When Debbie Burns and her husband decided to move back to Utah to be near family, Burns began searching for homes to rent.
She found numerous great properties, but most of them wouldn’t allow her family to move in. Their 6-year-old pit bull, Josser, wasn’t welcome — and purely because of his breed.
“I remember hanging up the phone after calling yet another apartment complex and just wanting to cry,” Burns said. “No matter how short the list of banned breeds gets, my dog is always on that list.”
Although it’s illegal for a landlord to discriminate against a person, it’s a different story for man’s best friend.
Landlords and property management companies are allowed to ban breeds they consider dangerous or aggressive. For them, it’s all about liability and making other renters feel safe.
There’s a stigma that pit bulls are inherently vicious and dangerous — a public perception that’s fueled by fear and has resulted in pit bulls becoming the most euthanized dogs in America.
“Anywhere I go, people cross the street. They pick up their kids even if my dog isn’t doing anything just because he looks the way he does,” Burns said.
“I’ve had people say ‘Why would you own a monster like that?’ But Josser’s a great dog. He’s kind and excellent with my nieces and nephews. We’ve never had a problem with him.”
A report by the American Veterinary Medical Association says that although pit bulls’ size and strength make their attacks more dangerous, this also applies to other large dogs. The organization goes on to say that pit bulls are no more prone to biting than other breeds.
“Owners of pit bull-type dogs deal with a strong breed stigma; however, controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous,” according to an AVMA statement.
That stigma has serious implications for pit bull-owning renters though, and sometimes they’re forced to choose between a home and their dog.
For the past year, California resident Carol Devia and her family have been living in their car because they refuse to give up their pit bull, Rocco.
“I can’t find a place unless I give up my dog, and everyone tells me to, but I can’t do that,” Devia told ABC News.
For now, Devia, her husband and her teenage sons sleep in their car with Rocco and their lab mix, Camilla. They drive back and forth between wooded areas and parking lots where they can get Wi-Fi and cook.
But not all pit bull owners choose to keep their dogs.
“By far, the number one reason pit bulls are surrendered to shelters is because of a housing issue,” said Mitzi Bolanos, executive director of Stubby Dog, a nonprofit working to change public perception of pit bulls.
When Burns lived in Maryland, she and her husband adopted a second pit bull, Journey, which had been surrendered to a shelter when the dog’s previous owners moved to Prince George County.
Pit bulls are a banned breed in the county, but Burns owned a home in a neighboring county that doesn’t have breed-specific legislation.
Journey died last year, but Josser made the move back to Utah after Burns found a house in Orem that would allow him. She says their extra umbrella policy helped.
“We have additional insurance policy just to make ourselves more appealing as renters,” she said.
What’s a pit bull owner to do?
Bolanos suggests reaching out to local rescue and advocacy groups or national organizations like Stubby Dog. These groups have experience finding pit bull-friendly housing and can sometimes provide a temporary foster home for the dog while you search for a rental.
Getting an insurance policy on the dog so liability doesn’t fall to the landlord is another option.
Keep in mind that landlords often turn down applicants with pit bulls because of the breed stigma — not because of your specific dog. Try arranging for your landlord to meet your dog or have a previous landlord write a letter of recommendation.
Bolanos recommends creating a doggie resume that highlights the dog’s attributes and includes veterinary and training references. She says listing activities your dog enjoys can also help.
“Including things like walking, running, hiking or visiting the dog park shows that the dog will be property exercised and will likely not be destroying the place while home alone,” she said.
You can also offer to pay an additional pet deposit to cover any damages or propose to help the landlord buy a new policy from a non-discriminatory company. BAD RAP, a pit bull advocacy group, maintains a list of dog-friendly insurance companies and agents.
But pit bull advocates say the only way to make a lasting difference is to change the way the public views the breed.
“At the end of the day, I think education and experience will be the key,” Burns said. “Every time I’m out walking Josser and a parent allows their children to pet my dog, I feel there is hope.”
Photo: Debbie Burns, featuring Debbie Burns’ pit bulls, Journey and Josser