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Pet or threat? Pit bull attack on child fans debate over breed
Experts say training, spay/neuter are key factors in dogs' behavior
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Bean, a 2-year-old pit bull mix, is one of the dogs that fall under the “bully breed” title at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia. Bully breed is an umbrella term that includes a variety of large-boned, stout-structured breeds of dogs. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Dog-friendly advice

• Get your dog spayed or neutered to lessen aggressive behavior

• Socialize them properly and get them used to being around people, children and other animals

• Never leave young children unsupervised with any dog

Source: Humane Society of Northeast Georgia

Ruben makes the staff at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia chuckle when he sprawls on the floor to play with a toy and spreads his hind legs like a frog.

The playful posture is characteristic of dogs commonly lumped into the pit bull family. A frisky and energetic 3-year-old, Ruben is a “bully breed” mix who has been at the Humane Society since November. The friendly and happy dog is still waiting to be adopted.

“There is a stigma attached to this breed, sometimes unfairly so,” said Julie Edwards, executive director at the Humane Society.

“I’ve found that some of the best dogs we’ve had through here are what people would consider pit bulls.”

That negative stigma and debate surrounding these dogs intensified Tuesday when a 5-year-old girl was attacked and seriously injured at her Gainesville home. The Hall County Sheriff’s Office described the three dogs taken out of the house as pit bull-mix breeds. The girl is recuperating from her injuries.

In the seven years she’s been with the Humane Society, Edwards said only a handful of dogs have been euthanized for bad or aggressive behavior, and none have been “bully breeds.”

A historical study archived by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, looked at “dog bite-related fatalities in the United States from 1979-1998. Of the 238 fatalities recorded during the 20-year period reviewed, almost one-third of the deaths, 76, were attributed to pit bull-type dogs. Rottweilers were involved in 44 deaths, and German shepherds connected with 27.

The report also found that “most victims were children.”

However, the report’s researchers cautioned that although the fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem, they point out that “other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates.”

The list of bully breeds include the American Staffordshire terrier, bulldog, bull terrier, American bulldog, bullmastiff, Boston terrier and boxer, according to

A position paper by the ASPCA said today’s pit bull is “a descendent of the original bull-baiting dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears and other large animals around the face and head.”

These larger, slower bull-baiting dogs were eventually crossed with smaller, quicker terriers to produce a more agile and athletic dog for fighting other dogs, the ASPCA asserts.

However, the organization points out that the pit bull type dogs in our communities today are the result of random breeding.

“The result of random breeding is a population of dogs with a wide range of behavioral predisposition,” the ASPCA position paper concludes. “For this reason, it is important to evaluate and treat each dog, no matter what its breed, as an individual.”

Whitney White said she’s constantly monitoring her 2-year-old son’s behavior around her two full-blooded bulldogs and Rottweiler mix that she keeps in the house. The dogs range in age from 2 to 7, and each weighs between 65 to 85 pounds.

White, who spays and neuters animals at the Humane Society, had her three dogs altered when they were very young.

White said sometimes it’s her son who needs the training and not the dogs.

“My son walks up and goes to step on one’s tail on purpose,” she said. “(The dog) turned around and nipped at him just to correct him. I corrected my child. It’s not the dog’s fault. ... I’ve got to show my child that we can’t hurt them, we can’t hit them, they’re going to bite at you. It’s not their fault. He has to learn manners. He has to learn we respect our animals.”

White advises all dog owners to do their research and have their pets interact with people, children and other animals as soon as they are fully vaccinated.

White will let her son, Reed, hand a treat to the dogs every night before he goes to bed.

“We call the dogs in, get them in the room, they all do a sit, and Reed hands out little treats with me right there,” White said. “There’s a little bit of respect and they can’t snap at his hand. They have to eat gentle and he’s learned that word. He says ‘gentle’ and he hands it and they take it gentle as can be. But you’ve got to be there to let that happen.”

Hall County keeps records on all dog bite cases, according to county spokeswoman Katie Crumley. She said 378 bite cases were reported in 2016.

The CDC reports that more than 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. Of those encounters, 20 to 30 of them result in death, according to the CDC.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta also gets its share of dog bite injuries, according to spokeswoman Amanda Wade. She said that in 2016, CHOA had 86 visits for injuries resulting from a dog bite or a dog attack, but could not say how many of those involved pit bull or bully breeds.

Tracy Fain, whose 7-year-old son Ethan was attacked by her neighbor’s dogs, publicly shared her experience after Ethan was treated at Children’s healthcare of Atlanta.

“My husband and I rushed outside to find a horrifying sight — our son on the opposite side of the fence at the mercy of the dogs,” Fain wrote in a blog she called “My son survived a dog attack: Tips from a mom who learned the hard way.”

“Our sweet boy was bloodied, with one ear hanging off and the other gone,” she wrote. “His body was covered in bite marks, and he was in and out of consciousness.”

Crumley said calls related to dog bites or loose dogs in a neighborhood are treated like any call for service that comes into the dispatch center.

“When a call comes in to Animal Control, it is logged and then sent to the appropriate officer that works the district in which the call originates,” Crumley said. “Once the officer receives the call, he or she responds accordingly.”

Such a call came to dispatch Tuesday when 5-year-old Kadence Johnson was bitten at his Gainesville home.

The child’s mother, Jessica Johnson, said her children have grown up with dogs.

“They’ve never done anything like this,” the mother told The Times.

Johnson said her daughter walked out through the back door toward the pit bulls. A family member posted online that the three dogs were euthanized.

Edwards said pet owners sometimes forget that dogs are instinctual animals.

“You can leave the room for a minute, and we’ve seen it happen plenty of times, and something unfortunate happens,” Edwards said.