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updated 5/15/2012 3:26:54 PM ET 2012-05-15T19:26:54

The Maryland Court of Appeals recently deemed pit bulls and pit bull mixes "inherently dangerous," but many animal experts and dog advocates believe the court overstepped its authority.

"Inherently dangerous" implies that all pit bulls are, through genetics or their environment, born with a vicious streak. The science does not appear to support this.

For example, a University of Pennsylvania study on dogs found that the top three biters of humans were actually smaller dogs: Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers.

Nevertheless, pit bulls are often in the news for attacking, and sometimes even killing, people and other animals. A mid 1990's effort by the San Francisco SPCA and the Wisconsin Humane Society to rename socialized pit bulls "St. Francis terriers" was suspended when some of the adopted dogs killed housecats and engaged in other unsaintly behavior.

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Pit bulls didn't always have such a bad rap. In the early part of the 20th century, this breed was in fashion and became quite popular as a family pet. "The Little Rascals," a series highlighting child actors, even featured a spunky pit bull. Have the dogs then changed over the years?

Some have.

"It is possible to breed in or out certain traits, with some dogs purposefully bred for fighting," Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian who is also co-president of the San Francisco SPCA, told Discovery News.

She said that studies on foxes suggest that a trait possibly affecting personality can appear in just two to three generations. Pit bulls bred this way seem to be more aggressive against other dogs, but not necessarily humans.

"In the fighting ring, humans will sometimes pry open the dog's mouth, so the aggression is usually very focused against other dogs," she explained.


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Scarlett, who disagrees with the Maryland ruling and has herself debated the issue in court and other public forums, said that countless pit bulls nationwide are highly socialized and well trained, never hurting anyone.

"Dogs of any breed that are truly strong and aggressive can be managed, but what is nature and nurture in those cases?" she asked. "Should all dogs be let loose in a dog park? No."

Much then comes down to the owners, and therein lies the real problem.

Scarlett indicated that at least one study is underway to see if certain factors predict if a segment of the population is at greater risk for being attacked by a dog.

Anecdotally, socioeconomic factors, whether or not a dog has been spayed or neutered, and whether or not a dog has been socialized and trained, appear to predict attacks. Many tragedies happen in homes where one member has a puppy mill-bred pit bull, Rottweiler, mastiff, or other dog and the unsupervised canine attacks a toddler.

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Jennifer Lu, communications manager at the SF SPCA, said that pit bulls may have a bad reputation now, but other dogs, such as Doberman pinschers and German shepherds, held that dubious distinction in past decades. Some breeders then would try to create more aggressive versions of those dogs in response to demand.

Due to such problems with breeding, many shelters are waging campaigns against puppy mills that put profit ahead of the welfare of dogs. Aggressive canines aren't the only outcomes either. Owners desiring unusual or distinctive looking dogs, such as applehead Chihuahuas, may not realize that breeders are "exploiting a genetic defect that may cause the skull not to close," according to Lu. "This leaves many of the dogs with a soft, unprotected part of the head."

French bulldogs are known for their sweet disposition, but Lu said they usually require a C-section delivery by breeders, again creating a greater potential health risk.

Dogs ultimately suffer the most, with euthanasia rates extremely high now for both pit bulls and Chihuahuas.

Betsy McFarland, vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, is concerned that the suffering might escalate even more, given the ruling in Maryland. The HSUS is already aware that renters with pit bulls might now experience problems with their landlords. If a landlord creates a new lease preventing the owner from keeping his or her dog, that animal may wind up in a shelter, adding further to the euthanasia tally.

McFarland concluded, "The legislature should conduct appropriate fact-finding and hearings, consider the available science, and make a measured, non-emotional decision on this important policy issue."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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