COLUMBIA -- Two recent attacks on children in Lexington County have brought new scrutiny to pit bulls, powerfully built dogs that can exact vicious -- even fatal -- bites on people.
But several experts said the problem with pit bulls is how the dogs are trained and treated by people who raise them.
The animals can be dangerous because they've been neglected or taught to be aggressive, said Randy Lockwood, a dog behavior expert with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"A lot of things account for a dog bite, including how well the dogs are cared for,'' Lockwood said. "It's not just the breed and temperament, but the overall health, supervision, training and things like that. The focus really should be on the behavior of owners, the level of responsibility.''
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A 10-year-old girl was attacked Jan. 13 by a pit bull outside a Batesburg-Leesville home, and a 13-year-old boy was bitten Jan. 12 while walking down a street outside the town of Lexington, according to Lexington County authorities. Both children are recovering.
Reports indicated that the boy's injuries were to the face, legs and an arm. In the Jan. 13 incident, a deputy shot and killed a pit bull that was attacking the girl, the Lexington County Sheriff's Office reported.
Pit bulls are considered dangerous by many animal shelters. Some have refused to adopt them out because they consider the dogs a threat to the public. In recent years, some insurance companies also have been reluctant to issue homeowner policies to people who own pit bulls because of the potential liability. One lawmaker in Texas recently proposed a ban on pit bulls after an attack, said the ASPCA's Lockwood.
Tenacious animals with powerful jaws, pit bulls are the main dogs used in illegal dog-fighting, a clandestine industry that has been the target of numerous investigations in recent years. Former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster targeted dog-fighting during the early to mid-2000s.
Thirty-four people in the United States were killed in dog attacks in 2010, according to statistics at the website www.dogbitelaw.com. The site says fatalities are rising, from an average of 30 per year in the past four years from about 17 during the 1980s and 1990s.
Pit bulls, Rottweilers and Presa Canarios were responsible for 74 percent of attacks and 65 percent of deaths resulting from them between late 1982 and 2006, according to a study of dog bites by Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People.
Lockwood didn't dispute problems with pit bulls, but he said dog attacks on people were at one time more common in other breeds, such as Doberman pinschers.
"The determining factor really seems to be 'What is the dog of choice among people who are inclined to be irresponsible?'" Lockwood said.
Meanwhile, many pit bull owners say the animals are loyal pets that often are misunderstood.
Charlie Karesh, president of the Charleston Animal Society, said people should be leery of any stray dog they see on the street, including pit bulls.
"If raised poorly, they can be unpredictable,'' Karesh said. "I admit when I walk and see a pit bull, I do get a little more nervous. But I think that is just my instinct. Some of them can be just as nice and sweet. It just depends."