By Jarissa Aquinde, Positively Woof Rescue and Adoption Story Editor
As a veterinarian who owns two pit bull mixes, I have both an insider and outsider’s perspective. My dogs are loving, smart and funny. But like any dog, they are not perfect: Laika can be dog reactive, and Tembo is currently dealing with mobility issues.
Living and working with bully breed dogs helps me understand their behavior at home, in shelters, and at the clinic. I am an emergency veterinarian, but also spend time at the local animal control facility about once a month, admittedly to pet a bunch of cute pit bulls.
Most people know that a “pit bull” is a general description of a group of dogs that are mixed with breeds including the American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and others. They are not one specific breed, and therefore, their potential health problems are diverse. I see them in the ER for everything from vomiting to ear infections.
When a pitty comes into the ER, my nurse usually starts with “you’re going to love this dog,” but sometimes the sentence ends with “but he’s very nervous” or “you’ll need a muzzle.” This isn’t specific to pit bulls. In general with large, muscular dogs we try to prevent injuries by respecting the dog’s space.
My favorite clients are ones with challenging dogs who know their limitations. They own their own muzzle that the dog is already trained to be comfortable in. Often times, they come ready with training treats. These clients can explain their dogs behavioral concerns and often know the best ways to approach handling to keep stress to a minimum for everybody involved.
Another variety of pit bull patient includes unsocialized dogs. These dogs can be common in New York City. They are cared for but often do not leave their home or yard and have not been socialized with other people or dogs. For these dogs, I typically speak with the client (with the dog in the room on a leash, or without the dog). I can observe the dog, but require sedation to perform a physical exam, diagnostics, and treatment. For sedation, I try to talk the owner through restraint, as the dog will likely be less stressed being held by their person. I’ve even talked people through sedating their own dogs via intramuscular injection if I cannot enter the room safely. Understandably, this is not ideal for the pet, as sedating a pet without an exam can be dangerous. However, these dogs require medical treatment as much as any dog and we make it work with skilled nurses and helpful owners.
Of course the final and most common type of pit bull in my ER is the lovely one. They greet me happily, allow a full exam, and wag their tails sweetly while being poked and prodded for the testing and treatments that they need. These dogs are much more common than not, and I gush over them accordingly. Again, it is important to remember that all dogs are individuals and I approach them each individually.
The shelter atmosphere is a very different one. Safety is of the utmost importance because of the number of pets coming through the shelter system and their unknown vaccination status. Animal control officers are trained in animal handling, and sometimes are required to deal with the most aggressive dogs and cats. There is a high percentage of pitbull-type dogs at the facility, though almost any breed can be found including English Bulldogs, Alaskan Huskies, and Yorkshire Terriers.
All dogs entering the shelter system receive a full exam by a veterinarian, vaccines, flea/tick preventative and dewormer. They must also be cleared for spay/neuter surgery (and rarely mass removal, hernia repair, etc. if needed). At the shelter, there is a full time animal behaviorist employed who evaluates each individual animal and labels them with a general behavior code. As a veterinarian, I am required to label them with a second code based on their medical behavior. The system for both codes is (published by ACC Behavior Designation July 2011):
GREEN animals were relaxed, easy to handle, and who showed no concerning behavior during the exam.
BLUE animals were tense and nervous but mostly still and relatively easy to handle during the exam.
YELLOW animals were nervous, actively resisted examination, and required the use of restraint equipment or techniques, but did not exhibit aggressive behaviors during the exam.
ORANGE animals required the use of restraint techniques and/or equipment and did exhibited aggressive behaviors during the exam.
RED animals exhibited severe aggression and required the use of significant restraint and/or sedation during the exam.
These behavior codes allow staff to recommend the types of homes that are best suited to adopt certain pets. This includes beginner home, average home, experienced home with specific counseling, no children, rescue partner placement only, or not available for placement. They are also posted on each animal’s cage to allow for appropriate handling. If I see a dog labeled green, I will often go in by myself and do what I need to with the friendly dog. If I see a yellow, I will ask for help from a handler.
My experience with the staff and veterinarians at the animal control facility is that they are very intuitive with dog behavior and many of them have adopted pit bulls from the facility. In fact, their “Staff Favorite of the Week” is most commonly a lovable large pitty. In addition, statistics published by the shelter do not break up dogs into breeds, but treat every dog as an individual amongst their statistics. These statistics are designed by the rescue community to measure a shelter’s success.
Evaluating each dog individually is hugely important for giving them as fair an opportunity as possible to find a good home. This is because being labeled a “pit bull” is often seen as a detriment, when really, as most pit bull owners know, these dogs are very loyal, gentle, affectionate, and gosh darn adorable.
Happy Pit Bull Awareness Month!
Dr. Dog Mom
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