Monique Baiss wasn’t always a fan of the American Pit Bull Terrier.
“I heard they were unpredictable. I heard they were killers … I was terrified,” she said.
But when her fianc brought home Bear, their 1-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier – considered an American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) by United Kennel Club standards – everything changed.
Now, Baiss is promoting the breed that is at risk in Florida because of House Bill 543, which aims to overturn a state law that prohibits counties from banning specific breeds. If passed, pit bulls could be the first breed banned in most of the state.
Miami-Dade County already passed an ordinance that prohibits the breed, claiming they are a risk to residents.
“I think it’s just a feel-good law,” said Baiss, a senior majoring in communications. “I think it’s something to make people feel good about themselves – feel safe. It’s a people problem.”
But what people don’t realize, she said, is that pit bulls aren’t dangerous. That’s something Baiss has been trying to dismiss ever since she started researching the breed.
What started as curiosity turned into a research project for her Directed Study class and a personal mission.
“I went online and did a bunch, a bunch of research,” Baiss said, “and to my amazement there’s so much out there. That’s what was shocking to me was that there’s so much out there, but nobody knows it.”
And that’s in part, she said, to biased media coverage, which focuses on negative stories about pit bulls.
Of the people Baiss interviewed for her research, she said, “not one of them really had any kind of negative experience with the breed. It was all based on what the media tells them.”
Pit bull owner Lisa Walker-Hutches, president of the Mid Florida American Pit Bull Terrier Association (MFAPBTA), said she has never experienced problems with the breed and the name, pit bull, has come to refer to a group of similar looking dogs and not the breed itself.
“If a dog has a blocky head, a broad chest and muscular build, then it’s automatically a pit bull,” she said. “And pit bulls are, by nature of the media … being a vicious, dangerous dog. But they’re not.”
To combat these misconceptions, Baiss quotes statistics and carries around her colorful “APBT Fieldwork”-labeled spiral notebook filled with notes, research and statistics on pit bulls.
“In 2009, shelter data said that pit bulls were 58 percent of the dogs euthanized in shelters,” Baiss said, reading from her notebook. “A third of (the pit bull population) end up in shelter in any given year.”
She cites websites like unitedagainstbsl.org that aim to inform the public about targeted breeds and errors in popular statistics.
Pit bulls actually score better with the American Temperament Testing Society – with a passing score of 83.4 percent – than Golden Retrievers and Collies, according to the site.
Another problem, Baiss said, is the breed is often grouped together with breeds like Rottweilers and mixes, creating a misleading number of actual pit bull attacks.
Media coverage is often inaccurate, Baiss said, because of skewed statistics and misidentification.
“A lot of things that we see are pit bull mixes that are said to be pit bull but aren’t really pit bulls,” she said. “One of the animal control officers that I interviewed as part of my research told me that even his own officers misidentify the breed constantly. They labeled two Labradors and a dog that looked like the Benji dog as pit bulls.”
In coverage of a recent incident where a pit bull was blamed for the death of a 7-day-old infant in Pasco County, Baiss said Fox 13 in Tampa quoted statistics that put the breed in a bad light without mentioning other important information.
Fox cited a statistic saying pit bulls and Rottweilers make up 74 percent of dog attacks, the majority of which involve children.
Though Fox used this as the basis for the breed being violent, they did not mention what portion of that percentage accounted for pure bred pit bulls or how many deaths involved a human.
From 1965 to 2001, pit bulls were only held accountable for 2.48 human fatalities a year – less than most other breeds, according to unitedagainstbsl.org.
“Yes, pit bulls were used for dog fighting … but it is an important history to understand about the dog,” Baiss said. “Their reward for training (to fight) was to come in and play with the kids and to be around the family.”
Dog fighting was never to the death, she said, and was more of a gentlemanly sport. The dogs were only bred to fight each other. In fact, Baiss said, pit bulls are the only breed to have human aggression bred out.
“If … one puppy was human aggressive, that puppy was culled – meaning killed – and that dog that bred the puppy was never again allowed to breed.”
Pit bulls boast many other positive qualities, Baiss said, and are a popular therapy breed often used for search and rescue.
“They are wonderful dogs,” she said. “For the most part, they have the biggest potential to … have a very strong human bond.”
While Baiss isn’t sure why the media focuses on pit bulls, she believes it is a trend.
“You look back a couple years ago it was the Rottweiler, then it was the Doberman, then it was the German Shepard,” she said. “And this is a fad, unfortunately, and it’s not a very good fad for us pit bull owners.”
MFAPBTA, which has been in existence for 20 years, holds pit bull events throughout the year, and Baiss hopes they will soon be open to the public.
“That’s one of the goals of the campaign is to create more positive experiences between the public and American Pit Bull Terriers,” she said.
Walker-Hutches said any person who helps support the breed could have an impact in changing the stereotype.
“We might spend 12 days at the Florida State Fair, but if we change one or two minds – and we’re always successful in changing one or two minds – that’s success,” she said.
But it comes down to responsibility for dog owners, dog breeders and the media, Baiss said. Owners need to socialize their dogs – of all breeds – starting at a young age, register them with groups like the American Kennel Club and remember that dogs are still animals and can always be unpredictable.
“We tend to lose sight of that,” she said, “because we get so close to them. But at the end of the day, they’re still an animal.”
For more information about pit bulls and events, visit unitedagainstbsl.org or midfloridapitbulls.org.
“The behavior that needs to change is the behavior of the human because this is the most abused dog,” Baiss said. “The dog that has the most violence in his life … because it’s abused and it’s used for violent things when they have the greatest potential to do so many other things.”