Breed Ban or Better Pet Selection?

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Toddler kissing pit bull

Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

1966-2014 R.I.P.

Every year, when badly behaved dogs become the object of media focus someone asks me, ” Do you think pit bulls should be banned as pets?” To which I usually answer, “No, but some owners should be banned from owning pit bulls… or for that matter, Jack Russell Terriers, Basenji’s, Border terriers, Bengal cats and even Budgies”. In fact some people shouldn’t have pets at all.

Not because these people are cruel or have mean intentions, but because even the simplest pet can turn out to be more than the average person can handle, especially if the pet isn’t suitable for that person’s expectations and abilities.

Let’s face it, adopting a pet isn’t like purchasing a T.V. or kitchen appliance. TVs and appliances come with a set of instructions, work right out of the box and require minimal maintenance. And notice that even with these simple appliances getting them to work right sometimes takes longer than expected.

Pets on the other hand are a work-in-progress. What you end up with depends on how much time and effort you’re willing to put in. For instance, even rodents such as hamsters can be friendly enough to come when called, greet you at their cage door, and ask to be held and petted. But when not handled enough early on, they may instead spend most of their time hiding from humans and even biting when handled. This takes the fun out of interactions, which leads to a boring life for the tiny companion.

While owners may fail to notice that their caged pet is not living up to its full potential, with pets that freely share our living space, problems are more prominent. Owners who lack a plan with these pets frequently end up lacking a pet when they can’t stand it anymore.

Owner Expectations Must Match the Pet

As the owner of two rejected Basenjis, Renvelyn Grey knows about inappropriate owner expectations.

“Henry’s first owner got rid of him when she got sick of coming home to torn up pillows, sheets and shoes,” says Grey referring to her more recent adoption. Any basenji owner should know that for Basenjis this behavior is status quo. This breed is as curious as a three year old kid and individuals tend to examine and dissect all objects with their mouth.

“Henry’s previous owner walked him several miles a day but that’s not enough for these guys, they need lots of training,” says Grey. They also need more environmental management to keep them out of trouble. The Grey’s have babygates blocking off many rooms, they pick up all their shoes and clothing, and they make sure they’ve taken the trash out. With these household modifications and lots of training, the two Basenjis make perfect companions for the Greys.

Other breeds and individuals can be equally trying and the problems sometimes have to do with intelligence. States Terry Lake, owner of a Jack Russell Terrier named Jackie, “My partner says she wishes we’d gotten a dog that wasn’t so smart.”

Jackie is a wonderful, entertaining, companion for the Lakes, but due to her high energy, curiosity, and great problem-solving skills, she can be as much work as a pair of twin toddlers. Says Lake, “She has out-smarted every obstacle we’ve used to keep her from going up the stairs, and she once had a bath in the sink and because she likes water, we now have a hard time keeping her out of the sink where she tries to turn on the water.” Jackie’s also a problem in the truck where she rolls down the electric window by putting her paw on the button. “We roll-it up, says Lake, “and she rolls it down again.”

Jackie’s wild on walks too, where she bounces around like a superball attached to an elastic string. As a result, she rarely gets walked which means she not only misses out on exercise opportunities, but she also lacks the socialization to new humans, other animals, and the every-day sights which she needs in order to assimilate into city or suburban life.

These challenges are finally changing though. Lake took the time to trek 80 miles once a week for private training lessons with Jackie. After two private training lessons Lake was able to walk Jackie peacefully on leash with the aid of a Gentle Leader head collar and he can finally count on her undivided attention in the house on request.

Cats Can be Challenging Too

Of course problems involving pet suitability aren’t limited to dogs. Cats too have a wide range of personalities and consequently have to be matched to the correct household. Karsan Elliot found out the hard way when she added a Bengal cat, the feline equivalent of trouble, to her collection a “very happy pack of diverse dogs and 2 Abby cats.”

Says Elliot, “Spike relieved himself all over the home office and constantly beat up the other cats.” Like a teenager with time on his hands and no-one to focus his energy in the right direction, Spike just dominated the household. Elliot eventually had to give Spike up but was extremely fortunate to find a more appropriate home. For other cats, a poor match ends up spelling death in animal shelter after several failed adoptions or when abandoned on the street.

Choosing the Right Pet for You

So how do you find out whether a specific pet is suitable for you? You’ll have to put in the time ahead of time. Interview breed rescue organizations since they consist of breeders and individuals who regularly deal with placement mistakes. If the individuals do not acknowledge the difficulties of the breed or individual or know the common health problems and behavioral issues and how to prevent them then look elsewhere.

Go to dog or cat shows or canine sporting events and talk to many different breeders or trainers or experts. Some veterinarians and animal shelters even offer a service that helps match you with a pet. And most of all, ask yourself, what kind of time and effort are you really willing to invest and what to you expect for your work? Can you put up with a dog or cat that requires the same attention as a team of toddlers or do you need a couch potato who’s always happy to see you but just as happy to lounge around? Your honesty regarding both your needs as well as the pet’s can mean the difference between a happy relationship and an early demise for a potentially loving companion.

Originally appeared in SF Chronicle in 2005

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4 responses to “Breed Ban or Better Pet Selection?

  1. This is an awesome article. I love your analogy about some people should not have pets…period. I am fostering a sweet, loving, well balanced Pit Bull for my niece for the past year. She is eight, and fits right in with my ten year old twins, and our Golden Retriever. I have no problem with her and love spending time on outings with her and my dog daily. In NH and Ma like other places, the Pit Bull is getting bad media and owner’s are being forced to get rid of their dogs because of landlords and insurance issues. Plus, lately attacks have been in the media. Many people refuse to let their kids come to my house now because of the word “Pit.” It’s horrible the prejudice we get everyday for loving this sweetie. MY qustion: why do some of these pets attack? I don’t get it. I keep hearing: it’s how the pet is treated…Please help me understand. Thank you.

  2. Dr. Yin,

    I work at Veterinary Specialists of Alaska, and I was so disappointed to find out after the fact that you were a speaker at the recent conference here in Anchorage. I work the front desk as a full time receptionist/client/patient liason, and I would have loved to have attended your lectures. I have 2 female Akitas that used to get along and now, the younger one would love to kill the older one, if given the oportunity.

    I came home at noon for my lunch break and it was a warm, sunny, summer day. The front door was open, the screen door was closed, and my 2 girls, Razzy (age 3yo) and Panda (age 1.5yo) were sleeping side by side. They had been outside in the backyard prior to coming in and settling down while I had lunch.

    The mailman came to deliver the mail. My house is on a walking route. He deposited the mail in the box and when the lid slammed down it startled the girls and the they locked and loaded in to a fight that I have never been witness to before. I tried to separate them, had to drag them from the front of the house into the back yard, tried to hose them apart, tried to pry them apart with a shovel. I called the the clinic and my co-worker said “Do you have pepper spray?”. It was the only thing that made the girls release.

    What a mess. Panda can’t stand the sight of Razzy ever since and frequently growls at her. Razzy avoids Panda. I have to keep them physically apart. They still can visualize each other but Panda has the stare/bead on look, whereas Razzy will just look away.

    What to do?

    I wish I could fly you back up to Anchorage and see if you can help me with this situation.

  3. Excellent post! With all the negative limelight on pit bulls these days, some other challenging breeds get overlooked. We lost our second German Shepherd to old age in January 2011. Now that we are left with the “easier” Labs, the contrast between the two breeds is remarkable. Zack (RIP) was a vigilant protector, but with that came a lot of effort on our part to manage that drive. He was continually harassing the livestock, and he’d “escort” any vehicle that left down our driveway (read: he chased them). Fortunately, he was a confident, friendly dog who didn’t expand his efforts to biting folks, but it was quite apparent that without careful management that he would have been inclined to do so.

    My heart breaks for all the unfortunate dogs who end up in shelters because their owners can’t/won’t deal with the inclinations that are natural to specific breeds. German Shepherds are vigilant protectors, so someone has to teach them how and when to do that appropriately. And not everyone is up to the task. Even though we managed Zack well, when he reached puberty he proceeded to challenge our son, who was in elementary school at the time. One incident of growling over rights to the bed earned him a trip to the vet to be neutered. That solved the problem, but I shudder to think what the outcome would have been had we been less forthcoming about addressing and solving the problem.

    Zack’s story is here
    I miss him terribly, but it’s a relief not to have to monitor the dogs so closely all the time. The downside is my Labrador girls would let anyone come here and do anything they wanted. I guess you can’t have it both ways.

  4. Gina:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I agree that if more people could be realize and handle their dog’s issues sooner and in a realistic manner, more dogs would be happy and fewer dogs would be euthanized. Kudos to you for being a great caretaker for your pets!

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