Pit Bulls have been vilified in the media for many years. This has caused some localities to ban this type of dog from their town or city limits. But is such a ban reasonable? Are these dogs more dangerous than other dogs? Do these dogs in general pose a threat to the community at large?
What is a Pit Bull?
What may surprise some people is that pit bull is not a breed of dog. Instead, it is a term used to describe several breeds of dogs including the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, The English Bull Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier. Some organizations also include the American Bulldog.
Others use the term “pit bull type dog”. The definition for that term is largely subjective and varies wildly depending on who is providing the definition.
It is important to keep in mind that when you hear “pit bull type dog”, the speaker is probably not describing one of the dogs listed above. If they were, they would just say “pit bull”. When you hear “pit bull type dog” in a negative context what is happening is that pit bulls are being blamed for the behavior of a dog that does not even fit the description of a pit bull.
Pit Bulls Through the Years
Prior to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, pit bulls did not get that much attention in the media. So where did these dogs fit in before they became the media’s favorite villains?
In the early 1900’s, this type of dog was the most popular family pet in America. So trusted and loyal were pit bulls that they were given the nickname “nanny dogs” because of the caring way that they watched over children in the family.
Because these dogs were so popular, many companies used their image in advertising campaigns. The most famous of these was for RCA Victrola. Another very famous pit bull was featured on the Our Gang television show, sometimes remembered as The Little Rascals. The show’s four-legged rascal, Petey was a pit bull.
Helen Keller had a very beloved pit bull that was her companion for many years. Pit bulls also have their place among the ranks of this nation’s heroes. In fact, the most decorated war dog of all time was a pit bull named Stubby who did his service during World War I.
There are also modern day pit bull heroes including drug sniffing dogs, and pit bulls that comfort the sick and grieving through work as therapy dogs.
If, as some media reports and jurisdictions say, pit bulls are innately dangerous, none of the above would be possible.
Pit Bulls in the Media
Until very recently, the only time you would hear about pit bulls in the media would be if there had been an attack. Sadly, pit bulls are often blamed for attacks that were actually committed by other breeds, furthering the unwarranted fear of these dogs.
Often, when a dog other than a pit bull has attacked, the paper will not even bother to name the breed. A prime example involved the French woman who was attacked by her pet Labrador while she slept. This woman later became the recipient of the first face transplant. Most of the headlines read something like, “Woman attacked by dog…” or “Pet attacks woman…” Had it been a pit bull, it is nearly certain the headlines would have contained the breed.
Another interesting tidbit about the way the media handles pit bulls involves the amount of coverage given to pit bull attacks as compared to the amount of coverage given when another breed attacks.
The bottom line is that pit bull attacks sell. Unfortunately, because they sell, reporters are quick to jump on the story of a pit bull attack, even if it is unclear that the dog is actually a pit bull.
This sensationalized reporting has had tragic consequences for millions of dogs.
Common Myths About Pit Bulls
Below are just a few of the common pit bull myths along with a brief explanation of the truth.
MYTH: Pit bulls have a locking jaw and cannot let go once they bite.
FACT: Pit bulls have the same anatomical features as other dogs. They do not have locking jaws. The same is true for the myths about their brains swelling and the power of their bite. It is simply not true.
MYTH: Animal aggression will soon turn to human aggression.
FACT: Many types of dogs, especially those used in hunting and other sport dogs, display animal aggression. Pit bulls were often used in similar ways as hunting and sport dogs so they will also sometimes display animal aggression. There is not necessarily a correlation between animal and human aggression.
MYTH: Rescuing a pit bull is dangerous, because you do not know the history of the dog.
FACT: All responsible shelters are going to put pit bulls – and all dogs they put up for adoption – through stringent temperament testing. They are not going to adopt out dogs that do not pass. If you buy from a breeder, especially a disreputable breeder, you will have no such assurances
While it is ideal to know the history of the dog, it is often not possible. The history of a dog does NOT dictate future behavior. Below, you will read about the Michael Vick dogs that prove this point beautifully.
Stats and Facts
Now that we have read about some of the myths, let’s look at some facts and statistics.
While it is not possible to know the exact number of pit bulls that are in the United States, estimates place the number somewhere between 10 and 15 million, and that is using the low end of the spectrum. If one is to believe the published studies regarding dog bites, the veracity of which will be discussed below, there are an average of 3 fatal dog bite incidents involving pit bulls each year. IF PIT BULLS WERE INNATELY DANGEROUS, THERE WOULD BE THOUSANDS – AT LEAST – OF FATAL INCIDENTS PER YEAR.
Another interesting statistic involves temperament testing. During temperament testing, a dog is subjected to a series of tests. How the dog responds shows his level of aggressiveness. In shelter situations, dogs that do not pass temperament testing will not be put up for adoption to the public. They either must be placed in special rescues designed to deal with problem dogs or be euthanized. Temperament testing is also done for dogs working to be certified as therapy or rescue dogs, and any owner may choose to have their dog tested at any time.
Of all pit bulls that are tested, they pass at a higher rate than the dog population in general.
Pit bulls are not responsible for the largest number of fatal dog attacks
Pit bulls are not the dogs that inflict the most bites
Pit bulls pass temperament testing at a higher rate than dogs in general
It is difficult to find accurate bite statistics. Some of the reasons are listed below.
“Pit bull type dogs” are sometimes blamed for attacks that occur by other breeds
The circumstances surrounding the attacks is not included
The conditions in which the dogs were kept prior to the attack are not included
Unless it was a fatality, the severity of the bite is often not included
In writing about researching her book, Fatal Dog Attacks: The Stories Behind the Statistics, Karen Delise, Director of Research for the National Canine Research Council, wrote “My study of fatal attacks occurring over the past five decades has identified the poor ownership/management practices involved in the overwhelming majority of these incidents: owners obtaining dogs, and maintaining them as resident dogs outside of the household for purposes other than as family pets (i.e. guarding/ protection, fighting, intimidation/status); owners failing to humanely contain, control and maintain their dogs (chained dogs, loose roaming dogs, cases of abuse/neglect); owners failing to knowledgably supervise interaction between children and dogs; and owners failing to spay or neuter resident dogs not used for competition, show, or in a responsible breeding program”(1).
Delise also said that she found that in the many cases, those filing the reports, including animal control officers, police officers and others, were not sure the breed of the dog that had attacked. Also, the breed of dog most often blamed for fatal attacks has changed throughout the years.
For that reason alone, dog bite statistics about a certain breed cannot be taken as fact, because those reporting the incident admit that they are often not sure of the breed involved.
Still, even to take the bite statistics at face value means, as mentioned above, that pit bulls are to blame for an average of 3 fatalities per year. Taking into consideration there are at least 10 million pit bulls in the country, it is impossible to draw a logical conclusion that pit bulls are dangerous dogs.
Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)
With that in mind, why then are some localities banning pit bulls? They are trying to eliminate the possibility of dog attacks, but since all dogs attack – remember the face transplant recipient was attacked by a Labrador – breed specific legislation is not the way to make that happen.
If lawmakers use the media as a guide, it is easy to understand why they might think BSL will work.
It will not. All that it does it punish an entire breed of innocent animals while allowing irresponsible owners to be let off the hook.
Denver, for example, has banned pit bulls. They have not, however, banned Labradors or other dogs that have attacked in the past. That means that Denver residents are still in danger of a being attacked by a dog.
According to the American Kennel Club Web site, an appellate court in Ohio ruled BSL to be unconstitutional. The AKC Web site states, “The Court found no new evidence to prove that these breeds are any more dangerous than others. Regulating or limiting pit bull ownership was therefore "arbitrary, unreasonable and discriminatory" (2).
The Ohio BSL was written to include dogs that had bitten or killed a human, killed a dog or was classified as a pit bull. The Ohio court said, “Since we conclude that there is no evidence that pit bulls are inherently dangerous or vicious, then the city ordinance limitation on ownership is also arbitrary, unreasonable and discriminatory” (3).
Case Study – Michael Vick Dogs
It has been a common thought that once a dog, especially a pit bull, was abused, taught to fight, used to fight or trained to be vicious, that it could never again be a safe choice for a pet. When a Virginia judge ruled to allow all but one of the dogs taken from Michael Vick’s home to be sent to various shelters and rescue groups, he allowed the world to see that this is not the case.
Of the 47 dogs seized, 25 were able to go to various shelters to be placed with families. The other 22, who were considered the worst cases, were sent to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a Utah shelter that specializes in dogs with difficult pasts.
PETA representatives testified in court that there was no hope for those 22 dogs. They could never be rehabilitated. The only solution was to put the dogs down. These “Vicktory Dogs”, as they are called at Best Friends, have proved PETA wrong.
Some of those 22 dogs are now agility dogs, therapy dogs and much loved family pets. Most are now or will soon be placed in a home. The two most abused dogs will not be placed, but will live out their lives at the sanctuary, being spoiled by the staff and volunteers.
The Michael Vick dogs have shown the world that even severely abused and mistreated pit bulls CAN be rehabilitated when placed in the right hands.
So, should the pit bull be banned? When all the evidence is weighed, there is no logical reason to ban the breed. Instead, legislation should focus on punishing irresponsible and abusive owners and looking for ways to deal with vicious dogs no matter the breed.