Op-Ed: This Is Why Darke County, Ohio’s Pit Bull Policies Are Outdated And Wrong

Written by: Dr. Katy Nelson

April 19, 2016

Yesterday, my daily Google Alert pointed me towards an excellent article, “County Officials React to On-Line Pit Bull Petition” by Susan Hartley of BlueBag Media in Greenville, Ohio.  She was reporting on a Change.Org petition started by Luke Westerman, which is calling for Darke County, Ohio to stop euthanizing Pit Bulls.

Wait a minute….what?

You read that right.  Though Ohio State Law was modified to remove language listing Pit Bulls as aggressive by birth, this county is dragging its feet, refusing to allow Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs to be placed, at all, with anyone. Apparently, at one time the county worked with legitimate Pit Bull rescue groups to pull and place Pit Bull terrier type dogs. But because of an alleged “falling out,” this is no longer happening. If the dog isn’t reclaimed by owners, he/she will be euthanized at the end of the legal hold time. Pit Bulls die because of how they look, not how they act.


The petition itself pulls no punches.  The first paragraph lays it out in stark black and white:

Join us and demand that the Darke County Animal Shelter stop killing ‘Pit Bull’-type dogs! The shelter doesn’t even attempt to adopt out these innocent dogs. Instead they euthanize them because they have visually identified them as ‘Pit Bulls.’

I talked with Luke Westerman, the originator of the petition.  He is an articulate and passionate individual with a wealth of information about the situation in Darke County.  Westerman told me that he had gotten involved when a couple of pound volunteers contacted him with their concerns. He explained that this is a very rural and insular community, and the commissioners are apparently not willing to look outside the county for expert opinion.

Instead, they rely on the dog warden’s information, a man who is still parroting beliefs from the early ’70s.  According to Westerman, until his petition started garnering public attention, the dog shelter operated totally outside of public scrutiny, refusing to answer emails or phone calls, even from county residents.


I read Hartley’s article through once, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I read it through a second time, and started jotting down notes refuting the quotes by the dog warden. His contentions are based on fear and prejudice, not facts and science. There wasn’t one single quote that I didn’t have some sort of issue with.  In all fairness, I believe this is a man who takes his job seriously, and who really believes the things he is saying. The only problem is, there’s no evidence to support any of his contentions and plenty of documentation to disprove them.


I’d like to respond to some of Warden Sanning’s statements.

Sanning said he has concerns about adopting out Pit Bulls or other aggressive dogs.  On the face of it, this seems like a responsible statement.  No one wants to adopt out a dog who has aggression issues. Public officials have a responsibility to use their best judgment when deciding which dogs should be returned to the community.  However, when you look at the statement objectively, it is quickly apparent that he is implying ALL Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs are aggressive.  Not only is this a ridiculous and easily disproven statement, it flies in the face of Ohio State Law.  Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs are not inherently aggressive.  There is no peer-reviewed study that shows they have an increased risk of violence.  None.

Every single professional group that works with dogs opposes breed discrimination such as this.  Here is a partial list of organizations which oppose judging dogs based on breed, and instead rely on individual temperament and behavior.  It represents every group of professionals who work with dogs for a living, with the exception of PeTA.

American Bar Association (ABA)

American Dog Owners Association (ADOA)

American Humane

American Kennel Club (AKC)

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)

American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)

American Working Dog Federation (AWDF)

Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT)

Best Friends Animal Society

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)

International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP)

National Animal Control Association (NACA)

National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA)

National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI)

The White House


“The problem I have with Pit Bulls is the damage they do when they bite,” he said, noting that the breed originally was bred to fight. “How do I know they will not end up in a fighting ring in California?”

In 2005, National Geographic did a study on the bite strength of different species. During the study they examined three dog breeds: a German Shepherd Dog, a Rottweiler, and an American Pit Bull Terrier.  Surprisingly, the Pit Bull Terrier’s bite was the weakest of the three, belying the conventional wisdom that says their bite strength is among the highest of all dog breeds.

As for his second statement – I work in animal rescue.  The simple truth is that any dog could potentially end up in a bad situation. And yes, in some cases Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs have been bred to fight.  But they have also been bred to be non-aggressive towards humans.  During a pit fight, both human handlers are on their hands and knees beside the dogs.  Because they are at risk if a dog doesn’t have bite inhibition, they will kill any dog who shows an inclination to bite a human.  Over decades the dogs have been bred to be tenacious, but also to be gentle and loyal to people.


“The story, I think is simple. A Golden Retriever is a retrieving dog – it’s their instinct. A Border Collie is a herding dog. Pit Bulls are a fighting breed. It’s in their DNA. They were bred to fight bears and other large animals. There’s just no way to know.”

One of the reasons animal lovers were so distraught by the Michael Vick case was because he killed dogs, some in horrific ways.  These were fighting dogs, from fighting dog bloodlines, and fighting dog kennels, trained from birth to fight.  They came from generations of dogs who had been bred specifically for the pit.  Why did Mr. Vick kill them?  Because they wouldn’t fight.  Dogs purposely bred for dog aggression refused to attack other dogs.

I decided to do some research and I read some really interesting papers on nature vs nurture.  A dog of any particular breed is a sum of many different factors.  Kenth Svarberg and Bjorn Forkman studied 15,000 dogs from 164 different breeds.  What they found was that dog behavior varied widely, even within the same breeds. A specific breed of dog may be born with a tendency towards a certain behavior.  Border Collies have a tendency to herd. But tendency is not behavior.  It is not destiny. A dog is the sum of his genetics, temperament, personality, experiences and environment.

Many people who have opened their homes to Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs describe them as fun-loving, energetic, athletic, hard-working, loyal, affectionate, sometimes destructive, and tenacious.  It’s hard to argue that Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs are always animal aggressive when so many wonderful dogs are living safe and happy lives in families with children, dogs and other animals.


“Our adoption rate is 85 percent, the best in the state. Other shelters run about 45 percent.”

This statement bothered me a lot.  In the No-Kill movement, a save rate of 90% is considered to have reached No-Kill status.  How is it possible for Darke County to be that close to No-Kill if they are doing away with all of the Pit Bulls?  I finally realized he was talking about adoption of dogs he considers eligible to leave the pound. The dogs who are killed out of hand are not reflected in this percentage at all.

Warden Sanning needs to release actual data of all dogs/cats brought in to the shelter, and whether or not they leave the building alive.  Otherwise his numbers are meaningless.  The citizens of Darke County deserve an accurate count of how many animals come into the shelter, and how many are ultimately killed.

According to the article, Sanning does not believe temperament testing has any benefit. “None of them (tests) have been proven to the degree of yes you do or no you don’t,” he said.

To me, this is like saying gravity hasn’t been proven. Temperament testing has its basis in science. It explores dog behavior and ability to exist in society. Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs have scored extremely well on the American Temperament Test, higher than Cocker Spaniels and Golden Retrievers. The test shows what many of us have discovered for ourselves….Pit Bull Terriers can have extremely stable personalities and temperaments.  No amount of prejudice can explain away those test results.

Pit Bull and His Best Friend Rock

Sanning went on to describe the food aggression test, which was historically performed with a fake hand.  “If the dog is aggressive concerning their food, well, there’s no cure for that,” Sanning points out.

Very few reputable groups even use this type of testing anymore, especially for dogs in the high stress atmosphere of a shelter or pound.  Dogs who have been neglected or starved can guard their food compulsively. But that is not an indication of how they will respond in a home environment.  There are proven positive reinforcement training methods which can be used to modify resource guarding behavior.  This should never be a basis for executing a dog.

The bottom line is that these are dogs.  Just dogs.  They are a product of their breeding, handling, and experiences.  I hate to think of all the dogs who have died based on this man’s belief that they are dangerous because they have square heads, muscular bodies and short hair.  It frustrates me that this man thinks he can eye-ball a dog and determine the breed, something that studies have shown is impossible to do accurately. Dogs have died who may not even have any Pit Bull Terrier DNA. Sanning is saying, and believes, that how a dog looks determines how he will act.


Finally, Sanning states that he feels his stance is vindicated because of a call he received from a man whose son was killed by a Pit Bull Terrier-type dog.  The death of a child is a horrific thing, but we can’t generalize one dog’s aggression onto every dog who might look like him.  As heart-rending as this story is, you cannot let the horror overshadow proven facts of peer-reviewed studies.  Because…well, because science.

Please sign Luke Westerman’s petition on Change.Org.  You will find email addresses for all of the Darke County Commissioners on the petition.  Take the time to send a respectful and fact-based email.  Anger and accusations will do nothing to help change the outdated policies.  Hopefully, education and logic will succeed where emotion cannot.

My personal wish for Darke County, Ohio is that Warden Sanning decides to hang up his catch-pole and retire.  That the County Commissioners decide to hire someone who is well-versed in dog behavior and positive reinforcement training.  And that the residents of the county will no longer have to worry that an escape from the yard will become a death sentence for their beloved family member.

Featured image via The Harbor Hounds/Instagram

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Written by: Dr. Katy Nelson

April 19, 2016

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