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Swamped with a perpetually high number of pit bulls, the Dane County Humane Society has launched an effort to encourage the adoption of these dogs - a breed often thought of as dangerous and aggressive but one society officials say is largely misunderstood.

But the push comes at a time when local animal control officers say they are seeing a rise in violent incidents involving the dogs, which experts say are often popular with low-income families who can sometimes breed and abandon the dogs.

"It's a tough thing that we face," said Gayle Viney, humane society spokeswomen, of the pit bull reputation, adding that some shelters don't place pit bulls up for adoption at all. "We have so many great ones that just haven't been getting any attention."

"Pitties," as the dogs are affectionately known at the society, represent one-third of the dogs up for adoption there and officials say they consistently are passed over because they are perceived to be ferocious, aggressive animals.

Pit bulls figure highly in incidents reported to the Madison Dane County Health Department, including aggressive behavior toward other dogs, dogs attacking other dogs and dogs running loose.

"We have noticed a trend in more and more of our calls involving, unfortunately, that one particular type of dog - pit bulls or pit bull-type dogs," said Patrick Comfert, lead animal control officer for the department. "A week rarely goes by in the summer that we do not get a dog versus dog (call) involving a pit bull."

In 2008, 36 percent of all the calls for attacks by dogs on other dogs in Dane County involved pit bulls. This year through September, 29 percent of such calls involved pit bulls.

Growing presence

Pit bulls haven't always been prevalent in Dane County and Comfert, who's worked as a humane officer in Dane County and Madison for nearly 20 years, remembers about 15 years ago when the type of dog first started showing up in the area.

But now their presence is growing.

"What's happened is pits have become part of a culture as a way for low-income people in neighborhoods with very few opportunities to get power and protect what they have," said Patricia McConnell, who has a doctorate in zoology and has specialized in canine aggression for 22 years.

In addition, Viney said the humane society sees "a big problem with people that are breeding and over-breeding this dog," which leads to a large number being abandoned and ending up at a shelter.

"Pit bull terriers are loving, loyal, high-energy dogs, but when kept in a kennel too long without stimulation they can easily get stressed and depressed," she said.

Pit bulls, which are a mix of several breeds, were first bred for "ring sports," such as bull fighting and fighting other dogs.

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McConnell said because of pit bulls' background, the dogs - compared to other breeds - may have a higher probability of aggression toward other dogs. But most pit bulls can be raised and trained and conditioned to be polite around other dogs, she said.

"Every dog should be evaluated as an individual," she said. "Breed is so irrelevant so often."

Kirsten Houtman of Madison has four pit bulls and said people shouldn't rule them out as pets.

Houtman said when she adopted her first pit bull 12 years ago, people used to walk on the opposite side of the street when she was out walking her dog. But now people in her neighborhood are used to her dogs and Houtman said overall the breed is becoming more popular.

"We have found they are very affectionate, very people-oriented, very well-behaved," she said.

Not unique to county

The problem of pit bulls swamping shelters isn't unique to Dane County and "is ubiquitous all over the country," McConnell said. Often their reputation "dooms a lot of pit bulls before they get anywhere," she said.

Viney said the humane society doesn't take pit bull adoption lightly, however, people who adopt pit bulls don't have to meet special criteria to adopt the dog.

"We treat them just like every other dog - the key is to make sure that they're going to be a good fit for the adopting family," Viney said. Like all the other dogs, pit bulls who are brought to the shelter are screened for behavioral issues before being put up for adoption.

The humane society has offered their "Positively Pitties" class for about two years, which is geared toward people interested in adopting the high-energy dog. The class meets once a week for six weeks and is open to the public.

But Comfert stresses that pet-owners shouldn't be misled when it comes to understanding the damage a pit bull can cause.

Other breeds of dogs don't genetically have "a basketball sized head and jaws that can crush the bone of a cow," Comfert said.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't have pit bulls," he said, but added he would like people to meet a higher degree of responsibility to own one.

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