Venessa Rotondi, an assistant supervisor at the Islip Animal Shelter in Bay Shore, saw the stigma associated with pit bulls firsthand when she decided to foster a dog named Maddie. She had hoped her family would love Maddie as much as she did, but when Rotondi came home, her mother wasn’t happy.
“My mom was terrified just because of the breed,” said Rotondi. “She hated me for the first week. She couldn’t believe I did this.”
That changed once Rotondi’s mother and Maddie got to know each other. Within two weeks, they were inseparable.
“My mom was like, ‘You’re right. I love this dog,’” she said. “It was just as hard for her to give away the dog as it was for me. Once you give pit bulls a chance, you will fall in love with them.”
The popularity of pit bulls has been represented on television and film, from Petey on “The Little Rascals,” to Jennifer Beals’ companion in “Flashdance,” to the three-legged pup adopted by Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt in “Parks and Recreation.” The breed also made news -- and history -- recently when the first-ever police pit bull in the State of New York was put to work for narcotics and missing persons detection.
But according to Suffolk County SPCA Chief Roy Gross, negative stereotypes about the dogs persist, and it’s not their fault.
“People want to look tough walking down the street with a pit bull,” said Gross. “You see the heavy chains on their necks… It’s absolutely horrible what people do, and I’ve witnessed it many times.”
According to the American Kennel Club, the American Staffordshire terrier (also known as a pit bull) is “a people-oriented dog that thrives when he is made part of the family and given a job to do.”
But pit bulls don’t always get that chance. Right now there are dozens of pit bulls at Islip Animal Shelter, and at many other Long Island shelters, pit bulls and pit bull mixes populate a significant portion of their space.
Gross has seen numerous cases of violence against the breed over the years. He said any aggressive behavior in pit bulls comes directly from how they’re raised and trained. But there are reasons why the breed is pinpointed for dogfighting.
“[Pit bulls] have strong jaw strength, high tolerance for pain, and also they want to please their masters,” Gross said.
He later added, “If you breed the dog to be an aggressive, dangerous dog, that’s what you’re going to get. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Chihuahua or golden retriever or any other dog.”
People may assume the dog’s temperament matches its naturally muscular body. But according to New York Bully Crew founder Craig Fields, it all depends on the dog’s personality, a direct result of how it is raised. At his nonprofit rescue organization in Patchogue, owners often surrender their dogs when they can no longer care for them. There are currently 70 pit bulls being housed at the shelter, which specializes in pit bull rescue.
“We get hundreds of requests a week,” Fields said. “Between emails, phone calls and social media, we get hundreds of requests a week. No exaggeration... I think the problem is that people just don’t take responsibility for their actions. It’s easier to just give up the dog than it is to train it.”
After being around the breed for most of his life -- plus having 10 of his own -- Fields has heard just about every misconception out there.
“They don’t have lock jaw,” he said. “And they’re not inherently born dangerous; they’re made dangerous by humans. Just because a dog was made dangerous by humans doesn’t mean that you can’t make that dog good again.”
For those concerned about adopting a pit bull that had a rough upbringing, Rotondi's advice is simple: Take some time to meet and greet with pit bulls at your local shelter, and don't rush to make a decision.
“Don’t just say, 'OK I want this one' and take it home and realize that wasn’t the right one," she said. "Like any dog, dogs have different personalities. It’s not a blanket personality just because it’s a pit bull. Some dogs are going to be more energetic, some are going to curl up in your lap, so you have to gauge what you want and which dog is right for you.”
Gross added that looks can often be deceiving. “They do look tough, but I’m telling you I’ve seen good [pit bulls] raised properly that are big mushes and they’re great family pets,” he said.