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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

"I say, 'Have you hung out or met a dog you consider to be a true American pit bull?' 'No, I haven't, but my neighbor has one chained out in the backyard.' Well, any dog chained in the backyard is going to be mean."

Anyone adopting a dog from Reynolds must sign a contract and take classes.

"We find that home that can be an ambassador for the breed," she said.

Pia Salk, a clinical psychologist and dog rescuer, even thinks pit bull ownership can help parents teach children about prejudice. "It's a dialogue about social justice.... 'You know, kids, people are going to say you shouldn't have a pit bull, they're dangerous.' You say, 'Maybe we take more care with this dog.' You've just shown your kids we're a family that's smart, we won't just take the party line, we're willing to give this dog a chance."

Cesar Millan, the famed "Dog Whisperer" who has his own show on the National Geographic cable channel, says pit bulls, like all the power breeds, can be trained through exercise and discipline.

He keeps pit bulls in his resident pack at his South L.A.-based Dog Psychology Center, which is part dog camp, part rehab center.

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."

"My kids are around pit bulls every day," said Millan, who believes the dogs have been unfairly stigmatized. "In the '70s they blame Dobermans, in the '80s they blame German shepherds, in the '90s they blame the Rottweiler, now they blame the pit bull."

Complicated History

But the story of pit bulls is more complicated than just a case of bad spin. The dogs are genetically predisposed to be aggressive toward other dogs, having been bred centuries ago in England and Ireland to bait bulls, among other animals. When that was outlawed, they were bred to fight dogs in pits.

Actually, the term "pit bull" is more a catch-all to describe several related breeds descended from that combative stock. The American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier are all basically pits.

The dogs were prized for their determination as fighters -- their "gameness" -- and their loyalty to their handlers. A dog in a bloody battle with another dog would let its human handler reach into a pit and pull it out barehanded. Today, every state outlaws dog fighting and most classify it as a felony.

For most of the 20th century, pit bulls enjoyed a rather wholesome image. Petey of "Our Gang" was a pit bull, and Helen Keller kept one as a pet. A dignified pit bull graced an American propaganda poster during World War I, and a pit rescued in 1985 on the streets of South L.A. by County Fire Station 14 was the station's beloved mascot for years.

But in the last couple of decades, the dog has become a publicly reviled symbol of savagery. With its broad, muscular build and a powerful bite capable of shredding dogs and humans alike, the pit bull became the canine of choice for gangbangers, drug dealers and other criminals protecting their turf. People who lived in those same dangerous neighborhoods bought them for protection.

A flourishing underground for illegal dog fighting in Los Angeles started in the 1990s, said Phyllis Daugherty, director of the L.A.-based advocacy group Animal Issues Movement. That led to further breeding to make them as aggressive as possible toward other dogs. When dogs weren't deemed good enough for fighting, they were sold or given away and often ended up abused and even more antisocial.

The fatal mauling of a young boy by his family's pit bull in San Francisco last year prompted Mayor Gavin Newsom to consider banning them in the city. That didn't happen, but at his urging the state Legislature enacted a law -- it went into effect this year -- allowing local jurisdictions to regulate the neutering and spaying of specific breeds.

Marcia Mayeda, director of Los Angeles County's Department of Animal Care and Control, says she sees the most ravaged of the pit bulls -- some adoptable, some not. "Everybody wants to romanticize this idea of the gentle giant," she said. "There are those dogs, but it's not every dog."

Most trainers, rescuers and veterinarians interviewed for this story suggested that anyone wishing to adopt a rescued pit bull put the dog through temperament testing and obedience training, and have it spayed or neutered.

There's no doubt these dogs require special handling, and one longtime pit bull trainer is chagrined by what she calls a "huge sympathy" for the dogs.

"You get these 'humane-iacs' who think every pit bull has been abused, every pit bull is wonderful," said Tia Torres-Cardello, owner of Villalobos Rescue Center in Agua Dulce. "I say that's not the case."


It's hard out there for a pit and its owner. People cross the street when they see them coming, even when the dogs are leashed. Some dog walkers won't take pit bulls as clients. Not all insurance companies offer liability coverage to their owners.

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