Killer Dog Sparks Interest in Rare Breed

Feb. 7, 2001 -- Mac Harris hoped to increase the popularity of presa Canario dogs, a breed he has bred and loved since 1993. But now that the rare breed is finally getting some attention, it's been his worst nightmare.

The powerful dogs burst into the national eye last week when one named Bane, a 120-pound brindle male, killed a San Francisco woman in the hallway outside her apartment. An investigation into the incident discovered that Bane was one of two dogs at the center of an alleged scheme by two prison inmates to raise vicious beasts to be sold as guard dogs for illegal drug labs or for dog fights.

Pit bulls on steroids.

Harris, a New York City man who has four of the dogs and says he is responsible for the American Kennel Club recognizing the breed, said in the week since the news broke of the fatal attack he's gotten more calls than ever before about the dogs he loves.

But they're from people he doesn't want to talk to. These people are looking for dogs to be used for fighting — and that's why he quit breeding dogs.

Angelika Morwald, the owner of WereWolf Kennels in Cayuga, Ontario, Canada, has had the same experience. Calls have come in from people saying, "I want one of those dogs that killed that woman," or "I want one of those dogs that did the attack," she said.

"We've always had people that were interested in aggressive, vicious dogs and you had to screen them out," she said. "But now they're just coming out and saying they want dogs that kill."

Not Bad Dogs, in Right Hands

Animal care experts were not surprised that the news from San Francisco created a surge of interest in the dogs, because along with an increase in the prevalence of dog fighting they have noticed a tendency towards larger dogs being used in the blood sport.

The presa Canario dog is a breed that originated in the Canary Islands, a mixture of English mastiff, bulldog and a Canary Island herding dog. They are powerful, lowslung dogs, the males weighing as much as 120 pounds.

Both Harris and Morwald praised the breed for its intelligence and devotion to family — characteristics that other, perhaps more impartial observers, also singled out in the dog.

"A lot of the rare-breed mastiffs are being looked at by people who are looking for what they think are more powerful, more vicious dogs," said West Artope, the director of training at the Center for Animal Care and Control in New York. "It's unfortunate, because a lot of these dogs are not bad dogs when they're in the right hands.

"But if they're not," he added, "they're loaded weapons."

Harris used the same phrase to describe the dogs when they are trained as killers rather than protectors. He was quick to point out, though, that he raised a family with four presa Canarios in the house, and never saw an incident in which the dogs put any of his family members at risk.

"They were very loving to my kids," he said. "They're a family oriented dog."

A Good Dog Ruined

The breed is new to many people — including Dr. Randy Lockwood, vice president of research with the Humane Society of the United States. Lockwood has studied fatal dog attacks since 1979, and said this is the first he has come across in which a presa Canario was the killer.

He said that the most common killers have changed over the years, with German shepherds being replaced by pit bulls in the 1980s, followed by rottweilers, and he said he feared that unless presa Canario breeders were careful, their dog could be the next.

According to Lockwood, there was not a single fatal rottweiler attack in the United States from 1979 until 1992, but since then the dog has emerged as the leading killer. Like the presa Canario, it is a dog that was bred as a protector — intelligent and fiercely loyal — but people looking for an animal more imposing than the pit bull focused on bringing out the more aggressive side of its character.

"This is exactly the mentality that ruined the rottweiler," he said when he heard about the kind of calls the presa Canario breeders have been receiving.

A Time Bomb

When Morwald heard about the attack in California, she was convinced the dog involved was not a purebred presa Canario. She said there are two strains of the dog, a more pure strain from the Canary Islands and one that evolved in Spain where the dog was mixed with fila brasiliero, a dog bred in South America for hunting jaguars.

Presa Canarios were banned in Spain, which Morwald blamed on the mix of the two breeds. She said she had to "destroy" one dog that she got thinking it was a pure presa when she discovered that it was a presa-fila cross, because the combination of bloodlines created a vicious dog.

"It's a deadly combination when you start mixing these protection breeds," she said. "What you get is a time bomb."

The trouble is that it is hard to tell the pure presa from the presa-fila mix when they are puppies. As adults, though, she said the differences are clear. The mixes have longer noses, a narrower muzzle, longer legs, and their shoulders are much broader than their hips.

As to the pure presa, Morwald says it is "a highly controllable dog, with the intelligence level of a 6-year-old child" and "phenomenally loyal, but will not attack without reason."

"A presa assesses the situation and acts on the basis of that," she said. "They are not a dog that would run out ready to kill."

Fila breeder Robin Barrett of Irwin, Pa., says the same thing about her dogs, which she describes as wonderful family dogs who are always ready to protect but are not by nature vicious. She said that any viciousness in individual filas is the result of someone either mishandling them or intentionally bringing it out.

Lockwood, speaking about the phenomenon of any breed of dog becoming known as a killer, didn't hesitate to place the blame.

"It speaks to the human element," he said.