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.