By Erika de Beer

American pitbull terriers can become a problem if they are not well trained or socialised, an animal behaviour scientist said on Monday.

Dr Nicolene Swanepoel, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria's Friskies Companion Animal Behaviour Centre, said: "If it is not trained properly it becomes a time bomb waiting to explode."

On Friday, two American pitbull terriers attacked Janet Mngadi in Amanzimtoti. Both her arms had to be amputated, she lost her right ear and sustained serious injuries to her left eye and cheek.

Mngadi, a mother of five, was attacked three days after taking up employment as a domestic worker for the dog's owner.

American pitbull terriers have earned a reputation for vicious attacks in recent years. Just as fierce as the criticism of these dogs is the loyalty of their owners, borne out by various Internet websites singing their praises.

According to Swanepoel, the breed of terriers does not necessarily present a problem. "Any dog can be aggressive under certain circumstances," she said, although pitbulls have a different temperament and are "inclined to attack in a crisis situation".

The dog was originally bred to fight bigger animals such as bulls and other dogs. They were bought with the specific purpose of making them fight. American pitbulls are not generally aggressive towards people, but do not usually like other dogs.

Swanepoel pointed out that one could not expect a pitbull to instinctively know the difference between an intruder and an innocent person.

It would attack instinctively if in doubt, whereas another type of dog may try and find its owner, as its leader, first.

Not only pitbulls, but any breed of dog must be socialised and taught to obey its owner, she said.

Despite the prevalent crime and violence in the country, getting a very aggressive dog is not the answer. One might regret doing that if the dog attacks an innocent visitor.

"If one's motivation for getting a dog is to defend one's property, I would say one should rather get an alarm system."

A dog is there for company, or to alert its owner if something is amiss.

"It can't serve as a weapon."

In modern life many dogs are left alone the whole day.

"That can cause them to go astray and then they would act incorrectly in a crisis situation."

There were few people who could be considered to be the appropriate owners of pitbull terriers, German Shepherds or even Jack Russells and Border Collies, Swanepoel said.

"Pitbulls have a bad reputation because they often have the wrong type of owners."

Neil Fraser, senior inspector of the wildlife unit of the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals, said the United Kingdom has implemented a law tightening controls on dangerous animals.

South Africa has a similar law, the Animal Matters Amendment Act, which was promulgated in 1993 to provide for the responsibility of owners of vicious dogs.

Anyone whose animal causes injuries to another person faces a prison sentence of up to two years.

Pitbull terriers, Fraser said, were generally bred to bring out the trait of aggressiveness. It is difficult to socialise such a dog, but not impossible.

"There are some perfectly socialised pitbull terriers."

Dave Woodward, kennel superintendent at the Johannesburg SPCA, said his staff had never had any problems with the dogs, compared with other breeds, like Rottweilers.

He added that his own pitbull terrier, which he has had for the past 10 years, had also never demonstrated any behavioural problems.

An East Rand breeder claimed that he would not hesitate to put a baby in a kennel with his pitbull terriers. According to him, a brother and sister were brought into the country and used to breed, causing a bad bloodline.

The dogs could kill, but they would only kill intruders, he insisted. - Sapa