Pit bull attacks prompt renewed debate: Are certain breeds dangerous, or just certain dogs?

Judy Burch was at home in Beaverdale last week unpacking from a trip when she heard a commotion erupt between her 5-year-old pit bull, Blue, and her 12-year-old pug, Chelsea.

By the time she got to the two dogs, she said, Blue had Chelsea by the throat, and the smaller dog was bleeding profusely. She got a broomstick and tried to shoo Blue away, but she didn’t want to further agitate the dog.

She called a nonemergency police number. When animal control officers arrived at her home nearly an hour later, the smaller dog had lost an eye and the left side of her neck was ripped wide open.

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Chelsea had to be put down immediately. Blue was turned over to the Animal Rescue League to be euthanized, Burch said.

“I wish I knew what made her do that,” said Burch, who took in Blue when her daughter moved a year ago. “Blue was a lapdog. A really loving dog. I never would have believed he would do that in a million years.”

A pit bull. Many communities restrict the breed, but proponents say it's owners, not the kind of dog, who cause problems.
A pit bull. Many communities restrict the breed, but proponents say it's owners, not the kind of dog, who cause problems.

Pit bulls — that most controversial of breeds, both loved and feared — are a target of concern again this year in Iowa.

In July, the town of Keystone, an eastern Iowa hamlet of just over 300, made headlines across the state when city leaders sought to enforce a decades-old ordinance banning pit bulls after one bit a 2-year-old girl.

"After the attack, no one claimed the dog and it was taken to the vet to quarantine," said City Clerk Angie Hagan. "But other residents raised concerns, saying there were other pits in town."

At a City Council meeting in August, some townsfolk balked at Keystone's breed-specific ordinance and asked the council to reconsider it.

Hagan said the city and Benton County sheriff subsequently notified four local owners of pit bull-like dogs before Labor Day that they would have to remove their dogs from town or risk having the city do it for them and fine them $750.

Since then, Hagan said, three owners opposing the city's actions are set to have their cases heard at the October council meeting. All live near the town's lone elementary school and don't have secure fencing, she said.

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At the same October meeting, Hagan said, the council is expected to review a proposed draft of a new ordinance that would include provisions for restricting dangerous dogs but would not single out pit bulls.

"They’re not opposed to that," Hagan said of the council members.

Also in August, an 8-year-old boy in Springville was hospitalized after authorities said he was attacked by two pit-bull mix dogs, and a woman walking to the Iowa State Fair was hospitalized after being attacked by a pit bull near the fairgrounds, according to news reports.

In June, the U.S. Postal Service made the rare decision to temporarily suspend mail delivery in one south side Des Moines neighborhood after a pit bull jumped a backyard fence and attacked a mail carrier on East Kirkwood Avenue.

That attack, which was recorded on video, involved dog owners who have since moved out of the city and who have been cited and convicted, according to Sgt. Paul Parizek.

The case was one of at least 374 involving dog bites that Des Moines police have recorded so far in 2022.

State legislation would prohibit breed bans

While all breeds of dogs can bite, pit bulls — a type of crossbreed that can include American Staffordshire Terriers, the American Bully, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Bulldog — were originally bred to fight. They have become one of the top types of dogs rescued in Iowa.

Proponents of breed-specific laws have long argued that pit bulls are more inherently aggressive and disproportionately responsible for fatal maulings and serious attacks.

According to one 2011 study examining 15 years of medical records, pit bulls were linked to higher morbidity rates, hospital charges and risk of death from attacks than other breeds of dogs.

Pit bull supporters, meanwhile, have said poorly trained and uneducated owners are often to blame for dogs' behavior.

They point to research such as a 2013 study at Tufts University suggesting factors associated with irresponsible owners are the primary cause of dog-bite related fatalities.

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More than 1,000 locales in Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Carolina have enacted ordinances banning pit bulls or requiring mandatory sterilization, according to dogbite.org, a victims’ rights organization.

A measure introduced last session in the Iowa Legislature would have prohibited cities and counties in Iowa from having such ordinances. The move came after more than 20 other states passed similar laws banning local breed-specific ordinances.

Organizations supporting the legislation in Iowa included the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association and the ARL of Iowa, but the bill never made headway.

Tracy Ehlert, a Cedar Rapids-area Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation in the House, said she’s not sure why it failed. While Democrats sponsored the bill in the House, she said, she believed a Senate version had bipartisan support.

Ehlert, who has three pit-mix rescue dogs, said people across the state contacted her multiple times on the issue.

Brian Meyer, a Des Moines Democrat, said he believes the legislation will come up again.

"We get a lot of emails on it," Meyer said. "This is one of those bills that might take a while because it requires a grassroots educational campaign."

A pit bull dog. Some Iowa localities continue to have ordinances that specifically regulate the breed as dangerous, though dog advocates say any dog can be problematic in the hands of an irresponsible owner.
A pit bull dog. Some Iowa localities continue to have ordinances that specifically regulate the breed as dangerous, though dog advocates say any dog can be problematic in the hands of an irresponsible owner.

While some Iowa cities like Ames have steered clear of breed-specific ordinances, Des Moines maintains one that specifically names three similar breeds of dogs as high risk: Staffordshire terriers, American Pit Bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers, as well as any dog that “appears predominantly one of those breeds.”

Des Moines' city ordinance says no person in the city shall own a dangerous animal, a determination that would require such an animal to be humanely destroyed.

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While none of the dogs involved in biting incidents this year in Des Moines have been deemed dangerous, roughly 1,100 animals in the city, including pit bull mixes, are currently deemed high-risk, according to police.

Owners of those dogs are required to keep current pet licenses, rabies certificates, proof of spaying or neutering and proof of insurance coverage, such as a homeowner's policy or renter's policy with a minimum liability of $100,000. The pet also has to be confined according to code, and the owner has to complete a high-risk compliance form.

Single out problematic dogs, owners, not breeds, advocates say

The American Veterinary Medical Association, as well as the Humane Society and the American Bar Association, have all suggested new laws and ordinances focusing on problem animals rather than banning a particular breed.

“While breed-specific legislation may look good on the surface, it is not a reliable or effective solution for dog-bite prevention,” the American Veterinary Medical Association has said.

Among the difficulties such ordinances pose: problematic enforcement, since many dogs are mixed breeds; discriminatory action against responsible owners and their dogs; and failure to address irresponsible owners and their dogs.

The AVMA suggests cities adopt non-breed-specific dangerous dog laws with an enforcement emphasis on chronically irresponsible owners; leash laws; dog fighting prohibitions; neutering for dogs not intended for breeding; and education.

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Burch said she’s not sure what led to Blue’s attack on her pug, though she speculated that it may have been over food or water.

She said she signed over Blue voluntarily to be euthanized because she no longer trusted the dog to be around her grandchildren or new 4-month-old great grandchild.

“If he did it once, he could do it again," she said.

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Are pit bulls inherently dangerous? Iowa debates how to regulate dogs