Ontario to Ban Pit Bulls

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 15, 2004. Partner content is not updated.

LIKE ALL COMMERCIAL BRANDS, DOG breeds fall in and out of fashion. Take, for instance, the Dalmation. When Disney released its live-action version of the classic animated film 101 Dalmations in 1996, demand for the speckled puppies skyrocketed.

Ontario to Ban Pit Bulls

LIKE ALL COMMERCIAL BRANDS, DOG breeds fall in and out of fashion. Take, for instance, the Dalmation. When Disney released its live-action version of the classic animated film 101 Dalmations in 1996, demand for the speckled puppies skyrocketed. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for many families to surrender their high-strung dogs to the nearest pound, cursing Disney for false advertising. Just as every era has its trendy "good dog," it also has its "bad dog." In the early '70s, thanks in part to a series of kitschy films about bloodthirsty Doberman pinschers, including They Only Kill Their Masters, this breed resurfaced as the tough guy's dog of choice. "The shelters were flooded with Dobes back then," says Diane Jessup, a veteran Washington-based animal control officer and canine historian. "Now you hardly ever see them."

But for the past two decades, the meanest, "baddest" dogs in North American pop culture have been, without a doubt, pit bulls. We see them in hip-hop videos, snarling from the back seats of souped-up SUVs. We watch them in movies and on TV, in heavy chains, guarding the homes of their gun-toting, drug-dealing masters. In our own neighbourhoods, we sometimes encounter them roaming off the leash, their ears cropped like devil's horns, looking haggard and hungry. It's no wonder people are terrified.

Two weeks ago, following a series of gruesome, high-profile attacks, Ontario introduced legislation to ban pit bulls (and related breeds). Though they've been outlawed in Canadian municipalities before, this would be the first time a breed is banned province-wide (no new dogs will be sold, bred or imported, and existing ones must be muzzled outdoors). The move follows a highly emotional, contentious campaign. Politicians and victims groups contend that, as Attorney General Michael Bryant said, pit bulls are "ticking time bombs." But the province's animal experts - outraged at not having been consulted - argue the legislation is rooted not in facts and expert opinion, but in media-generated hysteria.

First off, I'd better come clean: my own dog, Ahab, is a nine-year-old purebred Staffordshire bull terrier. Even though there are no recorded incidents of Staffies ever attacking anyone in Canada, the breed has made the provincial hit list. Which underlines one of the central problems of the ban - the fact that pit bull is an umbrella term to describe a number of breeds and mixed breeds that share a stocky, athletic build, a short coat and a blocky head. To me, Ahab, is a regular family dog: a joker and a couch potato, hungry for affection and table scraps, gentle and patient with ear-yanking children.

Experts in canine control and behaviour - including the Ontario Medical Veterinary Association, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and the Canada Safety Council - have all said the same thing. Breed-specific bans are reactionary and ineffectual because they don't address the root of the problem: high-risk owners. "If you remove so-called pit bulls from the province," says Dr. Gary Landsberg, a Thornhill, Ont., veterinarian and president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists, "people who want to breed and/or own vicious dogs will simply turn to other breeds." And they'll have no shortage of powerful canines to choose from. After Winnipeg banned pit bulls in 1990, pit bull attacks decreased significantly. But the number of attacks by Rottweilers and German shepherds surged. "We're now seeing South American breeds coming in that are really vicious," says Aileen White of the Winnipeg Humane Society.

What's interesting is that, in the early 20th century, the American pit bull terrier was actually considered to be the All-American dog. Its image graced First World War propaganda posters as a symbol of American courage and tenacity. Petey from The Little Rascals was a pit bull, as was Tige, the dog in Buster Brown shoe ads. Helen Keller kept a pit bull as a companion. So did President Woodrow Wilson and Fred Astaire. By the mid-'90s, however, the breed had grown increasingly popular among those looking for the next "killer dog." Soon, the image of the pit bull was co-opted by tough-guy clothing and accessory lines like Pitzwear and Bulletproof Dog. Rap artists like DMX and OutKast's Big Boi began to use the dogs as status symbols - the meaner, the better. Media myths arose about the pit bull's ability to lock its jaw. And breeders with dubious names like "Deranged Kennelz" and "Stone Cold Pits" began breeding specifically for size and aggression.

As a result of their bad-boy image, pit bulls are by far the most widely - and cruelly - abused canines in North America. Humane societies have countless stories of owners routinely leaving the dogs chained for days, starving them, burning them with acid, feeding them Tabasco sauce and making them wear barbed-wire collars - all to make them as angry and aggressive as possible. "If you knew what these dogs go through," says Jessup, who has written a book on the breed, The Working Pit Bull, "you'd be amazed that there wasn't a pit bull fatality every day of the week."

Any dog can be dangerous if not properly trained, socialized and controlled. In the past 40 years, North Americans have been fatally attacked by 37 different breeds, including an Irish setter, a Brittany spaniel and, shockingly, a Pomeranian cross. The dachshund - affectionately known as the "wiener dog" - has killed three people.

Currently, Canadian animal experts and organizations are lobbying for more comprehensive dangerous dog legislation - something that holds owners of all breeds accountable and doesn't penalize responsible owners of maligned breeds. For now, however, the pit bull is alone in the doghouse.

Good/Bad Doggie

It's morphed from man's - and kid's - best friend to devil dog


United Kennel Club is formed with American pit bull terrier as its founding breed


Modelled after the breed, the popular 'Tige' shows up in Buster Brown's shoe ads


An American pit bull terrier is symbol of courgae on U.S. military poster


Sergeant Stubby, a pit bull, becomes most decorated dog in U.S. military history

1920s and '30s

'Petey' from The Little Rascals is an American pit bull terrier


Companies like Pitzwear use the breed's image and street cred to sell their gear


Outkast's Big Boi opens Pitfall Kennels in Georgia. Known for its "blue" pits.


Rapper DMX features a chained-up pit bull on the cover of his album Grand Champ


Portland Trail Blazer Qyntel Woods under investigation for staging pit bull fights


Ontario government introduces legislation to ban pit bull breeds

Maclean's November 15, 2004