"Because you don't know what's underneath that skin or in that brain, you really have to be careful," said Ecker. "Some of them are the nicest dogs you'd ever want to meet and some are the most vicious dogs you'd ever want to meet. The problem is that when a pit bull hurts you, they hurt you seriously."
The breed has been a hot topic locally for a long time. But that attention has risen in the past year. In early 2009, two pit bulls attacked and killed a horse in LaPorte County. A month later, another horse was attacked in Fulton County.
A 4-year-old girl was attacked in Elkhart in the summer of 2009. That incident prompted the city to consider banning the breed, but after strong opposition, no law against them was never passed. And earlier this year, a dog-fighting ring was busted in Indianapolis.
Cases like these have created a negative stereotype for pit bulls. But is that reputation enough to make people act cautiously around any pit bull? We wanted to see how people would react when they encounter a dog on the street. Would they judge the dog by its breed or would any large dog cause a cautious reaction?
We put two dogs and their owners on a city sidewalk. Kona is an 8-year-old mixed breed and Thor, a 7-year-old pit bull. We started with Kona and it didn't take long to get a positive reaction.
A passing woman smiles and says hi to Kona and a group of women stop and talk to him. Later, a storeowner, after asking if he'd bite, pets him.
But the most common reaction was none. Most people walked by unaffected, even when Kona approached them. But some people did admit their reaction would have been different if it had been a pit bull.
So now it was Thor's turn. If you think you’ve heard of this pit bull before, you probably have. In July, Thor became a local hero when he saved his family's lives.
"Our place caught fire and it was the middle of the night, 3 o'clock in the morning,” said Kemper Hunter, who has owned Thor since he was a puppy. “He had woken us both by jumping on us. He even bit me in my arm to let me get up. By the time we got up and realized what was going on, he done had my little one, which is 7 months old now, drug to the front door, bassinet and all."
Thor's heroics earned him national attention. He received local honors and was given the Shining World Hero Award by the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association. Hunter says he can't imagine life without him.
"He's got a spot in this house until the day he takes his last breath,” said Hunter. “He's mine. He's my best friend."
But would a stranger's opinion of him be the same based solely on his appearance? We put Thor and Hunter in the same location as our first dog. Reactions of the first few people were similar. While they were cautious, most ignored Thor.
But the same group of women who stopped to talk to our first dog, after seeing Thor, just walked by. There was some positive reaction to the pit bull. Thor received a pat on the head from a woman exiting a store.
In the end, the majority of people treated Thor the same as Kona, by just walking by, giving little to no attention.
So what did our experiment show? That in certain conditions it doesn't matter what kind of dog a person meets? Is it more about the kind of person who owns a dog, rather than the kind of dog a person owns? Or are people just being cautious based on the news they hear?
"People are afraid because they read it because there's so much hype in the media," said Carol Ecker with the Humane Society.
Hunter believes it's as the old saying goes, "Don't judge a book by its cover."Hunter says he believes a dog is only as good as the person who trains it. But Humane Society Director Carol Ecker says that aggressive tendencies are embedded in a dog’s genetics. Either way, caution around any unknown dog is the best course of action.