Pit bulls once enjoyed a more favorable reputation—like the celebrated World War One hero, Sgt. Stubby. But that began to change in the 1980s when news stories of pit bull attacks, including an article in Sports Illustrated, which is largely credited with creating the new reputation of pit bulls, and later, Michael Vick's pit bull dog fighting proliferated in the news. And pit bull attacks continue to make headlines today. Is the pit bull's reputation as America's most feared dog deserved?
Myth: Pit bulls are purebreds
Truth: A dog with a blocky head, almond eyes, broad chest, muscular build, and short hair must be a pit bull, right? Nope. There is no definitive answer when it comes what constitutes a pit bull, but they are descendants of the English bull-baiting dog. The American Kennel Club (AKC) doesn't even recognize pit bulls as a specific breed. "Breeds often labeled as pit bulls are actually individual and distinct breeds, such as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Bully, American Staffordshire Terrier, and the American Bulldog," says Colleen Demley-Riley, a canine behaviorist with Dogtopia. Riley notes a study revealed even veterinarians, breeders, and trainers often guess the wrong breed or mix when looking at a dog.
Myth: Pit bulls are a fighting breed
Truth: Pitbulls are distant relatives of English bull-baiting dogs, "a dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears, and other large animals around the face and head," per the ASPCA's Position Statement on Pit Bulls. Then, when baiting large animals was outlawed in the 1800s, the English bull-baiting dogs were bred with smaller terriers to produce a fighting breed. In the ASPCA's statement, they point out that while some pit bulls may have been bred to fight against other dogs, "It doesn't mean that they can't be around other dogs or that they're unpredictably aggressive." The statement goes on to explain that many pit bulls who attacked their owners or other people were put down, ending their bloodline and, furthermore, just because they were bred to fight, it doesn't mean they are unpredictably aggressive or more likely to fight another dog. On the other hand, many pit bulls were bred for companionship, and are known to be gentle, affectionate, and loyal. Today's pit bulls are likely a mix of the two, "The result of random breeding is a population of dogs with a wide range of behavioral predispositions," the statement says.
Myth: Pit bulls are inherently vicious
Truth: "There are no dogs that are inherently vicious," says Melissa Pezzuto, behavior consultant team lead at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah. "Viciousness and aggression are not breed characteristics or personality traits, and is not specific to any one breed of dog." A dog's life experiences, such as abuse and lack of socialization, are factors that can lead to viciousness, not a specific breed of dog. Pezzuto points to the results of a national program of temperament testing for dogs. In the American Temperament Test Society rankings on dog temperament, which looks at signs of panic, avoidance, and aggression, the two breeds often associated with pit bulls, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American pit bull terrier scored a 90.9 percent and 87.4 percent, respectively. That's higher than many traditional "family dogs" including the beagle (79.7 percent), golden retriever (85.6 percent), and St. Bernard (84.9 percent).
Myth: Pit bulls have a powerful lockjaw and bite
Truth: It is not anatomically possible to have a lockjaw, explains Lesa Staubus, DVM with American Humane Rescue. And research done by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers showed pit bulls don't have the most powerful bite when compared to other larger dogs. "They (pit bulls) can be out-chomped by Rottweilers, Siberian Huskies, Dobermans, German Shepherds, and Great Danes," says Dr. Staubus.
Myth: The majority of dog bites are from pit bulls
Truth: There is no nationwide reporting system for tracking dog bites today. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stopped breed collecting data on dog bite-related fatalities in 1998. (It is worth noting that a review of data published in the Journal of American Veterinary Association Journal (AVMA) in 2000 found that "Pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half [of the dog-bite deaths between 1979-1988]" and a recent study published in International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology that looked at dog bite data from University of Virginia Health System and Nationwide Children's Hospital from 240 patients over the last 15 years found that "Injuries from pit bulls and mixed breed dogs were both more frequent and more severe.")
Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician and epidemiologist with the CDC explained the challenges of accurate reporting at the 2001 American Veterinarian Medical Association Annual Convention in this AVMA article. "There are enormous difficulties in collecting dog bite data," Dr. Gilchrist wrote. "No centralized reporting system for dog bites exists, and incidents are typically relayed to a number of entities, such as the police, veterinarians, animal control, and emergency rooms, making meaningful analysis nearly impossible. Moreover, a pet dog that bites an owner or family member might go unreported if the injury isn't serious." And studies show victims of dog bites are more likely to only report dog bites from breeds they deem as more dangerous than say if they got bit by a Chow Chow.
Myth: Pit bulls don't get along with other pets
Truth: Just like humans, dogs can have people they are more comfortable and social with—and it's not breed-specific. "Each dog is an individual and their response to other animals will be dependent on their development and things such as their individual disposition, socialization, and previous experiences," says Megan Stanley, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA Owner, dogma training & pet services inc. Her own pit bull, Duke helps at her training facility to socialize puppies and dogs with limited social skills. "He is a wonderful mentor dog at helping fearful dogs gain confidence, exposing puppies to large dogs and helping dogs gain social skills so they can integrate back with their human companions," says Stanley. And at home, Duke lives in harmony with two dogs and a cat. Some species, however, don't make good roommates, like these pairs that probably shouldn't live together.
Myth: Pit bulls are ruthless killers
Truth: Dr. Staubus credits a study published in the American Veterinary Medical Association to dispel this "fact." The study revealed there are many factors involved when researching the causes associated with dogs killing people. For example, the absence of an able-bodied person to intervene, unneutered dogs, and dogs who were isolated with little human positive interaction. "Owner history of mismanagement, abuse and/or neglect were also identified as major factors," says Dr. Staubus. Not a factor? The breed of dog. Behavior isn't breed-specific but these health conditions could be.
Myth: Pit bulls turn on you in an instant
Truth: According to Pezzuto, dogs of any breed rarely turn on people without warning signs. "Dogs give us many subtle signals that they are uncomfortable such as lowered bodies, tucked tails, snarling, or growling. Instead of listening to this communication we often ignore or even reprimand our dogs for doing so. This results in the dog suppressing the warning signals and possibly jumping to snapping or biting the next time they are uncomfortable," says Pezzuto. Here's how to decipher the subtle signals of your dog's tail is trying to tell you.
Myth: Pit Bulls are dangerous because they are on a BSL list
Truth: Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is a term for laws that regulate or ban certain dog breeds to decrease dog attacks on humans and other animals. The ASPCA actually calls this "breed-discriminatory, the AKC, Humane Society, the American Bar Association, and many other organizations opposes BSL, and 18 states have legislation that prohibits it. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior says, "BSL is ineffective, and can lead to a false sense of community safety as well welfare concerns for dogs identified (often incorrectly) as belonging to specific breeds." The false sense of security relates to people thinking a specific breed is safer over another breed, when all dogs are capable of biting. "BSL is the result of misunderstanding and prejudice against these blocky-headed dogs." You might not be aware of these other weird dog laws in your state.
Myth: There are so many Pit Bulls in shelters because they can't be trusted
Truth: "The reasons why pit bull types end up in shelters are no different than the reasons why every other breed winds up in shelters," says Stephen DeBono, pet behavior manager at Bideawee. Dogs end up in shelters for a variety of reasons—they caused trouble with another pet, bit someone, were too aggressive, or had too much energy. In other cases, the owners didn't have time to care for the dog, passed away or moved. "These reasons are true of pit bull types, Chihuahuas, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and every other breed," says DeBono. Stanley adds that BSL is a huge factor, too, as pet parents may have to surrender their pit bull if they move to a city, county or specific apartment, condo or HOA that bans them. Find out how to pick the best dog breed for you.