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Pit Bulls: Vicious Killers or Much-Maligned Breed?

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We’ve all seen it in the media—the headline reading “Toddler Mauled by Dog”, the snarling pit bull with teeth bared in a music video, the villain in the movie with menacing canine protection by his side. The majority of the images we see or the articles we read would have us believe that pit bulls are vicious, bloodthirsty animals to be feared and avoided. But is that really the case? Or, is it a matter of mistaken identity in reported attacks?

For starters, there is no such breed as “pit bull”—it’s merely a term that is often used to refer to one of several breeds of dog, most commonly the American Staffordshire Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

In reality, there are more than two dozen separate dog breeds that are commonly misidentified as “pit bulls”. Such misrepresentations make it nearly impossible to know, with any certainty, how many attacks actually involve one of the three breeds most commonly referred to as pit bulls.

The American Pit Bull Terrier was the first of the “pit bull” breeds to be recognized by an official registry, when the United Kennel Club (UKC) registered the first one in 1898. The American Staffordshire Terrier was later recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1936, while the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was not recognized by the AKC until 1974. Originally a cross between a terrier and a bulldog, the American Pit Bull Terrier was bred to drive livestock, bait large game, and—because of their friendliness toward people—as a companion dog. However, in the early 20th century, they gained favor with dog fighters and began being selectively bred for their fighting prowess.

Contrary to popular belief, neither the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, nor Staffordshire Bull Terrier possess a “lock jaw”. They became popular with dog fighters because of their tenacity and strength, and not due to any physiological “jaw locking” mechanism that prevents them from releasing their grip.

“Pit bulls” were not bred to be aggressive toward humans. In fact, historically, they were nicknamed “the nanny dog” because of their affection and friendliness towards people. They are a loyal breed that bonds very closely with their owners, and are also a highly intelligent breed that tends to do very well with training. Like most terriers, they do possess a strong prey-drive, and given their ancestry within dog-fighting rings, may be dog-aggressive. It is important to properly socialize any “pit bull” breed in an effort to avoid aggression toward other dogs.

So are “pit bulls” blood-thirsty killers with a tendency to snap and attack whoever crosses their path? No. In fact, testing by the American Temperament Test Society has proven that the American Pit Bull Terrier has a pass rate of 86.0%—higher than “gentle, family-favored” breeds such as the Golden Retriever (at 84.6%) or the Beagle (80.3%).

However, that’s not to say that “pit bull” breeds never attack. As with any animal, they can and do bite, and have the potential to be dangerous. Any dog, even a toy breed or a puppy, can cause serious damage—in 2001, a baby was killed by a Pomeranian and in 2008, a six-week old black Lab puppy was responsible for the death of an infant.

Breed-specific legislation banning “pit-bull type dogs” is in effect in countries including Germany, Canada, Australia, England, France, and the United States, but it is not the solution to reducing the amount of fatal attacks—education is. There are approximately 311,915,000 people living in the United States, and there were 32 fatal dog attacks in 2010. According to those numbers, you have a 0.00001% chance of being killed by a dog. Of those 32 attacks, 60% were on children under 10.

The most important thing to remember is to never, ever leave a child alone with any dog, no matter how gentle the dog may seem or how small it may be. Children will often inadvertently trigger a dog attack through the simple act of being children—pulling tails, trying to touch a dog’s food or water dish, or approaching the dog’s face with a loving kiss are all behaviors that can be seen as threatening by a dog.

Selective breeding for temperament, proper training, education for both children and adults, and constant supervision of children and dogs will produce the best results in reducing attacks from any breed; giving pit bulls a “bad rap” will not.

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About AJ McDowell

  • MzTx

    Thank You for this posting, I would just like to add something.

    ” Pit Bulls” are American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, ( the new & bigger) American Bully, & all of their Mixes.

    American Bullies are so Hot right now, they are turning into Inbred Hippos. You have $500 you go to a BYB ( w/ papers)& buy 1- then get a Homie to do the same & they make $20,000 a Year( easy). These people are turning female dogs into Breeding Machines- fuc APBTs w/ this Continuous Demand for these Hippoes- the real APBT will only exsist Underground.

    We can Kill all ” Pit Bulls”, but nothing stops that Fighters from fighting another. We can kill all ” Pit Bulls” but nothing will stop that Breeder from Creating more.
    Everytime another Litter is born, that is just a Bigger chance of Irresponsible Owners to fuc up & make it harder for me & you to Own the Breeds we love.

    God Bless & please coninue posting these blogs.

  • http://www.puplove.ca AJ McDowell

    Hi MzTx –

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    [edited] For anyone interested, here is more information on American Bullies.

    It’s worth noting that the American Bully is not currently recognized by many of the notable kennel clubs (i.e. UKC, CKC, AKC, etc.) but that multiple registries specific to bully breeds appear to have cropped up in response to that. (i.e. The American Bully Registry, which I had never heard of before today.)

    You bring up another good point about BSL not being the answer: people can, and will continue to, get around the laws. Banning a breed will result in it being bred by backyard breeders and passed off under a different name:

    “Some dog owners have begun claiming that their animals are Irish Staffordshire Bull Terriers, a breed which is in fact almost identical to the American Pit Bull Terrier. This faux name came into use in Britain in order to get around “the law banning American Pit Bull Terriers”. These re-named dogs are then used to “fuel the return of dog fighting to levels last seen in the 1980s before the Dangerous Dogs Act was enforced.” The RSPCA does not recognize this breed as legitimate and separate from its American counterpart.” (Wikipedia entry on Pit Bulls) [edited]

    BSL essentially forces these breeds “underground” where they are bred without any forethought into breed standards, temperaments, or health problems.

  • http://www.frontwave.eu birgit nazarian

    Hi AJ, I agree with your article, more and more people are getting educated about pitbulls through articles like yours and shows like “Pitbulls and Parolees” and “Dog Whisperer”. Any larger dog breed really requires a sensible owner who is matched correctly with a dog. We have a 2 1/2 year-old pitbull mix. Our second pitbull mix, the other one died of cancer at 12 1/2 two years ago. Anyway, the right family can handle an athletic, energetic dog, but they aren’t for everyone. And no, by nature they aren’t vicious, they love to love on you and everyone else. I make more apologies for her licking everyone than anything.

  • randon

    pits are nit mean its how they are raised.

  • Carol L. Bell

    I am 74 years old and when I was born in 1937 My mother and Dad Got a nanny dog her name was Bootsie she was all Black with 4 white feet and down her chest. She was beautiful. When mother came home from the Hospital with me 10 lbs of humanity she had Bootsie to help her with me. She sat by me all the time and when mom puat me ouat on a blanket Bootsie was right there ato keep me n athe banket. She would sing for my dad and Say her prayers with me every night when I was 2 and 3 years old. She was the most gentle and loving Dog you could ever own. When she died when I was 11 the whole family went into mouarning. Please let the people know that it is not the dog it is their owner. Piat bulls are a very gentle dog. God bless you Tia for ding what you do.

  • Pitbull

    I have two american pitbull terrier mixes and they are both great dogs and very well behaved I cant speak for every dog but I think poor dog behavior is more in the training just as I believe poor behavior is usually the fault of the parents in children as well.

  • jenjen

    I do agree with this article it is about the training. I’ve been around pits all my life and have never seen one attack anyone. Had friends with small children and that’s all they owned were pit bulls and they’re great with them. In fact I own a pit/collie mix now and he’s the best dog I’ve ever had well behaved and just the most cuddly dog i’ve ever known. I love my dog