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Doggie DNA

This article is more than 11 years old.

In Boston, it seems not all dogs are considered equal. After a number of Pit Bull attacks five years ago, the city passed an ordinance that slaps a muzzle on dogs of the breed in public.

In the next few weeks, city officials are re-examining the law to assess its effectiveness. They'll also look at how a new test of dogs' DNA could change things. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov picks up the story from here.


MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: First, meet Charlie. Joyce Linehan got Charlie from the animal shelter, who told her he's a Pit Bull. According to the Boston law, Charlie should be a dominant dog who lives to fight, is stubborn and has powerful jaws capable of crushing bones. That's why the city feels the public and other dogs need to be protected from dogs like Charlie. But Linehan says that's all overblown. Her Charlie is a 70 pound softie.

JOYCE LINEHAN: He's a great dog, he's a little big needy, he's very affectionate but he's a really really great dog and we've no trouble at all.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Outside his home in Dorchester, Charlie lives life in a muzzle. A mug shot of his black and white face, and that of his owner is filed with his registration somewhere in city hall. A beware of dog sign hangs on the front door. All of that is required by the ordinance, which lists three breeds of dogs that are commonly known as Pit Bulls. Linehan led opposition to the ordinance and at first didn't take it seriously.

JOYCE LINEHAN: I was actually on a Sunday morning at 10am walking down Dorchester Ave. ridden up on with lights and siren and yelled at by a police officer about why do wasn't wearing a muzzle.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Now meet Storm, who often comes by the Hyde Park Pharmacy where his owner Patty Ferzoco Hickey works. Storm is a German Sheppard Chow mix. Ferzoco Hickey remembers a day 6 years ago when Storm was attacked by another dog.

PATTY FERZOCO HICKEY: We were walking Sunday morning, quarter to 8 in the morning a dog jumped out of a park car. The man was at church, brought his dog, Pit Bull and attacked my dog. The only way my dog got released was he heard me screaming, my dog howling and he ran out of church and separated them.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Storm is no toy poodle. He's a 100 pounds of black and tan fur. Ferzoco Hickey says a Pit bull is the only dog that scares her and Storm.

PATTY FERZOCO HICKEY: They are very strong, I've had one run into me full force, bruised my leg.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But what if all dogs who look like Pit Bulls, aren't? And what if dogs who look nothing like Pit Bulls, have traces of them? A new DNA blood test for dogs introduced late last year may change the lives of thousands of dogs. The test is called a Wisdom Panel and it gives a clear genetic identity of a mixed breed dog. For Charlie, it could change his life. Owner Linehan says she and everyone she knows thinks Charlie looks like a Pit Bull. But she was shocked when the $200 test classified him as something else.

JOYCE LINEHAN: Look at him! Dalmatian corgi? I sent an email to all my friends saying from now on he won't be wearing a muzzle he'll be wearing a fireman's hat you know like the little Dalmatians.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Even though Charlie has significant amounts of Dalmatian and Welsh Corgi, he also has distant traces of American Staffordshire Terrier, one of the breeds considered a Pit Bull in Boston. And the way the ordinance is written, any dog that looks like a Pit Bull is considered dangerous. City Counselor Rob Consalvo, who proposed the ordinance, says when the law is reviewed in June, the new DNA testing will be looked at.

ROB CONSALVO: Definitely it's on the table for discussion as part of our review and we need to have it on the table and see how it impacts this ordinance.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Pit Bull bites to humans have dropped slightly over the past five years, but it's unclear whether that's because fewer people own Pit Bulls or fewer people have chosen to report bites. Boston has 230 registered Pit Bulls, but many believe there are hundreds more that are unregistered. Where the DNA testing could really change things is the animal shelter.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The majority of dogs waiting to be adopted at the MSPCA shelter in Jamaica Plain on this day are Pit Bulls. They are classified by sight.

KARA HOLMQUIST: This is bruno he's very sweet he's been here for a while.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But Kara Holmquist Director of Advocacy for the MSCPA says the agency doesn't plan to use the DNA test to classify dogs. She says dog owners who order the tests for medical reasons risk discovering their dogs fall under the Pit Bull ordinance.

KARA HOLMQUIST: We're seeing both sides of it. And I think it will be interesting to watch how this Wisdom Panel is used in the public policy debate.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But the DNA test doesn't change Counselor Consalvo's mind.

ROB CONSALVO: I believe if there's any trait of the dog in a particular animal than it should still be included in the ordinance because part of the issue is the tendency of the dog.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: As for Charlie, the Dalmatian, Corgi Mix who looks like a Pit Bull..... Joyce Linehan has already changed his classification at the veterinarian.

JOYCE LINEHAN: Next time I go to license him for next year, I will send in paperwork which has his rabies vaccination and that other things they required that way he is a Corgi cross and I am therefore going to try to register him as something other than a Pit Bull.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The new DNA test could have consequences in many cities and towns in Massachusetts. Canton, Everett, Haverhill, Holyoke and Medway all have laws restricting Pit Bulls...or at least dogs thought to be Pit Bulls.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on May 30, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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