Pit bulls hold a grip on bad rep

Los Angeles Times - - THE PETS ISSUE - Home@latimes.com By Roy Riven­burg

Sta­tis­tics strongly in­di­cate ‘hu­man be­hav­ior plays a ma­jor role in dog-bite in­juries.’ — UNIVER­SITY OF



Be­fore be­ing branded as the Al Capone of dogs, pit bulls reigned as one of Amer­ica’s most beloved pets.

Petey, the ca­nine side­kick in the “Lit­tle Ras­cals” comedies, was a pit bull. So were the mas­cots for RCA Vic­tor and Buster Brown shoes. Even the White House wel­comed pit bull off­shoots un­der Theodore Roo­sevelt and Woodrow Wil­son.

But there were hints of a darker side. Roo­sevelt’s bull ter­rier al­most cre­ated an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent by bit­ing off a French am­bas­sador’s pants at a White House func­tion. And Nip­per, the bull ter­rier mix im­mor­tal­ized by RCA, re­port­edly earned his name by fre­quently nip­ping visi­tors’ legs.

Such shenani­gans seem tame com­pared with to­day’s pit bull PR prob­lems. No­to­ri­ous for deadly at­tacks against tod­dlers and adults — in­clud­ing the fa­tal maul­ing of an An­te­lope Val­ley woman in 2013 — mod­ern pit bulls have been os­tra­cized and some­times out­lawed by com­mu­ni­ties across the na­tion. L.A. an­i­mal shel­ters are f looded with the dogs, which can in­clude the Stafford­shire bull ter­rier, Amer­i­can Stafford­shire ter­rier and Amer­i­can pit bull ter­rier, among other breeds. Some res­i­dents who own other types of dogs will cross the street if a pit bull ap­proaches. Is the fear war­ranted? Crit­ics in­sist pit bulls are tick­ing time bombs, ge­net­i­cally wired for vi­o­lence. De­fend­ers blame bad own­ers for the neg­a­tive head­lines.

The truth lies some­where in be­tween, says Ni­cholas Dod­man, di- rec­tor of the an­i­mal be­hav­ior clinic at Tufts Univer­sity’s school of vet­eri­nary medicine and au­thor of “Dogs Be­hav­ing Badly.” “I see both sides,” he says, cit­ing sci­en­tific re­search and per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

In the plus col­umn, nu­mer­ous stud­ies show pit bulls are no more likely to bite hu­mans than other breeds. How­ever, when they do chomp down, it can be a blood­bath.

Last Novem­ber, a River­side County tod­dler’s ear was torn off by a pit bull. And the An­te­lope Val­ley woman who was killed by a pack of pit bulls two years ago suf­fered 200 punc­ture wounds.

“Dif­fer­ent breeds tend to have dif­fer­ent bit­ing styles,” Dod­man says. Pit bull ter­ri­ers are a cross be­tween English bull­dogs, which were bred in the 1800s to fight bulls and bears with te­na­cious bites to the snout, and ter­ri­ers, known for speed and agility. The com­bi­na­tion pro­duced dogs that de­liver a “crush­ing bite” and don’t let go, Dod­man says.

That helps ex­plain why pit bulls of­ten lead the pack in bit­ing hu­mans, ac­cord­ing to media re­ports an­a­lyz­ing records from var­i­ous city and county an­i­mal con­trol de­part­ments.

Most maul­ing vic­tims are chil­dren, with boys sub­stan­tially out­num­ber­ing girls in in­juries and deaths, a statis­tic that “strongly in­di­cates that hu­man be­hav­ior plays a ma­jor role in dog-bite in­juries,” ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia re­searchers.

Many dog ex­perts say such at­tacks are aber­ra­tions spurred by ir­re­spon­si­ble own­ers who train or tor­ture the dogs to be mean.

Dod­man com­pares pit bulls to mus­cle cars: “In­sur­ance com­pa­nies know if you put an 18-year-old be­hind the wheel of a Fer­rari, it’s an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen. The prob­lem isn’t the car; it’s the driver.” Like­wise, pit bulls in the wrong hands can wreak havoc.

With that in mind, Troy Smith, a Wood­land Hills ac­coun­tant who owns three pit bulls, launched L.A. Re­spon­si­ble Pit Bull Own­ers in 2011. The non­profit of­fers weekly train­ing classes in parks and oc­ca­sion­ally spon­sors mass pit bull walks around the Rose Bowl to show­case the an­i­mals’ un­der­ly­ing good na­ture.

To fur­ther counter the dog’s sav­age rep­u­ta­tion, other ad­vo­cates point to the case of Michael Vick, the NFL quar­ter­back who pleaded guilty in 2007 to op­er­at­ing a dog-fight­ing ring. Although offi- cials from Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals and the Hu­mane So­ci­ety be­lieved his 51 pit bulls were be­yond re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, res­cue groups placed nearly all of the dogs (one was eu­th­a­nized) in new homes and sanc­tu­ar­ies, where they’re do­ing well, ac­cord­ing to pub­lished re­ports.

Another oft-men­tioned pit bull de­fense in­volves claims that they were nick­named “nanny dogs” in the early 1900s be­cause of their de­vo­tion to chil­dren. The la­bel is some­times backed with vintage photos of young­sters rid­ing or cud­dling pit bulls. Af­ter an anti-pit bull web­site posted photos of kids strad­dling al­li­ga­tors and of­fered ev­i­dence that the claim was ac­tu­ally cooked up in 1971 by the pres­i­dent of a Stafford­shire bull ter­rier club, some ad­vo­cates back­tracked. BAD RAP, the Bay Area group that helped res­cue Vick’s dogs, con­ceded in 2013 that the “nanny dog” claim was “a re­cent in­ven­tion.”

And so the de­bate over pit bulls rages on — un­til the next ca­nine vil­lain emerges. Pit bulls are merely the latest in a string of four-footed out­casts. In the 1800s, blood­hounds were re­port­edly the most feared breed. In the 1970s, Ger­man shep­herds ranked as dog-bite kings. Smith pre­dicts that pit bulls will soon be de­throned by the Bel­gian Mali­nois — a va­ri­ety of shep­herd fa­vored by the Se­cret Ser­vice and used by the Navy SEALS who raided Osama bin Laden’s com­pound.

“It’s sad,” he says. “Dogs are just dogs.”

Ken Kwok Los An­ge­les Times

NO­TO­RI­OUS for highly pub­li­cized at­tacks against adults and chil­dren, dogs be­long­ing to breeds fall­ing un­der the um­brella of “pit bull” have been os­tra­cized and, in some com­mu­ni­ties, banned.

Ken Kwok Los An­ge­les Times

PIT BULL breeds were once beloved across the coun­try.

Melissa Keizer Getty Im­ages

A STAFFORD­SHIRE ter­rier finds it­self be­hind bars.

Robert Durell Los An­ge­les Times

L.A. AN­I­MAL shel­ters are f looded with pit bull-type dogs.

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