larocque adopted it four years ago.

At the time, she didn’t know its breed.

“It didn’t look like a pit bull,” she said.

It was.

The Kekaha woman named the female dog Biscuit and raised it in her home. But early on, she had her doubts. She wondered, “Is she going to grow into this vicious thing everybody tells you about?”

“It’s been just the opposite,” she said.

Biscuit grew into a strong, 70-pound, smiling pet.

“She’s a love bug. She loves people. I don’t think she’s ever been around a person she does not love,” Larocque said.

If Biscuit had been raised in a home where she was chained up all the time and not allowed to be with the family, she would probably be a different dog, Larocque said. But she sleeps in the same bed as Larocque and has slept around her cats, too.

“The dog just needed hope,” she said.

But when it comes to pit bulls, not everyone agrees that they just need lots of love and training. Pit bulls, which tend to be large, powerful animals, are under fire for being aggressive. Some argue they were bred to fight other dogs and their genetic disposition makes them too dangerous to be around people, especially children.

Kapaa resident James “Kimo” Rosen’s dog Obama was attacked by a pit bull running loose last year. He hasn’t forgotten how terrifying the incident was. He only saved Obama by holding him up until a Good Samaritan came running up and grabbed the dog, he said.

A friend, Rosen wrote, was attacked by pit bulls a few years ago and needed 38 stitches in her upper arm.

He said there is a reason pit bulls have been banned in 12 countries and some counties won’t allow people to own them. He doesn’t agree that it’s how the dog was raised, rather than what is in its genes.

“These dogs are born with aggression and the ability to kill,” he wrote.

There have been pit bull attacks on Kauai.

In June 2013, a pit bull attack caused the death of another dog at Moloaa Bay.

In April 2014, pit bulls broke into the back porch of a Hanamaulu home and killed a 5-year-old Shih Tzu/Pomeranian.

In March of this year, a pit bull, which was a family dog, bit a 2-year-old boy. The dog was euthanized.

Kristi Sasachika and Chance Kinney of Kilauea own two pit bull mixes named Butters and Coco. They adopted Butters from the Kauai Humane Society when he was a puppy three years ago. Coco is nearly a year old.

Sasachika had no hesitation about adopting Butters because he was a pit bull.

“They’ve been around people from when they were puppies, they were socialized pretty well,” she said.

Both dogs are playful, Sasachika said, but might frighten people because they’re loud when they’re excited. The couple take their pets to the dog park, where they do well around other dogs.

“They love it. They run and go in the pool,” she said.

Sasachika said how a dog turns out has more to do with how it is raised than its breed.

“The owner has to be kind to them, train them well, socialize them a lot,” she said.

Becky Gagnon, owner of Happy Dog training on Kauai, has worked with pit bulls and doesn’t believe they’re naturally aggressive.

She said pit bulls are sometimes adopted by people who want a larger, stronger, even scary dog for a status symbol, so they have that reputation.

“We can’t just say pit bulls are the ones that do this,” she said.

Any dog is capable of biting someone, which is why it’s important they be socialized and supervised. Dogs must be trained to obey the family and kept out of situations it can’t handle. Positive training methods, which are a focus of Gagnon’s program, are important.

“My first inclination is yes, they’re fabulous pets,” she said. “Extremely people friendly. They really like people.”

But regardless of how friendly they are, Gagnon said that a pit bull, or any dog, should not be left alone with a child.

“To leave a dog alone with a child is dangerous,” she said.

Since April 2014, KHS has received 218 pit bull mixes. Seventy-one were owner surrendered and 147 were strays. Of those, 38 were adopted and 62 were returned to their owner.

KHS currently has some pit bulls up for adoption, including two American pit bulls, Hanai and Catfish. Both are described as strong and friendly.

Penny Cistaro, KHS executive director, said pit bulls can be aggressive, but so can other breeds.

“You can’t categorize pit bulls across the board,” she said. “You have to look at the dog itself and not necessarily the breed.”

She said pit bulls can be loving, caring, smart dogs that are easy to train.

KHS treats pit bulls the same as other dogs when it comes to determining their temperament and whether they should be put up for adoption.

“If people breed them for aggression, that’s where a problem comes in,” she said.

Val Masters of Sacramento, California, has 30 years experience training and owning pit bulls and is a certified dog behavior consultant. She estimated she has worked with 5,000 pit bulls and has owned six.

She said that in general, pit bulls are great with people, but issues can come up, and it’s most cases,it has to do with how they were raised. If they’re left tied up all the time and not allowed to socialize with people or other dogs, they probably won’t behave appropriately.

Pit bulls, because they were bred to fight, tend to be aggressive around other dogs, she said, but can be just fine with them, too.

When a pit bull does bite, it can cause significant damage because they’re very strong dogs, Masters said.

“Any dog that’s big and strong, you want to take more precautions with,” she said.

Pit bulls are not really for novice pet owners. They need someone who will be firm, fair and consistent. They need structure, socialization and positive training methods. Harsh corrective methods can cause them to shut down, Masters said.

“They’re sensitive, believe it or not,” she said.

Rosen disagrees.

He said local laws are needed regarding pit bull ownership, but things won’t change until a person is attacked by a pit bull on county property and lawsuits start rolling in.

“You can train lions and tigers, too. However, would you want one as a pet? Probably not,” he wrote. “No matter how well trained, a pit bull can turn on you at any time. They kill people and other dogs.”

Larocque doesn’t believe pit bulls are vicious by nature. Every dog has the potential to bite, she said.

“You can’t just say the whole breed is bad,” she said. “It’s more of how they’re raised. There can be a bad dog in any breed.”

Pit bulls, according to dogsbite.org, are involved in more dog bite-related fatalities than other breeds.

The website reported that in 2014, there were 42 U.S. dog bite-related fatalities. It reported that pit bulls contributed to 64 percent (27) of these deaths. It found that pit bulls (27) and Rottweilers (4) accounted for 74 percent of the total recorded deaths in 2014.

“This same combination also accounted for 74 percent of all fatal attacks during the 10-year period of 2005 to 2014,” according to dogsbite.org.

The website wrote that, “The best thing we can do for communities and pit bulls is to regulate pit bull ownership and pit bull breeding. Lowering the pit bull population will reduce the number of serious maulings, as well as the euthanasia of pit bulls.”

But a 10-year study recently reported in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association came to a different conclusion. The researchers examined the data from 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the U.S. from 2000 to 2009.

They found that “most of the factors surrounding dog-bite related fatalities are preventable and unrelated to dog breed.”

Some findings of the study were:

– In 87 percent of the cases, there was an absence of an able-bodied person to intervene,

– 45 percent of the victims were less than 5 years old,

– 85 percent of the victims had only incidental or no familiarity with the dogs,

– 84 percent of the dogs were not neutered,

– 76 percent of the dogs were kept isolated from regular, positive human interactions,

– 38 percent of the dog owners had histories of prior mismanagement of dogs.

“The ugly truth about this study is that it points to human behavior as the cause of dog attacks on humans,” wrote PetMD.com. “Social responsibility cannot be legislated.”


The Garden Island


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