Cute killers?

This is not the pit bull involved in the recent attacks. This is a file photo.  Recent attacks have put the pit bull breed and its temperament in question.

Temperament and possible regulation of the breed debated after
several recent attacks
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – When Yvonne Hyatt and Janet Braslin heard that a 12-year-old San Francisco boy was mauled to death by his family’s two pit bull terriers, their hearts sank.

As debate over the breed ignited throughout the Bay Area and several other attacks were reported, including two on Monday, the women’s sadness over the tragedies became tinged with anger. Hyatt survived a pit bull attack in Gilroy in 2001 and supports a state legislator’s efforts to allow cities to regulate the breed. Braslin, on the other hand, owns a pit bull and sees the current controversy as the latest in recurring campaigns against larger breeds of dogs.

“We need to keep people safe when they’re walking their dogs or even walking outside,” Hyatt said.

She received 68 stitches after a pit bull attacked her and her dog while walking down a Gilroy street.

“I think that people who own pit bulls need to realize that these dogs have the propensity to be violent, and it just upsets me when I heard about (Nicholas) Faibish in San Francisco because it could have been prevented,” Hyatt said. “I think that the pit bull breed in general has the propensity to be violent and I think whether they purposely train their dog or not they should be cautious because it’s in the breed.”

Braslin said Tuesday the breed is being unfairly targeted when the blame for aggressive animals should lie with owners who do not properly socialize or care for their dogs.

“It seems that every 10 years or so, a breed comes along that is vilified,” Braslin said: first German shepherds, then Doberman pinschers, then rottweilers and now pit bulls. “I know there’s a lot of people that do breed them for fighting and that would be irresponsible pet owners. But I’ve also seen responsible owners … they’re great dogs if they’re raised right.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him,” she said of Echo, her own 4-year-old pit bull that she says does well around smaller dogs and young children.

BAD RAP, or Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls, agrees on its Web site that the dogs are suitable for families. Dangerous traits in the dogs can be identified before they become a problem, the group says, and would-be pit bull owners should only buy from a reputable breeder who produces well-tempered dogs.

But there seems to be an abundance of “backyard” breeders in South County, say representatives of local animal shelters.

Pit bulls “easily” make up 30 to 40 percent of the population at San Martin Animal Shelter, said shelter worker Sue Padgett. Of the 38 dogs available for adoption at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, 11 are pit bulls, or 29 percent said Laura Fulda, director of marketing and communications.

The problem for both shelters is finding a new owner once a pit bull is brought in as a stray or surrendered by its owner.

“It’s a continuing saga,” Padgett said, adding that the shelter has not seen more pit bulls than usual in recent days. “We definitely see more than we see of other breeds. I just think those are the dogs that are owned by irresponsible people in general.”

Moving seems to be the main reason owners surrender their pit bulls to the humane society, Fulda said. They often remain at the Santa Clara shelter for months, while smaller, younger dogs might be adopted in a day or less.

“The one thing that we are seeing is that, at least with our clientele, nobody really wants to adopt a pit bull, and with all this negative news about pit bulls, it’s making it harder to adopt out the good ones.”

Pit bulls often stay in the shelters because prospective owners are looking for smaller dogs more suitable to families with younger children. Neither the San Martin shelter nor the humane society will allow a family with children younger than 5 to adopt a pit bull.

“That’s our recommendation with most large breed dogs, without a known history with small children,” Padgett said. “There are people who know the breed and are experienced dog owners who would make excellent owners, but they are few and far between.”

The San Martin shelter euthanizes animals that cannot be placed in a home.

Of the pit bulls that come to the humane society, only about one in seven qualifies for adoption, Fulda said. Currently, 16 cannot be taken home because they exhibit certain behaviors. They might be vicious, shy, prone to bite or have a “high prey drive,” meaning they will attack and kill small animals and are excitable.

“We only put up dogs for adoption that are suitable to be adopted. We just can’t take our chances with a dog that doesn’t meet our criteria for adoption,” Fulda said.

As pit bulls fill up more and more space, the humane society – which does not euthanize animals – is looking at ways to deal with the problem.

“We’re having internal talks now … If you can’t find a home, then do you put it out in foster care? Do you put it in other shelters or ship it cross country?” Fulda said.

When people do adopt pit bulls, the humane society requires them to complete two obedience training sessions.

Braslin took her dog to obedience training shortly after adopting it, she said. She also had it neutered immediately.

A bill has been proposed in the state legislature that would allow cities to require that pit bulls be spayed or neutered because animal experts say it makes them less aggressive.

Hyatt supports mandatory spaying and neutering, as well as tighter restrictions for pit bull owners.

“They need to make sure that their dogs are socialized around other dogs and people for that matter,” she said. “When you are a victim of an incident like this, it’s hard to walk your dog again when you hear about these incidents.”

Councilman Bob Dillon said he doesn’t expect any changes to the city’s rules on pet ownership or pit bulls just yet.

“It seems unlikely to me,” he said. “I haven’t seen any groundswell of support for it in Gilroy.”

Both critics and defenders of pit bulls seem to agree that a responsible owner can make all the difference. Braslin said she takes more precautions with her pit bull, for instance, than with her pug.

“I try to be the best dog owner I can be,” she said.

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