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In Defense of the Pitbull: Separating Myth From Reality

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Dog bites are a major problem. Serious dog attacks are fairly common, too, although fatalities are rare—about 16 a year, according to the CDC. Among dogs that bite, all breeds are implicated. To quell the problem, a handful of U.S. cities and counties have passed laws limiting ownership of pitbulls.

Satisfied “pittie” owners across the country have decried the moves toward ‘breed-specific legislation’ as the canine equivalent of racism. Meanwhile, advocates of the laws hope they will curb what some believe is an ‘epidemic’ of dog biting in urban communities.

Sadly, there’s no shortage of misinformation about pitbulls, which blocks the formation of informed opinions. If we want to address dog-related injuries, we’ve got to attend to the facts. With that in mind, let’s explore a few of the most common myths about pitbulls and canine aggression.

The “Typical” Pitbull

Technically, there’s no such thing as a ‘Pitbull’ breed, according to the American Kennel Club and other canine registries. Pitbull is actually a generic term for several significantly different breeds. It commonly refers to the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, or the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but more than 20 different breeds have been characterized as ‘pitbulls’ in various settings.

For many people, the term refers to any big and aggressive dog. The lack of clarity on which dogs should be considered pitbulls can be problematic when trying to enforce breed-specific laws.

Are They Vicious?

It is easy to assume that the most aggressive dog is the scariest looking one, or the one that can do the most damage. Meanwhile, we tend to think small stature equals cute and therefore less aggressive. This is not accurate, though. Aggression and size are two different factors. Studies show that Dachshunds and Chihuahuas are among the most people-aggressive dog breeds.

Aggressive pitbulls do exist, and these dogs can certainly do incredible damage. In fact, any large and powerful dog is more likely to cause damage or death in the event of aggression. However, there is no evidence that pitbulls necessarily have a vicious temperament. In fact, organizations like the American Temperament Test Society annually assess breeds on their demeanor with humans, and pitbulls consistently score above average.

There is evidence that well-socialized pitbulls are among the most tolerant dogs around. Given the chance, they have great potential for self-restraint and are incredibly sensitive to proper training. Because they are so eager to please, pet pitties respond well to a light touch. While pitbull breeds can be good guard dogs, it is mainly because people believe they are vicious. Their reputation alone can be an effective deterrent against home invaders and other criminals.

Why Do Some Pitbulls Bite?

Pitbull-type dogs are responsible for a disproportionate number of bites, however—about a third, by some estimates. Why might this be the case? Unlike golden retrievers or chihuahuas, pitbulls are also disproportionately exposed to abuse and neglect. They are more likely to be recruited for criminal dogfighting rings. They are more likely to be chained up, beaten, and abandoned. Each of these experiences is known to cause a greater frequency of dog-on-people aggression.

A minority of pitbulls is clearly dangerous. Is it because they were born to be bad? It’s not likely. The truth is that any breed, or any individual dog for that matter, can be a troublemaker. This is also true of humans. We can expect children reared by abusive or irresponsible parents to act inappropriately without constructive rehabilitation.

Not surprisingly, pitbulls who survive the hell that is underground dogfighting are often psychologically damaged and don’t know how to act around people. But there are millions of pitbulls across America who are successful family pets and have never had any significant behavioral problems. They don’t have special jaw-locking mechanisms, nor a supernaturally powerful bite-force. They love children and playtime, and demonstrate intelligence and prudence in their socialization training. Many are full-time therapy, service, and rescue dogs.

Historically, pits have been kept as cherished family pets. Once considered a kid friendly breed, they were known as “nanny” dogs who could be trusted to keep children safe. This family pitbull tradition carries on today in countless American homes, despite all the bad press.

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