Pit Bulls Out of the Doghouse
A long-maligned breed is getting an image makeover. But skeptics say those fighting genes are hard to overcome.
By Carla Hall
Times staff writer
August 3, 2006
The bar is crowded, but Karen Dawn doesn't hesitate to enter with her two dogs in tow. Paula sports a pink bandanna around her neck; Buster, a camouflage kerchief.
Oblivious to the din of voices and music, Paula and Buster quietly make their way through the tangle of patrons' feet, pausing to bask in the massage of hands reaching down to pet them. "They're usually on someone's lap," says Dawn, who seeks out animal-friendly restaurants and bars like this one in Venice.
Monica Paull, sitting nearby, gushes, "Your dogs are amazing!" She pats the empty spot next to her and Paula hops up.
At this moment, it's difficult to believe that Paula and Buster share a heritage with dogs that have, this summer, fatally mauled a man in San Bernardino County and seriously wounded an 11-year-old girl in a school bathroom in the San Fernando Valley and an 11-month-old girl in Santa Barbara.
But Paula, with her wide cheekbones and brown-and-white color, is unmistakably a pit bull. Buster is a pit bull mix.
So how is it that two dogs belonging to a breed that is controversial, feared, banned by some cities and possessed of the worst public relations in the canine world end up cuddling with beach community hipsters?
Paula and Buster are evidence of a phenomenon that is emerging in some unexpected parts of the city: the well-socialized pit bull.
From the lofts of downtown to the streets of West Hollywood to the bungalows of Venice, pit bulls increasingly can be seen strolling with their people. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx has two pit bulls. Britney Spears' husband, Kevin Federline, made celebrity magazine news walking with a pit bull in Malibu.
And even television has offered up a trusty pit bull: The young heroine of "Veronica Mars" has a canine companion named Backup.
The city of Los Angeles issued licenses for 3,040 pit bulls in the fiscal year that ended in June â€” more than twice as many (1,664) as the city gave out four years ago. Los Angeles County, which licenses 265,000 dogs in the unincorporated parts of the county as well as 49 cities, has registered 10,708 pit bulls.
No one is suggesting that pit bulls have replaced the Chihuahua as the new "it" dog â€” at least not until Paris Hilton gets one. And county statistics show that the biggest concentrations of licensed pit bulls are in Compton and Lancaster, not Malibu or Beverly Hills. But trainers and animal shelter staffers and rescuers see a trend: increasing adoptions by families, professionals and others willing to attempt to raise a civilized pit bull.
"As far as I'm concerned, pit bulls are one of the most popular breeds," said Shell Jones, a professional dog walker for nine years. On a recent morning at the Laurel Canyon Dog Park, she and her husband, Vance Floyd, who run their service together, were shepherding a canine flock of about 20, including pit bulls Bernadette, Figgy, Louis and Bridie.
"With pit bulls, [behavior] just has to do with who takes care of the dog," she said.
Bobby Dorafshar, 49, who has been training dogs in the area since 1989 and rescuing them for nearly a decade, points to the so-called gentrification of the pit bull: "You go to West Los Angeles, you go to the higher-class areas, you see people adopting pit bulls. I see that a lot more these days."
At the city's West L.A. shelter, staffers enthusiastically promote the pit bulls they believe are temperamentally agreeable. "The best dogs," said Charla Fales, an animal-care technician and volunteer liaison at the shelter, "are the female pits who've had puppies. They mother everyone â€” dogs, kids."
David and Adriane Borkin showed up at the West L.A. shelter looking for a family dog in late May. In an outdoor enclosure, they met Diamond, a brown brindle-coat pit bull, 2 or 3 years old, who had spent four months at the shelter and successfully undergone obedience training.
"We weren't really looking for anything in particular," said David Borkin, 33, an assistant building manager. "Just something that would go well with an apartment and a couple of kids and who'd be alone during the day."
At their first meeting, Diamond rolled over and turned her big brown eyes up at Adriane and David. The couple grinned and David rubbed the dog's belly.
Diamond found a new home with the Borkins and their children, Madison, 10, and Spencer, 8. She also acquired a new name: Daisy.
Many who own or rescue pit bulls want to rehabilitate the image of a breed they believe has been unfairly maligned.
"I would say we're trying to restore the image," said Donna Reynolds, 44, who lives in Oakland. She and her husband rescue pit bulls and run a website, , that seeks to dispel the belief that pit bulls are vicious and unmanageable. Reynolds says a pit bull is "an exceptional family pet.... People who tend to believe they're scary have been educated by the media.
"I say, 'Have you hung out or met a dog you consider to be a true American pit bull?' 'No, I haven't, but my neighbor has one chained out in the backyard.' Well, any dog chained in the backyard is going to be mean."
Anyone adopting a dog from Reynolds must sign a contract and take classes.
"We find that home that can be an ambassador for the breed," she said.
Pia Salk, a clinical psychologist and dog rescuer, even thinks pit bull ownership can help parents teach children about prejudice. "It's a dialogue about social justice.... 'You know, kids, people are going to say you shouldn't have a pit bull, they're dangerous.' You say, 'Maybe we take more care with this dog.' You've just shown your kids we're a family that's smart, we won't just take the party line, we're willing to give this dog a chance."
Cesar Millan, the famed "Dog Whisperer" who has his own show on the National Geographic cable channel, says pit bulls, like all the power breeds, can be trained through exercise and discipline.
He keeps pit bulls in his resident pack at his South L.A.-based Dog Psychology Center, which is part dog camp, part rehab center.
"My kids are around pit bulls every day," said Millan, who believes the dogs have been unfairly stigmatized. "In the '70s they blame Dobermans, in the '80s they blame German shepherds, in the '90s they blame the Rottweiler, now they blame the pit bull."
But the story of pit bulls is more complicated than just a case of bad spin. The dogs are genetically predisposed to be aggressive toward other dogs, having been bred centuries ago in England and Ireland to bait bulls, among other animals. When that was outlawed, they were bred to fight dogs in pits.
Actually, the term "pit bull" is more a catch-all to describe several related breeds descended from that combative stock. The American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier are all basically pits.
The dogs were prized for their determination as fighters â€” their "gameness" â€” and their loyalty to their handlers. A dog in a bloody battle with another dog would let its human handler reach into a pit and pull it out barehanded. Today, every state outlaws dog fighting and most classify it as a felony.
For most of the 20th century, pit bulls enjoyed a rather wholesome image. Petey of "Our Gang" was a pit bull, and Helen Keller kept one as a pet. A dignified pit bull graced an American propaganda poster during World War I, and a pit rescued in 1985 on the streets of South L.A. by County Fire Station 14 was the station's beloved mascot for years.
But in the last couple of decades, the dog has become a publicly reviled symbol of savagery. With its broad, muscular build and a powerful bite capable of shredding dogs and humans alike, the pit bull became the canine of choice for gangbangers, drug dealers and other criminals protecting their turf. People who lived in those same dangerous neighborhoods bought them for protection.
A flourishing underground for illegal dog fighting in Los Angeles started in the 1990s, said Phyllis Daugherty, director of the L.A.-based advocacy group Animal Issues Movement. That led to further breeding to make them as aggressive as possible toward other dogs. When dogs weren't deemed good enough for fighting, they were sold or given away and often ended up abused and even more antisocial.
The fatal mauling of a young boy by his family's pit bull in San Francisco last year prompted Mayor Gavin Newsom to consider banning them in the city. That didn't happen, but at his urging the state Legislature enacted a law â€” it went into effect this year â€” allowing local jurisdictions to regulate the neutering and spaying of specific breeds.
Marcia Mayeda, director of Los Angeles County's Department of Animal Care and Control, says she sees the most ravaged of the pit bulls â€” some adoptable, some not. "Everybody wants to romanticize this idea of the gentle giant," she said. "There are those dogs, but it's not every dog."
Most trainers, rescuers and veterinarians interviewed for this story suggested that anyone wishing to adopt a rescued pit bull put the dog through temperament testing and obedience training, and have it spayed or neutered.
There's no doubt these dogs require special handling, and one longtime pit bull trainer is chagrined by what she calls a "huge sympathy" for the dogs.
"You get these 'humane-iacs' who think every pit bull has been abused, every pit bull is wonderful," said Tia Torres-Cardello, owner of Villalobos Rescue Center in Agua Dulce. "I say that's not the case."
It's hard out there for a pit and its owner. People cross the street when they see them coming, even when the dogs are leashed. Some dog walkers won't take pit bulls as clients. Not all insurance companies offer liability coverage to their owners.
Karen Pomer, a Venice resident, had to beg her landlady to let her keep her pit bull, Amber. "She said, 'You have to get rid of her,' " Pomer recalled. "I said, 'Let me bring her by to meet you.' "
Pomer says she got letters from Amber's rescuer, veterinarian and trainer testifying to the dog's good temperament. Finally, the landlady agreed that Amber could stay.
At the Laurel Canyon Dog Park, this kind of loyalty is on display every day â€” sometimes in the face of hostility from other dog owners and walkers.
On a recent weekday, Charlotte Caron watched as her 1-year-old female pit bull, Suzy, gamboled through the meadow, socializing with other dogs. "See how she plays with that puppy?" asked Caron. "She's gentle as a lamb."
Caron, who sells real estate and lives in West Hollywood, scoffs at those who express fear when they see her with her dog. "I have a couple of older neighbors who said, 'That dog is a weapon!' " She chuckled. "Like I was standing there with a .44 magnum."
Earlier in the day, Ron Cabrera, a 27-year-old UCLA student, and Sonny Izzo, 22, a musician, arrived at the park with their sleek, muscular, unaltered pit bulls â€” hoping that Cabrera's male, Biggie, would take to Izzo's female, Kyra, and mate.
Izzo knows Kyra draws suspicious glances as soon she shows up in a park. "It's like a scape-dog," Izzo said ruefully.
The friends watched as their pit bulls roughhoused good-naturedly with other dogs. But when Biggie trampled a yelping Jack Russell terrier â€” who scampered off, unharmed â€” then started toward a frisky Tibetan terrier, his owner grabbed him. "No, you're too big to play with them," Cabrera said firmly.
Still, as far as dog park etiquette went, the damage was done. "No aggressive dog is supposed to be in here," dog walker TerriAnne Phillips told the two young men.
Phillips does not walk pit bulls. She held out her forearm. "See this?" she said, pointing to a faint scar. "Pit bull."
Karen Dawn knows how tough it is to navigate the world with a pit bull. "They come with problems," she said. But she couldn't resist Buster and Paula. "I wouldn't say 'don't adopt' if you fall in love with one."
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