F. Wayne Ward started the new year without his two best friends.

Since his wife died six years ago, the 89-year-old Ward has doted on his dogs."I'm living here alone. It gets kind of lonesome around here. I'd go out there and talk to them a little, so I'd get by a little," Ward said.

Two days after Christmas, someone hopped his 4-foot fence and stole Rusty, a reddish-tan 3-year-old pit bull, and Smokey, a 2-year-old black pit bull.

The thief or thieves took off the dogs' collars, leaving the collars attached to the chains.

Ward has visited Salt Lake Animal Control Services, posted pictures of his missing dogs, reported the theft to the Salt Lake County sheriff's office and even had his story reported on television. So far, there is no word about his missing companions.In the past three years, five of his dogs, including Rusty and Smokey's mother, have been stolen from his yard.

The elderly man thinks he met the thieves. On Dec. 27, two men came to his home saying they wanted to buy pit bulls. He doesn't sell dogs, and he refused to let them see his animals.

"I don't know how they found me or knew anything about me," he said.

He speculates that the thieves took his animals to sell them. "Pit bulls aren't valuable around here, but in other places they go for $500 or $600," he said.

The next morning, when Ward went out to feed the dogs and chat a little, they were gone.

Despite the reputation of pit bulls as vicious, Rusty and Smokey were as gentle as lambs, Ward said.

"The kids in the neighborhood would come in the yard and play with them. The little girls would play with them. I guess that's why they got stolen. They wouldn't bite anyone. They were just pets," he said.

Animal experts agree that Ward's description of his animals as gentle may be accurate.

North Salt Lake veterinarian Jim Wilson said pit bulls have been known to go after other dogs, particularly little ones, but they have a lower incidence of biting humans than many other breeds.

"You can find bad dogs every week. In actuality, the pit bulls can be really nice dogs," the veterinarian said.

Leslie Kelson-Probert of Salt Lake County Animal Services believes pit bulls have an undeserved bad reputation. (Actually, five different breeds are called pit bulls, but the dog most commonly referred to as a pit bull is the American Staffordshire terrier.)

"What you really have is irresponsible pet owners, not bad dogs. Any animal can be vicious if the pet owner is irresponsible," she said.

In November, animal control, which collects data for the American Humane Association, had no reports of pit bull bites. The largest number of reported bites - 23 - was by mixed-breed dogs. There were also 14 reported cat bites.

There was one reported bite by a pit bull in October.

Kelson-Probert said it's unfair to label dog breeds as biters or dangerous. Small dogs probably pose more of a biting threat, but because they cause less damage to the victim, their bites aren't reported as often, she said.

Ward, who retired 21 years ago after 46 years as a conductor on the Rio Grande Railroad, isn't very optimistic about finding his dogs. He also thinks he might be too old for more animals.

"If I live until March 6, I'll be 90," he said.

But the animal lover in Ward could still win out. There have been a lot of dogs in his life. "Even when I was a kid, I always had some kind of mutt around," he said.