In the world of dog owners, there are two kinds of people: pit bull lovers and pit bull haters. Their arguments are not open to one iota of compromise. And when the discussion is longer than about one minute, it can turn pretty ugly. What is it about pit bulls that makes otherwise civil people curl their lips, snarl and strike out at each other?

After all, we are a dog-loving nation. We cherish our canines and consider them to be part of the family. Yet statistics reveal that just two breeds were responsible for the majority of fatal attacks on people. In a well-publicized study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it was reported that between 1979 and 1998, pit bulls and rottweilers were responsible for 60 percent of the dog attacks that ended in death. Yet the most passionate discussions center on the pit bull.

Pit bull: 19th century designer genes

Kenneth Phillips is a dog-bite attorney in Beverly Hills and represents victims across the country. “The pit bull is in a separate class because it was a dog that was designed to kill other dogs,” Phillips said.

The history of the pit bull is unique in dog breeding. The genesis of pit bulls was in England during the time of the black plague. Terriers were skilled ratters and rats carried the fleas that caused the plague. Two types of these dogs were the English White and the black and tan terriers. Their fearlessness and steadfast determination (some call it stubbornness) also made them uniquely skilled in the popular sports of that era: bear-baiting and bull-baiting.

Another breed, the mastiff type of dog, was used in England for guarding the home and in battle. The mastiff was also useful in farm work, especially in helping to bring in the bulls. Thus, it was called a bull dog. The bloody sports of baiting were popular in Elizabethan times but were outlawed in 1835 as being too cruel. That brought about the clandestine sport of dog fighting.

The terriers were bred with the mastiffs to become superior dog fighting machines. They were designed to be animal-aggressive but still to be handlable by their owners. If one of the dogs attacked a referee or owner during a dog fight, it was eliminated. This is part of the claim by modern pit bull owners that their dogs are not likely to attack a person.

In the mid-19th century, migration to the U.S. brought the dogs into this country. Because they were bred to be intelligent and level headed, they became popular pets during the Victorian era. These dogs were especially popular in Boston, where they were further bred to become larger and stockier, making them ideal for working on farms and for dog fighting. And that is how the American pit bull terrier came to be.

Phillips has a lot of experience with the victims of aggressive dogs and said a vicious pit bull is not just the result of irresponsible owners. “It is completely unpredictable,” Phillips said, “and I base that on interview after interview of parents whose own children have been seriously injured by these dogs. There was a design flaw. They are in our cities in increasing numbers, but the design flaw of acting unpredictably and turning on the wrong people keeps on showing up. To me, the pit bull is like a defective product. Letting people have pit bulls is like letting everybody have an Uzi (automatic machine gun). Why? It’s too dangerous.”

Donna Gillespie is the deputy director of Animal Regulation in Ventura County. Gillespie has seen a lot of animals and does not think that all pit bulls automatically make bad pets. “If you are talking about the bully breeds, they are genetically bred to be aggressive toward other animals, not towards people,” Gillespie said. “I haven’t found a lot of pit bulls that were vicious towards people. Can they be made that way? Yeah.”

At the county animal shelters, Gillespie said they evaluate the incoming dogs. “We do behavior testing to see if an animal is appropriate for adoption. Also, we do home inspections on pit bulls and other known aggressive breeds. We do it not to save the public from the dog but to save the dogs from the public, to make sure they go into good homes and homes that are aware of the dog’s breed-specific characteristics.”

But when a pit bull is aggressive, the shelter staff can still avoid euthanizing the dog. “Yes, sometimes we have animals that are just not appropriate for adoption,” Gillespie said. “We don’t really get a lot of them. But when we do get some that pose a danger to society, usually a rescue [group] will step forward. The rescue group can provide training and behavior modification.”

dogsNo such thing as a bad dog
Wendy Fisher is a pit bull owner and works at the Canine Adoption and Rescue League (C.A.R.L.) in Ventura. “I believe that every dog has its right place,” Fisher said. “At this point, our rescue does not; nor do I know of any pit bull that isn’t a perfectly adoptable dog for the majority of homes.”

Fisher said that pit bulls do extremely well on the “canine good citizen test.” “From my years’ experience, pit bulls are the most people-friendly, children-friendly, human-social, and passed temperament tests higher than most breeds,” she said. “I will not adopt out a dog that I think has any human aggression. No matter what breed, human aggression is not acceptable. As for pit bulls, I am very cautious about where they go. I always say that your pit [bull] has to be better than the best golden retriever. In order to change the stigma, owners need to show how wonderful the breed is.”

On the subject of animal aggression, Fisher explained that even that trait has an up side. “What makes pit bulls a difficult dog also makes them the best dogs,” Fisher said. “They will do anything to please their master.”

There has been much public debate on the subject of football player Michael Vick’s dogs and whether they can be rehabilitated into family pets. Vick recently finished serving a jail sentence for running a dog fighting ring. The dogs were abused both in and outside the ring. Some of those dogs have been placed in homes and appear to be docile and loving.

Gillespie referred to those dogs as examples of the power of rehabilitation. “Wasn’t that beautiful, absolutely beautiful!” Gillespie said. “If you look at all the Vick dogs, pit bulls are bred to be inherently animal-aggressive, not people-aggressive, because when you place that dog in the pit, the handler has to be able to grab that dog and take it out.”

Fisher also mentioned the Vick dogs. “Many have been rehabilitated and adopted out successfully,” Fisher said. “I have rehabbed ‘bait dogs’ (dogs that are used to get the fighter dog whipped into a violent frenzy just before going into the pit) and have had several that I suspect were used for fighting. Never once have I seen any human aggression, and their animal aggression can be controlled.”

Stupid people, dangerous dogs
One point on which all sides agree is that people, not the dogs, are often responsible for dangerous canine behavior by the dogs. Gillespie said responsible dog owners need to begin their search for a pooch online or in the library. “I would suggest that anybody that wants to adopt a dog to study about it,” Gillespie said. “Especially if it is a family with small children. Certain breeds have certain temperaments and characteristics.”

Phillips agrees that owners play a large part in the dog’s behavior. “I don’t think the breed is that much of a factor except when you are talking about the pit bull,” Phillips said. “When you talk about the other (aggressive) dogs, it’s really a matter of certain factors that lead to dogs biting people combined with irresponsible dog owners. The dog owner is the one that controls almost all the factors.”

Dr. Natalie Barrett is a veterinarian at Moorpark Veterinary Hospital. She said learning about different breeds is always the first place to begin. “It is important for people, especially families, to do their research before they get a particular breed of dog, to know what they are getting involved with,” Barrett said. “There definitely are some breeds that are more aggressive, based on what they were originally bred for. There are certain breeds you should avoid when you have small children. It is something where you need to make sure you really do your research before you sign on for 15-odd years with a pet.”

When it comes to pit bulls, Barrett said they can present a unique challenge. “Although I’ve seen that a lot of pit bulls need great patience, and a lot of them make great pets, it is a risk as well,” Barrett said. “There is a long list of breeds that should be avoided if a family has babies or small children. I think a lot of the time people don’t necessarily know what they are getting into.”

Phillips said that in his line of work, smaller dogs just aren’t part of the problem. “All dogs will bite, but little dogs just won’t do the damage,” Phillips said. “It is not whether the dog will bite; it is about the amount of damage the bite can cause. So when you are talking about a dog with a big head and a big body, that is the problem.”

There are other problems that are connected more to people than to the dog. Barrett said it is about the dog’s history and behavior. “If you are adopting a pet, I don’t think you can know the risk, especially if you are going from a shelter or a rescue situation where you don’t know an animal’s past,” Barrett said. “It’s a risk, and I think it’s one that somebody can take if they don’t have kids or if their kids are already teenagers, it may be more appropriate.”

Animal aggression is another issue that often arises with pit bulls. They were bred to fight other dogs to the death, and Phillips said that can present dangers to people. “When a pit bull is after your dog on a leash, all too often the aggression turns against you,” Phillips said.

Fisher admits that this genetic characteristic is a problem when not fully addressed. “Yes, pit bulls do have a stronger tendency to be dog-aggressive,” Fisher said, “but with early socialization, this can be overcome.”

Gillespie also had a suggestion on the pit bull’s propensity to fight with other dogs. “If it is severe animal aggression, that is something that can be dealt with, possibly by keeping the animal away from other animals.”

Barrett had some advice for people who may not have done their research or may have been unaware of the dog’s past. “If you do end up with a dog that is aggressive, there are certain steps you can take,” Barrett said. “Make sure the pet is neutered. That is a huge step in the right direction because they are going to be a lot more aggressive and territorial if they are intact. There are also different types of behavior training. But if they are truly aggressive, I’d say that is something that is probably bred into them and part of their being, definitely a lot harder to curb. There are a lot of dogs that are too aggressive to be part of a family.”

California is not one of the states that permits cities or counties to pass breed-specific ordinances banning certain breeds. But California does allow for mandatory spay or neutering programs for some breeds.

As for dogs that have bitten people or other animals, there are some punitive laws on the books. In the California Civil Code, there is a provision requiring owners to take reasonable steps to prevent the dog from ever biting again. Another law states that when a dog has bitten people on two separate occasions, the dog can be removed from the area or euthanized. The same applies if a dog has been trained to fight or to attack. These statutes do not apply to a dog that bites a trespasser or if the dog is being used for police or military work.

There are separate laws that make the owner liable for damages if a dog bites even once. Additionally, California allows insurance companies to discriminate against owners of dog breeds that the insurance company has deemed to be vicious. The owner may have to pay higher premiums or may not be insurable at all.

It appears that although there are acknowledged risks that accompany owing a pit bull or other aggressive breeds, those who do own them in a responsible manner would not have any other kind of dog. And those who have been victims or know victims of aggressive dogs, especially pit bulls, will never accept that other people and pets can be completely safe in the presence of pit bulls. The controversy will continue as long as there are gentle pit bulls and vicious pit bulls, responsible owners and those who refuse to be vigilant, and a fearful public that is exposed to both kinds of dogs and owners.