The much maligned 'pit bull'

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Prompted by reports of recent "pit bull" attacks - four in three weeks - Boston is talking about a ban on the entire breed, thrusting itself into a debate taking place in communities across the country.

Outlawing any breed not only violates the Constitution, it draws on ignorance and myth.

Most often in America today, the phrase "pit bull" appears in two contexts. Either it is used by someone knowledgeable to refer to the older genuine breed (e.g., the American pit bull terrier, which was bred to fight), or it is a vague term trusted to generate a kind of hysteria. News of "pit bull" attacks fill people with horror. But I've researched enough cases to know that the media often gets it wrong.

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In the late 1980s, I testified as an expert at a case involving one such attack. After enduring several taunts, Pete, one of many guests at a picnic in Rochester, N.Y., chomped down on his tormentor's thigh. Newspaper reports the following day claimed the man died after the dog tore off his leg. According to photographs and eye witnesses, not only was the bite minor, but the man died after doctors mishandled his case.

More often than not, dogs involved in "pit bull" attacks are not true pit bulls, but some other breed, as was the case with Bandit, who was impounded and almost put to sleep by Connecticut officials in 1987 for biting an intruder. While there can be a deviant bull-breed dog, these animals should not instill fear. Studies show that cocker spaniels, Rottweillers, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and chows are more likely to bite and with greater severity than a bull breed. Unfortunately, media coverage of attacks by these other breeds lags far behind its coverage of "pit bull" attacks.

Once revered as the national dog, American pit bull terriers stood for courage, loyalty, and intelligence. They were useless as police patrol dogs, but invaluable as nanny dogs and companions to people such as Helen Keller. A famous World War I poster features an American bull terrier, the most common bull breed, draped in an American flag, with the following quote: "I'm neutral, but I'm not afraid of any of 'em."

These dogs were an indelible part of American culture. Mark Twain's "Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" includes a yarn about a bull pup named Andrew Jackson. James Thurber had more than a weak spot for Rex, an American bull terrier. Theodore Roosevelt had a pit bull in the White House, and there were at least two in Coolidge's Cabinet.

It wasn't until the 1970s that the breed went from cherished to maligned. Spearheading efforts to magnify and outlaw dogfighting, groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) perpetuated myths about the dogs in the press. Unsubstantiated claims that the breed was trained on declawed kittens or weaned on Tabasco sauce and gunpowder struck a chord with certain young males eager to put these methods to the test. Just as ridiculous were assertions about the breed's legendary double jaw.

By the 1980s, humane societies' campaigns against dogfighting had completely altered Americans' attitudes. No longer viewed as victims of abusive trainers, Americans now attributed an innate viciousness to the "pit bull." This new image even created a lucrative market for bull breed dogs. Demand skyrocketed, especially among men who saw glamour and status in owning a dog with purportedly bionic strength.

Proposals to outlaw an entire breed should alarm anyone concerned with basic civil rights. Americans need to change the way they think about dogs in general. Like people, dogs want comfort and friendship from humans.

Well bred bull breed dogs are the best cuddlers in the canine world. However, like cockers or any breed, they are vulnerable to careless breeders who promote rotten dispositions. Popular images of dogs as sickly sweet or supernaturally savage - neither of which is accurate - only reinforce misunderstanding.

*Vicki Hearne is a dog trainer and author of 'Bandit: Dossier of a dangerous dog' (Harper Collins, 1992).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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