Let me start by saying it’s not clear if my dog, Ru, is a pit bull mix. She was a stray in a rural, impoverished area and she’s brindle, so the chances are good. But she’s also very skinny and has many personality traits typical of a sighthound mix. We’re pretty certain she has some kind of herding dog, but unless DNA testing becomes reliable in the next couple of years, we’ll probably never know.
Either way, many times I’ve been walking my dog casually down the street and had people cross to the other side to get away from us. When Ru has approached someone submissively while on leash with her tail happily wagging, I’ve literally seen people jump back screaming. At the dog park, people will see a pit bull arrive and they’ll leave, muttering under their breath, “that’s just not a good dog,” even though the pit hasn’t done anything.
It’s hard to see and experience all these things first hand and not begin to form opinions. While it’s not a bad thing for people be nervous of my dog when we’re walking at night, I’ll admit it is a little perplexing. If only they knew that this sweet little monster was the most eager-to-please and submissive dog I’ve ever met – she literally pees herself when she someone yells at her.
Let’s start the conversation with what a “pit bull” actually is. Pit bull is not a breed but a term used to describe dogs with a certain set of physical characteristics. These breeds include but are not limited to American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. When you combine all these breeds together, the “pit bull” population is HUGE in comparison to most other types of dogs (that’s important, we’ll come back to that).
Pit bulls were originally bread in the UK for dogfighting by mixing bull dogs with terriers. It was important that trainers be able to handle their dogs in fights, so human aggression was deeply frowned upon. In the United States, pit bulls became a favorite breed of Americans and were considered to be friendly, hardworking, and brave. They were popular mascots, particularly in WWI propaganda posters, and were owned by celebrities like Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Billie Holiday, and of course the Little Rascals. Looked at no differently than any other breed of dog, pits’ reputation began to change in the 1980s, when increased dog fighting became associated with poverty, drugs, and crime. Many of the damaging myths were created and perpetuated by sensationalized media headlines.
In terms of innate traits that makes the pit bull more dangerous, the well popularized “lock jaw” is a myth, and these breeds have no better chemical or mechanical ability to hold on than any other dog. Pit bull breeds regularly perform as high or higher as many favorite family breeds on temperament tests by the American Temperament Test Society (learn more: http://atts.org/). In a recent test done by the same group, pit bulls received a passing rate of 83.9%, passing 4th from the highest of 122 breeds. That’s better than even Golden Retrievers passing at 83.2%. The average passing rate for ALL breeds is 77%. Even the ASPCA has said that sensationalized over-reporting, as well as outright false reporting, has contributed to negative perceptions about the breeds.
Furthermore, although many sites claim that pit bulls are responsible for 60% or more of dog attacks, that’s not taking into consideration the extremely high numbers of pit bulls in comparison to other types of dog breeds. When dog bite statistics relative to the population are looked at, pit bulls come at the bottom of the list:
# of Reported Attacks
% vs. Population
|Approx. 240,000||12||Chow Chow||.005%|
|Approx. 800,000||67||German Shepherd||.008375%|
|Approx. 128,000||18||Great Dane||.01416%|
|Approx. 72,000||10||St. Bernard||.0139%|
|Approx. 5,000,000||60||Pit Bulls||.0012%|
Pit bulls are also notoriously difficult for most laymen to identify. Often dogs that have just a couple of characteristics found in pit bull, such as a square head or brindle fur, are automatically assumed to be pit bulls despite no hard evidence. That means when a dog attack does occur, police and the media (who have no training in identifying dog breeds) are quick to assume a dog is a pit bull or pit bull mix when displaying just one or two physical characteristics. It’s not unusual for the media to call a dog a “pit bull” because that creates a more sensational headline, only to have experts quickly say the dog was in fact an American Bull Dog or some completely different breed.
Additionally, because of the pit bull’s “tough guy” reputation, these breeds are more likely to be owned by people with criminal tendencies. Dogs raised around this type of behavior are less likely to be properly socialized and positively trained, which will create issues in a dog of any breed. Because they were bred for dog fighting, it’s especially important to socialize pit bull puppies with other dogs from a young age, and be extra cautious when testing an adult pit bull for dog reactivity. If pit bulls are not introduced to other dogs and even other small animals from a young age, they have increased likelihood of aggression towards other animals, although that does not mean that they will have the same aggression towards people. When properly socialized, pit bull breeds are affectionate, playful, sensitive, and trusting of strangers, so they do not typically make good guard dogs.
Are there aggressive pit bulls? Absolutely. But there are also aggressive beagles, shepherds, retrievers, mastiffs, and even cute little chihuahuas. Even more important than the breed is training, socialization, and education. As I mentioned in a past post, it’s important to be aware of your dog’s limitations and respect them – after all, some dogs are not good with kids, crowds, or other dogs. Always ask someone before you approach their dog if he or she is friendly, especially if you have a dog or child with you, and teach your kids to do the same. Nothing impresses me more than a 10 year old who asks me if he can pet my dog before coming up to us.
Furthermore, spay and neuter your dogs! Approximately 92% of fatal dog attacks involved male dogs, 94% of which were not neutered, according to the American Humane Association. Neutering reduces aggression, especially in males, and un-neutered dogs are more than 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs. It isn’t just male dogs, either – female dogs in heat and nursing moms are more dangerous and unpredictable than spayed females. Rather than creating breed specific legislation, maybe we should consider increasing requirements around spaying and neutering our pups.
If you’d like to learn more about this breed, I recommend checking out the BAD RAP website: http://badrap.org/
What are your thoughts about pit bulls?