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Pit bulls: Precious pets or attack animals?

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Pit bulls: Are they precious pets or attack animals?
By J.T. Harris staff writer
September 24, 2003

A Palm City woman was hospitalized with serious injuries in August after trying to break up a dog fight. Two pit bulls involved in the attack have been euthanized.

An Indian River County animal control officer was bitten in March while checking whether two pit bulls were licensed and vaccinated against rabies.

An 11-year-old Port St. Lucie girl was mauled in January of 2001 when a pit bull jumped a fence and attacked her.

Is that pit bull next door a devoted dog like Petey, the lovable slob who pals around with his "Little Rascals" buddies, or is it the lunging, fangs-bared animal featured on one breeder's Web site or in media headlines?

Or could it be both -- a sweet-natured Doctor Jekyll that instantly can transform into a snarling, snapping, muscle-and-bone-shredding Hyde?

More than likely, say dog owners, it's simply another canine -- no better or worse than other breeds -- but one that has been stereotyped by isolated, violent, and sometimes deadly, incidents.

No breed of dog currently triggers more emotional reactions than pit bulls, and dog experts contend that when all the evidence is weighed, it might just be the dogs that are the real victims -- often judged without benefit of a fair trial.

According to research sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person's chances of getting bitten by a Chow Chow or German shepherd are probably greater than getting bitten by a pit bull. A CDC study published by the American Veterinary Medical Association notes that 27 people died as a result of dog attacks in 1997-1998 and lists Rottweilers as the nation's deadliest breed, involved in 10 of the attacks. Another CDC-sponsored project indicates that more than 30 different breeds -- including a Dachshund, a Labrador retriever and a Yorkshire terrier -- have been responsible for fatal attacks on humans over the past 25 years.

Local experts tend to support the CDC findings that pit bulls, despite the headlines, might be getting a bad rap.

"More people are bitten by German shepherds, Akitas and Chow Chows, but it's the pit bulls who have acquired the bad reputation," says Melissa Behres, a supervisior in Port St. Lucie Animal Control."

"A Chihuahua can be just as fierce as a Rottweiler or a Doberman."

The difference in dog-bite incidents, notes Jenell Atlas of the Martin County Sheriff's Office, "is that larger dogs can do a lot of damage."

John Ross, a Palm City dog trainer and author of four dog books agrees, explaining why pit bulls, according to American Kennel Club statistics, are involved in more fatal attacks than most other breeds.

"Many pit bulls," Ross says, "are very sweet, good-natured dogs, but they're potentially more dangerous. They have incredibly strong jaws . . . an ability to crush bones. A Chihuahua could have a nasty personality, but it can't do the same damage."

Karen Taylor, the St. Lucie County coordinator for Animal Control, says most of the dogs picked up for biting people are not pit bulls.

"Believe it or not," she said, "we pick pit bulls up just about every day, and normally they are very friendly. It's all in how they are raised."

Although an Indian River County animal control officer was bitten by a pit bull earlier this year, Animal Control Director Nancy Errett doesn't see the breed as a particular problem.

"Not any more than any other animal," she said.

A dog's environment, most local officials tend to agree, is a major determinant of its personality.

"We have no trouble with animals," Atlas said. "The trouble is with owners. Dogs can be trained to be loving pets, or they can be trained to be fighters.

"People are the problem, not the breed."

Still, Ross says, people, especially dog owners, should be aware of the natural tendencies of certain breeds.

Because of selective breeding, he says, "pit bulls are inherently more aggressive. However, that doesn't mean that every one is a nasty, evil dog that will tear someone apart."

Jerry O'Conner of Rio, a self-described dog lover and owner of a pit bull, says his pet is a perfect example.

"I have one who has earned the name Sissy," he said.

"She's a sweetheart of a dog, one of the sweetest I've ever met. She's very smart -- easy to train -- and very affectionate.

"Pit bulls don't want to eat other dogs," he said, noting that Sissy gets along fine with his other dog, a black Lab mix.

During a recent trip up the East Coast, Ross noted that shelters he visited along the way were full of pit bulls. Many, he said, were adoptable and would make good pets, but their reputations scared people away.

"It's truly a stereotype with them," he said.

Even so, he adds, people should use caution when selecting pets. "I have to say that if a couple with two kids came to me and said, 'We want a family dog, and we're trying to decide between a pit bull and a golden retriever,' I would definitely say the golden retriever."

But that advice comes with a caveat.

"If you get a golden retriever and let it do anything it wants for years, it will tend to become spoiled and might show its teeth. But if you do the same thing with a pit bull, you have a bigger liability."

Taylor also notes that circumstances often play as much of a role in dog-bite incidents as the breeding, citing a recent example of a small child who was bitten while taking food from a dog's mouth.

Ken Nelson, the animal control officer for the City of Fort Pierce Police Department, doesn't see pit bulls as any more of a problem than other breeds.

"I get all of them," he said, "Chihuahuas, German shepherds -- across the board." Most, Nelson says, are mixed breed.

Local agencies usually don't break down biting incidents by breed for a number of reasons, including the fact that sometimes the breed isn't known or the dog is a mixed breed.

Port St. Lucie doesn't even attempt to denote breeds in dog-bite reports, Behres said, based primarily upon a state law that prohibits cities or counties from discriminating against specific breeds by attempting to create ordinances prohibiting them.

"You cannot outlaw a breed in any part of the state," she said.

One of the CDC reports notes that outlawing a breed is not a real solution, anyhow.

"Breed-specific legislation," it said, "does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive."

As the report summed up, a more realistic approach to curtailing dog attacks might be "adequate funding for animal control agencies, enforcement of existing animal control laws, and educational and policy strategies to reduce inappropriate dog and owner behaviors."

So how dangerous is that pit bull -- or any other dog -- in the fence next door?

It's probably only as dangerous as the person in the house.

- [email][email protected][/email]

Local dog bite data

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Guest Anonymous

I was also glad to finally come across something positive too! You have to type "Amercian Pit bull Terrier" into Google, to find the good articles usually though. "Pit bull" hardly ever brings up anything but the heart breakers! :cry:

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