Pit bulls are in the news, and that's rarely a good thing.
A 10-year-old boy mauled in Antioch this month had to undergo skin graft surgery and have his right ear reattached.
A Concord man, whose pit bulls fatally attacked his 2-year-old step-grandson three years ago, is standing trial for manslaughter and child endangerment.
A 6-year-old Union City boy died two months ago after being bitten while playing with a family pit bull that was described as "good with kids."
Before the National Association of Pit Bull Huggers pickets in my front yard, let's make one thing clear: Not all pit bulls are alike, and they don't all attack children.
"I can safely say there are many more pit bulls that are wonderful, loving companion animals than there are pit bulls that have caused damage," said Rick Golphin, deputy director of Contra Costa County Animal Service. "We adopt out a lot of pit bulls."
One of the problems with trying to generalize about the breed is ... well, pit bull isn't a breed.
"The term is applied over a very broad range of dogs that aren't defined by pedigree," said Don Cleary of the National Canine Research Council. Pit bulls can be bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers, cane corsos or a mixture of those breeds and more. What matters more than the definition is the image the term conveys -- a ticking time bomb with powerful jaws and sharp teeth that can turn savage in an instant.
Those who love the dogs point to the findings of the American Temperament Test Society, which I hadn't heard of until two days ago. It subjects all breeds to pass-fail exams that measure their ability to interact with humans and their environment. You may be surprised to learn that pit bull terriers (86.8 percent) score higher than Dalmatians (82.7), beagles (80.0) and dachshunds (68.8), although that won't comfort a 10-year-old whose ear has been ripped off.
Opponents point to the hundreds of cities nationwide that have outlawed ownership of such dogs, beginning with Denver in 1989. Even in anything-goes San Francisco, an ordinance passed in 2005 requires "pit bulls" -- the legal definition spans 99 words -- be spayed or neutered to curtail aggressiveness.
One thing all can agree on is the important role owners play. A dog's behavior generally is a product of the training and treatment it receives. Find a neglectful pit bull owner, and you'll find an ill-behaved dog at the end of his leash.
"Socialization is important with any companion animal," Golphin said, "especially with one that has the potential for causing as much damage as large canines can."
Cleary believes too many factors affect a dog's disposition to blame the breed or pass sweeping laws. He cited a 2012 report by the American Veterinary Medical Association that surveyed 40 years of dog-bite studies in Europe and North America: "They reported there is no breed or kind of dog that we should consider disproportionately dangerous."
He thinks the media focus excessive attention on sporadic attacks. (You know how the media is.) Circumstance and environment shapes a dog's temperament, not genetics. You're just as likely to get bitten by a Yorkshire terrier as a pit bull.
Maybe that's so. But the results of those bites can be terrifyingly different. That's why the pit bull debate won't go soon away.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.