Creepy calls came in, generated by her classified ad. Bonnie Flynn was only trying to sell her six Rottweiler puppies (exc. temp. fam. dogs. to approved homes) but it was as though "fam. dogs" was meant to lure the Manson family, or the Munsters. Phone callers desired canine bodyguards, canine assassins, canine instruments of human vengeance.

Publicity about recent Rottweiler maulings has apparently attracted new people to the breed.

"When somebody calls asking how mean are your puppies," says Flynn, "I don't want to talk to them anymore."

Bonnie, how mean are they?

Three dogs sit on Death Row in Rockville. Their names are Lear, Bear and Caesar. They are Rottweilers.

Undisputed fact: On Sept. 15, Arlynn Joffe and her 3-year-old son, Brett, were attacked by the three dogs while walking down Green Pasture Drive. After the mauling, 150 stitches were required to sew up Joffe's legs. Brett suffered only minor injuries, but has experienced nightmares since. The Rockville Animal Control Board initially decided to spare the dogs' lives -- deciding merely to tattoo their ears and find them new homes. But the Joffe family, many local residents and now -- after weeks of hand-wringing -- the city of Rockville are all in favor of destroying the dogs. So the Animal Control Board is reconsidering.

The owner of the three dogs -- a woman named Hagit Levin -- is outraged. She protests not only a death sentence but also the tattooing (Holocaust tactics, she said).

Lear was the "maid of honor" at her wedding three years ago.

A decision could come as early as today.

Mercy is a tough case to argue. Hundreds of stitches have repaired wounds left by Rottweilers in the past year. In Howard County, a 10-year-old boy got 100 after a Rottweiler named Damien went after him. In Pittsburgh last month, six Rottweilers nearly killed a 2-year-old. On Oct. 2, a Montgomery County police officer shot a Rottweiler after the dog bit his wrist. It had been roaming an elementary school playground.

Those Rotties. Born rotten or made that way? Vicious by nature or nurture?

"Vicious?" Bonnie Flynn repeats the question. "They might lick you to death." Even a Chihuahua

Her back yard is huge. The fences are high. Her house is immaculate, except for the sliding glass doors, which are splattered on the outside with mud and slobber, wiped by dog nose marks that go up four feet. Jutta Beard lives here. She's a dog trainer and Rottweiler enthusiast in Temple Hills. She has agreed to see us -- to defend the breed.

Inside, the sweet bouquet of dog breath hangs heavy in the air. It's an exotic blend: The gusty exhalations of six massive Rottweilers, the tiny snorts and pants of many Pug dogs. They all reside here with Beard, with her dog-loving family, with huge quantities of chow, and with a certain amount of barking.

"We're all a little crazy," she yelps.

Beard is talking fast from a kitchen chair. The chair has no seat cushion. There's a hollow area where the cushion used to be. It's been chewed off -- and swallowed whole, perhaps. This couldn't have been the work of the Pug Pack. Homer! Bubba! They are too tiny and pigletlike, with the same curly tails and adorable grunting noises.

"Dogs should never be running loose," says Beard when asked about the recent maulings. "Any dog. Even a Chihuahua." She believes that Lear and Bear and Caesar should not be destroyed -- only separated. They can be "rehabilitated" with obedience training.

Mean dogs, she says, just don't know the rules.

"The taste-of-blood argument," she says, "is not true at all. Silly. Many breeders feed their dogs raw meat for nutrition."

Down on the kitchen floor, Faust the Rottweiler is smiling. He's on his back, stretching his front legs over his mammoth block head. It's the size of a bread box. It's black, except underneath he's a color that the Rottweiler breeders refer to as "mahogany." His mahogany part is a little light -- faded -- since he's an old guy at 9 years with maybe one year of life left.

Old Faustie is smiling because his stomach is being rubbed. He's showing some saggy pink-and-black inner lip. You can see his fangs. They're clean. They're big. He and the other five Rotties (Abigail, Onyx, Stacy, Hexe and Greta) look as docile as old Clydesdales, as wholesome and obedient as a West German Olympic team. Why, even Bubba bosses them around -- gets them to roll over on their backs -- and he's just a Pug.

"Among dogs, size is immaterial," says Beard. "Leadership is based on dominant personality." His Eyes Say No

Thirteen people were killed by dog attack in the United States last year. Eighteen have been killed in 1990 so far, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Eight of those murders were committed by pit bulls, three by huskies, two by malamutes, two by wolf-hybrid dogs, one by a German shepherd, one by a pack of strays, and one by an Akita -- a Japanese fighting dog.

Not one Rott.

"Dogs don't have human feelings," says Beard. "They don't just go out looking for people to attack."

Faust stands up and moves in close. He's a leaner. He sits close to your legs and then leans his 117 pounds of monstrously beautiful Rottweiler body on you until he gets petted. He's grunting too, like a Pug.

Faustie, that kitchen chair cushion, could you have done it?

His eyes say no. His eyes accuse others. Possibly one of Jutta Beard's three kids. Or Jutta herself. The possibilities are endless.

"Occasionally there's a bad dog," Jutta Beard acknowledges. "But mostly it's just bad owners." Butcher Dogs

In 1980, the American Kennel Club registered only 4,701 new Rottweilers to owners. Last year, 51,291 were registered -- and the breed became the sixth most popular "registered" dog in the country. (The top 10 list, according to the AKC: cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers, poodles, golden retrievers, German shepherds, Rottweilers, chows, dachshunds, beagles and miniature schnauzers.)

The sudden popularity may explain, or partially explain, the Trouble With Rottweilers.

"As soon as a breed becomes really popular," says Roberta Vesley of the AKC, "problems start. Most often it's temperament problems. More and more people try to breed that breed -- back-yard breeders -- and they don't know very much. The same thing happened to cocker spaniels. They became popular and their temperament went to hell."

"Dogs shouldn't be a money crop," agrees Beard. "Just makes lousy dogs."

Like Dobermans and German shepherds and Jutta Beard herself, Rottweilers were bred originally in Germany -- as patrol dogs, shepherds and all-purpose work dogs since the Middle Ages. They are believed to be descendants of a cattle dog left in Rottweil by the Roman legions.

Called "The Rottweil Butcher Dog," the breed used to accompany butchers on their buying expeditions. Rottweilers didn't carry that little barrel of brandy, though, like Saint Bernards. They carried money around their necks.

It was safe there.

Weighing between 80 and 120 pounds (depending on gender), Rottweilers stand 22 to 27 inches at the shoulder. They are still used as search-and-rescue dogs, as police dogs, as family pets, and in Hollywood movies as the personification of unmitigated evil when an actor in a Nazi uniform isn't available.

"When I bought my first Rottweiler 15 years ago, people had never heard of them," says Beard. "Then 'Damien, Omen II' came out and Satan was played by a Rottweiler in a cemetery and everybody started wanting them." Acts of Aggression

There are 1 million to 3 million dog-biting incidents reported each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. "Sometimes people provoke dogs to attack without knowing it," says Beard. If you should find yourself cornered by a dog, she advises:

Don't swat at the dog, or shoo it away with your arms. ("This," says Beard, "will be perceived by a dog as menacing.")

Don't stare at the dog. ("Eye contact in the animal world," says Beard, "is an act of aggression.")

Don't run from the dog. ("This brings out hunting instincts," she says, "and the dog will often chase you.")

Stand still. If bitten, let your body go limp. ("Although I admit," says Beard, "this isn't easy to do.") Not a Poodle

Beard tells about the Rottweiler who dragged a child from a collapsed house during the San Francisco earthquake last year. She tells other stories too, but with such excitement and at such speed that it's impossible to process the information for retelling.

"But a Rottweiler is not a poodle," says Beard. "And there are people who shouldn't own them."

This statement seems to be corroborated by other dog experts.

"Many people who buy Rottweilers," says Vesley at the AKC, "don't know how much dog they have."

"Sure, Rottweilers can be dangerous," says Ann Joly at the Humane Society of the United States. "But it's above and beyond temperament. They weigh 100 pounds."

The perfect Rottweiler owner has "an adequately fenced yard," says Beard. "They believe in crate training -- teaching a dog to be confined to a crate or kennel when it's needed." And the Rottweiler owner should "believe in obedience training, neutering and reading books on the breed."

Beard is very strict about this. The last time she had Rottweiler puppies to sell, it took her a year to find proper homes for them. She interviewed potential owners extensively, and made them sign a two-page contract agreeing, among other things, not to transfer ownership and care of the dog to anybody else.

"And if they have children, I want to see them," she says. "If a person can't control their children, then they can't control their dog." Rott From Hell

Beard stands in her wide back yard. She is holding a green stick with both hands. She is playing tug-of-war with Onyx, a bitch the family calls "The Rottweiler From Hell" because she barks too much and because Onyx hates Hexe -- the other dominant bitch -- and goes mad-dog even if she sees Hexe from the corner of her eye.

"Male dogs will do all the posturing -- stiff legs and grumbling," says Beard. "But they won't go at each other hammer and tongs like the bitches."

The tug of war starts getting nasty. An audience of three Rottweilers starts barking. Onyx is snorting and growling, her chest in the dirt, her rump in the air, a yanking machine of maximum efficiency. Her gums are bleeding, she's been holding on to the stick so tightly. Her nostrils flare, her eyes roll, the whites are wide and wild. Spit is flying. Her teeth keep attacking the stick, regrabbing it for a better position.

You wouldn't want this to be your leg.

"This is ... " Jutta Beard is having a hard time getting it out, timing her words between Onyx's pulls. "This is ... something you ... usually ... don't encourage ... Rottweilers to do ... unless you have them," she says, "totally ... under ... control. Which of course ... she is."