Photo by Jerry Gay
Danette Johnston, founder of Dogs Day Out and “pittie guardian,” with her dog, Rufus, an American Staffordshire terrier and border-collie mix.

Shedding some light on pit bulls' bad rap

By Elizabeth Wang

“Affectionate,” “friendly” and “lap dog” aren’t usually characteristics used to describe a pit bull. But increasingly, local pit bull owners are teaming up in an attempt to change the misconception of aggression many people hold about the breed.

October 27 is National Pit Bull Awareness Day. It’s a day designed to appreciate and educate the public about pit bulls. For it, dog walks were organized around the state to help spread awareness about pit bulls and the responsibilities of their owners.

Danette Johnston is a recent pit bull owner and the founder of Dog’s Day Out in Ballard (http://dogsdayoutseattle.com), a dog day-care center and training facility. Since adopting Rufus, an American Staffordshire terrier and border-collie mix, earlier this year, Johnston said she hasn’t noticed any significant aggressive or violent behaviors. She’s trained her dog to be obedient and well-mannered to prove that this breed is no more dangerous than the next.

“If you can show them how great [pit are, that’s how you change somebody’s mind,” Johnston said. “It stems from fear. (Pit bulls) have this reputation so we need to show (the world) what they can be.”

While the term “pit bull” officially comes from the breed American Pit Bull Terrier, it is commonly misused as a blanket term for dogs with a “boxy head” and “short body” physical features, Johnston said.

“No matter what dog it is, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, somebody’s going to call it a duck,” she said.

When dog bites occur, Johnston said she notices the media directs a lot of attention at pit bulls, specifically pointing a finger at the breed and causing widespread misunderstandings about a pit bull’s true nature.

“Do pit bulls bite people? Sure they do,” Johnston said. “So do Chihuahuas, German shepherds, Labradors … There’s this reputation of the pit bull, which is coming from somewhere. Somebody bit somebody at some point. But then there’s the pit bull that I have that lives with a five-year-old and cats and plays with other dogs, so there’s a discrepancy somewhere. Something’s going on.”

Mary Jo El-Wattar adopted her second pit bull, Bella, earlier this year and has been taking her to obedience classes at Dog’s Day Out since January. Her previous dog, Emily, was also a pit bull mix. But when El-Watter first started looking for a pet, she didn’t even think to consider pit bulls. Her and her partner were only looking for a smart, trainable and affectionate breed that would be good with the grandchildren.

“I didn’t have any notion of what would be a fit for me,” El-Wattar said. “And didn’t meet what I thought I needed … But she and I just looked at each other and I took the leash and we just walked off into the sunset … Emily sold me on pit bulls.”

El-Wattar said she never had any preconceived ideas about pit bulls and doesn’t know why there is this media hype around their aggressiveness.

“I don’t know how pit bulls have become so stigmatized to be bad,” she said. “I’ve only seen a very family-oriented dog … I just know that I walk down the street and if there’s a pit bull, I don’t feel afraid.”

As pit bull owners, both Johnston and El-Wattar feel the need to keep their dogs well-trained and well-behaved as to set an example to the public about pit bulls.

“That’s the responsibility of someone who owns one of these dogs,” Johnston said. “I don’t just mean your responsibility to that dog, but the responsibility to your community and your society … No matter how good my dog is, he is going to be judged by the way he looks when we go for a walk so my dog needs to be better trained to be really fantastic on the leash; he needs to be an ambassador for the breed.”

After public examples of extreme situations, such as the Michael Vick dog fighting scandal -- where NFL football player Vick was involved in organizing several dogfights and even executions -- pit bulls can be viewed as vicious and tough. But Johnston and others agree that pit bulls are actually as good-natured as any other dog. She said each dog’s aggressive tendencies should be individually evaluated and not generalized as a breed. She noted that one of the pit bulls used in the scandal is now being used as a therapy dog.

It can be said that pit bulls have impulse-control issues, which might mistakenly be confused with aggression, but it’s not necessarily related. Johnston said that impulse-control is completely trainable in pit bulls as with every other dog. She concludes that pit bulls, in terms of aggression, are not any different than any other breed. They’re just goofy, determined and people-focused animals.

“Try to get your pit bull off the couch,” Johnston said. “It’s not going to happen; they’re the ultimate lap dog.”

Dogs Day Out will be hosting “Pittie Party,” an information session about pit bulls, on Sunday, Nov. 11, 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Entry is $25 and is for “humans only.” More info can be found at http://dogsdayoutseattle.com/dont-hate-kelly-ripa

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