Those of you who follow the Voice for Lil Olive Facebook page have probably noticed that lately, we’ve devoted a number of posts to the new (and now suspended) pit-bull ban in Montreal. Some of you may be curious as to why it has so attracted our attention — and our frustration. After all, a breed ban is not directly related to the issue of puppy mills.
But these two problems are more closely related than they might first appear.
First of all, each problem thrives due to ignorance.
“We need to educate the public about what puppy mills are because they’re abusive, neglectful and horrible,” says Lil Olive’s adoptive mother, Pam Horton. “And we need to educate the people on what specific breeds are, and to not just assume that they are one certain way.”
In the case of puppy mills, mainstream media missed the story for decades. Too few reporters asked where pet-store puppies were coming from, or accepted the answer, “Reputable breeders,” at face value.
In the case of breed bans, what’s been accepted at face value is a narrative that says certain types of dogs are especially unpredictable and dangerous. Horton says the media has embraced that narrative because it makes for a sexy story; much sexier, say, than a story about how the American pit bull has outperformed golden retrievers and miniature poodles in temperament testing. And much more sexy than a nuanced explanation of how, as veterinarian Jennifer Pearson put it in a recent email, “Aggression itself nearly always comes from fear, and fear is not exclusive to a breed.”
Pearson owns Colorado Springs-based veterinary practice Healing Path Animal Wellness. Like Horton, she remembers growing up near Doberman pinschers — in an era when “Dobies” were America’s most-feared dogs. But their experiences were very different.
Horton says her neighbor’s well-cared-for dog, Sandy, visited regularly: “I would play with her all day long.” Pearson, however, recalls that her next-door neighbor’s Dobermans “lived their entire lives either in a tiny, filthy pen, or in an equally tiny, filthy basement, and they virtually never interacted with humans. As a result, they were unfamiliar with and afraid of people, and tended to react aggressively whenever they saw one.”
Today, Pearson encounters plenty of behaviorally troubled pets. “I promise you,” she writes, “on the basis of both my clinical experience and the results of multiple
published studies: there is no correlation between a dog’s breed and her tendency to become aggressive. The dogs I see with aggression issues vary widely, from Chihuahuas and Shih-tzus to Heelers and Labradors and, yes, Mastiffs and Pit Bulls.”
The second commonality between these issues is that in both, innocent animals suffer or die due to our ignorance.
When puppy mills endure, generations of dogs are put through physical and psychological trauma. The ASPCA reports, “When they are physically depleted to the point that they no longer can reproduce, breeding females are often killed. The parents of the puppy in the pet store window are unlikely to make it out of the mill alive — and neither will the many puppies born with overt physical problems.”
Meanwhile, dogs who are subject to breed bans will often be euthanized. After all, if people are not allowed — as in Montreal — to adopt a new pit bull, what’s to be done with all the pit bulls in shelters?
And then there’s an extra wrinkle: Montreal’s ban extends to “pit bull-type dogs,” a classification almost always determined by appearance. (Few people spring for the DNA tests that make for more educated — but still hardly bulletproof — guesses.) Often, Horton says, “Nobody can determine if [a given dog] is a pit bull or not. So they just assume they all are pit bulls.”
That didn’t sit well with the judge who just suspended Montreal’s ban indefinitely — he called the definition of “pit bull-type dog” too vague and imprecise. (Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre already has announced he will appeal.)
“Dogs just have such an astounding variety of features in their genetic arsenal that the pups of a mixed-breed mating may look completely different not only from their parents, but also from each other,” Pearson explains. “The more mixed the mating gets (i.e., when mixed-breed dogs mate with each other), the more variation we see.”
She goes on: “If we think we can guess a mixed breed dog’s heritage, and then guess at that dog’s behavior based on its appearance, how accurate do you think we are? If science has shown that we’re nearly 90% inaccurate in our first guess, and I’ve just told you that aggression is based on fear (which has no breed correlation), where does that leave us?
“It leaves us unnecessarily banning and killing a lot of excellent dogs, that’s where.”
Copyright 2016 Shelter Island Films
A Voice for Lil Olive is a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Pete Schuermann. The film explores the special bond between pets and their families, and how rescued dogs change lives. The film's mission is to make people aware of and to change attitudes about rescued pets through the telling of Lil Olive’s tale. In this way, she becomes the voice for so many dogs and animals in need.