The Pits: New Ruling Attacks Dogs by Breed, Baltimore

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At the MDSPCA March for the Animals yesterday, poodles, pits and beagles alike dressed in bell-jingling tutus or Mardi-Gras-groovy collars were the norm, as were proud, grinning families and singles pulling the reins on young and old pups, many of whom bore essential resemblance to their human counterparts. (Don’t forget the turtle in hand or the rat-tailed ferrets lolling on their lady’s shoulder.) We strolled past tents publicizing vet services and doggie daycare as always, but this year a bright red State Farm Insurance tent stuck out like a sore paw. Upon closer step, I could read the marker-written message board: “Did you know that State Farm does not breed discriminate! Ask us!” Of course, this commercial tent—site sat fittingly close to the BARCS (Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter) “pit crew” station—underlines a hot topic among dog lovers this weekend (and long before), not whether to deck the Doberman in Pucci, but whether pits are as safe as any other breed.

Reporter Jessica Anderson, writing in The Baltimore Sun on Saturday, explained the local scoop succinctly: “Pit bulls are inherently dangerous animals, the state’s highest court has ruled, a decision that could lead to stiff penalties for people found responsible in attacks — even if the dogs have never been violent before. A decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, issued this week, distinguishes pit bulls and mixed breeds from other kinds of dogs. In the past, a victim intending to file a lawsuit after a dog attack had to prove that a dog’s owner knew it had a history of being dangerous. Now, showing that the owner or landlord knew a dog is part pit bull would be sufficient for a claim.”

Case is linked to the 2007 dog attack on 10-year-old Dominic Solesky in Towson that led several local governments to reconsider the laws governing pit bulls. Pits, by the way, are currently banned in Prince George’s County.

“But some who oppose the ruling argue that a dog’s breed is not a reliable way to predict whether the animal might become violent,” Anderson writes on. “They worry that the decision will make it more difficult for pit bull owners to find housing, and discourage others from adopting the dogs.”

In one key dissenting opinion, Judge Clayton Greene, Jr. noted: “Now, it appears, the issue of whether a dog is harmless, or the owner or landlord has any reason to know that the dog is dangerous, is irrelevant to the standard of strict liability.”

New news to me is that many home liability providers had already pulled pit bulls from their coverage.

In fact, the following breeds are commonly “blacklisted by various insurance companies,” according to an info-packed blog entry at HubPages: “Akitas, Alaskan Malamutes, American Pit Bull Terriers and “pit bull” type dogs, Boxers, Chow chows, Doberman Pinschers, German shepherds, Great Danes, Presa Canario bulldogs, Rottweilers, Siberian huskies, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and Wolf-hybrids.”

In this blogger’s view—full disclosure: I’m a cat rescuer at present, and therefore not a dog owner for now—such thinking equals utterly unfair discrimination. Last year, I befriended a wildly barking (scary looking) pit in Greektown who was being dumped by his family because they had to relocate suddenly. The canine-boy, “Nico,” now has a comfy home where he loves to lounge near the TV, run his hilly yard, and sleep in a human’s bed. He looked tough; he’s a lamb.

The dog rescue folks I know agree with my gut instinct that most pits, when given a chance—and not trained abusively to fight other animals in a creepy basement—are as loving as your typical canine-card-carrying, tongue-swiping, people-passionate d-o-g. I, too, worry that the pits’ bad press will mean many more of these loving creatures are to be denied adoption.

Not only that emotional evidence. According to an article from The Connecticut Insurance Law Journal, “Numerous scientific studies have attempted to identify the number of annual dog bites, the dogs most likely to bite, the people most likely to be bitten, and the circumstances under which bites are most likely to occur. Such studies have not reached a uniform consensus and have left us with more questions than answers. Even the studies that have attempted to report on breeds’ proclivity to bite have cautioned that their research is incomplete and should not be used to justify breed discrimination by legislatures or insurers.”

In any event, if you are the proud owner of a pit (congratulations) or other robust dog pal, check with your home insurance provider. I know that Erie and State Farm in Maryland have announced no breed discrimination. But if your provider is another, worth investigating.

Says my friend Melissa Trotman, a dedicated BARCS volunteer and pit bull advocate: “There is nothing stopping anyone in MD [with the exception of PG County] from having pit bulls or getting insurance to cover liability related to them. State Farm’s liberal policy will surely get them more business considering the new ruling regarding strict liability has a lot of people nervous about potential litigation.”

So ask your provider what’s up for pits. And, please, be a friend to all animals until one is proven guilty.

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  1. I do understand that there are good pits, but there are also many bad pit owners. How do you tell the difference when you’re walking your dog on his leash, and a pit comes charging at you?

    Luckily, my car was right there, unlocked, and I managed to get both me and the dog in it before the pit came jumping onto the door trying to get in.

    Did he just want to play? Or was he out for blood? I am not really willing to check and see.

    • Dog owners should keep their dogs on leashes, simple as that. And often it’s the law. Yes, unfortunately, bad pit owners abound; many other breed owners are totally irresponsible as well. Based on my personal experience with pits, I’m reminding readers to give these dogs a chance past the stereotype. They’re strong, loving animals by nature.

  2. Astute and informative post. In light of insufficient prior evidence, as pointed out in the Connecticut Insurance Law Journal, how could the esteemed jurists on Maryland’s Court of Appeals come to such a breathtakingly dumbo conclusion as to single out a certain breed of dog as innately dangerous?

    A personal aside: One evening last year, while strolling through leafy Roland Park, I approached two middle-aged women chatting amiably on a sidewalk. One of the women loosely held a leash attached to a nondescript-looking mixed-breed canine. As I passed, the dog suddenly lunged at me, seized my thigh in its mouth, and clamped down hard. I screamed. The dog’s teeth broke the skin. Ouch. The woman attached to the dog apologized profusely, swearing repeatedly that her old gal had never, ever behaved in such an unworldly manner previously. And yet this supposedly innocuous pooch proved particularly pugnacious on this occasion. Not a pit bull, not a doberman, not a rottweiler; no prior record, swore her owner. So you never know. Why discriminate?

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