Pit bulls have taken a beating in the media lately. One attacked a woman and her springer spaniel Dec. 21 at Gilbert’s Cosmo Park. Then Tempe and Phoenix police shot and killed four aggressive pit bulls in separate dog attacks during a three-week span starting Jan. 22.
This month, a Scottsdale pet store complained about thieves taking bull terriers — a cousin of the pit bull — to use as bait in pit bull dogfights.
And then Gilbert police found five neglected pit bulls Feb. 8 inside the Mesa home of Jonathan Burns, charged in the sexual assault and slaying of nursing student Jackie Hartman.
Every incident made headlines.
But Valley police, animal rescue groups and dog breeders are quick to speak up on behalf of the oft-maligned breed. They say the problem is irresponsible or vicious dog owners — not the genetic coding or natural instincts of pit bulls.
“It’s the owners, always the owners,” said Marcy Setter, director of education for Pit Bull Rescue Central. “There is no such thing as a bad breed of dog. The pit bull breeds have never been bred for any sort of human aggression.”
Setter said pit bulls — much like Rottweilers and Doberman pinschers — are strong, tough-looking dogs, and this can make these breeds attractive to society’s criminal element.
“The other thing that attracts the wrong people is the media hype surrounding the breeds,” she said. “The current media monster is pit bull-type dogs. The media will print any negative story involving a pit bull-type dog, but they do not print the same stories involving other breeds.”
Phoenix police Sgt. Joel Tranter said pit bulls are a breed that police frequently encounter in their line of work.
“Pit bulls are used as an intimidation factor,” he said.
Yet Tranter said the “vast majority” of the blame for any violence associated with these dogs belongs with the owners.
“I’ve seen them vicious,” he said. “But I have a friend who has a pit bull, and it’s one of the friendliest dogs I’ve ever seen.”
Mike Mahar, a behavioral consultant with Paw Placement, a nonprofit cat and dog adoption organization based in Scottsdale, puts all of the blame for pit bull attacks on the owners. He said the breed will do anything for its owners.
“You can train them to become what you want them to become,” said Mahar, who owns a pit bull mix in Tempe.
This trait can be dangerous when exploited by the wrong kinds of people.
“Somebody can walk down the street with a gun,” Mahar said. “They’ll have the respect, but they can go to jail. That same person can walk down the same street with a pit bull, get the same respect, and it’s legal.”
According to Mahar, the current media attention has Valley residents even more afraid of pit bulls. He said people now blame things on pit bulls even when the breed is not responsible.
“Everything is a pit bull now,” he said.
Mahar said he responded to an emergency call recently involving two “pit bulls” that had wandered into someone’s backyard.
He arrived to find the “pit bulls” were actually two 6-month-old Labrador retriever pups.
Valley police said the recent events in which officers had to shoot and kill pit bulls are unusual.
“It’s a rarity when we have to shoot a dog,” Tranter said.
Tempe police spokesman Brandon Banks also pointed out that it’s not just pit bulls that have the potential to be aggressive.
“I know that any breed of dog can become dangerous when provoked,” he said.