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RACINE COUNTY — A bite from a pit bull can have a brutal effect, as was the case last month when a 15-month-old boy was attacked on a kitchen floor in Caledonia.

Such attacks raise questions about how dangerous these dogs are. Yet experts say that while a pit bull is much more likely to send a person to the hospital than a smaller, less powerful dog, they are no more aggressive or prone to attack people.

“It certainly concerns us that people have misconceptions,” said Natalie Zielinski, Behavior Program manager at the Wisconsin Humane Society. “I don’t think we have any reason or any research to say that (pit bulls) have the ability to be more aggressive or are aggressive.”

Aggression and attacks

The American Temperament Test Society of Balch Springs, Texas, is a nonprofit established in part to provide a uniform temperament testing of dogs — focusing on an animal’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, friendliness and the instinct to protect its handler. A dog can fail a test by showing unprovoked aggression, panic without recovery or strong avoidance.

The average passage rate among dog breeds tested more than 200 times by the ATTS is 83.3 percent. Both the American Pit Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier, two dog breed commonly categorized as pit bulls, came in toward the top of the list with 86.8 and 84.5 percent passage rates, respectively.

Studies, however, also show that pit bulls are responsible for a significant portion of dog attacks that result in deaths and maimings. One study examining media accounts between 1982 and 2000, found that pit bulls and close mixes were responsible for 47 percent of dog attack deaths and 56 percent of maimings.

And a study by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found that pit bull-type dogs accounted for 31.3 percent of dog-bite related fatalities between 1979 and 1998.

What is a pit bull?

The difference between pit bull temperament and reported attacks can be explained by a number of factors, according to dog health and behavioral experts, including irresponsible ownership, the animal’s strength and an inability to properly identify pit bulls.

There is no uniform definition of the term pit bull. Narrowly, it can be used to describe a small number of breeds like those mentioned in the ATTS testing, but more commonly the label is given to a variety of breeds and mixes that all share similar characteristics like a muscular body, large, square-shaped head and brindled coat.

This vague description can be problematic because it can make it difficult for a victim to correctly identify the breed of dog that may have attacked and also makes estimating the overall population and prevalence of pit bulls a challenge, according to Pam Reid, vice president of the ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team of Urbana, Ill.

A powerful bite

Due to their strength, pit bulls are more likely than smaller breeds to cause significant injury when they bite, said Sandra Sawchuk, clinical instructor and section head at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

“The dogs that can cause more damage, like rottweilers, pit bulls and so on, have more powerful jaws,” Sawchuk said. “Obviously, a single bite from one of them is more likely going to end up putting that person in the emergency room. And yet that miniature poodle that bites the owner, the owner might just treat it at home and not get it reported.”

A 2008 study surveyed the owners of dogs rather than relying on media or emergency room reports. The results suggest that while pit bulls tend to show more aggression towards other dogs, they ranked relatively low among breeds in aggression toward strangers and owners.

And while the pit bull may be powerful, its bite strength has been measured in pressure per square inch and came in behind both the German shepherd and rottweiler, according to Zielinski.

Pit bulls also don’t have the ability to bite down and lock their jaw, which is a commonly held misconception about the dogs, Zielinski said.

A bad rap

Another factor leading to a higher number of reported cases of attacks by pit bulls is improper training and ownership, according to experts.

In addition to a connection with dog fighting, pit bulls are more commonly used as protection than other breeds and have also gained popularity among owners as a status symbol, Reid said. As a result, pit bulls are more likely to be handled by irresponsible dog owners.

Those dogs then may not be properly socialized or learn how hard they can bite without inflicting pain, according to Sawchuk.

“I think so many people get dogs as status symbols, “ Sawchuk said. “And that’s what’s giving breeds like the pit bull a bad rap.”

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