October is National Pit Bull Awareness Month, and the reality is, we have a lot of conversations ahead of us to be had about the lingering stereotypes around pit bulls. While shelters and activists alike have made great strides over the years to rebuild society’s perception of these dogs, the conversation isn’t over yet as we decipher how we can continue to be the best advocates for these animals. Establishing further effective advocacy for pit bulls is possible when we recognize the current obstacles these dogs face across shelters nationwide every day.

It’s time to rethink the way we use the term “pit bull.

Right off the bat, pit bulls are often misunderstood because many people assume the term “pit bull” refers to one breed, when in actuality, it is a sweeping term used to describe dogs who belong to several breeds or share similar physical characteristics. This conundrum in of itself can make it difficult to advocate for these dogs when two pit bulls may be as similar or dissimilar as any other two dogs.

Because of the indistinguishable judgments of what passes as a pit bull, this often leads to mislabeling of the breed, even by animal shelter workers. Recent research from the University of Florida reveals that shelter dogs with pit bull heritage breed DNA were properly identified only 33 to 75 percent of the time, and conversely, dogs lacking any genetic evidence of relevant breeds were labeled as pit bull-type dogs up to 48 percent of the time.

The “pit bull” label leads to a longer stay at the shelter.

While we may tend to think such labels don’t matter, we are finding that dogs labeled as pit bulls tend to experience a longer stay time at the shelter. A 2016 study shows that pit-bull type dogs may wait three times as longer as their lookalike breeds in the shelter. Yet, when potential adopters in this study were asked to rate photographs of the same dogs without breed labels, there was no difference in how attractive photographs of the two groups of dogs were seen. This suggests there could be a discrepancy in a potential adopter’s desire for an animal based on the labeling of breeds performed by shelter workers, which may in of itself be inaccurately skewed.

Longer stays often result in development of anxiety-induced behavioral issues.

Regardless of what causes their extended stay, behavioral issues that formulate over time during their stays only perpetuate existing beliefs about pit bulls and worsen this crisis. It makes sense that months of solitary confinement in a loud and high-stress environment can create the perfect storm for any living being to have a mental breakdown, even if they are being loved and cared for by staff during the day. While this applies to any shelter pet, when you think about the extended stay that pit bull type dogs and similar breeds experience, this mental crisis is only amplified and becomes expressed through their behavior.

Pit bulls are one of the most common types of dogs to end up in shelters yet struggle to find or stay in homes due to breed-specific legislation and restrictions.

Even for those who do want to take a pit bull home, it may be impossible due to breed-specific legislation and restrictions that apply to where they live. “Breed-specific legislation and restrictions” refers to laws, rules, and/or regulations that target certain dog breeds in an attempt to control dog attack incidents in the public. They may vary from an apartment building refusing to rent to people who own a certain breed of dog, home insurance policies refusing to cover certain dog breeds, or even local government enforcing legislation in which ownership of certain breeds becomes banned and can lead to fines or seizing of dogs.

While said legislation may include restrictions of other breeds, pit bulls are a primary objective of these policies, and shelters nationwide are recognizing that these breed-specific restrictions directly correlate to animals who enter the shelter. Consider that according to ASPCA shelter data, pit bulls are the most popular dog type seen by shelters for intake, often entering due to an owner surrender related to such breed-specific legislation. Yet, if said restrictions were lifted, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) estimates that 10.5 million pets would be positively impacted, either by being adopted or by not being surrendered to an animal shelter. We can only imagine how many pit bulls waiting in shelters nationwide would be accounted for in these staggering numbers, yet because of these restrictions, they often remain isolated from potential adopters or their families who had to surrender them.

While these hardships impact the lives of pit bulls in shelters every day, we must recognize the successful achievements we have accomplished collectively for these dogs and continue to spark change.

Firstly, while we can vouch from our research and experience that pit bulls get a bad rap and don’t deserve unsolicited discrimination, it is also a critical realization that all animals are to be recognized as individuals, as responsible pet ownership and environmental conditions must be considered when discussing behavior. This is because genetics simply do not exist in a vacuum. Behavior and personality of every living being is a combination of both genetics and environmental factors; therefore, responsible ownership and other environmental factors play an equally critical role in the outcome of an animal’s disposition.

Furthermore, a brighter future equally lies in the hands of animal shelters, as sheltering as we know it is changing rapidly for the sake of all animals. Animal shelters nationwide are taking accountability to transform their care, envisioning a world where long-term shelter residents are given the freedom to exercise, socialize, and be loved in a home environment via foster care instead of waiting in a world of confinement that further exacerbates reactions of stress and fear. Expanding foster care programming not only enhances a pet’s experience during their transition to a new family but also heightens community efforts to engage and advocate for these animals. At the Animal Rescue League of Berks County (ARL), we are making this vision a reality. You can read more about our lifesaving fostering program here.

Finally, we must individually remain active and educated advocates to establish permanent change for the future of these dogs. When you think locally, you act globally – individual advocacy and conversations are sparking collective action every day. Advocating for responsible pet ownership, spaying and neutering of owned pets, and the dismantling of unethical breed-specific legislation are crucial to this movement that we must foster as a whole. Together, we can flip the script for pit bull type dogs and all breeds to ensure that there is hope for every animal who faces the struggle of unnecessary discrimination.

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