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Karen Dawn doesn't hesitate to enter with her two dogs in tow. Paula sports a pink bandanna around her neck; Buster, a camouflage kerchief.
Oblivious to the voices and music, Paula and Buster quietly make their way through the tangle of patrons' feet, pausing to bask in the massage of hands reaching down to pet them.

"They're usually on someone's lap," says Dawn, who seeks out animal-friendly restaurants and bars such as this one in Venice, Calif.

Monica Paull, sitting nearby, gushes, "Your dogs are amazing." She pats the empty spot next to her, and Paula hops up. Advertisement

At this moment, it's difficult to believe that Paula and Buster share a heritage with dogs that, this past summer in southern California alone, fatally mauled a man in San Bernardino County and seriously wounded an 11-year-old girl in the San Fernando Valley and an 11-month-old girl in Santa Barbara.

But Paula, with her wide cheekbones and brown-and-white color, is unmistakably a pit bull. Buster is a pit-bull mix.

So how is it that two dogs belonging to a breed that is controversial, feared, banned by some cities and possessed of the worst public relations in the canine world end up cuddling with beach-community hipsters?

Paula and Buster are evidence of a phenomenon that is emerging in unexpected parts of the Los Angeles area and elsewhere around the country, including St. Louis: the well-socialized pit bull.

From the lofts of downtown St. Louis to the streets of West Hollywood to the bungalows of Venice, pit bulls increasingly can be seen strolling with their people. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx has two pit bulls. Britney Spears' husband, Kevin Federline, made celebrity magazine news walking with a pit bull in Malibu.

Even television has offered up a trusty pit bull: The young heroine of "Veronica Mars" has a bully companion named Backup.

Trainers, animal shelter staffers and rescuers see a trend: increasing adoptions by families, professionals and others willing to attempt to raise a civilized pit bull.

"As far as I'm concerned, pit bulls are one of the most popular breeds," said Shell Jones, a professional dog walker of nine years. On a recent morning at the Laurel Canyon Dog Park, she and her husband, Vance Floyd, were shepherding a pack of about 20 canines, including pit bulls Bernadette, Figgy, Louis and Bridie.

"With pit bulls, (behavior) just has to do with who takes care of the dog," she said.

At the West Los Angeles shelter, staffers promote the pit bulls they believe are temperamentally agreeable.

"The best dogs are the female pits who've had puppies. They mother everyone -- dogs, kids," said Charla Fales, an animal-care technician at the shelter.

Many who own or rescue pit bulls want to rehabilitate the image of a breed they believe has been unfairly maligned.

"I would say we're trying to restore the image," said Donna Reynolds of Oakland, Calif. She and her husband rescue pit bulls and run a website, www.badrap.org, which seeks to dispel the belief that pit bulls are vicious and unmanageable. Reynolds says a pit bull is "an exceptional family pet. . . . People who believe they're scary have been educated by the media," she says.

Anyone adopting a dog from Reynolds must sign a contract and take classes. "We find the home that can be an ambassador for the breed," she said.

Gateway American Pit Bull Terrier Club in St. Louis (www.gapbtc.org) has similar goals, even though it is not a rescue organization. It was founded two years ago to promote positive awareness of pit bulls and to educate current and would-be owners about responsible pit-bull ownership.

"Education is our big thing," said vice president Kelly Iams. The group stages public information events, such as its Pit Bulls 101 in St. Louis' Tower Grove Park this past summer, and provides individual help. It also works closely with metro-area shelters and rescue groups that accept pit bulls, such as Mutts-n-Stuff (www.muttsandstuff.com) and Stray Rescue of St. Louis (www.strayrescue.org).

Iams says that local rescue groups have more people interested in getting rid of pit bulls than in adopting them.

"People don't research the breed to begin with, then they get unsocialized puppies from backyard breeders who don't give them any information, either," she said. "As soon as the dog does something wrong, no matter how minor, they give it up."

Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer," who has his own show on the National Geographic cable channel, says pit bulls, like all the power breeds, can be trained through exercise and discipline.

He keeps pit bulls in his resident pack at his South L.A.-based Dog Psychology Center, which is part dog camp, part rehab center.

"My kids are around pit bulls every day," said Millan, who believes the dogs have been unfairly stigmatized. "In the '70s they blamed Dobermans, in the '80s they blamed German shepherds, in the '90s they blamed the Rottweiler. Now they blame the pit bull."

But the pit bull story is more complicated than just a case of bad spin.

The dogs are genetically predisposed to be aggressive toward other dogs, having been bred centuries ago in England and Ireland to bait bulls, among other animals. When that was outlawed, they were bred to fight dogs in pits.

The term "pit bull" is a catch-all to describe several related breeds descended from that combative stock. The American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier are all basically pits.

The dogs were prized for their determination as fighters, their gameness and their loyalty to their handlers. A dog in a bloody battle with another dog would let its human handler reach into a pit and pull it out with bare hands.

Today, every state outlaws dog fighting, and most classify it as a felony. Nevertheless, dog fighting persists.

For most of the 20th century, pit bulls enjoyed a wholesome image. Petey of "Our Gang" was a pit bull. Helen Keller kept a pit bull as a pet. A dignified pit bull graced an American propaganda poster during World War I. And a pit rescued in 1985 on the streets of South Los Angeles by County Fire Station 14 was the station's beloved mascot for years.

But in recent decades, the dog has become a symbol of savagery. With its broad, muscular build and powerful bite capable of shredding dogs and humans alike, the pit bull became the canine of choice for gangbangers, drug dealers and other criminals protecting their turf. People who lived in those same dangerous neighborhoods bought them for protection.

A flourishing underground for illegal dog-fighting has led to further breeding to make them as aggressive as possible.

The fatal mauling of a boy by his family's pit bull in San Francisco last year prompted Mayor Gavin Newsom to consider banning pit bulls in that city, as Denver has done. That didn't happen, but at the mayor's urging the California Legislature enacted a law allowing local jurisdictions to regulate the neutering and spaying of specific breeds. The law went into effect this year.

Kelly Hawkins, director of the St. Louis City Animal Regulation Center, stresses that it's the deed that makes a dog dangerous, not the breed.

"We don't want to profile one way or the other," she said. "We try to evaluate each animal as an individual."

She said that the ARC relies heavily on the pit-bull-knowledgeable volunteers at Mutts-n-Stuff to help temperament test the dogs and give them a second chance. Mutts-n-Stuff will take as many adoptable pit bulls as it can and put them into foster homes to await adoption.

The wait is often a long one. Of all the animal orphans that Stray Rescue brought to St. Louis after Hurricane Katrina last year, the only ones still waiting to be adopted are the pit bulls and pit bull mixes, said Stray Rescue director Randy Grim.

Many trainers, rescuers and veterinarians suggest that anyone wishing to adopt a rescued pit bull put the dog through temperament testing and obedience training, and have it spayed or neutered. Most metro-area rescue groups that adopt out pit bulls will already have done the testing and the spaying and neutering. Some provide training as well.

There's no doubt that pit bull types require special handling. It's hard out there for a pit and its owner. Some dog walkers won't take pit bulls as clients. Not all insurance companies offer liability coverage to their owners.

Ron Cabrera, a 27-year-old student, and Sonny Izzo, 22, a musician, arrived at Laurel Canyon Dog Park in California with their muscular, unaltered pit bulls hoping that Cabrera's male, Biggie, would take to Izzo's female, Kyra, and mate.

The friends watched as their pit bulls roughhoused good-naturedly with other dogs. But when Biggie trampled a yelping Jack Russell terrier, who scampered off unharmed, then started toward a frisky Tibetan terrier, his owner grabbed him.

"No, you're too big to play with them," Cabrera said firmly.

Still, as far as dog park etiquette went, the damage was done.

"No aggressive dog is supposed to be in here," dog walker TerriAnne Phillips told the two men.

Phillips does not walk pit bulls. She held out her forearm.

"See this?" she said, pointing to a faint scar. "Pit bull."

Sarah Casey Newman of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this story.

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/li...B02CAE22A92039D0862571F7007E12F9?OpenDocument
 
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