Cities and towns across the nation have banned the canines from their city limits, insurance companies have opted against offering insurance to many pit bull owners and police departments and municipal governments have placed financial burdens on the owners of the animals, often labeled as vicious. But the stories circulating about the mighty pit bull’s locking jaw, its penchant for fighting and its appetite for flesh may be just that -- stories. Several veterinary scientists have concluded that the locking jaw associated with pit bulls is pure myth. Moreover, the fear the pit bull invokes may be the stuff of folklore and street legend. According to the American Canine Temperament Testing Association, American pit bulls -- or their purebred cousins, American Staffordshire terriers-- pass a strict temperament test 95 percent of the time. The association lists the pit bull as the fourth-best canine out of 122 breeds tested in the study, in terms of temperament. In fact, the so-called vicious breed was ranked higher than some of the world’s most popular dogs, including the golden retriever and the black Labrador retriever. A temperament test is a rigorous procedure focusing on different aspects of temperament such as stability, shyness, aggressiveness and friendliness, as well as the dog’s instinct for protectiveness toward its handler and/or self-preservation in the face of a threat. During the test, the dog experiences visual, auditory and tactile stimuli. Neutral, friendly and threatening situations are encountered, calling into play the dog’s ability to distinguish between non-threatening situations and those calling for watchful and protective reactions. Other temperament-testing societies have also performed similar studies and none ranks the pit bull lower than an 83 percent passing rate. ‘The owners, not the dogs’ So where did the American Staffordshire terrier, or pit bull, get its horrific reputation? Barry Bannister, a former Fall River dog officer who also worked at the Forever Paws Animal Shelter, said it’s no wonder that the pit bull has been labeled as vicious. "It’s the owners, not the dogs," Bannister said. "There’s really no such thing as a bad dog. Somebody had to have taught or molded the dog into a mean animal." He said the pit bull’s loyalty is one of its most endearing traits, but that loyalty can also be used against it. "You can use a pit bull’s loyalty in good or bad ways," Bannister said. "If the owner wants the dog to be bad, it’s going to be really good at being bad." Fall River alone has seen its share of pit bull-related incidents, which may help to proliferate the ill-tempered stereotype saddling the breed. Bannister and his sister, Joy Bannister, Fall River’s animal control officer, say they have seen pit bulls involved in plenty of ugly incidents over the years. Some of these canines are used by drug dealers to protect their stash, others are trained to fight, while even more are simply abandoned or abused and made into monsters. The American Staffordshire terrier is one of the stronger breeds of dog in the world, which means its owner must be more responsible than others. But both Bannisters say far too many owners don’t know what they’re getting into when they buy a pit bull puppy, or any other large working breed dogs, such as Akitas, Doberman pinschers and Rottweilers. "You have to be responsible enough to keep your dog restrained in public," Barry Bannister said. The city animal shelter alone usually has up to 30 pit bulls at one time. In one week alone, 16 pit bulls were picked up by animal control on the streets, abandoned or abused. "There’s definitely a pit bull problem here in the city," Joy Bannister said. "Humans are being selfish and inhumane, and turn these lovable animals into material objects instead of living and breathing beings." She said the problem begins with breeders. While many reputable breeders of show dogs will not sell Staffordshire terriers to unsuitable owners, many in the city breed the dogs on their own and sell them privately. "I saw one 2-year-old female who had already had nine litters of pit puppies," Joy Bannister said. "That just shows you how the people in this city are adding more and more of them into the population." Finding good homes Bannister, her officers and her volunteers do not give a pit bull away for adoption without first getting to know the dog and its potential owner. The workers at the animal shelter have a policy to keep all dogs at least 10 days before putting them up for adoption. These 10 days are used to temperament-test the dogs, to make sure they are safe to own. If they are deemed to have good temperaments, Bannister then makes the potential new owner go through a list of tests before he or she leaves with the dog. She performs background checks, homeowner searches and ensures the potential owner spends quite some time with the animal before letting them go home together. But if the dogs don’t pass the temperament test, they are scheduled for euthanization. This, Bannister said, is the most difficult decision she can make. In fact, at least two pit bulls have been euthanized for aggressive behavior during the past few weeks. One in Fall River was captured before it did any damage, but another in Swansea was euthanized after it went on a daylong rampage, killing one Chihuahua and injuring other dogs. "Unfortunately, a lot of these animals are being put down every day, because they have become a symbol for toughness among gangs and others," Joy Bannister said. "The dog always ends up paying with its life while the owner gets nothing." A change in the laws Kristen E. Ashton, a large-dog breeder and trainer from North Dartmouth, said the laws need to change to shift the punishment from the animal to the owner. Ashton has been breeding large working dogs and holding training classes through the Bristol County Dog Training Club for more than three decades. She said she has seen some "wonderful" pit bulls, but has also seen some "horrendous" ones as well. "They are the new fad dog," Ashton said. "Every few years it’s a different dog, but right now it’s definitely the pit bull." Many cities and towns hold dog hearings when a complaint is issued against a canine. The local board of selectmen or police chief then decides whether to label the animal vicious. If a dog is labeled vicious in Fall River, the owner must provide insurance coverage for the animal, keep it muzzled, post a sign and never allow it off leash. Ashton says these regulations are necessary, but not enough. "My feeling is that there should be better laws for the people who own the animals," Ashton said. She said while it is a civil right to own any dog one wants, a new owner should be required by law to become educated on the breed and be forced to attend dog training classes. She also said there should be legal restrictions on who can sell a dog. She said far too many people sell animals to anyone who is willing to pay. Ashton sells large dog breeds, but said she says no to prospective buyers more often than she says yes. "It’s always the dog who is going to suffer due to an irresponsible owner," Ashton said. "But the people who own them get a slap on the wrist and then go out and buy another one." She said it’s "a shame" that the pit bull has come into fashion, because she considers them to be a lovable and loyal breed. "They bite far less than smaller dogs, but no one reports it when a Scottish terrier bites because it doesn’t do the damage a larger dog does," Ashton said. Regardless of the statistics, the pit bull will likely continue to be known as a vicious animal, due to its strength and ability to inflict severe injury. But Ashton and others say if an owner trains its dog properly, regardless of breed, that animal will become a good canine citizen. "The myth will probably never go away," Ashton said. "I really don’t know what the answer is, other than creating stricter laws on breeders, sellers and owners."