Roughly a year after being attacked by a neighborhood dog, Kathleen Foster is still recovering.
In an attack on June 11, 2012, Foster was bitten on her torso and both legs — causing serious injury — as she and other family members stood in her then-driveway at 358 30th St. Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids.
But even with a lawsuit pending against the dog owners and their landlord, the 45-year-old said she doesn’t think pit bulls should get the blame for what happened to her. In fact, she has one of her own.
“I want people to know that … pit bulls are not to blame, they’re not an aggressive dog,” Foster said. “Really, it all has to do with their owners.”
Foster said Cain — her pit bull-staffordshire terrier mix, in a way has become her service dog since the attack by helping to calm her anxiety when she encounters an unleashed dog on the sidewalk.
“He’s bonded with me so much that he can sense when something is not right with me,” Foster said. “… I’ve never had a bond like this before with a dog. Something about him — he’s just very awesome.”
Foster said she fears the breed will get unwarranted blame and attention.
Nature or nurture?
Experts say both genetics and training can play a role in a dog’s aggression toward people and other animals.
Diane Webber, manager of Cedar Rapids Animal Control, said serious attacks requiring medical attention do happen, but they’re rare. Though the public often hears of pit bulls being responsible for dog bite and attack incidents, Webber said attacks happen involving all sizes and breeds of dogs.
“It’s pretty much across the board, it can be anything,” Webber said. “We’ve had labs declared dangerous, we’ve had shepherds declared dangerous, we’ve definitely had some pit bull and pit bull mixes. But they can also be the sweetest dogs in the world, so there isn’t any one breed that’s more prevalent than the other.”
Webber said pit bulls often get a bad rap because of the way some owners choose to raise them and, when they do bite, they can cause significant damage.
Penny Colby, a dog trainer at Cedar Run Pet Boarding and Daycare in Hiawatha, said genetics can play a role in some cases, but training can help any dog. Socialization early on — dog to dog, dog to environment, and dog to people — can help reduce aggressive behavior by ensuring a dog is exposed to different places outside the home, unfamiliar people and other animals.
That exposure, Colby said, helps teach a dog that they don’t need to react to certain things.
But even if that socialization doesn’t begin when the dog is a puppy, as it should, training helps everything, she added.
“No dog is too old to be helped, no dog is too old to be trained,” said Colby, who has been training dogs for the past 15 years and owns 6 canines herself.
Though Colby said she believes aggression comes more from the way a dog is nurtured than its genetics, she said some breeds, such as pit bulls, often get more attention because of the way they’ve been bred to fight in the past, and because some breeders don’t socialize the dogs they breed.
Webber said some dog owners or breeders even may do that intentionally.
“Oftentimes the individuals who choose to own or breed pit bulls, they want them to be tough because they are a status symbol and that, unfortunately, is why the dog gets a bad rap,” Webber said.
When animals attack
After an animal attack, officials with Cedar Rapids Animal control first check to make sure the animal has a valid rabies vaccination, then begin an investigation into the cause of the attack, determining whether the animal was provoked. A provoked attack, for example, could occur if a person was entering an individual’s home or fenced-in yard without permission.
After investigating how the incident transpired, Animal Control makes a determination on whether the dog is dangerous or potentially dangerous.
If a dog is deemed potentially dangerous, the owner is warned and Animal Control can require the animal be neutered, if it isn’t already. The owner of a potentially dangerous dog also can be required to keep the dog in a secure enclosure and muzzle it when it is off the owner’s property.
If a dog is cited as being dangerous, it’s held with Animal Control until the court makes a ruling. Because dangerous dogs are not allowed within Cedar Rapids city limits, as well as most other jurisdictions, an animal ruled as dangerous is typically euthanized because no other place will allow it.
Cedar Rapids Code defines a dangerous animal is as any animal that attacks, bites or has a history of attacking a human being or other domestic animal more than once without being provoked, any animal engaging in or found to have been trained to engage in exhibitions of fighting, and any animal previously declared potentially dangerous that bites a human without being provoked.
What’s on the books
To deal with animal attacks, some communities have turned to breed-specific legislation, which make it illegal for a person to own a particular breed of dog, such as a pit bull, within city limits.
But both Webber and Colby said that type of law — which singles out one breed of animal — doesn’t reduce dog bites, attacks and incidents because dogs of all breeds can express aggression if they aren’t trained properly.
“It’s just not fair to the pit bull or the pit bull owner or the people who want to be a pit bull owner,” Colby said.
Cedar Rapids does not have any breed-specific legislation. The city does, however, enforce leash laws that require dog owners to keep their pets on a leash, otherwise facing fines. Most Iowa municipalities have opted to ban vicious dogs rather than specific breeds.
Though some breed and appearance-specific legislation remains throughout Iowa, Stefanie Filer, a spokeswoman for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, said the trend is moving from regulating dogs based on appearance to regulating dogs based on behavior — similar to the code Cedar Rapids has in place.
Less than 4 percent of cities nationwide have an appearance-based dog ban, and less than 10 percent have an appearance-based regulation, Filer said. In 2012, more cities repealed or rejected breed-specific legislation than adopted it on a national scale, she noted.
Filer said few Iowa cities have appearance-based regulations and bans, and most that do are small communities.
As issues arise, Filer has worked with city councils across the state to look at their ordinances and determine whether they are proactive enough. Waterloo, for example, recently took another look at it’s regulations after a bout of dog attacks.
But Webber and Colby said the best way to prevent these incidents from occurring is for owners to take responsibility for and have control over their animals.
“If you’re going to own a dog be responsible for it, have up to date rabies vaccinations, and get them some good training so they obey your commands,” Webber said.