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American pit bull terrier's image a bad rap, experts say

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associated press Andrew and Misty Smith, with daughter Keeley Drew Smith, walk their American pit bull terriers in Beaufort, S.C. The breed was first recognized in 1898 and early in the 20th century became a favorite family pet for its affectionate behavior and intelligence.

Mary Ann Chastain / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

Perhaps no breed of dog has been as mischaracterized in recent decades as much as the sleek and athletic American pit bull terrier.

Though once one of the most popular and beloved dogs in the country, the American pit bull terrier has acquired the image of being a mean and vicious biter through the media, bad ownership, and ill-considered animal control laws.

It is one of the core breeds falling under the catch-all term "pit bull," including the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier. The breeds share the common lineage of having been bred at one point for blood sport and the fighting pit.

Yet most contemporary dog experts agree that these animals' bad reputations are largely undeserved. If and when American pit bull terriers do misbehave, it's often because of bad and irresponsible owners. And some of the worst owners are actually drawn to the breed's image of being inherently dangerous, reinforcing an unfair cycle.

"They're dogs - they're not werewolves," said Ledy VanKavage, an attorney with the Best Friends Animal Society, the group that rescued NFL player Michael Vick's abused "pit bulls" and opposes breed-specific legislation.

The history of the American pit bull terrier dates to the 19th century, when dog fanciers in England, Ireland, and Scotland crossbred bulldogs and terriers to develop a dog that combined "the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the bulldog," according to the United Kennel Club, the first group to recognize the dog as a breed, in 1898.

Immigrants later brought the dog to the United States, and its powerful physical qualities made it popular for dog fighting.

But while the breed could be trained to act viciously toward animals, it showed itself to be instinctively kind, affectionate, and protective of its owners. The dog was also complimented for its intelligence and playful, energetic behavior.

These latter qualities led to the breed's popularity as a family pet in the earlier 20th century.

"Far from the menacing beast he is often portrayed as, the [American pit bull terrier] makes a loving, trusting, entertaining pet," says The American Pit Bull Terrier, a history and ownership manual for the breed. "He is good-natured with children and very tolerant of their accidental roughness … He will play for hours with his human children, often sensing which ones are too young for extreme rough-and-tumble play."

The United Kennel Club even recommends against buying an American pit bull terrier for a guard dog because they are generally too friendly, even toward strangers.

Nevertheless, owners are strongly encouraged to go through proper training with their pit bull to ensure obedience and good behavior. There is always a potential for aggression among animals with such powerful physiques.

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