Warwick incident ignites debate over pit bulls
Last week, two pit bulls broke free of their enclosure and attacked a Warwick man and his small dog on Titus Lane, resulting in Warwick Police Officer John Zaborski discharging his firearm to cease the threat of the pit bulls when they started to approach him aggressively and his attempt to taze the dogs failed.
The two pit bulls were pronounced dead at the scene, and the other dog's fate is unknown at this time. The man who was attacked, Robert Joyal of Warwick, was treated at Rhode Island Hospital for dog bite injuries and has since been released. Joyal has not responded to a request for comments on the incident.
An initial investigation concluded that Zaborski's actions that day "were lawful and necessary to protect the lives of citizens and himself from serious bodily injury."
Pit bulls have a well-established reputation for being aggressive and potentially dangerous. But is this a fair representation of the entire breed, or just a matter of fear mongering through animalistic profiling?
Statistically, the fear of pit bulls appears to be justified. According to DogBites.org, which claims to reference a collection of peer reviewed studies from across the United States between 2005 and 2016, pit bulls were found to be responsible for 254 of the 392 deaths caused by dogs in America (65 percent).
In "Characteristics of 1616 Consecutive Dog Bite Injuries at a Single Institution," which is cited on the website, a team of doctors found that pit bulls "were more than 2.5 times as likely as other breeds to bite in multiple anatomical locations," and that "Although other breeds may bite with the same or higher frequency, the injury that a pit bull inflicts per bite is often more severe."
The study references numbers from a Pennsylvania hospital in which, over a 12-year period, an alarming 25 total percent of the injuries treated were caused by pit bull attacks, two-thirds of which required some type of follow-up operation. The research corroborated with other similar studies that found "operative intervention was more than three times as likely to be associated with a pit bull injury than with any other breed."
According to the study, which claims to cross-references other studies conducted around the world, children are the most vulnerable to dog attacks, and the lone fatality that the study examined was the case of a 5-day-old infant who was bitten on the head by the family's pit bull.
While the numbers and statistics appear damning for the breed, those who have spent their entire lives working with dogs say the formula for creating a dangerous dog is anything but straightforward, and certainly cannot be simply defined by the dog's breed.
"As a behaviorist there's so much that goes into a dog's behavior and temperament, even in the ideal circumstances you're going to have dogs that develop behavioral problems, and some dogs in the worst of situations can turn out to be totally fine," said Heather Gutshall, a Certified Associate Dog Behavior Consultant, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and co-founder of Outbound Hounds in Rhode Island.
Gutshall would know a thing or two about dogs adjusting positively from bad situations, too, as she is also the founder and president of Handsome Dan's Rescue for Pit Bull Type Dogs, a nonprofit that focuses on helping dogs who have been through traumatic experiences (such as dog fighting) get adopted. The organization was named after a dog that was rescued from the infamous dog-fighting ring that implicated Michael Vick.
Gutshall said that, in the last 10 years, two polarizing extreme points of view have emerged. One side believes all pit bulls and pit bull mixes have inherent aggression and behavioral problems, and can never be trusted. The other side claims that human upbringing and interaction is the sole factor for creating so-called "bad dogs."
"Both sides are wrong," said Gutshall.
In a Facebook post talking about the Warwick incident, Gutshall talked about how the temperament and behavior of any dog is driven by both nature and nurture. Factors such as genetics certainly play a part in a dog's development, but so do elements like early socialization, stress level of the mother while she is pregnant, the condition of the dog's housing and many other environmental factors.
"Dogs are individuals, and for better or worse, must be judged individually," the post reads. "Not by breed, not by what others may have done or not done, and not based on their appearance."
Gutshall said another side of the issue that doesn't get reported is the sheer fact that there are an inordinately high number of pit bulls that wind up in shelters - far more than any other breed. Gutshall said that this fact is why studies, like the ones found on DogBites.org, are not fairly representing the whole picture.
"I'm not saying all pit bulls are safe. All pit bulls are not safe," said Gutshall. "But neither are all [Labradors]."
Other dog training experts concur with Gutshall's assessment.
"If you invest the time and the training and you're not irresponsible, you're not going to have issues," said Susan Parker, owner of Dynamic Dog Training and the East Coast Bully Breed Club, a nonprofit organization that strives to shelter and find homes for unwanted pit bulls. "If you're an irresponsible owner you reap what you sow."
Parker has personally and professionally raised and trained many pit bulls during her lifetime. Parker believes that no dog, not even a pit bull, will become dangerous to society solely because of a bad upbringing, or bad owners making harmful decisions. According to her experience, similar to Gutshall, it is a combination of many factors.
"It boils down to, you have to know your dog," she said. "Genetically, you have to know your dog. Did you get it from a reputable breeder? An irresponsible breeder? Did you get it from a shelter? Somebody who knows the dog, trains the dog, habituates the dog, takes the right steps and doesn't let their dog run amok, the chances are slim to none that you'll have any problems."
Parker said that a key element to successfully raising good-natured, larger-breed dogs is to socialize them early, keep to a repetitive, consistent schedule when training them and to never leave them alone and loose in an environment where they may succumb to their "prey drive" - such as being left outside and unrestrained in an area where they may encounter smaller dogs.
"Like every person, every dog is different. If you have a dog that isn't up to par or is beyond rehabilitation, keep your dog safe and responsibly managed. It's not rocket science," Parker said. "Environment is relevant in reinforcing [good or bad] behavior."
Both Parker and Gutshall have personally seen many pit bulls go from bad conditions - perhaps even appearing to be dangerous - only to transition with proper care into loving, community liaisons for the breed. Parker has personally taken her own pit bull/boxer mix, Teddy, to nursing homes, private homes and events where he is lauded for his good behavior. Handsome Dan continues to be one of the most iconic mascots for pit bull happy endings.
If there is any negative attention or additional stigma affixed onto the pit bull breed in the wake of this most recent event, Parker believes it is an unfair assessment.
"For every bad one there's also about 100 good ones," she said. "But we only really hear about the bad ones."