Changing the Code: What Makes a Dog "Vicious?"

Sep 4, 2014

In Des Moines, Pit Bulls, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire terriers are defined as vicious breeds, even if they have no aggressive history.

But Des Moines city code could change in the near future, based on evidence currently being gathered by a city council appointed task force.

Des Moines resident, Christine Pardee, is trying to change the ordinance to what she says would be a more effective way to reduce dog bites and aggression. Pardee argues that "breed specific legislation" needlessly vilifies certain breeds, while any dog breed can act out aggressively. She says that the real responsibility for a vicious dog lies with the owner.

What Christine proposes:

  • Adopting breed-neutral language in the city code
  • Increasing penalties and fines for neglectful and abusive dog owners
  • Adopting a reckless owner provision to the city code
  • Giving animal control greater authority when responding to incidents

The Pit Bull, Rottweiler Reputation

Perry, Ia. reversed its breed specific law back in 2012. Abby Benifiel, Director of the Humane Society of Perry, says the change has only produced positive results, with more dog owners registering their dogs with the city.

She says that Pit Bull types and Rottweilers get a bad reputation, simply because these larger breeds are capable of doing more damage with each bite. However, she insists that they are inherently friendly and non-aggressive dogs by nature, and the real problem is that aggressive breeds are more likely to be taken in by animal abusers and owners that neglect.

"If they are not getting all the things that your normal healthy Labrador gets, [aggression] is going to be encouraged...not trained out," she says. "That dog has no reason to trust anybody because it has never been exposed to the world."

Pitt Bull types still have a ways to go when it comes to changing their reputation, but the conversations being had in places like Des Moines, Altoona, and Perry are changing how people perceive the breed.

Pit Bull doing a trick in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1905
Credit Cecily Dyer

In this River to River segment, host Ben Kieffer also spoke with Matt Hill, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa, who studies the evolutionary origins of the modern dog.

"If you go back 50, 60, 100 years, Pit Bulls were classic family dogs."

He says that everyone from Mark Twain, Helen Keller, to President Woodrow Wilson owned a Pit Bull type.

"The research on aggressive attacks is not very good, and usually what you see related to these attacks are essentially poor ownership and control of the dog," Hill says.

"They are not very well socialized, they're often put in bad conditions, they're abused... It's not the dog's fault, it's really the owner's."