LET’S TALK ABOUT “PIT BULLS”: DO YOU HAVE YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT?

A few years ago, before I moved to Hawai’i, I expressed to some friends and family members that I wanted to adopt a pit bull-type dog. The responses I got ranged from tip to tail.

“They are the most affectionate, loyal dogs you will ever find!”

“Be careful, you know they can turn on their owner at a moment’s notice.”

“They are great dogs, but they are genetically predisposed to be vicious and a little crazy.”

“They are bad with children, so you’d better re-think this.”

“They are fantastic companions to people, totally trustworthy, but they can’t help but seek out other animals to attack.”

These are just a few of the comments I got. As you can see there’s a lot to sort out — a lot of opinion, mixed with myth, mixed with some fact, mixed with frankly, fear. It can all be so confusing.

But I did my research, reading reputable sources online that gave a fair assessment of pit bull temperament, and talking to the experts in my pet community — my vet, some rescue organization friends, and a friend whose a dog behaviorist.

The verdict was, as I suspected, that pits get a bad rap, and that a well socialized pit (just like ANY breed of dog) would fit well into my little family.

I never did get that pit bull. Not because I changed my mind, but because through a series of happy accidents an elderly lab that needed a good family found it’s way into my husband’s and my home. But I continue to have a soft spot for pit bulls.

So in the spirit of understanding, kindness, and most of all education, I’d like to clarify some of the main myths about pit bulls. You may already be a pit bull parent, supporter, or advocate, if you are, I invite you to comment on this post and offer any positive testimony.

If you are on the fence about pit bulls, or have some reservations, I hope this serves to dispel some fears, and help you to make an informed, fair decision about these dogs.

What exactly is a “pit bull”?

A “pit bull” is not actually an American Kennel Club recognized breed. Breeds that fall under the pit bull umbrella include: “American Pit Bull terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, American Bulldog, Bull Mastiff, Boxer, Dogo Argentino, and Olde English [Bulldog]”.

And quite honestly, the breed has evolved so much from it’s early beginnings in 1800’s Britain, that it is nearly impossible to identify a “pit bull” type from looks alone. The dogs were initially bred for physical prowess instead of looks, so the variables in their appearance are many.

Aren’t pit bulls more likely to attack than any other breed?

No. Actually, the American Veterinary Medical Association has found no correlation between pit bulls and the likelihood of attacks. In fact they find that “no single breed is more dangerous than another“.

And according to the SPCA:

According to the American Temperament Test Society, in 2012, 86.8% of American Pit Bull Terriers passed society tests that measure stability, aggressiveness, friendliness, and protectiveness. 85.2% of golden retrievers and 80.1% of collies passed these tests.

The Austin Humane Society states:

Pit Bulls received an 82% tolerance rating — which is higher than the average dog which received only 77%. They actually received a rating similar to popular breeds such as Australian Shepherd, Dalmation, Italian Greyhound, and Yorkshire Terriers.

To me, this quote sums it up:

Despite their reputation, the United Kennel Club doesn’t recommended using pitbulls as guard dogs because they’re too friendly with strangers.

(The above quote came from a great article from Alternet.com titled, “Pitbulls Used to Be Considered the Perfect “Nanny Dogs” For Children — Until the Media Turned Them Into Monsters“. I’d highly recommend it, though I will warn you that there is an unsettling picture — harmed pit bull – on the first page. I like to know these things before I click on a link.)

Cono, one of the sweetest, most laid back dogs I’ve ever met. She happens to be a “pit bull”.

But don’t pit bulls have “locking jaws”?

Absolutely not. This is such a farfetched myth. Pit bull-type dogs are still dogs, and do not have any sort of “special biology” that makes their jaws lock.

“According to Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the University of Georgia and an expert in training, handling, behavior, and the anatomy of bull dog breeds”:

The few studies which have been conducted of the structure of the skulls, mandibles, and teeth of [American Pit Bull Terriers] show that, in proportion to their size, their jaw structure and thus its inferred functional morphology, is no different than that of any [other] breed of dog. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of ‘locking mechanism’ unique to the structure of the jaw and/or teeth of the American Pit Bull Terrier. Source: American Dog Breeders Association

Are pit bulls dangerous around children?

Any dog can be dangerous around children if they are not properly socialized or trained. Always supervise your dog (pit bull or otherwise) when they are around children.

But are pit bulls MORE dangerous than other dogs? No. In fact, pit bulls tend to be excellent family pets. Well socialized pit bulls are very tolerant of playful rough housing with kids, and have even historically been called “nanny dogs” because of their sweet, reliable nature with babies and young children. Remember the Petey “The Little Rascals”? He was a pit bull!

The United Kennel Club notes that pit bulls, “have always been noted for their love of children”. (Alternet.com).

Aren’t pit bulls mentally unstable? Won’t they eventually turn on their owners?

You get out of a dog what you give to a dog. If you mistreat any dog, and prod them into violence, you increase the odds that they will turn on you.

Are pit bull breeds genetically predisposed to violence and mental instability? No. In fact, because pit bull-type dogs were bread for fighting against other dogs, it was imperative that they show no aggression toward their human handlers. Any dogs that showed aggression to humans were not bread or sadly, were put down. So actually, aggression towards humans has been bred out of most pit bulls.

What about mental instability? Don’t “bully brains grow continuously, causing them to go crazy?”. Absolutely not. As ludicrous as this assumption sounds, it was one of the reasons people cited as to why a pit bull was a bad idea for me as a pet.

This rumor is actually a hand-me-down: The first dogs associated with it were Doberman pinschers in the 1960s. The idea was that the brains of these canines grew continuously, ultimately causing the dogs to go crazy and turn on their owners. Variations of this tall tale even suggested that a Doberman’s skull was too small to contain its swelling brain and that the expanding organ would eventually explode inside its cranial home.

Eventually, when bully breeds picked up their own unfair reputation for aggression, they inherited this myth. According to Delise’s book “The Pit Bull Placebo,” the truth of the matter is that the bully brain grows as same rate as any other dog’s brain, and there has been no scientific study thus far that proves otherwise. Brain swelling typically develops only as a result of a head injury, and if a swelling brain could actually explode inside a skull, no dog with that condition would be capable of executing a crazed attack — or doing much of anything, for that matter.

(animalplanet.com)

But are pit bulls prone to attacking other dogs? No. Just as with many other breeds of dog, some pit bulls (remember, pit bull is not a breed, so evaluate “pit bulls” on a dog by dog basis), can be strong willed and protective of their people and homes. Any dog is capable of being properly AND improperly socialized toward other animals, and it is the OWNER’S responsibility to teach their dog — pit bull or otherwise — acceptable behaviors. Because pit bulls are strong, athletic dogs, aggression in pit bull breed can be more dangerous than in that of a Yorkie.

In many cases pit bulls, due to their high intelligence and strong will, do best with an experienced, firm, but compassionate, pet owner. (As do Akitas, Shibas, Basenjis, and Jack Russell Terriers, to name a few.)

Lovely Luna, a gentle girl who is one of the “Faces of Hawai’i” Award winners. Copyright Rita Coury.

So I suppose the moral of the “pit bull story” is to never be too hasty to judge a dog. Every dog is different. There are pit bulls who are gentle as lambs, there are pit bulls who are aggressive. There are golden retrievers who are dangerous around strangers, there are golden retrievers who want to be everyone’s friend.

From the SPCA:

…it’s important to realize that even though a breed may be characterized by certain behaviors, individuals of the same breed can vary tremendously. Some dogs are courageous, while others are timid. Some dogs are tenacious, while others are easygoing. Some dogs are sociable, while others are aloof. Like people, all dogs have unique personalities.

From Chihuahuas to Schnauzers to Pit Bulls to Great Danes, every dog is worthy of a chance.

Hug your pet today, they’re lucky they have you!

~Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger

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