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Brett Ashley McKenzie Headshot

Chicago Dog Lovers: Time to Step Up

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Last week, a pit bull in my neighborhood viciously attacked a small dog, nearly killing it. A neighbor informed me that about a year ago, the same pit bull actually killed another small dog, and that no charges had been pressed because the owners had been friends with one another.

I'm conflicted, because I've always been a dog lover, and have donated monthly to local shelters, the ASPCA, and the Humane Society. I email my state legislators to support bills that prohibit puppy mills and toughen up punishment for animal abusers and crack down on dog fighting. I know many pit bulls and similarly-termed "bully breed" dogs have been mishandled, contributing to their aggressive behavior.

But now, I own my first small-breed dog, a five-month old pug. My puppy thinks the whole world wants to be his friend, and he bounces up to other dogs expecting them to love him as much as he loves them. If it had been he who had been attacked or worse, I'd be heartbroken. I'd be outraged.

The dog who was attacked last week is undergoing extensive medical treatment to hopefully recover from being bitten on the neck. My neighbors who witnessed the attack first hand were both dog owners, and were both sickened by what they saw. Their dogs are larger breeds, yet it's still terrifying for all of us.

Chicago is a dog-friendly city. There are hotlines you can call when you witness abuse of an animal--for instance, if someone locks their dog in their car during a hot day or chains their dog outside in the winter without access to food or water. This is a different matter: how do you handle it when a dog is the one abusing other dogs and people?

The answer, to many people, is simple. If your dog attacks my pet or family, I call the city and have your dog removed. But often, that action is taken too late, after someone has been seriously hurt or killed. Pit bulls and other dogs routinely labeled as aggressive can be sweet-tempered at home, and their owner can have no inkling of any potential danger until an attack occurs.

Some cities ban pit bulls altogether. The entire province of Ontario, Canada, has outlawed bringing pit bulls in, and any pit bulls "grandfathered" in prior to 2005 must be sterilized. Cities throughout the U.S. banning pit bull breeds include Sioux City, Iowa; Miami-Dade County, Florida (unless the dog was registered prior to 1989, which would make the dog upwards of 20-years-old today); and Independence, Missouri. Other cities have registration laws, fines for not leashing or muzzling your pit bull, and restrictions against breeding.

While this ensures a degree of safety in the neighborhoods were bans and restrictions are in place, as NBC Philadelphia's Tamara Vostok points out, "ban one breed and irresponsible owners will move on to another breed to 'toughen up."'Pretty soon, we'd be left to ban Marley [Golden Retriever of "Marley & Me"]--and who would want to do that?" Criminals who breed dogs for fighting will do so with pit bulls, Rotweillers, whatever.

I know there are pit bull owners with big hearts who adopt their dogs from overflowing shelters, where pit bulls are often the most prominent breed. I know that they can give their dogs all the love they have to give, and yet a fluke accident--a child toddling into the yard or an off-leash puppy sprinting down the sidewalk--can lead to the family pet becoming a murderer.

From this day forward, when my puppy is not in his home, he will be on his leash. He will hate that I cross the street when I see a questionable large dog approaching, but to socialize him, we take him to a local doggie day care, with a special sectioned-off area for small breed dogs to run around together. For small dogs in my neighborhood, certain freedoms simply aren't worth the cost.