As a dog expert, I have been occasionally asked to render opinions about the possible danger a pit bull poses to a child in shared custody following a divorce. Queries like this are understandable. For example, concern arises because the child will visit a home where a pit bull resides, which in most cases is the home of the ex-spouse.
Such concerns were recently expressed to me in an email by the mother of a two-year-old child in a shared custody battle with her ex. Her concerns exemplify the concern of many divorced or separated couples.
Dear Dr. Polsky,
I am currently going through family court with my ex who has supervised visitation (public or family’s home) with my 2-year-old. We have a trial coming up in April, where he is trying to get unsupervised access, in his own home.
One of the safety concerns is his dogs. He has two pit bulls, one who can be very aggressive, and one who is just territorial. Butcher and Smoke, and Phoenix but Phoenix was put down a few months ago because of health issues.
Smoke has been brought to the vet with injuries from the other two dogs at least twice. One time, he had to be sent to the mainland to get surgery as he almost died, and one side of his face and ear are completely paralyzed. Another time, Butcher had attacked Smoke and Smoke ended up getting stitches.
Smoke is good most of the time, but is very territorial over my ex and started growling at my other child when our relationship was ending which obviously made me quite nervous. Also, I Have been told by my ex that Smoke will snap if he hears a noise such as a crunching of a water bottle. And I’m afraid of what will happen if my son makes such a noise, or if Smoke gets jealous of him.
I have been told by others that his dogs can be very violent, and have caused a lot of trouble such as wrecking homes.
He keeps the dogs separated by a baby gate so that the dogs don’t kill each other, but obviously being such big strong dogs, they can knock it down when wanted. And I don’t want my son to get caught in the crossfire.
Child protection is involved, and they have concerns, but can not provide an actual temperament assessment on the dogs. Therefore, my lawyer and I are fighting to get a court-ordered assessment. If you could please get back to me with the information and prices, that would be great.
Dr. Polsky’s response:
The temperament and potential danger of any pit bull must be judged on a case-to case-basis. Concluding that a pit bull is dangerous solely on the basis of its breed must be avoided. In your particular case, however, your concern appears warranted because of what you know about the circumstances and the behavior of the dogs in question.
First, the fact that these dogs are maintained in a group, raises a red flag. Generally, in a given set of circumstances, a group of dogs tends to be more aggressive than a single dog. Moreover, your observations that Smoke growled at your other child certainly suggests that he may have the strong potential to display human-directed aggression towards a child.
Also note that since your child is just a toddler, this raises additional concern because of the erratic and unpredictable movements and sounds a two-year-old may make. And in some cases, such movements can trigger a predatory reaction in a dog. For example, the danger a dog poses to children on swings has been noted elsewhere on this website.
Last, the fact that the dog is a pit bull cannot be ignored. Animal behavior experts believe that some pit bulls are programmed differently. However, the fact that the dog is a pit bull is insufficient to conclude that a danger exists. Rather the danger must be assessed based on the totality of factors, which include the past history of the dog(s), the medical condition of the dog, it’s training and socialization, etc.