DCentric Conversation: Lisa LaFontaine on Pit bulls and More

Washington Humane Society

Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society with her dog, Lila.

On Monday, I published the first part of a conversation I had with Lisa LaFontaine, the President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society (WHS). That post explored dog fighting in D.C., the high-profile theft of a puppy named Ivan and WHS’ efforts to educate the city about animal cruelty.

Today’s installment answers some of the questions I posed last week– my conversation with Lisa covered everything from breed confusion to whether there’s a “class” element to Pit bull ownership. We even discussed the history of pariah breeds in this country; a century ago, the “violent dog” du jour was not a Pit or even a terrier. After listening to Lisa and doing research for this piece, I’ll never look at Newfoundlands the same way, again.

All of that and more, after the jump.

My puppy is a Cocker Spaniel mix and people constantly ask if she’s a Pit, which makes me wonder– are Pit/Bull/Terrier/mixes the victims of breed confusion?

Absolutely. And the worst kind of breed confusion leads to breed discrimination. In the three years that I’ve been at the Washington Humane Society, there have been a handful of very serious dog attacks against a person that hit the media. There are four particular cases I can think of where the dog was described in the media as a “Pit bull”, but we had the dog quarantined and it was not a Pit…it was a Boxer or a Mastiff or something else. Unfortunately, when the media picks these stories up, it causes discrimination and fear to spiral. There are dangerous dogs of all breeds. Labs. Springer Spaniels. Golden Retrievers. German Shepherds…you name it. Aggression isn’t isolated to one breed, and that’s why we do temperament tests on every pet, regardless of what they are, because we know we need to look at each dog individually.

I once saw a website which asked people to find the Pit bull in a group of 20 or so purebred dogs…it’s very, very hard to do.

We have several versions of that poster hanging up around our offices to make that point. There is nothing that underscores it more effectively than those pictures. You can give that test to laymen or seasoned professionals and it is hard to pick out the Pit bull. That’s why we use the phrase, “Pit bull-type…”.

I read that Pit bulls were once considered “America’s dog“. How did they become a symbol for crime or violence and associated with certain demographics?

That’s a great question. I want to direct you to a fantastic book, The Pit Bull Placebo, its tag line is “Media, Myths and the Politics of Canine Aggression”. It was written by Karen Delise, who is with a group that tracks dog bites. If you take a historical look at the breeds involved in dog attacks, it is the dogs that had been trained by certain elements of society to be aggressive– those were the pariah breeds of their era.

Go back to slavery and”Uncle Tom’s Cabin”…attacks by Bloodhounds were common because Bloodhounds were used to track runaway slaves. They were used to doing something violent. Fast forward to the 1880s and New York City, where Newfoundlands were being used to guard markets, so a preponderance of bites came from Newfoundlands. After World War 2, Dobermans were associated with Nazis and were seen as dangerous.

It was really when gangs adopted Pit bulls that they became the latest pariah. In the past, Pit bulls had starred in ads, on the TV show “Little Rascals”…in fact, the most decorated dog in World War 2 was a Pit. These happy, healthy, well-adjusted dogs became a symbol of drug culture and violence because unfortunately, you can take all of a Pit’s positive traits and turn them negative.

Part of their willingness to fight is because they want approval, right?

Yes, they will do anything to please their owners. And yet, again, if you turn the clock back 100 or so years, people would have been afraid of Newfoundlands, not Pits. I’m not a Pollyanna. Some dogs are aggressive dogs. But they cut across breeds. It’s a combination of indiscriminate breeding as well as how a dog was raised.

Does the stigma affect your efforts to find dogs forever homes, and if so, how do you work around that?

It definitely gives us more to think about and more to work on. Our strategy is to assess every animal that comes to our shelter, whether they are dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs…because the most important thing for us is that the next home they go to be their last home and a loving fit for them. We pay attention to each dog’s characteristics, why they got surrendered and we assess what they will need in a home environment. We also consider the people who are coming in, what are they looking for? Matchmaking is a huge part of our efforts. We welcome every potential adopter to have conversations like the one I’m having with you today, to get people to see things a little differently, to see animals differently. Fortunately, we have lots of wonderful, beautiful Pit bull-type dogs who have been adopted by our patrons, who speak for us and proudly wear their status as our ambassadors.

It’s easy for us to advocate for them because many of us have them. Several of our staffers have one or two of these dogs because they’ve fallen in love with them. There are poor representatives of every breed, and we are trying our best to make sure dogs are safe. For those of us who are privileged to spend time with a nice Pit, there’s nothing like it.

Are we more likely to see Pits with certain people or in certain parts of D.C.?

The imagery around Pits had to do with drug culture and gangs, so they became known as an “urban dog”. There was an infamous Sports Illustrated cover…and that imagery was planted. Yet if you walk through Washington, a multicultural city, you see these dogs with every age, race, class and neighborhood. I’ve thought about this and it’s striking…certainly race discrimination is based on what people look like and discrimination against pits comes from that, too.

The truth is, these dogs are woven throughout this community. The first time that really struck me was when I came to the Washington Humane Society. The very first event I went to was our Walk for Animals. It’s a fantastic event, which is usually attended by people who adopted from our shelter. Those people came from every race, level of education and part of this city. I got on stage, looked out and I saw Pit bulls everywhere. It was a powerful image. There were 700 people on the mall, at a grassroots event. Every demographic you could imagine…and no one group had a lock on Pit bulls. They were with everybody.

At the Washington Humane Society, dogs that look like them are in our shelters very frequently and it’s because of a number of things. They are sterilized less frequently and over time, that is what the “D.C. dog” has come to look like, because that is the dog getting bred frequently. Over time, that will change. There will be another dog that has the “D.C. dog look”.

So there are Pits everywhere, from Georgetown to Congress Heights?

Yes, there are “Pitbull-type” dogs in Georgetown and everywhere else. If you look, you’re going to see them, just like I saw them at our Walk for Animals. A lot of these stereotypes about the kind of person who owns these dogs are  propagated by people who are invested in a certain belief, who are not paying attention to the world around them.

  • Me

    It would be interesting to know why pit bulls (or pit bull types) are sterilized less frequently.

  • JuliaDog

    There’s money in breeding them in the inner cities for all the wrong reasons. Period.

    Make no mistake, however, ALL dogs that are adopted out directly from the PA SPCA or other rescue organizations do not go to their new homes UNTIL they are spayed or neutered. When my wife and I adopted our pit-mix from Philly PAWS, we had to wait for a few days until the volunteer vets were scheduled to spay/neuter all of the pets that had been adopted.

  • Yoyoyo

    People breed dogs for money. In the inner city a pit bull breeder can make hundreds of dollars off a litter. I would say also because of their reputation they have a more frequent percentage of irresponsible owners. People let their dogs roam unaltered and they come back pregnant.

  • Brenndymary

    We got our pit-mix almost 2 years ago as a puppy, he was kept in a car in over 100 degree weather and was just a tiny puppy, the people that had the puppies were cashing in cans and trying to sell them for 50.00 and I paid the lady 20 in hopes she would get herself something to eat or whatever, Milo is indeed a loving furry friend, and in many ways so glad he came into our lives, except we have some friends who now really are type set against pit types as it was in their minds before but saw Milo go after our old dog Jasper who is a cocker mix and hurt him, all this right in front of them as they were leaving their old black lab with us to watch for a month, could you imagine how we felt? But Milo adores their dog Tank and is like a blubbering sod in trying to get Tank to notice him, it is so cute. We have no issue with Milo and our other dog Izzabel(germanshep/heeler mix) or any other dog that has come into our home, just Jasper but Jasper has never really been all there in the head and even at 13 still thinks he is a puppy. We love all our animals, 3 dogs/3 cats and Milo is not yet 2 but we are always amazed at how much he brings to our family, esp our son who Milo sleeps with each night. If only our friends could see the side of Milo we see each and every day, and sad part is now we no longer get to watch good old Tank. And we arent anywhere near DC, We in fact live all the way over in good ol’ Oregon state. Stereotyping any breed in my opinion is strong with people, people who can not let themselves be educated and most importantly- open minded to the fact it has and always will fall down to one thing, it is how you raise them. Just like us raising good responsible children, we also need to raise our furry children as good respsonsible pets. I can tell you that each one of our furry babies, cats too, have their own personalities(and we love each one for that reason)and that is what is part of defining them as furry individuals, so to speak. The rest is up to us as their people or as their humans, how ever you want to see it as. We have another neighbor friend that when he saw we had Milo, asked us are you going to get him liscenced? To me I was like what kind of question is that to ask us? Of course we did, and how I did it? My kids and I walked Milo proudly to the city hall and as they sat outside with him laying in the grass, I got him all squared away, and they loved watching him out the window and I was proud to hear things like how gorgeous he was and a few chuckles here and there as they watched him lick the kids and bounce all over. Here is another thing, the other day I went to pick up my son’s friend, they have 2 chi’s and when my son went to pat one, it darn right tried to bite him! So go figure if you must, I’d much rather have thought the dog would have been a sweetheart but it’s not. And that is because of how they raised the dog, simple opinion there. As a human race, we need to educate ourselves over and over in regards to stereo typing animals, period.

  • Brismo15

    i love pitbulls!

  • Corey

    Because there are a lot of people that think they can make $ selling puppies . I know a few of these people the sad fact is most of the puppies end up in shelters. I have 2 rescued pit bull types ,I LOVE them they are the BEST Dogs.

  • Jocey

    I first thought pit bulls were an aggressive type of dog, now after having my Chico for four years i think differently. Keep educating us Anna.

  • Boopdoop

    We adopted our pitbull-type from the WHS last year! They are affectionate, intelligent, and above all, charismatic dogs, and unfortunately they are being euthanized by the thousands every week because of irresponsible breeding and irresponsible news coverage. Thank you so much WAMU for bringing attention to this incredibly important issue.