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Worcester’s Pit Bull Law Making Dogs More Aggressive

Monday, March 26, 2012


Zara has become more aggressive since wearing the muzzle

By law, pit bulls must be muzzled on public property in the city of Worcester, something that owners and experts say can actually make dogs more aggressive.

Almost a year has passed since Worcester put a law into place that causes pit bull owners in the city to comply with some strict regulations, some of which may be detrimental and misguided. The ordinance, which was passed unanimously by the Worcester City Council, faced backlash from local owners and is still causing issues.

The document titled, “An Ordinance Amending the Dog Control Provisions of the Revised Ordinances to Include Requirements for Responsible Pit Bull Ownership,” was put into effect April 1, 2011 and accuses pit bulls of having inherently aggressive behavior, including “powerful instincts for dominance which naturally results in a proclivity for fighting,” “prey drive,” and “natural chase instinct.” It was modeled after Boston’s Responsible Pit Bull Ownership ordinance.

Muzzle the Owner, Not the Dog

“It’s not the breed. It’s generations of breeding them like that. It’s not like they come out of the womb wanting to bite someone. People teach them to do that,” says local pit bull owner, Marcus De Vito. His dog, which was rescued from behind a local dumpster, has gotten more aggressive from the muzzle now required by law on public property.

“In all honesty, I think they’re handling it the wrong way,” he said. “If you’re going to call this breed dangerous, I wouldn’t allow just anyone to have them. They’re relying on people following this law to keep people safe.”

De Vito found his pit bull, Zara, behind a dumpster at UMass Memorial Hospital. She was timid and felt defenseless. She was scared of people. De Vito worked with Zara and has helped her overcome a lot of her aversion to people, but the ordinance against his dog has stunted this progress.

“Initially when I started using the muzzle, she would growl,” he said. “Two weeks after I got her they passed the ordinance. Since Zara has a history of being timid around people, putting this muzzle on her makes her powerless. I know she’s not a biter. She just growls because she’s nervous. When she has it on, she feels defenseless.”

In De Vito’s case the law made his dog act more aggressively against people, but he knows that there has to be some measure against a breed that has aggressive tendencies. But De Vito thinks the owners should be punished – not the dogs.

Asking the Experts

Capone's owner worries the puppy will change with the muzzle

“The Pit bull law is misguided,” said Emily Smith, Worcester County resident and veterinarian at VCA South Shore Animal Hospital in Weymouth. “It is not about a breed. It is an overgeneralization. It isn’t about one type of dog. Some German Shepards can be very aggressive.”

During the hearings to pass the ordinance, city councilors argued that pit bulls are especially aggressive, but Smith believes that the law is not a solution and that muzzling them will not help the issue.

“Each dog acts differently with the muzzle on. Some will calm down and others can be more aggressive,” she said. “We do use them in our office to protect people and their dogs, when necessary.”

Smith also spoke about the reaction that others have to a muzzled dog and the reputation and aggression that it perpetuates.

“People react differently when they see a dog muzzled. Dogs notice that and it can make them more aggressive. The dog is reacting to them being more afraid.”

When city council was still debating the law last year, the Worcester Animal Rescue League also took a stance against breed-specific laws.

The City’s Reasoning

The ordinance brought heavy argumentation from residents when it was passed last year.

Councilors have said that the ordinance was not against the dog, but the breed, which is believed to be dangerous. The breed has been responsible for a high percentage of the city’s registered dog bites.

Boston has had such an ordinance in place for five years.

A Better Solution

“They need to protect the dog from people who will breed them to be aggressive,” De Vito said. “It’s like a pistol permit. You have to take a class on how to handle it before you get one.” He believes that if owners of dangerous breeds were required to take a class on how to handle them before getting the dog, many of the problems caused by the ordinance could be avoided.

 “[The law is] the more simple solution, but it’s not the best,” he said.

“I’m not so much against the ordinance. There has to be some control on breeds like this, but without a training class, there needs to be a muzzle. But there has to be some sort of control. Put the control on the people rather than the dog.”

The ordinance states, “at all times when a pit bull is away from the private property of the owner-keepers, specifically including but in no way limited to the streets, sidewalks, parks, and playgrounds of the city, all owner-keepers shall ensure that the pit bull is either (a) wearing a muzzle and adequately and securely led and leashed by a person with the clear ability to physically control/restrain the leashed pit bull, or, (b) in a secure temporary enclosure.”

Inherent Aggression?

Local owner, Nicole Lopez isn’t looking forward to making her pit bull puppy, Capone, wear a muzzle and thinks that the problematic ordinance is targeted to single out the dog and the owners.

“I am wondering how a muzzle will affect his behavior. I think once Capone is older, and we are forced to muzzle him, he will not end up liking it,” Lopez said.

Lopez is firmly against the ordinance and the belief that the breed is naturally aggressive.

“Pit bulls are not inherently aggressive. This is a major myth. As an owner of a pit bull, I think it is very important that stringent rules are put in place in order to effectively raise an obedient dog,” she said. “I would say that training pit bulls can be more challenging compared to other breeds, but again it’s due to the characteristics of the pit bull breed not because of any inherent aggressiveness.”

“Personally I think that these laws are targeted more towards pit bull owners who tend to be low-income and of color. Yes, there are bad dog owners who take advantage of the dog’s loyalty and eagerness to please in order to train their dogs to be aggressive,” she said. Lopez is fed up with laws being placed on good dogs, and wants the ordinance to instead focus on bad ownership.

Other Stipulations

The law requires that pit bull owners pay an additional $50 fee and post signs on their property indicating they own a pit bull.

All dogs in the city must be licensed and registered with the City Clerk, but a pit bull’s ascribed characteristics brought about regulations specific to pit bulls including the use of muzzles on public property and limitations to how many pit bulls an owner is allowed to have at one time.

The document states, “In no event, however, may more than two pit bulls may be registered, licensed, stored, housed, sheltered, or in any way located at a single household, except that puppy pit bulls less than nine weeks old shall not be included for the sole purpose of this two-animal restriction.”


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