The Softer Side of Pit Bulls

A reviled breed gets a makeover

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Jeff Minton for TIME

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Pit bulls date to the late 18th Century, when dogs tended to be categorized by the jobs they performed rather than how they looked. "Until about 200 years ago," says Bronwen Dickey, who is writing a cultural history of pits, "a terrier was any dog that dug for vermin. A bulldog was one that caught errant cattle." These two working farm dogs are believed to have been crossbred around 1790, leading to the bull terrier.

This type, the genetic forebear of today's pits, "became enormously popular," Dickey says. The dogs served in the military--a pit accompanied the 11th Infantry of Pennsylvania at the Battle of Gettysburg, and the first U.S. Army dog promoted to sergeant was a pit--and had flashes of stardom. Helen Keller's dog was a pit, as was Petey, the Little Rascals' dog.

This changed around 1976, when curbs on animal-fighting ventures were added to the Animal Welfare Act, according to Donald Cleary of the National Canine Research Council. Pits--often trained as combatants--came to be seen as dangerous. Throughout the next two decades, stories about vicious pits mauling innocent children appeared in news outlets across the country, drawing the curtain on their family-friendly reputation.

Pits are capable of violence, says Chris Schindler, who has seen plenty of it as the manager of animal-fighting investigations for the Humane Society. "Every dog has individual behavior that's going to develop over time," he says. "That's not something that can be predicted." It can, however, be trained. "Police and people who train guide dogs don't just go on Craigslist and pick up a dog of breed X," says Kristopher Irizarry, a geneticist at the veterinary college at Western University of Health Sciences, who noted that such training can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Pits aren't the first dog to be considered a menace to society. In the late 1800s, the country's breed of concern was the bloodhound, which was often used during that time to capture escaped slaves. The majority of dog attacks reported in Northeastern newspapers from 1864 to 1899 were by bloodhounds, according to Cleary's colleague Karen Delise. And the period after World War II saw a spike in reports of attacks by German shepherds, a breed associated with the Nazis.

Popularity Rising

One recent morning, Larkin was outside L.A.'s Exposition Park with about 70 pits at a free training session run by Cornelius "Dog Man" Austin. Celena Rios, 30, and her husband Albert were there with their two pits, Amor and Cupcake, who has the disarming habit of sitting on strangers' feet. "People are amazed at how friendly they are," Celena says.

Amor and Cupcake are the kind of breed ambassadors that Angel City Pit Bulls and their allies are trying to cultivate. "We pull dogs with a specific disposition from shelters," Larkin says. "People-responsive, easygoing dogs that can be placed in any environment, we train and place in new homes." The idea is that these strategically chosen pooches will have a pit-bull multiplier effect: the more Amors and Cupcakes people see in their communities, the more that will improve the breed's reputation.

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