Chihuahuas can be scarier than pit bulls, Karen Dinkel says.

Pit bulls have a reputation as vicious dogs and, without question, the statistics on maulings are dramatic.

But Dinkel, Lancaster’s animal enforcement officer, thinks pit bulls get a bad rap, an image having more to do with their owners than the dogs themselves.

“I actually have a harder time with Chihuahuas,” she says. “I know that sounds hilarious. I don’t know why, but most of them I deal with are very nasty. I can read a pit bull. They are much easier to figure out than the little ones.”

Dog killed in parking lot

A mastiff was fatally shot by a police officer Aug. 6 in a West King Street parking lot. In reactions that followed, after witness reports identified the dog as a pit bull, some people thought the officer acted properly because the dog was loose and unattended, while others thought the dog presented no danger and was killed without cause.

Depending on the person, the words “pit bull” conjure fear and mistrust or loyalty and affection.

The truth falls somewhere in the middle, local animal officials say.

“They are potentially aggressive dogs when not with the right owners,” says Susan Martin, executive director of the Lancaster County SPCA.

“Any dog is, but this dog is just a little bit more when not in the right hands,” she adds. “These dogs are not for everyone.”

Dog-related fatalities

DogsBite.org reports that 25 of 32 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States in 2013 — 78 percent — were caused by pit bulls, compared to 23 of 38 fatalities in 2012 and 22 of 31 in 2011.

The organization records two fatal attacks by pit bulls in Pennsylvania — in February 2010 and August 2011, both in Philadelphia.

A five-year review of dog-bite injuries from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, published in 2009, found that nearly 51 percent of attacks were by pit bulls, according to LiveScience.com.

And a 2011 study from the Annals of Surgery says "attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs," LiveScience reports.

In a database compiled by the state Department of Agriculture, Lancaster County has 25 registered “dangerous dogs,” only four of which meet the standard definition of a pit bull.

What is a pit bull, really?

Laura Vinroe, animal marketing assistant at the Humane League of Lancaster County, says there is a lack of understanding of what a pit bull actually is.

According to GlobalAnimal.org, “pit bull” is an umbrella for Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers. DogsBite.org also includes American bulldogs on the list.

Once typified by Pete from “The Little Rascals” and the music-loving RCA Victor dog, the pit bull “was originally a family dog,” Sarah Eremus of the Pennsylvania SPCA says. “That’s what we’re trying to make it again.”

The breed became a status symbol for drug dealers and gangs after a resurgence of dog fighting in the 1980s, says GlobalAnimal.org. Their popularity boomed in low-income urban areas, it says, and their population exploded because they were rarely spayed or neutered.

Many people get pit bulls because of their image, Dinkel says — and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if the owner fails to train the dog properly or, worse, teaches it to be aggressive.

“I see it as an owner issue,” she says. “I don’t, personally, see a problem with the breed.”

The numbers may be skewed

Dinkel says she gets a lot of calls about pit bulls, primarily “because that’s what we have a lot of in the city.”

A report by the Mid-American Bully Breed Rescue says the number of pit bull attacks seems high because the breed is so numerous.

Chow chows are more likely to attack a child, the report says, but the numbers are skewed because there are more than 5 million registered pit bulls and only about 240,000 chows.

Julia Hollinger, a Humane League volunteer, says pit bulls are good with kids, protective of families and easy to train, Hollinger says.

However, they are often “less tolerant of other dogs.”

Hollinger doesn’t take Gunnar, her 8-year-old pit bull, to the dog park, and says most pit  bull owners shouldn’t, either.

Janet Easterwood, director of the Lancaster County Animal Response Team, agrees.

If your dog is aggressive toward other animals, don’t take it to a public space, she says.

“Know your dog’s temperament, and don’t put it in a situation that might cause it harm,” she says. “That’s true of any dog.”

Building on a bad reputation

Pit bulls' reputation also creates problems for the breed at shelters.

Meghan Macnamara, of Paws n’Time Canine Rescue says pit bulls are frequently seen as unadoptable and are often euthanized quickly when they end up in shelters.

According to the ASPCA, some 1.2 million dogs are euthanized each year in American shelters. Nearly 1 million of those dogs are pit bulls — or about 2,800 pit bulls killed daily.

Martin, at the SPCA, says most dogs are adopted within two to four days of arriving at the shelter. Pit bulls, who come in far larger numbers, take an average of two to six months to adopt out.

They suffer more abuse and abandonment than any other breed, she says.

“I think it’s a lack of knowledge,” Martin says. “The pit bull has a very strong personality, and people don’t always understand the amount of work it takes, because of the intelligence of these dogs, to train them properly.”

Anyone who adopts a pit bull from the SPCA is screened, Martin says, to be sure they know what they’re getting into.

“We adopt out many pit bulls, but we are careful that they’re going to be in the right hands,” she says.

“I do think they instill fear in some people, and rightfully so. But it’s not the pit bull’s fault. They have an extremely high prey drive, and they can be dangerous if the owner doesn’t keep that in check.”

It depends on the training

Laurie Yost, with the Elizabethtown group Pitties Love Peace, says the breed is smart and dedicated, but needs proper training and exercise.

“They have a very strong drive to please humans," she says. "You can use that drive to do positive things ... or you can turn it around and use it to train these dogs to attack, to fight.”

Certainly, pit bull owners at Pitties in the Park(ing lot), an event hosted Aug. 24 by Building Character to raise funds for the Humane League and promote the breed, say the vicious rep is unwarranted.

Meg Martin credits her husband, Jason, for convincing her to get a pit bull despite her reservations.

“He wants attention from everyone,” Martin, of Ephrata, says, fondly scratching the head of her 5-month-old pit bull, Samson. “He gives kisses.”



Tom Knapp is a general assignment reporter whose coverage includes Lancaster County heritage, entertainment, libraries and animals. He can be reached at tknapp@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6107. You can also follow @TKnapp66 on Twitter.