This pit bull puppy was rescued from an Albany residence believed to have been involved in a dogfighting operation in 2010.
ALBANY -- Are pit bulls safe to have as pets or to be around? The breed has been blamed for a recent rash of killed animals and even one threatened human. Some are wondering whether something should be done, perhaps to the point of banning the breed.
One problem, it seems, is coming to an understanding of just what constitutes a pit bulldog in the first place. Speaking to sources including trainers, veterinarians and kennel clubs, at least four common distinctions are found: The AKC's current representation is the American Staffordshire terrier, a heavier version of the English Staffordshire, which was its predecessor. The dog was originally bred as a hunting or "chase" dog from blending the strength and other attributes of bulldogs with the tenacity or "gameness" of terriers. The result was a very strong dog that would never give up. Eventually, it underwent further breeding for the activity of fighting other dogs. A number of those familiar, including the AKC, say a lot the gameness of the Staffordshire has since been bred out of the dog. Others disagree.
The United Kennel Club's American pit bull terrier is a close relative to the Staffordshire, sharing its 19th century English origins. The breed, which was recognized by the club in 1898, is generally considered more aggressive to other animals than is the Staffordshire, though neither the pit bull terrier nor the Staffordshire are thought to be more aggressive to humans than most other dogs.
Becoming more popular is the American Bully, a dog similar to the other bull terrier types, but even heavier and broader. Breeders claim the gameness has been eliminated from those dogs.
Finally, there's the so-called "pit bull," a dog of mixed and "indefinite origins," likely to include some input of registered Staffordshire or pit bull terrier breeds, according to Cpl. Bob James of the Dougherty County Police Department.
James founded the department's K-9 Unit some four years ago and has been a dog breeder and professional trainer. He said that many times offending "bad dogs" destroyed by animal control agents are classified as pit bulls because they "look like them."
There is no easy evidence that the breeds generally thought of as pit bulldogs are more naturally aggressive toward humans than any other breed. While it's true that pits were bred to fight other dogs, a loving, loyal attitude toward humans was in the mix as well. Pit bull owners testify of their dog's sweet dispositions and their closeness with children.
Dr. Haley Clark, a veterinarian with Leesburg Animal Hospital, thinks most of the aggressive pit bulls are owned by unscrupulous people who "game" their dogs in the fight rings and routinely mistreat the animals.
"Pit bulldogs are some of my best customers," Clark said. "They're a lot less eager to bite me than most of the other dogs we see here. We don't see them being aggressive to people at all."
Clark said she wouldn't hesitate to recommend pits bulldogs as pets, even for families with children. She stressed that precautions should be taken that any breed -- not just pits -- not show aggression to family members or other people.
Clark did say that while most pit bulldogs she encountered were not aggressive toward humans, they probably were more aggressive toward cats and other dogs.
"We require animals here to be on leashes," Clark said, "so there are never any fights. But they do seem to want to fight other dogs sometimes."
Dr. Frank Spells, a veterinarian with Spells & Masters Veterinary Clinic, agrees with Clark, saying that the term "pit bull" is "almost an insulting category" in which to lump all pit-related breeds.
"A properly bred and cared for pit bull terrier makes a wonder companion and pet," Spells said. "The biggest problem giving dogs bad reputations is that so many people aren't responsible for them. If you throw the animal in a little fence or chain it a tree and then mistreat it, you could have an aggressive animal."
Spells said to avoid aggression in any dog, the most important thing is "to be honest with yourself" and determine if you're really ready for the responsibility for pet ownership. After that, prospective owners should do their homework and be ready to pay enough for the dog.
"If you go down to the flea market and pay $10 for a surplus pit, you're liable to get an aggressive dog," Spells said. "Go to a good breeder and be ready to pay several hundred dollars. Look at some related dogs and spend some time with the dog's parents if you can. How the dog is treated is important, but bloodline matters, too."
Spells agreed also that pit bulls, because of their breeding, can be aggressive toward other dogs, an issue for many people -- not only for the safety of their animals, but potentially for their children as well.
A disturbing scenario, offered by some, is the neighboring pit bull attacking the family pet. The average pet has no chance against the pit, which was bred for the power and gameness to kill in short order. A small child, horrified his pet is attacked, tries to separate the two. It's easy to imagine a confused pit -- normally not aggressive toward humans -- turning on the child. James says it could happen.
"Under such a circumstance, a pit bull terrier or similar dog may very well react against a child or anything at all getting in the way of his prey," James said. "Get a bucket of water or ammonia or anything you can to separate them. Just don't touch the dogs."
According to James, it would be a mistake to make eye contact with any kind of threatening dog. The animal may take the contact as a signal to attack. There are other guidelines as well, he said.
"The old story about dogs being able to smell fear is true," James said. "When people are afraid, they generate adrenaline and that makes chemical changes dogs can smell. Try not to approach a dog you're afraid of."
James also said never to run from an attacking dog.
"Play dead," James said. "Try to stay still even if he bites you. What the dog wants is the chase and the fight. If you don't give it to him, it won't be long before he leaves."