I’m a 21-year-old who has seen dogs thousands of times, but I still melt every time I see a guide dog on campus.
While the service dogs-in-training are cute, I’ve noticed one theme: they’re the same. They’re either golden or black Labrador retrievers with the occasional poodle.
I don’t think this is fair to other dog breeds, specifically pit bulls, who are not put in such helpful positions due to their sensationalized bad reputation.
To help restore their reputation, service dog foundations should allow pit bull breeds to become guide dogs.
I emailed the Guide Dog Foundation, the organization that provides service dogs for University of Georgia students to train, about the topic. I received an email back from the Southeastern Guide Dog Foundation who said the SEGDF only uses retriever breeds, stating its decision to use the breed is based on the breed’s behavior, work ethic and reputation.
“SEGDF never wants the public to be afraid to approach our alumni and their guide/service dog. You can understand that with the bad reputation pit bulls carry that many people would be afraid of one of our students if they saw them with a pit bull,” wrote the SEGDF in an email. “SEGDF is not saying it is fair to judge a dog due to stigma; however, public perception is a key factor in deciding what breed makes a good working dog.”
While the SEGDF does say it is not fair to judge the dog by its stigma, it does just that by assuming people will be scared of a dog based on how it looks, not the yellow service jacket expressing the dog’s qualifications and high-quality training.
The power of myth
Such illogical perceptions of pit bull breeds aren’t new. Pit bulls got a bad rap as an inherently vicious dog with locking jaws who are aggressive toward people and other dogs, all of which is false according to PetFinder — one of the largest pet adoption services in America.
And yet, the bad reputation persists. The Supreme Court of Kansas call pit bulls “a public-health hazard.” In Georgia, four cities label pit bulls as “vicious” while another five ban or restrict pit bull breeds.
This stigma of pit bulls is widespread and institutionalized, despite its basis on the dogs supposed “genetics” and history of dog-fighting not holding up to scrutiny.
According to Bronwen Dickey, author of the book “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon,” “pit bull” is not a breed but rather a catch-all term for four dog breeds.
Those breeds are the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bully. But the label “pit bull” expands to include any mutt with a boxy head and short coat, according to Dickey.
Only the American bull terrier was specifically bred for dog fighting in 1889, according to Dickey. The other breeds were lumped in through time, so it’s unfair to say that all pit bulls were bred to fight.
The reported incidents of pit bull fatalities is also skewed. According to Dickey, the U.S. has 320 million people and 77-83 million dogs. The odds of being killed by any type of dog are one in 10 million.
While pit bulls are said to be the most likely dog to kill a human, pit bulls are the most misidentified at 40 percent, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. A dog’s appearance does not necessarily signify its genetic makeup.
If more dogs are said to be pit bulls when they’re not, of course that will raise the number of “pit bull” bites. How a dog is shaped pales in comparison to its socialization, living situation and mental state when it decides to bite a person.
When genetics and data fails, what’s left is people’s unfounded biases against the dogs appearance, not how it acts because of training. Barring a dog from a position based on looks alone, as the SEGDF states, is like barring a human based on how they look. And we all know how messed up that is.
Restoring a reputation
Other guide dog foundations aren’t letting stigma get in the way of making an excellent service dog.
The Animal Farm Foundation in New York trains shelter dogs as mobility, active task work, hearing alert or psychiatric service dogs with no cost to people with disabilities. If necessary, they work within the legal system to end breed-specific legislation.
Most of the dogs in training are of pit bull breeds, showing that how a dog looks bears no weight in their ability to help others. It’s a shame that outdated stereotypes still hinders pit bulls from their full potential, but the tide is turning for those dogs.
Pit bull advocates have been fighting against discrimination against pit bulls by supporting their beloved dogs. Cameron Paschal, a junior biology major who feels an intimate bond with his pit Angel, thinks the service dog ban on pit bulls is ridiculous.
Paschal agrees that pit bulls should be service dogs, as he thinks the dogs are protective, loving and smart, and have the ability to accomplish great feats if trained properly. To Paschal, barring pit bulls would be like banning cars because a few non-safe drivers killed another person.
“Pit bulls get a lot of hate from their reputations as aggressive and mean dogs, but from my experience they are only as bad as their owners. [The dogs] are not the problem, it is the owners and the way [the dogs] are treated,” Paschal said.
Humans have bred dogs for the past 14,000 years to respond to human speech and emotion. Dogs are the animals most aligned with human desires, which is why we bond with them unlike any other animal species.
“I’ve treated my dog with the most love, support and respect I can give,” Paschal said. “In return, she’s become my best friend that will be there to love and protect me no matter what.”
As Paschal asserts and the Animal Farm Foundation demonstrates, pit bulls are as capable of service as any other dog breed.
The only hurdle to pit bulls is outdated stigma and baseless fear against them. We need to treat pit bulls with humanity and let them achieve their full potential.