Your chances of dying in a dog attack are roughly one in 116,448. Your chances of dying in a hot dog attack, on the other hand, are roughly one in 3,375. And yet, only one type of dog has been banned in Yakima County for the past 30 years, and it ain't the one that's surprisingly delicious with cream cheese. Rather, it's pit bulls.
Under local law, it is "unlawful to keep, or harbor, own or in any way possess a pit bull dog within the city of Yakima." Violations can result in a minimum fine of $250 for the first offense and $500 for every offense thereafter. There are some exceptions to the ordinace—such as for service pit bulls—but even service pits can only reside in Yakima under strict conditions: They must be kept either inside or outside in a six-walled enclosure. If an unlawful pit bull is discovered within the city limits, the animal will be detained by animal control, impounded, and implanted with a microchip to make subsequent identification easier. They are not welcome, these blocky headed beasts, but that could change soon. The City Council is scheduled to vote Monday evening on whether or not to rescind the 30-year ban on pit bulls and the dogs that look kind of like them.
That's one of the problems with pit bull bans. "Pit bull," according to pit bull advocates, is an ambiguous term, and the specific breeds thought of as pit bulls have changed and shifted over the years. Currently, pits include the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the American bulldog, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and an array of mixes that may be part bulldog or part terrier.
Today, these dogs are often considered as inherently dangerous—and it is true that pit bulls have very strong bodies and are frequently the dog of choice for dog fighters—but many pit owners say these dogs are sweet, loyal, and no more likely to maim your child than any other breed on the street. And data largely backs this up: While there are plenty of anti-pit bull advocacy groups willing to feed you unreliable statistics on pit bull attacks (see: dogsbite.org, a thinly-veiled anti-pit bull group frequently cited by the media), controlled studies have not shown that pits are more dangerous than other large breeds.
The American Veterinary Medical Association reviewed the literature and data on dog attacks, and found that German shepherds are the most highly represented in attacks, followed by mixed breeds, then pit bulls, Rottweilers, and Jack Russell terriers in that order. Perhaps surprisingly, small to medium-sized dogs, like collies, toy breeds, and spaniels, were found to be the most aggressive breeds, but because they have cute little teeth and jaws you could break with a swift kick to the noggin, they are less likely to do serious damage. The prevalence of dog attacks, the researchers note, has much to do with spikes in dog breed popularity. So, the more, say, toy poodles you see roaming the streets, the more toy poodle attacks will be reported.
Overall, the researchers found, it's not the breed that determines whether or not a dog is likely to attack so much as the dog's (and victim's) personality, as well as training, context, and the setting in which the attack occurs. "Given that breed is a poor sole predictor of aggressiveness and pit bull-type dogs are not implicated in controlled studies it is difficult to support the targeting of this breed as a basis for dog bite prevention," the study authors wrote. (But if any breed should be banned, if would be the German shepherd, followed by the French bulldog for other, more humanitarian and aesthetic reasons.)
Of course, regardless of what the data says, people have strong feelings about pits—both pro-pit and anti. Bronwen Dickey, a journalist and the author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, was threatened by pit bull haters after her book came out so frequently that she needed a police escort while on book tour. Dickey is a journalist, not an advocate, but she does point out the problems with pit bull bans. For one thing, they are kinda racist, and, according to the stats, not totally based in fact. If we banned all the good boys and girls who ripped off their owners' faces, there goes golden retrievers, Labradors, and even Dachshund mixes, seven of which attacked and killed a woman in Oklahoma this year.
I asked Dickey (full disclosure: we're internet friends and my dad wrote a blurb for her book) why pits inspire such strong reactions, and she said: "That’s a giant question. But, for the most part, pit bulls inspire such strong feelings because many people consider them violent automatons or proxies for groups of humans they find frightening. Others view them as 'unwanted' outcasts or victims of cruelty. In truth, this is an enormous, highly popular group of dogs, and they’re just as diverse as we are."
However, it's not only the pit bull haters who sometimes foam at the mouth: The Stranger is still getting angry e-mails in response to David Schmader's classic guide on "How to Defeat a Pit Bull with Your Bare Hands" (and the follow-up, "How to Defeat Someone Made Furious by 'How to Defeat a Pit Bull with Your Bare Hands'") a full eight years after it was published. I would not be entirely surprised if Schmader is on some kind of hit list—although, hot dogs are far more deadly than pit bulls, so his enemies might want to stock up on Nathan's Famous.
If you have feelings on Yakima's pit bull pan one way or the other, here is your chance to speak up: the City Council meeting starts at 6:30 Monday evening at Yakima City Hall, but be warned: Your pit bull probably ain't welcome. At least, not in Yakima yet.