- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

On Dec. 17, 7-year-old Catalina Guajardo was attacked by four Rottweilers in Princeton, Texas, north of Dallas. She survived but required more than 600 stitches. The same week, Thailand banned the import of Rottweilers after the death of a 3-year-old girl.

Attacks by dogs are rare but can be devastating, even deadly. Breeds such as the Rottweiler, pit bull, German shepherd and Doberman are perceived as aggressive and potentially dangerous. With stories of attacks becoming more frequent, Rottweilers have recently emerged as Public Dog Enemy No. 1, prompting some municipalities around the country to enact breed-specific legislation, often banning Rottweilers and/or pit bulls.

During the 1990s, Rottweilers replaced pit bulls as the deadliest dog in the United States, killing 33 persons between 1991 and 1998, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, or AVMA. That accounts for 31 percent of all fatalities attributed to dog attacks. (Pit bulls, the most deadly dog of the '80s, killed 21 persons during the same period.)

Rottweiler supporters, though, say society shouldn't be so quick to blame the dogs themselves for the increase in attacks. They say negligent owners are the main reason the breed has been slapped with the reputation as America's deadliest dog. The controversy surrounding the dogs, they say, should be seen not so much as "Rottweilers: Friend or foe?" Maybe, they argue, it's more of a question of who let the dogs out.

But Vince Faulkner says he didn't have a chance against the dog that attacked him.

It was March 1999, and he and other steelworkers had traveled from Virginia to Charlotte, N.C., on a job. They had finished work and were relaxing in their hotel rooms.

Mr. Faulkner then went to another hotel room to talk to a co-worker, but when the door was opened he was attacked by the worker's 110-pound Rottweiler. The dog jumped on Mr. Faulkner and tore off his left cheek, down to the bone.

A fraction of an inch higher and Mr. Faulkner would have lost an eye; a little lower, and he would be missing half his lips. As it was, he was treated for four hours at a nearby hospital, receiving 170 stitches.

"I never saw his head move, that's how fast it was," says Mr. Faulkner, who lives in Hampton, Va., and is suing the dog's owner for hospital costs. "I couldn't even get my hands up. There was blood everywhere. The meat on my face was just dangling I could feel my cheekbone."

Mr. Faulkner has a scar, and his cheek still hurts, but he knows he was lucky. He is alive.

While there are no exact figures available on the number of communities that have banned Rottweilers because of the fear of such attacks, dog experts say the percentage is increasing significantly.

"I'd say there's been at least a 50 percent increase in the number of communities that have tried to do this in the past five years," says Gail Golab, AMVA assistant director. Bob Duffy, executive director of the American Dog Owners Association (ADOA), estimates the anti-Rottweiler movement has surfaced in at least 100 communities nationwide.

Blame the media, say some. A number of Rottweiler supporters say part of the blame for the dogs' bad rap falls directly on television reports and newspapers. Dog bites get a lot of public attention, they say, fueling the perception that the animals are inherently vicious.

"The thing about dog bites," says Miss Golab, "is that the common victim is a child, so it's a perfect combination for news dogs and children."

Respected organizations such as the AMVA, ADOA, Westminster Kennel Club, American Kennel Club and national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place the burden on dog owners, who, they say, should be responsible for properly training and socializing dogs of all breeds and ensuring that dogs are not allowed to roam free. A severe injury or death from dog attacks, they say, is more likely to be caused by a bad owner than a bad dog.

"To pick out one breed of dog to control won't work you're looking at a quick fix," Miss Golab says. "Early socialization and training are far more important in looking at how aggressive a dog will be than breed. I'd say at least 80 percent of dog bites are the responsibility of the owner."

Those against breed-specific legislation say the type of dog responsible for the most attacks or deaths changes almost annually and is often determined by how popular the breed is. In the '90s, for example, as more people wanted to protect their homes, the popularity of Rottweilers soared. An all-time high of 93,656 Rotts were registered with the American Kennel Club in 1995. (In comparison, there were 18,141 Doberman pinschers registered that year.)

One Rottweiler breeder in Texas insists that owners are to blame for Rottweilers gone bad. He calls it the "idiot factor," citing people who are bullies and purchase Rotts to intimidate neighbors. These people are more likely to let their Rotts roam free.

Jan Cooper, a California Rottweiler owner and tracker of breed-specific legislation, points out that "the bulk of owners have the breed for image or social reasons. They need an ego lift and have low self-esteem and these are the type of owners who teach a dog to be aggressive. They're disasters waiting to happen."

Those who say Rottweilers are naturally mean are wrong, says Benjamin Hart, professor and chief of behavior services at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis.

In Germany, where they originated, Rottweilers were bred as working dogs, for herding and other chores.

Mr. Hart says there are variables at work within breeds; two relatively docile dogs can be bred to create a litter of docile puppies, which in turn can be bred to pass on that trait. He adds that dogs that are trained to understand that their master is in charge are not dangerous.

Many dog bites can be avoided because they fall into predictable patterns, says Fort Worth plastic surgeon Dr. Bob Sorokolit, who has worked on more than 200 children who have been bitten.

"The typical story we see is a dog is part of a family unit and a baby comes in and is seen as the interloper," Dr. Sorokolit says. "The dog is there first and resents the child."

He says bites often occur when a child is playing with a relative's dog. He and other experts advise leaving dogs alone when they're eating. They also caution against leaving young children alone with any dog, as was the case with Princeton's Catalina Guajardo.

Dr. Sorokolit adds that it's best to be cautious around dogs when the temperature's high. In the summer, he says, dogs are hot and irritable. "Eighty percent of the dog bites we see are in the summer," he says.

Rottweilers, in fact, are shown at hundreds of dog shows around the country each year without incident, says Tom Bradley, spokesman for the Westminster Kennel Club.

"Nobody ever gets bitten at a dog show," he says. "Dogs properly raised are not biters. Go to any dog show and you'll see Rottweilers."

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