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Pit Bulls Out of the Doghouse

A long-maligned breed is getting an image makeover. But skeptics say those fighting genes are hard to overcome.

August 03, 2006|Carla Hall | Times staff writer

The bar is crowded, but Karen Dawn doesn't hesitate to enter with her two dogs in tow. Paula sports a pink bandanna around her neck; Buster, a camouflage kerchief.

Oblivious to the din of voices and music, Paula and Buster quietly make their way through the tangle of patrons' feet, pausing to bask in the massage of hands reaching down to pet them. "They're usually on someone's lap," says Dawn, who seeks out animal-friendly restaurants and bars like this one in Venice.

Monica Paull, sitting nearby, gushes, "Your dogs are amazing!" She pats the empty spot next to her and Paula hops up.

At this moment, it's difficult to believe that Paula and Buster share a heritage with dogs that have, this summer, fatally mauled a man in San Bernardino County and seriously wounded an 11-year-old girl in a school bathroom in the San Fernando Valley and an 11-month-old girl in Santa Barbara.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Pit bulls: A front-page article on Thursday said that in the fiscal year that ended in June, the city of Los Angeles issued more than twice as many licenses for pit bulls than it issued four years ago. It should have read "almost twice as many."

But Paula, with her wide cheekbones and brown-and-white color, is unmistakably a pit bull. Buster is a pit bull mix.

So how is it that two dogs belonging to a breed that is controversial, feared, banned by some cities and possessed of the worst public relations in the canine world end up cuddling with beach community hipsters?

Paula and Buster are evidence of a phenomenon that is emerging in some unexpected parts of the city: the well-socialized pit bull.

From the lofts of downtown to the streets of West Hollywood to the bungalows of Venice, pit bulls increasingly can be seen strolling with their people. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx has two pit bulls. Britney Spears' husband, Kevin Federline, made celebrity magazine news walking with a pit bull in Malibu.

And even television has offered up a trusty pit bull: The young heroine of "Veronica Mars" has a canine companion named Backup.

The city of Los Angeles issued licenses for 3,040 pit bulls in the fiscal year that ended in June -- more than twice as many (1,664) as the city gave out four years ago. Los Angeles County, which licenses 265,000 dogs in the unincorporated parts of the county as well as 49 cities, has registered 10,708 pit bulls.

No one is suggesting that pit bulls have replaced the Chihuahua as the new "it" dog -- at least not until Paris Hilton gets one. And county statistics show that the biggest concentrations of licensed pit bulls are in Compton and Lancaster, not Malibu or Beverly Hills. But trainers and animal shelter staffers and rescuers see a trend: increasing adoptions by families, professionals and others willing to attempt to raise a civilized pit bull.

"As far as I'm concerned, pit bulls are one of the most popular breeds," said Shell Jones, a professional dog walker for nine years. On a recent morning at the Laurel Canyon Dog Park, she and her husband, Vance Floyd, who run their service together, were shepherding a canine flock of about 20, including pit bulls Bernadette, Figgy, Louis and Bridie.

"With pit bulls, [behavior] just has to do with who takes care of the dog," she said.

Bobby Dorafshar, 49, who has been training dogs in the area since 1989 and rescuing them for nearly a decade, points to the so-called gentrification of the pit bull: "You go to West Los Angeles, you go to the higher-class areas, you see people adopting pit bulls. I see that a lot more these days."

At the city's West L.A. shelter, staffers enthusiastically promote the pit bulls they believe are temperamentally agreeable. "The best dogs," said Charla Fales, an animal-care technician and volunteer liaison at the shelter, "are the female pits who've had puppies. They mother everyone -- dogs, kids."

David and Adriane Borkin showed up at the West L.A. shelter looking for a family dog in late May. In an outdoor enclosure, they met Diamond, a brown brindle-coat pit bull, 2 or 3 years old, who had spent four months at the shelter and successfully undergone obedience training.

"We weren't really looking for anything in particular," said David Borkin, 33, an assistant building manager. "Just something that would go well with an apartment and a couple of kids and who'd be alone during the day."

At their first meeting, Diamond rolled over and turned her big brown eyes up at Adriane and David. The couple grinned and David rubbed the dog's belly.

Diamond found a new home with the Borkins and their children, Madison, 10, and Spencer, 8. She also acquired a new name: Daisy.

Makeover

Many who own or rescue pit bulls want to rehabilitate the image of a breed they believe has been unfairly maligned.

"I would say we're trying to restore the image," said Donna Reynolds, 44, who lives in Oakland. She and her husband rescue pit bulls and run a website, www.badrap.org, that seeks to dispel the belief that pit bulls are vicious and unmanageable. Reynolds says a pit bull is "an exceptional family pet.... People who tend to believe they're scary have been educated by the media.

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