Service or menace? Pit bulls skirt law by being used as service dogs
A growing group of pit bull owners says the animals are ideal service dogs -- a designation that exempts them from Miami-Dade's ban of the breed, which some say is instinctively dangerous.
BY LAURA ISENSEElisensee@MiamiHerald.com
Brian Guadagno is rarely alone -- whether he dines out, shops for groceries or flies on a plane. His dog Doc stays by his side.
The 5-year-old, 35-pound service dog is a Staffordshire bull terrier -- a breed that, like pit bulls, is banned in Miami-Dade County.
Guadagno, 32, said Doc helps him contend with a lifelong learning disability that makes it hard for him to focus.
``We've never spent time apart,'' said Guadagno, who said he no longer needs medication.
A pit bull may seem an unlikely savior, given its reputation for powerful jaws, lock-down bites and aggression.
But Doc and Guadagno are among a small but growing group of pit bulls and their owners who are exempt from Miami-Dade's pit-bull ban, enacted in 1989 after an 8-year-old girl was mauled by a neighbor's pit bull.
Within the past year, Miami-Dade Animal Services has registered about half a dozen pit bulls as service animals for people with disabilities, in what investigator supervisor Kathy Labrada called an emerging trend.
Under federal rules, any guide or signal dog that is individually trained to assist someone with a physical or mental disability qualifies as a service animal.
Federal law trumps Miami-Dade's ordinance, Labrada said.
``We're seeing a trend in an increase of citizens that claim to have a disability and their pit bull is their service animal. That is a loophole that people have found,'' she said.
Labrada said it is a challenge to verify that a dog is a service animal because federal rules do not require any special certification for the animal. In addition, the Americans With Disabilities Act restricts the county from asking specific questions about medical conditions, she said.
Anyone can train a service animal under the federal guidelines. International standards recommend a minimum of 120 hours over six months for service animals, which can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars.
``There are certainly concerns that some individuals may claim an animal as a service animal when, in fact, it isn't,'' Labrada said.
Toni Eames, president of International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, said she had heard of pit bulls as service dogs, but had not encountered one or a program that trains them.
``There's a lot of fraud and there's a lot of legitimacy,'' said Eames, who is blind and has a golden retriever as a guide dog. ``The training has to be the standard.''
In Miami-Dade, pit bull owners can face a $500 fine and possible court action to force the animal's removal. The dogs are still deemed dangerous.
``They were bred to bait and fight bulls,'' Labrada said. ``If and when they bite, the potential for damage is extreme.''
Miami-Dade's ban covers American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers or any dog that matches most of those breeds' traits.
Other U.S. cities, such as Denver and Cincinnati, have banned pit bulls. Broward County does not have a ban, though at least two cities there -- Sunrise and Tamarac -- require pit bulls to be registered. Broward resident Larry Steinhauser, 57, said he would campaign for a countywide pit bull ban -- though Florida now prohibits laws against specific breeds. (Miami-Dade's ban was grandfathered in when the state law was passed.) A pit bull once lunged at him while he walked his dog. He also witnessed another pit bull attack, he said.
``I've never seen one that isn't aggressive,'' said Steinhauser. ``I feel they're a danger to society.''
Many love and defend the bully breed. One was the lovable mascot of the Little Rascals children's movie shorts of the 1930s, and the dogs later became the inspiration for local rapper Pitbull's fierce stage name.
On the national stage, celebrity chef Rachael Ray, who owns a pit bull named Isaboo, has advocated for the dogs. (Isaboo made tabloid headlines this year for reportedly biting the ear off another pooch.)
In Miami-Dade, Dahlia Canes directs a group fighting to overturn the ban. The group -- Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation -- was scheduled to join other advocates in Tallahassee for a rally Sunday.
Canes said many owners in Miami-Dade keep their dogs under the radar -- walking them very early or very late and finding veterinarians who won't report them.
``These dogs are extremely loyal and loving. The ban should be removed yesterday,'' Canes said.
Canes pointed to Ruby, a pit bull who recently visited Hialeah Hospital. Her owner, Pat Bettendorf, of Minnesota, found Ruby as an abandoned puppy and now considers her his service dog, assisting him when he experiences anxiety attacks.
Dr. Reinaldo Carvajal, who directs the geriatric unit at Hialeah Hospital, said therapy dogs can help patients, and said the pit bulls' reputation is not deserved.
``It's due to the fact that some people have used them for activities such as animal fighting,'' Carvajal said.
Pit bulls that strictly provide therapy still face Miami-Dade's ban. While they may support emotional well-being, they do not perform a service, Labrada said.
Not all agree that pit bulls make the best service animals.
``Service dogs need to be above reproach,'' said Janet Severt, founder of New Horizons Service Dogs in Orange City, north of Orlando, and who trains service animals. ``They need to be able to handle anything life throws at them.''
That could be the sudden boom of a car backfiring to a child pulling the dog's hair.
At New Horizons, Severt trains Labrador and golden retrievers as service animals, primarily for people with mobility problems or in wheelchairs, like herself.
She said the retrievers -- originally bred as a gentleman's hunting dog -- are eager to please. She said she disagrees with the ban, but would not train a pit bull.
``My problem with pit bulls is if they're in a fight they can do a lot of damage,'' said Severt.
Guadagno's companion Doc didn't start as a service animal. He said Doc has more than 100 hours of training and was certified in 2007 by the International Therapy and Service Animal Association. Guadagno registered the dog with the county last year.
Sometimes Doc stands on his hind legs and gives Guadagno a friendly pat with his paws -- a hug -- to keep his attention from drifting.
``It's really grounding,'' said Guadagno.
Miami Herald staff writer Melissa Montoya contributed to this report.