Behavior: Time Bombs on Legs

Violence-prone owners are turning pit bulls into killers

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Why are so many Americans indulging in this orgy of pain and violence? "The dogs are almost like an extension of the owners' egos," says Orville Walls, a Philadelphia veterinarian. "The owners think, 'I may be low man on the economic totem pole, but I have the meanest, toughest dog on the street.' " Owning a pit bull, says Robert Armstrong, Houston's chief animal controller, "is a warning to others to stay off the sidewalk." Randall Lockwood of the Humane Society notes that the animals have become increasingly popular as dog fighting has moved from rural areas into cities. They appeal "to the disfranchised and the unemployed. The owners themselves are often violent." Tufts' Loew sees the bonding of owner and dog as akin to a "horror movie," with maladjusted owners training their dogs to be an "extension of themselves."

As a result of the growing fear of these killer dogs, responsible owners have been put on the defensive. The name pit bull loosely applies to a crossbred strain of the American Staffordshire terrier and the American pit bullterrier as well as to other varieties. The most ferocious dogs, says Pat Owens, director of the Women's S.P.C.A. of Pennsylvania, are crossbred with German shepherds or Doberman pinschers. Richard Laue of the Northern California Pit Bullterrier Association accuses these "backyard breeders" of producing unpredictable "garbage dogs."

Despite the dogs' bloody reputation, owners such as Laue insist that purebred pit bulls have a "steady temperament and intense loyalty." Indeed, breeders believe that in time the animal will regain its gentler image of the 1930s, when a pit bull played Pete in the Our Gang films. Only 30 years ago, notes Ed Almeida, a dog trainer in El Monte, Calif., the Doberman was the most vicious of dogs. Now, he says, after years of careful breeding, Dobermans are "big boobs" compared with the pit bulls.

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