Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dog handlers nip at remark about pit bulls


Friday, December 08, 2006

RIFLE — A Garfield County court judge caused a backlash Thursday from dog handlers and owners after he said Wednesday he would like to see all pit bulls killed.

Associate County Court Judge Jason Jovanovich said during Wednesday’s sentencing of the owner of a pit bull that attacked and seriously injured an elderly Silt woman in September that he would push a big red button that would kill all pit bulls, if he could.

Two dog handlers, Chris McKelvey and Laura Van Dyne, both of Carbondale, said Jovanovich’s statement would lead to more prejudice against pit bulls and was “very sad.”

“Anytime you have a breed with a fighting origin, you have to train them maybe 10 times more just for the public perception,” said McKelvey, who has trained dogs for 26 years. “These are dogs that were born to be aggressive, but it’s their environment and how they’re treated and trained that causes them to act out.”

Every one of the pit bulls she has helped train “were cupcakes,” she said.

Van Dyke said it was sad that Jovanovich said he wanted to eradicate an entire breed of dog.

“Any kind of dog can bite,” she said. “If we kill all the pit bulls, where do the people who used to have pit bulls go? ... How far do we go?”

Van Dyke has taught people how to train their dogs for 10 years and said studies have shown that more people die of injuries caused while wearing bedroom slippers than from dog bites.

“I’ve had problem pit bulls as clients, as well as other dogs,” she said. “And some of the best dogs I’ve known were pit bulls.”

Tim Larson of Battlement Mesa said he has owned a pit bull for four years and “took umbrage” when he read Jovanovich’s statement in Thursday’s Daily Sentinel.

“I get upset when I read statements like that because it causes a nationwide hysteria against pit bulls,” he said. “People get even more leery of the dogs, and the dogs get the short end of the stick.”

Larson said the term “pit bulls” refers to three different breeds: American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said he had heard from others that Jovanovich had made similar statements against pit bulls in other court cases.

Jovanovich could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Mesa County Animal Control Director Penny McCarty provided figures that showed 230 dog bites in the first 10 months of 2005, the most current numbers she had available. Of those, small breeds, such as terriers, Pekingese and schnauzers, bit 53 people in the county.

Working dogs, such as border collies, bit 38 people, while pit bulls bit 28.

Vallario said his department does not keep similar statistics in Garfield County because state statutes prevent breed-ban legislation in counties.

“We treat all dogs the same,” he said.

“If Fluffy the little terrier bites someone, we’ll cite her owner just like any other dog.”

McCarty said some dog breeds are “hijacked by a certain segment of the population that is irresponsible in many ways.”

Thirty years ago, it was German shepherds; 20 years ago, it was Rottweilers; today it’s pit bulls, she said.

They’re seen as status symbols, McCarty said, and are used as protection by those involved with methamphetamine.

“Some of the dogs we have seen recently have had contact with methamphetamine,” she said.

“It can certainly make them unpredictable.”

Local law enforcement officials, however, said they have not seen an increase in such dangerous dogs, such as when serving warrants.

“I don’t know that pit bulls are unique to any individual or type of individual,” said Tom Gorman, resident agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“We have had two dog-related shootings this year as far as the task force is concerned. If you are threatened, you want to take care of the threat. Some dopers have them; some don’t.”

Sgt. Matt Lewis, a five-year veteran of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department’s SWAT team, said he has encountered vicious dogs in raids.

“Absolutely there are drug dealers out there with pit bulls, and there are fine upstanding people with pit bulls, and that has nothing to do with the dog,” he said.

“I truly believe it is the way you treat the animal, the way you train the animal.”

“A lot of it is that pit bulls have kind of become the epitome of a dog that someone in the counterculture would want to own,” said Cindy Haerle, a rescue coordinator for Mesa County Animal Services.

“It is tough-looking, and all sorts of the wrong people want to own pit bulls.”

But there are many responsible owners who love the dogs because of their loyalty, intelligence and strength, she said, adding they often are used as search-and-rescue and police dogs.


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