WINTER HAVEN | Polk County Animal Control is no longer offering certain dog breeds for family adoption because of concerns about possible attacks.
Akitas, chow chows, pit bulls and Rottweilers are still being accepted into the county shelter but are only being adopted out to dog rescue organizations, according to Animal Control Director Lt. Loyd Stewart.
The month-old policy firms up an existing guideline. Stewart recalled only two adult male pit bulls being adopted out to the community within the past year, but no Rottweilers or Akitas.
"The concern is that a lot of people take these particular breeds and want to adapt the animal's behavior toward aggression, either toward people or other animals," Stewart said. "These breeds' size lend themselves to the injuries being significant when they do attack."
No dog adopted out by the shelter at 7115 de Castro Road, Winter Haven, has returned there as a result of suspected aggression training on the part of its owner, Stewart said.
Mutts that are a combination of one of the four breeds are still being offered for adoption to the public, as long as they meet temperament requirements.
The decision was not about liability, Stewart said. Adopters sign a "hold harmless" agreement, standard at many shelters, when they take home an animal. This means adopters can't hold the shelter responsible for any objectionable behavior by the animal. But the potential risk from attacks by these breeds, and recent increases in such attacks, Stewart said, created enough concern to limit their presence in the community.
"For public safety reasons, we feel like it's the right direction for us to take," he said.
"We just don't have the resources to check every potential adopter or to do a complete temperament evaluation to assure with reasonable certainty" that an adoption will be successful for both the family and these breeds.
But rescue organizations do.
Dorie Sparkman works with the Akita Rescue Society of Florida and has been working with county animal control for several years. She called the shelter "rescue-friendly," commending staff for the care it provides and keeping new dogs long enough for rescue representatives to travel to Polk and evaluate them.
"We're not going to take dogs out of there that won't do well with a family," she said.
Potential owners go through an extensive process, including interviews and a home visit that checks the strength of door latches and fencing, to be approved for adoption.
Though Sparkman said she prefers shelters to put Akitas up for adoption directly, she would rather see the dogs placed through an organization like hers that can devote the resources to thoroughly screen applicants and animals alike.
Akitas in particular require more discipline and maintenance than most owners can offer. The breed needs an owner with an "alpha personality," or else the dog will take it upon itself to become the head of the family.
"They have a very distinct sense of pack order, and they're not the easiest dogs to train," she said.
The breed was developed in the mountainous areas of Japan, it doesn't do well in Florida heat and must be kept mostly indoors, which some people will find problematic because they shed profusely.
Joe Morgan, manager of the Humane Society of Polk County at 555 Sage Road, Winter Haven, agrees that with the right owner, any breed can be successful. The shelter does not have any policies barring certain breeds from being adopted by families.
Morgan himself owns a pit bull, which he called "the best dog I ever had." In fact, he said none of the four breeds have ever bitten him, but he has been nipped by smaller dogs.
"It just depends on the disposition of the dog. If they're nice, we're not going to tell people they can't have the dog," he said.
Adopters are carefully screened and matched with all breeds.
"We spend a lot of time with our clients and our animals, and there is a lot of reasons why we decline them," Morgan said.
Dogs receive some training while at the shelter, and adopters are advised to seek out additional courses.
The key, Akita Rescue's Sparkman said, is putting adopters in touch with good resources, such as area clubs and qualified trainers.
"The shelters, they just want to make sure the animal isn't going in a home where they'll be put right back there," she said.
[ Eva Kis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7550. ]