Richmond dog experts share opinions on controversial breed as pet

Chris Wood
Contributing Writer

After the fatal mauling of a Maryland woman in early September by a pit bull — just two weeks after adopting the rescue dog — some people are questioning if pit bull breeds are too dangerous for the public.

Robin Conway, 64, was found dead in her backyard after being attacked by her own pet. The Columbia, Md., police said the dog had no abnormalities after its necropsy, a post-mortem examination. Conway’s death was one of the most recent examples of why some current and prospective dog owners are apprehensive toward the breed. Richmonders are no strangers to this debate.

There are even local kennel companies, such as Diamond Doghouse located off North Boulevard, that have started banning services for pit bulls due to their apparent aggressive behavior.

Pit bull owner Alli Sweeten said although she has admittedly noticed some aggressive aspects of her pet, she does not feel threatened.

“Sometimes he really doesn’t understand how big he is and just tramples through everything,” Sweeten said, whose pitbull is an American Staffordshire terrier. “Another thing is strangers — he’s sweeter than sugar with me but, [around] another person that he’s unfamiliar with, he gets very loud. He barks at people, but never growls, so people get scared.”

The American Temperament Test Society is a “nonprofit organization that promotes behavioral assessments of dogs for potentially dangerous traits,” according to its website. ATTS’ research has shown that different types of pit bulls which were tested have high pass rates — denoting good behavior — across the board. The American pit bull terrier scored 87.3 percent, the American Staffordshire terrier 85.5 percent and the Staffordshire bull terrier 90.9 percent.

In the early 20th century, pit bulls were referred to as “nanny dogs” because wealthy families used them to protect their children, according to licensed breeder Gayle Dreifke. But this was just one of their many jobs.

“They actually guarded our troops while they were hiding so enemies wouldn’t come up and shoot them while they looked for refuge,” Dreifke said. “They gave [the dogs] bronze medals for that in World War II.”

However, Dreifke said some modern dog breeders specifically breed pit bulls to make them violent.

Animal care organizations are taking steps to destigmatize pit bulls as violent creatures. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stated in its blog that the organization does not name breeds partly due to the stigmatization that comes along with dogs like pit bulls — which sometimes stops potential adopters from considering certain companions.

Richmond SPCA Director of Communications Tabitha Treloar also said a for-profit breeders can contribute to aggression in pit bulls and other common rescue breeds.  

“It was so very clearly an attempt to buy to someone who profits from breeding purebred dogs to stigmatize not just pit bulls, but all rescue dogs,” Treloar said. “The counter-marketing is to demonize rescue dogs.”

Treloar said a dog’s looks are not a predictor of action.

“We really focus on all of adopters meeting the pet as an individual and learning about them, seeing how they interact, and if that’s going to fit in their family,” Treloar said. “Most of what we’re trying to communicate is that, just as each of us are an individual, every dog is an individual and they don’t deserve to be judged by their outward appearance, but by their actions.”

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