The Maryland Court of Appeals on Aug. 21 ordered that all references to mixed and cross-bred pit bulls be removed from its controversial April opinion in Tracey v. Solesky.
The original decision declared the breed and mixes of the breed inherently dangerous and held landlords strictly liable for damages should a pit bull or pit bull-mix attack.
But experts say most dogs commonly referred to as a pit bull are either a mix of other breeds or are pure-bred of a breed often misidentified as a pit bull.
“People say you know a pit bull when you see one, but do you really?” asked Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, which tracks pedigrees of dogs back to 1884.
Rather than a specific breed, pit bull is more of a generic term to describe a group of dogs with similar characteristics — much as are “hound” and “terrier” — and encompasses both mixes and pure-bred dogs, Peterson said.
The term pit bull is sometimes used to identify the American pit bull terrier, a breed recognized by the United Kennel Club but not the American Kennel Club, said Erin Sullivan, education director for Pit Bull Rescue Central and a landlord in Maryland.
But it also is often applied to pure-bred dogs, including American Staffordshire terriers, dogo argentino and Staffordshire bull terrier and even boxers, Reaver said. She described times she has been called to rescue a dog believed to be a pit bull that turned out to be something else.
Identifying dogs as pit bulls is at best imprecise, Sullivan said.
“It’s almost impossible to tell by visual identification what a dog is, so you are just guessing,” she said.
DNA tests can identify markers for certain breeds in mixed-breed dogs. However, Sara Chisnell-Voigt, the UKC’s legal counsel, said she does not know of any court that would accept a DNA test to prove a dog’s breed.
Cory Smith, senior director of Pets for Life of the Humane Society of the United States, said DNA testing will never be 100 percent reliable.
Clubs such as the AKC and UKC can identify a dog by its pedigree. But to be registered, a dog’s sire and bitch also must have been registered with the club, and DNA tests cannot determine if a dog is pure-bred, Peterson said.
Further complicating the situation in Maryland is a lack of definition of a pit bull in the court’s ruling, said Lesa Hoover, attorney and vice president of government affairs for Maryland for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.
“There is not a definition of pit bull, you don’t know what the dog is because there is no such thing as a pit bull,” Hoover said. “So changing that part by taking out the ‘mixes’ didn’t change the ruling all that much.”
With no such thing as a pure-bred pit bull, and no definition in the common law, Peterson said the problem falls to whomever becomes the breed police, to determine what is a pit bull and how to describe it.
Opponents say the solution is to treat dangerous dogs alike, regardless of breed.