By Peggy Kaplan
He was the dog nobody wanted, the breed everyone feared. Now he had a shot at becoming a Federal Agent, an Officer for the United States Customs
I was prejudiced. Pit bulls, I knew, were inherently vicious, killer animals. Just listen to the news reports. You could never trust them around anyone, especially children. That's the perception most people have of the breed anyway, myself included, until I met a brindle and white male pit bull I called Sweet Pete.
It was late one night when I got a call from some friends about one of those "fighting dogs" wandering around their apartment complex. When I saw small children sitting around him while he was eating, fear suddenly came over me. "Get back. This dog is dangerous," I shouted. As I led him to my car I wondered why I hadn't heard a growl, why he was wagging his tail and why he actually seemed happy to meet me, a complete stranger.
Driving down the expressway, I shuddered to think that at any moment he might snap and bite me from behind. After all, this was a real pit bull. He could attack unprovoked. But I didn't hear a peep. He sat like a complete gentleman-- while I waited to be mauled.
My plan was to board him until I found his owner. I knew that I couldn't keep him. I already had a houseful of pets. Taking him to an animal shelter was not an option, their policy is to kill all pits. Adopting him out myself would be very difficult because of Breed- Specific- Legislation in Ohio. A recently enacted Ohio law imposed severe restrictions on people having pit bulls: Owners must carry $100,000 dollar liability insurance per dog, costing $460.00 dollars a year; the dog must be securely confined at all times; when it is off the owner's property it must be kept on a 6 foot chain leash, no less, and, if not securely contained in a yard or house, muzzled. * No animal shelter would put a pit up for adoption and no one would want to adopt one. .
No one ever called to claim Sweet Pete. It was during those several weeks of boarding him and the two months I kept him at my home, that I saw the "other" side of pit bulls. Bulls. He absolutely loved kids. Even adults adored him after they got over the initial shock of meeting a pit bull. He sat quietly watching me with gentle eyes when he was crated and had a boundless enthusiasm when I took him out. Toss a stick or a ball, he was lightening quick at catching it and would retrieve with what looked like a smile. He loved sitting on my lap when I got in the car but would willingly oblige when I asked him to scoot over to the passenger seat. This was a dog that loved people, not a vicious animal. The most lethal thing about him was his tail. It wagged so fast and hard that it felt like a switch from a tree hitting my leg. He was true to his nickname, wiggle butt.
Still I knew I might have to euthanize him. Because of the media hysteria surrounding pit bulls and Breed-Specific-Legislation, I couldn't place him. It's just that he was a great dog--like most pit bulls are. But if he had just made one slip up, done anything that would justify me putting him down, I'd have put him to sleep. Thank goodness I didn't. How could I have euthanized a dog that looked deeply into my eyes as if to say, "I trust whatever decision you make" then would come over and curls up in my lap. This dog would probably be licking my face and wagging his tail as the needle was inserted into his vein. I couldn't do it.
I soon learned Sweet Pete was very typical of the breed; loyal and loving, naturally friendly toward people especially children and strong as a little 50 pound bull. Because pit bulls are terriers, they also like to dig and chew. Sweet Pete's favorite game was to retrieve. It was those very traits that would save his life.
While I couldn't put Sweet Pete to sleep, I couldn't keep him either. What could I do? That's when I read an article about Narcotic Detector Canines working for U.S. Customs and thought maybe this would be the answer. The United States Customs Canine Program is the finest, most prestigious canine program in the world. There are over 600 canines serving in the U.S. Customs Service, many of whom come from animal shelters and humane societies. If Sweet Pete could pass the test, there was a good chance that he could become a drug enforcement agent, along with other rescued dogs, responsible for patrolling the border crossings for illegal drugs along with other rescued dogs. But would he have the qualities U.S. Customs was looking for? Of the 5 to 10 thousand dogs they see each month, just 150 are tested. It was a long shot, but I made the call. 1-888-USA-DOG 1. They agreed to travel to Columbus, Ohio to meet Pete.
The officer looked intimidating. Wearing a solid black uniform, dark sunglasses, and carrying a gun on his belt, Canine Procurement Officer David Bynum stood waiting for us in the parking lot of a nearby hotel. To Sweet Pete, here was a chance to make another friend. The two disappeared around the side of the building.
The german shepherd being tested before Sweet Pete failed in the last 10 seconds because he became distracted, dropping the towel when he saw another dog. Would Pete fail too? I waited for the test to begin. What looked like a game was really serious business. A rolled up hand towel with tape on the ends would be used for the test as a toy. If he passed and was accepted into the program, he would soon learn that the object of the game would be to find the towel, which smelled of drugs. Eventually he would become a "sniffing machine" as he searched for drugs and his toy.
Sweet Pete charged after the tossed rolled up towel. He held on with all his might when they played tug of war. He went after each towel Bynum threw, with a playful intensity. He dove under a parked car to retrieve it, tail wagging, no hesitation! And when it was placed under a heavy mat, he practically dug and chewed through the mat to get it. I kept waiting for Sweet Pete to lose interest. He never did. The test complete, Officer Bynum dropped his chin toward his chest and threw his fist in the air with his thumb pointing upward. Sweet Pete had not only passed the test, but Officer Bynum said it was extremely rare to see a dog of his caliber. He was one of a kind, just what they were looking for. Sweet Pete would become a Federal Agent with U.S. Customs. "Only one thing", Officer Bynum said, "If he's going to be a Federal Agent, we're going to have to drop the "Sweet" part of his name? No problem---"Officer Pete" has a nice ring to it, but to me he'd always be my little Sweet Pete.
There is something about a pit bull. It took me weeks to get over losing him. I know it was the very best thing I could have done other than finding someone to adopt him in Ohio which wasn't possible. This pit bull had wiggled his way into my heart and stayed there. What hurts so much now is thinking about all those other pits still out there and the perception people have of the breed; the pit bulls in shelters on death row, the ones in drug houses that have been debarked and trained to attack people, and worst of all, the ones in the pit rings that are used by dog fighters; razor blades sewn under their skin, gun powder put in their wounds to make them fierce, and then tossed aside and left for dead when they lose a battle. It's all those pit bulls I think about when I remember Sweet Pete, the most misunderstood breed in the world.
* Researching pits bulls and the public's disdain of them, I learned that the Ohio law calling for Breed - Specific- Legislation (which targets only pit bulls) is more like Dog- Discrimination- Legislation. It condemns an entire breed because of the actions of some reckless and bad owners. Some feel a better type of law is already on the books but needs stricter enforcement. The Ohio Revised Code, regarding dangerous dogs, addresses all breeds of dogs, not just pit bulls. It focuses on penalizing irresponsible owners of any type of dog that is aggressive toward people. In short, punishing the deed, not the breed
While dog aggression is problem specific to the breed, human aggression is not. In fact, pit bulls do better than average in temperament testing. "According to the American Canine Temperament Testing Association, 95% of the American Pit Bull Terriers that took its temperament test passed, compared to a 77% passing rate for all breeds on average. Furthermore, APBT's had a passing rate that was 4th highest of all 122 breeds tested." Like any other breed, pit bulls could develop behavior problems if mishandled, abused, poorly bred, unsocialized, etc, that could result in inappropriate aggression. Any large, strong, powerful dog who can attack, can do a lot of damage. Serious temperament evaluation is important when dealing with dogs of certain sizes and potential.
Id like to offer my thanks to Officer Dave Bynum for his article, Catching America's Most -Wanted with America's Un-wanted, Valerie Berg and her article Why BSL is BS, and Pit Bull Rescue Central, PBRC. Photos for this article are courtesy of Adler House Photography, 614-799-8480.