Ban on 'aggressive' dogs criticized
Rash of biting incidents led to policy, but owners claim training, not breed, determines behavior
By RYAN HALL Tribune Night City Editor
Staff Sgt. Jason Oxley has two "children." One is his 9-year-old son. The other is Rocky, a 3 1/2-year-old pit bull/boxer mix.
"He's a big baby," Oxley said of his pet.
Under a new policy, dogs similar to Rocky are banned in Air Force housing.
Three pit-bull and Rottweiler attacks in 2006 with ties to Malmstrom Air Force Base, including one that killed a boy in Ulm, were the driving force behind the Air Force Space Command policy banning dogs that are at least half pit bull or Rottweiler.
Prohibited breeds that already live in base housing are grandfathered in, but must abide by new restrictions.
The ban affects all Space Command bases, including Malmstrom, where two of the attacks took place. The Ulm fatality involved a family with Air Force ties, said Capt. Elizabeth Benn, chief of public affairs for the base.
Under the policy, which went into effect late last year, owners of prohibited breeds already in base housing may not breed their animal or acquire additional banned breeds, must leash and muzzle their dog when it's outside of a fenced yard, and must acquire renter's insurance that provides liability coverage of no less than $100,000 for the pet's actions.
In addition, any prohibited dog that displays any act of aggression, including leaving the owner's yard, will be banned immediately.
Rocky is about a quarter pit bull, but Oxley chose to register him anyway in order to "set an example."
Oxley said Rocky is well-behaved and not aggressive, adding that his dog and son get along great.
"It's just like two kids playing together," he said.
Oxley said that even though he chose to register Rocky with base housing, he believes the policy is "a little knee-jerk."
Benn said the Rottweilers and pit bulls were targeted because they were the breeds involved in last year's attacks, and statistics show them to be aggressive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were more than 300 human fatalities as a result of dog bites between 1979 and 1998. The breed was known for 238 of those fatalities, with pit bulls and Rottweilers combining for more than half of that total â€” 120 deaths.
"Which is a pretty sobering statistic," Benn said. "There's a little different behavior with those dogs."
"Those two breeds have got a reputation," said Larry Boggs, housing manager for Malmstrom.
Gene Hodges, who has trained dogs for more than 50 years, said that past breeding practices for Rottweilers and pit bulls that stressed aggressiveness have given them a bad reputation.
"It just creates a stigma," he said, noting that Doberman pinschers and German shepherds had a similar reputation in the past.
Such a reputation is undeserved, Hodges argued, using his granddaughter's pit bull, which was staying at his house during a recent interview, as an example.
"That's the sweetest dog I ever had," he said.
Benn said Malmstrom was looking at establishing local regulations when the three attacks, which involved a Rottweiler, a pit bull and a Rottweiler mix, prompted the Space Command to adopt the policy. Two of the animals attacked children in the family yard. The pit bull attacked a woman who was jogging on base, Boggs said.
"(The attacks) really motivated the urgency to do this," Benn said.
"Any dog can be an aggressive dog and any dog can bite, but a lot of (which breeds were targeted) has to do with what happened here last summer," added Boggs.
Hodges said that while he agrees with muzzling aggressive dogs, singling out specific breeds is not fair.
The key to a dog's behavior is the way the owner conditions or trains it, not the breed, he said.
Hodges said he would favor a policy requiring airmen who own dogs to go through training with their animal, rather than restricting certain breeds.
"What it boils down to more is the owner of the dog rather than the dog. ... Animals are not aggressive, they are made aggressive," he said.
"It's pretty easy to blame the dog, isn't it?" he added. "It's too easy."
Malmstrom has 947 on-base housing units but there are no statistics on the number of dogs. Fourteen owners of the affected breeds registered their pet with housing by showing proof of renter's insurance.
Owners were given 45 days to comply and all known owners of the affected breeds had done so by the end of December, Boggs said.
"The program has been pretty successful from a commander's perspective," Benn said.
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