The pit bull problem

Published July 30, 2006

Pit bulls have a horrific reputation for attacking people and pets. They are banned in several places, including Miami-Dade County and Denver. Some animal shelters refuse to adopt them out.

Pit bulls - actually a group of related breeds such as the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bullterrier and the American pit bullterrier - will sometimes attack without warning. When they fight, they can persevere through ripped ears and snouts and broken legs.

Pit bulls are overrepresented in dog bite statistics because they are overrepresented in the dog population, said Adam Goldfarb, an issues specialist with the Humane Society of the United States. "My personal opinion is they are the most popular dog in the history of the United States," he said. "They are the dog of choice for drug dealers, gang members and anyone else who wants a tough-looking dog."

The other side of their reputation is a steady personality and affection toward people.

The American Temperament Test Society tests dogs for such traits as stability, shyness, aggressiveness, friendliness and protectiveness. Last year, the more than 1,000 pit bulls it tested passed at a higher-than-average rate. They tested better than beagles, cocker spaniels, collies and Pomeranians.

Historically, pit bull type dogs were bred never to direct their aggression at humans. In a dog fight, they had to be trusted not to turn on their handlers, who would touch the dogs to direct them or pull them apart. Before pit bulls became macho status symbols, they were considered so gentle around kids they were nicknamed "the nanny dog." Think of Pete on Our Gang.

As with many popular breeds, from cocker spaniels to Dalmatians, irresponsible breeding has altered their basic nature. People who wanted attack dogs mixed them with breeds better suited to the job.

Polk County Animal Control has adopted out pit bulls routinely, as long as they were friendly toward people and other animals. Everyone, from Sheriff Grady Judd on down, thought that breed-specific policies were a bad idea.

The issue for Polk County, in deciding the fate of Hewitt Grant's dogs, was not that they were pit bulls, but the intent of the person who owned more than 100 of them.

They had to guess what influence he had on them, both in their training and in their blood.