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Dogs that attack

A pit bull mauled a girl in Happy Valley this month, locking onto her leg while she twirled on a tire swing. This might sound like a freak accident, if not for the other pit bulls that have recently attacked children, killed people's pets and menaced police officers. Oregon needs to revisit its state and local laws regarding dangerous dogs, and consider new actions to address pit bulls and other higher-risk breeds.

Here's the most recent attack: Two pit bulls entered a yard in Southeast Portland last week, killing two small dogs and injuring a third. One of the pit bulls escaped the scene and ran loose in the neighborhood. The other charged at a police officer, who shot the animal to avoid attack.

The other high-profile pit bull attacks this November are even more alarming. A 6-year-old girl in Madras was mauled by the family dog. A girl in Vancouver got attacked on the sidewalk by a pit bull on a leash. (The owner had given the girl permission to pet the dog.) The topper was the aforementioned girl in Happy Valley, spinning on her swing when her dad's friend's pit bull got loose and went after her.

"The dog was out to kill," her dad told The Oregonian. "It was life and death."

Some cities, including Denver, have banned pit bulls altogether. People in the Seattle area are considering tougher regulations after two pit bulls attacked a 71-year-old woman near her porch this fall, ripping off her ears and crushing her arm. The dog's owner told a local television station that the animals hadn't been aggressive before.

"I just don't understand why they'd go and attack," he said.

Any dog can become aggressive if untrained or provoked. Yet some breeds are more likely to do serious harm — including pit bulls, a broad class of dogs that includes several breeds of terriers. Pit bulls were historically bred as fighting dogs, and they're known for their strong jaws and muscular builds. What's more, their reputation for toughness makes them popular with people who prefer an aggressive dog.

The upshot? Pit bulls and Rottweilers account for more than half of the dog-bite related fatalities in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

We don't favor a total ban on pit bulls: Some have good dispositions and can be wonderful animals if well-trained. However, we do think Oregon should reconsider breed-specific laws, rather than treating pit bulls as if they were puppies.

For example, under the Multnomah County ordinance, any dog can be classified as "potentially dangerous," on a scale from 1 to 4, if it exhibits dangerous behavior such as chasing and menacing (level 1) or aggressively biting while at large (level 4). Owners whose dogs are classified as "potentially dangerous" can be required to take extra steps to protect the public, such as getting liability insurance and attending obedience school.

In our view, pit bulls should be automatically classified as potentially dangerous. Owners could get their dogs declassified through the already established procedures. This approach would provide a better enforcement tool and strike a better balance between owner's rights and public safety.

A few years ago, a vicious dog attack in Aloha prompted a state senator to introduce a law aimed at pit bulls. He got barked down by pit bull owners, whose mantra was, "It's the deed, not the breed." This is a nice slogan, but it irresponsibly silences reasonable conversations about prevention and risk. Oregon shouldn't sit on its bureaucratic haunches until the next attack.