Sacramento competition raises question: Should pit bulls pull weight for fun?

03/29/2012 12:00 AM

05/01/2012 9:18 AM

Picture the canine equivalent of a "World's Strongest Man" competition, with burly pit bull terriers straining to pull wheeled carts loaded with weight to the cheers of spectators.

In "weight pull" contests held across the country, dogs hitched to carts or sleds by special harnesses have been known to haul 3,000 pounds or more of concrete or bricks across special tracks.

But should they?

It is a question that animal advocates are debating in Sacramento as plans move forward for a "pit bull fun pull" for capital city dogs, their human companions and the public at large.

"This will be an event designed to get people involved with their dogs in a constructive, fun way while helping to educate everyone about the breed," said Dawn Capp, an attorney who founded Chako Pit Bull Rescue of Sacramento, an advocacy and education group with a national reach.

Capp said such events help highlight positive characteristics of a breed widely known for fighting and menace, while allowing responsible pit bull owners to get together and exercise their animals.

Others called the contests potentially harmful to the dogs and said they send the wrong message to people who may associate strength training and weight pulling to dogfighting rings.

"I'm not a big fan of having animals compete in this manner," said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Sacramento branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "It's not a marketing message we would want to send out."

The Sacramento event, originally set for Saturday, was postponed because of the likelihood of rain but will be rescheduled for the near future, organizers said.

They expect a good turnout. After Chako posted a notice at Meetup.com for the event, it quickly filled to capacity, with 52 people signing up their dogs and others putting their names on a waiting list.

Among the sponsors of the public event is the Sacramento city animal shelter, which on any given day is overrun with abandoned and unwanted pit bulls and pit bull mixes, most of which never get adopted. The fun pull event will be held in a gravel lot on city property across from the downtown Front Street shelter.

Shelter manager Gina Knepp said the event might be a first for Sacramento.

"I admit, I am a little nervous," Knepp said. "I know there will be some people who will criticize this or think it is cruel. I had to weigh the pros and cons."

Ultimately, she said, she decided that "this would allow us to show pit bulls in a different light," helping to change the public's perception of them as vicious killers.

"I want folks to know that there are fun things they can do with their pit bulls and they can make excellent pets," said Knepp. "I'm on a mission to communicate that."

Around the country, the contests typically feature large, strong dogs such as pit bulls, malamutes, Siberian huskies and bull mastiffs, Capp said, but breeds as small as beagles and greyhounds have competed. Some competitions allow dog owners to "bait" their animals by calling to them or offering them treats. The dog that pulls the most weight in each event wins.

The inaugural Sacramento event will focus on fun rather than competition, said Capp and Knepp.

"We'll start at a very low weight," and increase it as dogs finish their runs, Capp said, noting that Home Depot has donated bricks for the event. "Some dogs naturally take to this, and some just freeze. If they decide they don't want to pull, that's fine. It's all up to the dogs."

Capp said her organization will supply volunteers to make sure dogs are leashed at all times and stay a safe distance from one another to avoid confrontations. "We do a lot of events with a large number of dogs, and we have never had a public safety issue," she said.

The Humane Society of the United States has no major objections to the pull competitions as long as they "are not overtaxing to any individual dog," said California Senior State director Jennifer Fearing. "When they're done in a positive and fun spirit, events like these can be a great way to elevate the human-animal bond and bring dog owners together," Fearing said.

Still, the SPCA's Johnson said the events are a bad idea.

First, he said, dogs could get injured by pulling too much weight.

"It's not a natural activity, and I'm not sure it's good for them in the short run," he said. Owners of pit bulls and other active breeds are better off enrolling their dogs in agility competitions in which they compete in running, jumping and climbing events, he said.

In Sacramento, where pit bulls at times make up 60 percent or more of animals in shelters, the focus should be on discouraging breeding and offering spaying and neutering services at reduced cost, he said. The county, city and SPCA offer such services.

"I certainly applaud efforts to communicate and to educate owners of the breed and offer support and training for these dogs," Johnson said. "But our focus is on reducing the numbers of pit bulls. That is our goal."

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