Some cities ban pit bulls, and have put thousands of the dogs to death.
Yet, in some police departments and, starting next month, some schools, rescue pit bulls aren't being put to death. They're being pulled out of the shelters and getting a tough new assignment: sniffing out drugs.
That's the surprising new twist in the long saga of America's most loved, feared and — many say — misunderstood type of dog.
For decades, police have used dogs to sniff out drugs in schools. Those dogs are typically German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois, dogs that were bred to work on farms or for personal protection. But, over the past few years, police forces have found that pit bulls are just as good at it.
And, now, years after pit bulls gained a fearsome reputation for biting and even killing kids, rescue pit bulls are about to be working inside two Texas public school districts.
"These dogs are going to protect kids, which is the exact opposite of the way the media has painted them, which is vicious," says Brad Croft, operations director of Universal K9 in San Antonio, which trains all different types of dogs, including these pit bulls. "They have excelled at this work. Absolutely excelled."
And yeah, yeah, since we know you’re wondering: he swears the dogs pose zero threat to the kids.
"Athena" is one of these dogs. She’s on the verge of being placed with the Dallas Independent School District Police Department, and her buddy "Peach" will work for the Ferris school district, 20 minutes south of Dallas.
"We might be able to show," says Robyn Harris, spokesperson for the Dallas ISD, "that these are not these vicious dogs that they are made out to be, but that they can be used in this useful direction."
People love pit bulls — and they hate them, and fear them.
Take Denver. Its pit bull ban has been called "the toughest in the nation." What prompted it? Well, in the 1980s, a 3-year-old boy was bitten to death, and a 58-year-old pastor said a pit bull knocked him down and started "ripping into his legs," one of more than a hundred attacks by pit bulls in just a few years.
But are these attacks typical of these kinds of dogs? And do all muscular dogs with square heads really deserve the doggie death penalty?
Maybe not. An excellent analysis by Westword found that pit bulls aren't the dogs doing most of the biting in Denver, and their bites aren't as severe as a a few other types of dogs, including fluffy Lhasa Apsos and cuddly weiner dogs. Regardless, Denver put 3,497 pit bulls to death, Westword estimated, between 1999 and 2009.
The bans are doubly dubious, pit bull lovers say, because there's no clear line between pit bull and not pit bull. Denver bans American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or "any dog exhibiting those distinguishing (physical) characteristics." Who decides? The staff of the Denver Animal Shelter. If they look at your dog and see a pit bull, you have to either ditch it or move out of the city.
Despite these snafus, the movement to ban pit bulls continues. Just two years ago, the Denver suburb of Aurora voted overwhelmingly to keep their pit bull ban in place. And, just this week in Brooklyn, a 5-year-old was mauled by a pit bull, which lead the New York Post to ask, "Is it time to ban pit bulls?"
A lot of people always see these bans and euthanizations as horrible mistakes. The reality show Pit Bulls and Parolees put a lovable face on the dogs, and the people who rescued them.
Croft, for one, says pit bulls, like most other dogs, can be trained to do good work, too. Over the past few years, pit bulls have worked sniffing drugs in police departments across the country, from Washington State to New York State. In the last two years alone, Croft says Universal K9 has trained 30 pit bulls for this purpose. They come from shelters around the United States.
"'At first, police depts were saying, 'No we can't do pit bulls, the perception is too bad,'" Croft says. “But their performance speaks for itself.” In his last five police dog training classes, full of many different types of dogs, "the top dog was always a pit bull." And because the pit bulls come from shelters, cops have seen the light. "We're giving these dogs away for free," Croft says. "Now it's starting to catch on. Police departments are saying, that's a hell of a deal."
One of those police departments is in Washougal, Washington, which had a drug-sniffing dog — now retired — named Shaka. "She was an awesome dog," says Sherry Montgomery, a code enforcement officer. As a drug sniffer, Montgomery said, "she was pretty successful." Other police departments say they've had the same success with their dogs, like Kiah In Poughkeepsie, New York, which Croft's outfit also trained.
Croft, in fact, has a charming analogy for these dogs, and why they can work in the schools — despite the perception that they can't.
"It's just like a kid with ADD," Croft says. Both ADD kids and pit bulls tend to be high-energy, excitable. "Those ADD kids are good kids. What they need is focus. Once you give a kid with ADD focus, they blow the other kids out of the water."
The same, he says, is true of pit bulls. In a few weeks, in Texas, the dogs will get a chance to show whether that's true.