Will Subsidized Spay/Neuter for Pit Bulls Decrease Surrenders?

We ran across an article in the Denver paper we think is worth commenting on.  A Colorado shelter is one of apparently a number of shelters across the country that received grants from an animal related charity to offer subsidized spay/neuter services for pit-bull owners.  The grant is described as being part of a nationwide effort to stop the “over-breeding of pit bulls and prevent them from being abandoned by their owners.”

While we’re all for programs that reduce pets being surrendered to shelters, this particular effort doesn’t appear to be well thought out.  First we have to ask, how do we know pit bulls are being “over bred”?  Does that mean ownership of pit bulls has increased in recent years?  We can’t imagine that registration statistics documenting this conclusion exist.  “Pit bull” is a breed type, not a breed.  American Pit Bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, and even Staffordshire Bull Terriers and American Bulldogs are considered to be “pit bulls” in some communities.  So while more pit bulls are ending up in some shelters, that doesn’t necessarily mean that ownership of pit bulls has increased.

Unfortunately, “pit bulls” are a popular type of dog among irresponsible people who want such a dog for all the wrong reasons. And they are very unlikely to register their dogs with their local animal control agency.  So obtaining ownership statistics is virtually impossible.  And even as the director of this Colorado shelter admits, these folks are not likely to be interested in neutering their dogs, even if it costs them nothing.

That leads to the second problem with this effort.  The unstated assumption is that pit bull owners are not neutering their dogs because they can’t afford it.  How do we know this?  It’s more likely irresponsible pit bull owners aren’t neutering their dogs simply because they don’t want to.  It goes against the reasons they likely acquired the dog in the first place.

The third poorly conceived aspect of this effort is that over-breeding of pit bulls and owners not being able to neuter them is what’s causing more of them to show up in shelters.  Really?  Breed bans are a significant reason why pit bulls are surrendered to shelters.  One only needs to look at the surrender numbers in Denver from a few years ago when that city’s breed ban was reinstated. 

Many shelters collect data on reason for surrender when dogs come in.  What are the reasons people are giving for surrendering their pit bulls?  That would seem to be a crucial piece of information to know in order to target the cause of the problem with relevant programs.  Our suspicion is that breed bans aside, pit bulls are surrendered for the same reason most dogs are – unrealistic expectations about dog/breed ownership, “moving”, and behavior problems.  

Pit bulls are not a breed for the novice dog owner or someone who thinks they want a "macho" dog.  If the pit bull has become the "flavor of the month" breed to have in certain circles, like Dalmatians and other breeds have been in the past, then efforts to educate people about the personality and behavioral tendencies of pit bulls would be relevant.

We know there are responsible pit bull owners.  Those folks aren’t contributing to the pit bulls that end up in shelters.  Responsible owners are spaying and neutering their dogs, licensing them, and training them to be friendly, not dangerous.  We suspect it’s a relatively small number of responsible owners who might need financial help with spaying and neutering.  And spay/neuter assistance is already available through other programs.

And while shelters need all the help they can get,  the $20,000 grant to this one shelter to spay and neuter pit bulls in our opinion could be better spent on other programs.  What about training classes just for pit bull breeds?  Structure them as teaching fun tricks to pit bulls rather than "basic obedience" which many owners view as boring.  That would also allow competent trainers to get a look at these dogs and identify those with worrisome behavior patterns that could be "red flags" for later dangerous behavior or other behavior problems that could ultimately result in surrender.  Intuitively at least, seems more likely to get at actual surrender prevention than spay/neuter. 

Other ideas include mandatory bite prevention education programs for any owner whose dog is cited for aggression or biting, free behavior evaluations of pit bulls and other dogs perceived as potentially dangerous in the community, free training classes and behavior consultations for owners of pit bulls with problems, tracking of any dangerous dog, regardless of breed, and research to get at the real reasons why pit bulls are over-represented in certain shelters.  

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