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Locally, on Durward Street in Chula Vista, a pit bull attacked a man and his shepherd. "A neighbor who witnessed the attack grabbed a .32-caliber handgun and shot the pit bull at close range twice. When the dog kept biting the shepherd's neck, the neighbor placed the gun to the pit bull's head and fired again, killing it." In Ramona, "Two pit bulls mauling a penned steer were shot to death...by a sheriff's deputy trying to stop the attack.... The steer's bellowing awakened the owner.... When the deputy arrived, the two dogs were biting the steer's head and would not let go."

In Imperial Beach, "A neighbor's pit bull got into Rich Evans' yard and mauled the family's 10-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Coco.... Coco was submissive during the attack.... Neighbors tried spraying water and hitting the dog with a hoe during the attack, but it would not stop." When sheriff's deputies "arrived, they sprayed the dog with Mace and shot 30 pepper balls near the dogs. According to a sheriff's report, a deputy fired seven times at the dog after it charged at two officers, but the dogs were so bloody, they couldn't tell if they were hit.... The owner got rid of the dog right away, and no one knows where it is, including city officials. The neighbors later moved."

It's true: pit bulls can attack and kill. But does such notoriety tell us anything reliable about the dog, or does it tell us -- more accurately, I think -- the degree to which we misrepresent bad dogs themselves? For example, it's not true that pit bulls are the lone killer dogs. One study found that between 1979 and 1998, one-third of the 238 fatal attacks on humans in the United States were committed by pit bulls. Though two-thirds of the fatalities came from other breeds, somehow the pits still receive the killer-dog badge.

Another exaggeration: you're more likely to be bitten by a pit bull than another dog. In fact, of the 4.7 million annual dog bites (800,000 require medical attention, of which 77 percent are facial), far more of the bites are from German shepherds, huskies, and Doberman pinschers than from pit bulls. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number, although not the severity, of bites by dachshunds, schnauzers, and chows is higher.) However, again, people infer from press stories which feature tales of pit bulls locking their jaws and never letting go that pits are the most threatening of all dogs. That threatening aspect -- pit bulls seem to be the al-Qaeda of the animal kingdom -- has been fostered by gangs and other militarized sects in our culture, reinforcing the idea that within the breed there's a kind of latent inflexibility. This tenaciousness many people admire, and from the admiration come a host of human associations. The pit bull's mettle is characteristic of Marines and wrestlers, of stock traders and hostile takeover artists, of criminal defense attorneys (tagged as pit-bull personalities), and of war leaders: Winston Churchill's bulldoggedness against the Luftwaffe becomes George W. Bush's pit-bullishness against Saddam Hussein.

It's hard to say, reliably, what a given pit bull will do. As for temperament, few breeds differ more within the breed than the pit bull. From Chihuahua to Saint Bernard, breed similarity is the norm. But for pit bulls, the question remains open: how much is this pit bull dangerous or tractable? There seem to be three general types, each one based on the degree to which the dog has been socialized with other dogs and with people. One pit bull, typically with mixed blood or an unknown lineage, has barely been socialized; it's been raised (say, by a drug dealer) to follow orders: attack and maul anyone who is not its owner. Another (like Riley) has been bred to be dog-aggressive and has fought in a pit to please its owner. This dog is also trained to never attack a person, since the handler is always in the pit while his dog is trying to tear the other dog apart. Still another is a dog that's never been fought and has a pedigree or an owner's promise of one. This pit bull has been brought up in a loving home but may still have a trace of Mike Tyson in his system.

Or it may be that that bit of killer instinct is attributable not so much to the dog as to us. Our fear that the dog is going to behave savagely, especially around small children, may be exactly what the dog is responding to when it strikes out with tooth and claw. That doesn't mean the dog is more likely to attack people who are afraid of it. But it does mean that our current unease around the pit bull, fraught mostly with fearful expectation and the odd drop of veneration, goes a long way in determining how the dog will be conditioned -- or not -- to human society.

The paragon of pit-bull love is Bubba the Bruiser. That's his registered name; Bubba is his call name. He's harmless, says his owner, Corbin Dailey, a stocky Navy enlistee who last year lived in Tierrasanta with wife Cherlyn and their two young sons, Levi and Logan. Bubba's seven and Halloween's his birthday. He's been bred from championship bloodlines -- mating selections of pit bull champion show dogs (pits compete in conformation, weight pulls, herding, obedience, and sanctioned "bite sports" such as those used to train police dogs). To buy Bubba, Dailey dealt with a reputable man who raised purebred American pit bull terriers in Indiana. "I dealt with him," Dailey says, "because I didn't want a dog who was going to be mean to my children." Bubba rolls on the floor with the kids. He's a hulk of a dog, like those old floor-model Hoover vacuum cleaners.

Bubba is papered by the American Dog Breeders Association, which, according to its website, is the world's "largest registration office [for] the American Pit Bull Terrier." (The American Kennel Club recognizes only two breeds descended from pit bulls: the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier; it does not recognize the American pit bull.) The American Dog Breeders registers only the "purebred pit bull terrier." The group neither denounces nor promotes pit-bull fighting, although another dog group, bulldogbreeds.com, contends that the American Dog Breeders Association's goal is "to register, promote and preserve the original American Pit Bull Terrier fighting-type dog." The association has recorded pedigrees of American pit bull terriers since 1909.

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