Two years ago this month, District Chief of Animal Disease Control Peggy Keller investigated an unusually gruesome dog attack in Manor Park: A 130-pound dog, sicced by its owner on what he thought was a thief, had leapt at a 13-year-old girl. As she tried to run, she fell, and the dog pounced, leaving her with a cracked hip and bites on her face that required 40 stitches.
The offending animal wasn’t the breed usually blamed for such attacks—a pit bull. Instead, it was a rare breed of mastiff called a Cane Corso. The owner had paid $2,600 for it in North Carolina.
Since Keller began investigating animal cases for the Department of Health in 1997, no dog of that breed—a type of mastiff indigenous to Italy, bred for farm work and first imported to the United States in 1983—had ever come before the city’s dangerous-dog review board. But since then, Keller has gotten much more familiar with Corsos and other rare mastiffs. This year, according to D.C. Department of Health statistics, there were 11 impoundments involving mastiff breeds in February and March—up from six two months ago. In the same span, pit-bull impoundments declined from 240 to 150.
The reason, Keller says, is simple: Two years ago, the D.C. Council was amid its second attempt to ban pit bulls, a favorite breed in the District for those looking for protection, status, and dogfights. The owner of the Manor Park Corso told Keller that he got his dog because he thought a pit-bull ban was imminent. Today, for the third time in three two-year sessions, the D.C. Council is again considering a ban, even as authorities in Maryland consider a repeal of theirs, saying other big dogs are just taking their place.
Prince George’s County has had a pit-bull ban in place since 1997, and according to Rodney Taylor, chief of the county’s Animal Management Division, the ban has had a negligible effect on safety, because among other reasons, would-be pit-bull owners are turning to other breeds.
The most pronounced trends are in two once-uncommon breeds: Corsos and Presa Canarios. For many years, says Taylor, a 20-year veteran of the division, those breeds were rarely encountered by animal-control officers. But in the past two years, the Corsos and Canarios have become frequent occupants of the county pound. Today, the division sees as many as a half-dozen of the dogs a month. “We just weren’t seeing these breeds of dogs in our county prior to the ban coming into effect,” Taylor says.
In the back of the agency’s kennel in District Heights, Taylor stands in front of a fenced cell, one of the largest in the facility. Inside, a brown Canario with patches of white lies on the floor, indifferent to his yelping neighbors and the bracing aroma of bleach. He weighs more than 60 pounds, but with his bulky frame, he still looks scrawny.
“He’s small for a Presa,” Taylor says. “He should be another 20 to 30 pounds.” He holds palms about a foot and a half apart. “We’ve had ’em in here that broad across the back.”
Taylor calls this Canario, brought in for a cruelty complaint last month, “pretty laid-back.” But this isn’t necessarily par for the breed: It was a 110-pound Canario that infamously mauled San Francisco lacrosse coach Diane Whipple to death in 2001, sending its owners, Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, to prison on involuntary-manslaughter charges.
In January, after a series of neighborhood complaints in Hyattsville, Prince George’s animal-control officers took in four Cane Corsos on viciousness charges. That, Taylor says, was after the dogs attacked the officers. The Corsos were euthanized late last month.
As in virtually all dog breeds, the demeanor of a Corso or a Canario depends largely on its training, says Denyse Winns, owner of Stormy Winns Kennels in Calvert County, Md. Winns’ kennel, which breeds Cane Corsos exclusively, selling puppies for as much as $1,500, caters to a national clientele looking for purebred show dogs and family dogs, not people looking for protection or a 100-plus-pound status symbol. “We don’t get a whole lot of that traffic,” she says.
But Winns says Corsos can look intimidating, particularly if their ears are cropped. And the dogs, which Winns says can be great for families, aren’t necessarily man’s best friend: One guide offering advice to potential Corso owners says the breed “requires heavy socialization and training by an experienced ‘alpha’ owner, as they are not a ‘happy-go lucky’ mastiff—they will not ‘love’ everyone they meet. They are indifferent to other people and dogs and VERY protective of their family and home.”
Taylor says it’s not professional breeders like Winns who are responsible for the current influx. He says the dogs now popular in Prince George’s are from “backyard breeders” who breed the dogs specifically to be aggressive, as was the case with the Hyattsville Corsos.
Keller says her agency is in the process of drafting an alternative to a breed-specific ban that aims to identify dangerous dogs of all breeds, not just pit bulls.
Meanwhile, Taylor is outspoken in his disdain for his county’s ban. About 900 innocent pit bulls are still destroyed in the county per year, he says, while there’s no sign the ban has an effect on breeders of aggressive dogs. “They go underground,” Taylor says. “I truly believe it’s still going on.” CP