Are pit bulls a menace?

The owner of several pit bulls that mauled a woman to death in the Antelope Valley in May was arraigned Wednesday in an L.A. County courtroom on charges of murder and animal owner negligence. This is exactly the way the authorities should deal with such a horrific attack by dogs when there is evidence -- as there is in this case -- that the owner may have ignored or encouraged his dogs’ aggressive behavior or failed to adequately secure them. When owners of dogs that have attacked people are found to have been negligent, they should be held strictly accountable.

Pit bulls are perhaps the most controversial dogs in the country. (In fact, “pit bull” is a catch-all for a number of breeds and mixes.) Known for their enormous loyalty to and affection for their owners, they are also capable of deadly attacks. In the past, they have sometimes been bred for dogfighting, a sport now outlawed as a felony in every state. But while some have been irresponsibly bred and trained to be extremely aggressive, many others live without incident as gentle pets. The four pit bulls that attacked jogger Pamela Devitt, for instance, were found with bloodied muzzles and have been euthanized, but two other pit bulls belonging to Alex Jackson were deemed suitable for adoption and turned over to a rescue group.

Periodically, there is discussion of banning pit bulls as pets -- and local bans have been put in place in other states. There was some talk about it here after this tragic attack. But by California law, breed-specific legislation can require only the mandatory spaying and neutering of certain dogs.

However, there are other ways, through guidelines and local ordinances, to identify and restrict potentially dangerous dogs of any breed. In Los Angeles County, a dog can be declared potentially dangerous if it attacks or attempts to attack people, cats or dogs. The county Board of Supervisors is expected to consider amending that ordinance to expand the definition to attacks on livestock. The county’s Department of Animal Care and Control had two separate complaints about Jackson’s dogs running after and attacking horses with riders in the semi-rural desert area where he lives.


Additionally, the department, which runs the county animal shelters, performs “temperament tests” on all dominant dogs -- pit bulls, Dobermans, chows and a few others -- to determine how aggressive they are and under what circumstances. It’s not a perfect test, but it’s a good tool for shelters when they’re deciding whether to allow the dog to be adopted only with certain restrictions (a secure yard, no children in the household, no other pets in the house, etc.) or deciding that a dog can’t be adopted at all.

None of these policies will stop all pit bull attacks, but the more controls there are on owners, the more avenues there are to stop a bad owner with a bad dog in their tracks.