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Pit bull owners say dogs are misunderstood

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Pit bulls

Fernando Lopez and Nena, his American Staffordshire terrier, a breed of pit bull, sit outside his Columbus home.

COLUMBUS — The hardest thing about taking Nena’s picture is getting her to stand still.

She’s a few months shy of 2 years old and happy to be out in the yard, running in circles, eating grass, hopping on laps and giving kisses to anyone who gets close.

“She still thinks she’s a lap dog,” owner Fernando Lopez said.

However, Nena slows down and is more careful when she’s close to Lopez’s 2-year-old daughter, Brooklynn.

“They like to get in trouble together,” Lopez said.

But not everyone is happy to see Nena’s big pit bull smile.

Lopez said people often assume Nena is dangerous. Neighbors will take their dogs inside once he lets her out. At the dog park, people move their dogs to another section or tell him to keep Nena away from their pets.

One time, Lopez remembered, Nena was with him while he mowed the front lawn and a group of kids walked by.

“The little one comes up to pet her and the older kid came up and said, ‘No, that’s a bad dog. That’s a pit bull. Mommy said no pit bulls,'" Lopez said. “It broke my heart for her because she loves kids.”

When pit bull owners are asked to describe their dogs, they talk about how energetic, playful, friendly, loving and intelligent they are. But they have a reputation for aggression and violence because of how they’re portrayed in popular culture and their use in dog fighting.

Pit bull is not a breed, but a category of terrier descended from the original bulldogs, bred for the violent sport of bull baiting, which explains their muscular, stocky bodies and strong heads.

The most common breed in the U.S. is the American Staffordshire terrier.

According to the American Kennel Club, American Staffordshires are “intelligent and excellent guardians” and “a people-oriented dog that thrives when he is made part of the family and given a job to do.”

Mark Avila, owner of a 2-year-old American Staffordshire named Oakley, said the dogs' devotion to their masters, along with their strength, is probably why they’re used for guard dogs and fighting dogs.

“If their owner says fight, they’ll fight to the end to keep their owner happy,” said Avila. “I’ve seen pit bulls lock on — they stay on it.”

Their reputation as fighting dogs became more prevalent after former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was arrested for operating a dog fighting ring in 2007. Some organizations called for their extermination, but shelters across the country took them in, rehabilitated the dogs and adopted them out.

A documentary called “The Champions," released in March, tells the stories of five of those dogs that were eventually adopted by families.

“If you get to know the owner and you can tell they’re a good person, they’re going to have a good dog,” said Jessi Cramers, another Columbus pit bull owner. “If they seem like a good, responsible owner and a good human, a good human is going to have a good dog. Whereas if they’re a bad person, like someone who likes dog fighting, then they’re going to have a bad dog.”

Avila agreed.

“You just have to raise your dog right. If you raise them to be nice around other people, they will be. My dog is around kids all the time — infants, toddlers and other kids,” he said.

Avila said he’s had pit bulls his whole life, and if anything they’re protective, but don’t act unless their owner tells them to.

“If something comes around the kids, they’re right there,” he said. “If people are getting loud with me, getting in an argument, the dog runs up to my side until an order is given.”

Lopez lives close to Pawnee Park where he’ll take Nena on walks. He said he hopes that when people see his dog they’ll take the time to get to know her and not make assumptions.

“I just want people to give these dogs a chance and see that they are not the monsters the media portrays them as,” he said.

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