It’s not a pit bull, it’s a square-head: How stereotypes hurt bigger dogs

Grant’s ears perk up when shelter employee Jaime Devereaux holds a treat in front of the 3-year-old.

He sits, holds out a paw and, after a few missteps, stands between Devereaux’s legs and walks with her. 

Devereaux loves Grant in all his 60-plus-pound glory. She said she’s brought him home and “he’s great with my 2-year old.”

But Grant has sat at the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League shelter for the past year and a half — about 27 times longer than a small dog’s average stay.

For big dogs that look like Grant, with their boxy heads and muscular bodies, misconceptions that they are naturally aggressive leave them without people to adopt them, officials at area shelters said. 

Peggy Adams calls Grant and other similar dogs “square heads,” referring to any dog with physical traits typically associated with pit bulls, said Rich Anderson, Peggy Adams’ chief executive.

Unlike other dogs, which spend an average of 20 days in the shelter, these dogs average six months, Anderson said. 

“That myth that these dogs are more aggressive than other dogs ... that perception definitely prevents a lot of people from wanting to adopt,” he said.

>>County waives some adoption fees as pet shelter nears capacity

Dianne Sauve, the director of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control, said the odds are against adoption for dogs weighing more than 40 pounds. 

Homeowner regulations can limit the size and breeds allowed to live in communities, often targeting “dangerous” dogs like dobermans, boxers and pit bulls — even though “I’ve had little dogs tear up the linoleum out of kitchen floors,” said Capt. Daisy Blakeman, operations manager at the county shelter.


Area shelter officials say there are multiple misconceptions about "square head" dogs such as pitbulls.

They’re aggressive by nature 
Certain dog breeds, like square heads, aren’t aggressive inherently. Dogs can act out if they’ve been trained to fight or if they sense their owner is in danger.

They have stronger jaws and are therefore more dangerous.
Recent research has shown that the size of a dog and the shape of its head can predict how strong a bite will be. But small dogs also can cause heavy damage, especially because people bring the small dogs up to their faces. Bigger dogs give more warning signs they don’t want to be touched, instead of small dogs. 

They’re not good with children or other dogs.
A dog, no matter the breed, should never be left alone with a baby, because the small cries can be confused for prey. Still, square heads can be friendly and loving with other dogs and with children. Shelter employees familiar with the dogs’ personality can provide more information about a dog and their preferences.

Lana Pistocchi, an Animal Care and Control staff member, said she’s having trouble renting a place that will take her and her 100-pound American Bull Terrier, Sullivan — named after the large, shy monster in the Pixar film “Monsters Inc.” 

“He’s pretty much banned everywhere,” she said.

There’s also the challenge of private rescue agencies, which can turn away larger square heads and instead import small dogs from other states, Sauve said. 

“We should be focusing on our own backyard instead of bringing hundreds of white fluffy puppies from other states,” she said.

Though the county shelter works to save as many dogs as they can — and currently have an 87 percent save rate,  higher than in previous years, Sauve said — 70 percent of the dogs they do euthanize are square heads. The shelter is currently at critical capacity and is waiving adoption fees for big dogs through June 30. 

To help the dogs, the kennel doesn’t label them with a breed. But Sauve said the visual marker of a square head, a dominant gene in dogs, is still enough to put many at risk.

RELATED: In 2014, Palm Beach County Commission mayor wanted to look at pit bull ban

It’s why dogs like Dude, a black square head who has been in the shelter since December, sit in the kennel even though Sauve said he’s “one of the most well-behaved dogs you’ve been around.”

And the longer a dog is in the kennel, the more likely its behavior will change.

“It’d be like if you put you or me in a 5-by-5 bathroom and expected you not to lose your mind,” she said.

To help the dogs, the shelter gives them the chance to play as a group outside. It also helps test their behavior and prepares them for adoption.

On any given day, a group of about seven to 10 dogs run around a field, occasionally butting heads or splashing in baby pools laid out for when they get overheated.

Blakeman, the operations manager, said the dogs who participate are better adjusted, more secure and safer to adopt out because they’ve learned appropriate behavior, such as the limits of playing, greeting and welcoming new dogs.

Even then, Sauve said the bigger, muscular breeds don’t have as good a chance at finding a home. 

People think of incidents like when a baby in a bouncy seat was killed in Miramar by a dog called a pit bull, or when a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy had to shoot a dog, also called a pit bull, who attacked him during a Memorial Day weekend altercation at a Royal Palm Beach gas station.

READ: “After pit bull attack, how safe are Palm Beach County dog parks?”

Peggy Adams participates in the Dolly’s Dream program with the Boca Raton-based Levitetz Family Foundation to highlight two “square heads” each month. Adoption fees are waived and other products are included as an incentive.

Daniella Jordan, executive director of Dolly’s Dream, said the program has helped arrange for 215 adoptions since it began in 2016 and has 11 statewide partners. Foundation president Jeff Levitetz adopted a pit bull named Dolly and since has taken in two other square heads, she said.

Jordan said besides helping the dogs, Dolly’s Dream can teach people that the bigger breeds are just as friendly as the small dogs from the shelters. 

“These dogs deserve a second chance and not to be overlooked,” she said. 

Anderson said they’re saving the bigger dogs and getting them homes, but the process is slower.

“These are great dogs,” Anderson said. “They’re just bigger.”


Shelter officials say people should consider these issues before taking a dog home.

Compatibility with any existing pet. Some shelters will do meet-and-greets, where your existing pets can see the potential dog and interact.
How well the dog is with children.
If your apartment complex or homeowner group prohibits any breeds or any large dog.
If your apartment complex or homeowner group prohibits any breeds or any large dog.
The cost of care and upkeep.
How much space the dog will have to play.

Some area shelters that can help you adopt:

Palm Beach County Animal County Care and Control - Fees waived for all adult dogs over 40 pounds. 7100 Belvedere Road, West Palm Beach. Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11. am. to 4 p.m. 
Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League - Upcoming “Mega Mutt Madness Adoption Event” on June 23, free adoptions for all dogs over 40 pounds. 3100 North Military Trail, West Palm Beach. Event from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tri County Animal Rescue - Open Tuesday through Sunday. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. 21287 Boca Rio Road, Boca Raton
Save a Pet Florida, adoptions held out of PETCO. 901 W Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Hours: 11 a.m to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Big Dog Ranch Rescue - 14444 Okeechobee Boulevard, Loxahatchee. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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