TOWNSEND -- Certified Animal Control Officer Mary Letourneau has logged 15 years on the job between the two towns she works for, Townsend and Ashby. Letourneau also happens to be the proud owner of two pit bulls, both of them rescued. She also frequently watches her "grand-dog" Tigger, another pit bull, who, like her own two, she describes as gentle and loving.
"I tell people he's a pit bull, and they're surprised. They say, 'Really? I thought they were mean,'" said Letourneau. "Typically pit bulls are just like this one right here, but any dog, if they're in the wrong hands (can have problems)."
This is not exclusive to pit bulls, said Letourneau.
"I just got back from picking up two little dogs; one was a Puggle, and he tried to bite me three times," she said.
In her years on the job, said Letourneau, she sees an average of five dog bites per year, and has yet to see any involving a pit bull or pit bull mix in either of the towns she works in.
"Most of the bites that happen are labs and small dogs," she said. "But 99 percent of the time, it's human error."
Incidents involving pit bulls tend to happen in cities, she said. There are higher pit bull populations in those areas. The larger issue, though, said Letourneau, is when people adopt pit bulls with the intention of training them to act vicious.
"For one thing, you see all that stuff about fighting pit bulls. You don't see a lot of that stuff here. They're seeing more of that in Lowell and Fitchburg," said Letourneau.
In the rural towns where she works, though, said Letourneau, "I would rather have to go into a house with pit bulls than a house with a pack of dachshunds."
Even though a smaller dog bite is less likely to cause as much damage as a bite from a bigger dog, said Letourneau, in her experience smaller dogs are more likely to bite, and the bites are more apt to get infected.
"Littler dogs tend to have dirtier teeth," said Letourneau. "Littler dogs are more commonly fed table scraps, and don't get the dry kibble that helps clean their teeth."
Still, said Letourneau, the often vilifying stories about pit bulls, as well as their powerfully built bodies, have created a fearful public perception of the breed. And it's not the first breed to be looked at this way.
"Twenty years ago, it was Dobermans, and 10 to 15 years ago it was Rottweilers," said Letourneau. "I bred Rottweilers for a long time and never had a vicious one."
One myth, said Letourneau, is that pit bulls are capable of locking their jaws. This is untrue, said Letourneau, and is perpetuated because the breed is known for their strong jaws.
"Pit bulls were, as the name says, bred to fight bulls. They have that look, the same as a Rottweiler, with those eyes that look like they can see right through you. They can be intimidating looking," she said. "But I've got a pit bull here right now that's about as intimidating as a mouse. She smiles and her smile makes her goofy. That's the way most of them are. They're good dogs."
Diane Carson of Townsend, a registered nurse in Leominster Hospital's emergency room and a certified animal massage therapist, said it was by accident that she ended up adopting her four pit bull mixes. But she's glad she did.
"They're truly wonderful dogs. They're funny, they've got great personalities and play great together," she said.
When out in public with her dogs, said Carson, she will sometimes wait until after a person's initial interaction with the dogs to tell the person their breed.
"They see how the dogs react, they see gentle dogs," said Carson. "Then we see some people who say 'Oh my God, you have a pit' and run in the opposite direction. That's like saying all people are bad. You have to know the individual."
Part of the problem, said Carson, is when people take advantage of a pit bull's natural desire to please their owners.
"They really want to please and they're very loving. They want to please their people, which is why people abuse that, knowing that these dogs want to please them, knowing they can train them to fight," said Carson. "My guys all come from not the best situations but with a lot of gentle caring and nurturing, they're very good dogs."
There are two major keys that Carson uses in training her dogs, she said: Lots of exercise and proper socialization.
In regards to all dogs of any breed, said Letourneau, there are a few general practices that everyone should adhere to.
First, always ask permission from the owner before approaching any dog. If the owner says that the dog doesn't like strangers, then keep your distance.
"They know their dog better than you do," she said.
When you first adopt any dog, proper socialization is key, said Letourneau.
"You can never do enough socialization. Put your dog in every single situation you can. Socialize them from day one," said Letourneau.
And one of the most important practices, said Letourneau, is to obey the leash laws.
"(The leash law) protects everybody. Your dog can run out into the middle of the road and cause an accident. I have been contacted by a number of different car insurance companies that are paying a claim on a car. That dog owner is responsible in that situation. They can be taken to court and made to pay because their animal was loose."
All dog bites go through the animal inspector, which Letourneau also acts as.
"There's no such thing as a free bite anymore. It used to be the courts wouldn't do too much. Now they'll call me and ask if there have been issues with the dog before, if it's a habitual biter, if it's always loose. They'll build a case on it," said Letourneau.
There are no specific town bylaws addressing penalties of dog bites, unless the dog is loose, said Letourneau. But in an instance where a dog bites someone, it can be taken up with the Board of Selectmen and the dog can be ordered to be confined or muzzled in public.
In all her years on the job, Letourneau has not yet had to order a dog be removed from town or euthanized.
"It's very rare. It takes just about an act from Congress. We don't have that kind of (thing happen) in Townsend," said Letourneau.
If the dog is a habitual biter, the town will work with the owner to get the dog into training or checked our for health issues that may be causing problems, such as a thyroid issue or anxiety.
Owners of unlicensed or unvaccinated dogs can also be fined $50. An unvaccinated dog can also be ordered into quarantine for 10 days in the owner's home.
There is no breed specific legislation in Townsend, and Letourneau said she didn't think there should be such legislation anywhere.
"I just posted this on Facebook. Why do a breed ban? Why not a ban on bad people from owning dogs? Because that's what ruins them," she said.