Are Pit Bulls Inherently Dangerous?

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THE GIST

- A Maryland court recently decided that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous."

- Animal experts and advocates disagree with the ruling.

- The problem is complex, with some pit bulls bred specifically for fighting.

The Maryland Court of Appeals recently deemed pit bulls and pit bull mixes "inherently dangerous," but many animal experts and dog advocates believe the court overstepped its authority.

"Inherently dangerous" implies that all pit bulls are, through genetics or their environment, born with a vicious streak. The science does not appear to support this.

For example, a University of Pennsylvania study on dogs found that the top three biters of humans were actually smaller dogs: Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers.

Nevertheless, pit bulls are often in the news for attacking, and sometimes even killing, people and other animals. A mid 1990's effort by the San Francisco SPCA and the Wisconsin Humane Society to rename socialized pit bulls "St. Francis terriers" was suspended when some of the adopted dogs killed housecats and engaged in other unsaintly behavior.

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Pit bulls didn't always have such a bad rap. In the early part of the 20

Some have.

"It is possible to breed in or out certain traits, with some dogs purposefully bred for fighting," Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian who is also co-president of the San Francisco SPCA, told Discovery News.

She said that studies on foxes suggest that a trait possibly affecting personality can appear in just two to three generations. Pit bulls bred this way seem to be more aggressive against other dogs, but not necessarily humans.

"In the fighting ring, humans will sometimes pry open the dog's mouth, so the aggression is usually very focused against other dogs," she explained.

Scarlett, who disagrees with the Maryland ruling and has herself debated the issue in court and other public forums, said that countless pit bulls nationwide are highly socialized and well trained, never hurting anyone.

"Dogs of any breed that are truly strong and aggressive can be managed, but what is nature and nurture in those cases?" she asked. "Should all dogs be let loose in a dog park? No."

Much then comes down to the owners, and therein lies the real problem.

Scarlett indicated that at least one study is underway to see if certain factors predict if a segment of the population is at greater risk for being attacked by a dog.