Many dog breeds have been maligned at some point in their history. Doberman Pinschers, Bloodhounds, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers have all been the villains at one time or another. In the last 40 years, the reputation of dogs known as “pit bulls” has taken a serious turn for the worse. Before this recent bout of negative publicity, pit bulls were known as the quintessential family pet due to their intelligence, loyalty, determination, and highly motivated drive, which is associated with most terrier breeds. But today, even the definition of a pit bull is murky, and because of the unethical handling, improper breeding, and inhumane treatment of these animals, pit bulls strike terror in many people. However, this fear of pit bulls is largely unjustified and results in breed-specific legislation and the unnecessary euthanasia of innocent dogs. To better understand the issue, Broadway Barks reached out to experts to identify the facts and dispel the fiction surrounding pit bulls.
Pit Bull Facts
Identity and Origin
What is a pit bull? It seems like a pretty simple question, but the breed is often misidentified. In fact, there is no such breed as a “pit bull.” Three separate breeds comprise what is commonly referred to as the “pit bull”: the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Adding to the confusion, the American Kennel Club (AKC) only recognizes the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier, while the United Kennel Club (UKC) recognizes the American Pit Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. These breeds are similar, but each has distinctions in weight, height, and head shape. Mixes of these three breeds, and breeds such as the Cane Corso Italiano, the Boston Bull Terrier, and the Boxer are often misidentified as “pit bulls.”
The “Bull and Terrier,” the pit bull’s ancestor, originated in the late 19th century in the United Kingdom when breeders experimented with mixing terriers and bulldogs to get the eagerness of a terrier and the strength of a bulldog in one breed.[i] These dogs were first used to bait bulls and bears. When baiting was determined to be inhumane, the dogs were used for “ratting,” a blood sport in which rats were placed in a pit with the dogs, which is how “pit” was added to the colloquial name for the breed.[ii] Also around this time, dog fighting became popular in Europe, and the “pit bull” was used for such purposes. However, over time, these dogs became more popular as domesticated pets and not just as sport dogs. Their loyal, gentle nature made them well suited for families, and their drive and athleticism made them good protectors for farms and ranches.
Pit Bull Temperament
Among experts, American Pit Bull Terriers are known as a smart and friendly breed. In fact, according to the UKC, “aggressive behavior toward humans is uncharacteristic of the breed.”[iii] The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS) rates pit bulls as “less aggressive” when faced with confrontational situations compared to stereotypically friendly dogs such as Beagles and Poodles. As of February 2012, the ATTS had tested 839 American Pit Bull Terriers, 728 of which passed for a breed temperament score of 86.8%, which is better than Golden Retrievers and Beagles. [iv] Some pit bulls show aggression toward other animals and have a strong instinct to chase small fleeing animals like cats, rabbits, and squirrels. This is commonly referred to as a “prey instinct,” and many breeds possess this trait.
Pit bulls are social, smart, athletic, and energetic, so they require a great deal of exercise and stimulation to avoid boredom and frustration. This explains why many pit bulls behave poorly in a caged situation or when they are tied to a tree and not allowed the proper socialization and exercise. As the UKC states, a pit bull “requires an owner who will carefully socialize and obedience train the dog.”[v] Their athleticism and intelligence allows pit bulls to excel at many pet-friendly sports including agility, advanced obedience, flyball, weight pulling, and lure coursing.[vi] In fact, pit bulls are so good that out of the 66 dogs that have earned the UKC’s “Superdog” status for winning championships in conformation, obedience, weight pulling and agility, 23 were American Pit Bull Terriers and 13 were Staffordshire Bull Terriers. The breed is also quite suitable as a working dog, and many pit bulls work in law enforcement doing search and rescue, drug and explosives detection, and border patrol. Pit bulls are not only smart and athletic they also have a soft side and can display the attentiveness and gentle nature required for service and therapy dogs. In fact, some people refer to pit bulls as “Nanny” dogs because they are so attentive and caring, especially around children, which is why the dog chosen to play “Petey” in the Our Gang/The Little Rascals television series was a pit bull. There are pit bulls that help disabled Veterans with traumatic brain injuries maintain balance when walking. There are also pit bulls that work as seizure dogs and can smell small changes in a patients’ blood that indicate a seizure is imminent. There are even pit bulls helping blind and autistic students in therapy programs at schools in the United States.
Pit Bull Fiction
Now, with a better understanding of the pit bull’s identity, origin, and temperament, the tangle of myths surrounding this misunderstood dog can be unraveled.
Myth #1: Pit Bulls Have Locking and Grinding Jaws
The myth of locking jaws or jaws that can simultaneously lock in the front and grind in the back persists despite contrary evidence, including the fact that these traits are anatomically impossible. The American Pit Bull Terrier skull has a similar construction to other breeds, such as the Labrador Retriever, Poodle, and Australian Shepherd. As Dr. Howard Evans, Professor Emeritus at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, states, “There is no such thing as “Jaw Locking” in any breed…the power of the bite is proportional to the size of the jaws and the jaw muscles. There is no anatomical structure that could be a locking mechanism in any dog.”[vii] Pit bulls are terrier mixes possessing the tenacity to hold on once they have clamped down on something, but their jaws are incapable of locking and grinding.
Myth #2: Pit Bulls Have a 1600-PSI Bite
Another myth is that pit bulls have a bite strength equivalent to 1600 pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI). Scientific testing by Dr. Brady Barr of National Geographic proved this myth false. Dr. Barr tested the bite strength for several animals including humans, dogs, turtles, and sharks. Human bites were the weakest at 120 PSI, dogs came in at 320 PSI, white sharks rated at 600 PSI, and snapping turtles at 1000 PSI.[viii] Dr. Barr also conducted a comparative test between an American Pit Bull Terrier, a Rottweiler, and a German Shepherd; the pit bull bite had the lowest PSI of the three breeds. A pit bull’s bite is strong, but no stronger than other dogs similar in size.
Myth #3: Pit Bulls Do Not Feel Pain
This is a ridiculous myth that leads ignorant people to treat pit bulls as if they are impervious to pain. Proponents of dog fighting perpetuate this myth to justify their inhumane treatment of the pit bulls they force to fight. In fact, pit bulls have the same nervous system as any other breed of dogs; they do feel pain.[ix] However, pit bulls are a game breed and strive to please their owners, so they tolerate a great deal of discomfort and pain to complete the task for which they are trained. This characteristic of the breed may lead people to believe that pit bulls do not feel pain, when they are actually just bred to ignore the pain.
Myth #4: Pit Bulls Are Genetically Aggressive
None of the three breeds commonly known as “pit bulls” are naturally aggressive toward humans. Pit bulls were bred to be successful fighters, and therefore they can display aggression toward dogs and other animals. However, genetics is not the only factor, and this instinctual behavior can often be managed with socialization and training. Many pit bulls live happily and peacefully with other family pets including dogs, cats, and rabbits. In fact, many smaller breeds often demonstrate more aggression than pit bulls do, but are considered less menacing because of their size. Of course some pit bulls maintain their animal aggression—as do some dogs of other breeds—but those dogs can still be good pets as long as they remain separated from other animals.[x]
Myth #5: Pit Bulls Are Unpredictable
The myth of unpredictability depicts pit bulls as wild and dangerous. Any animal has the ability to appear unpredictable to the untrained eye. However, most animal behavior experts say that pit bulls are just like any other breed in terms of predictability. Most dogs give warnings before attacking, which can include growling, body stiffening, and staring. Adults and children who do not know better often ignore these warnings. As Paul Miller, pit bull expert and Executive Director of the Humane Society of Washington County, Maryland, says, many people are “not well-versed on dog behavior. Seventy percent of dog bites occur in the family home. Usually it’s a visitor bit in the home. The family learns the dog’s signs, but the visitor doesn’t know. People often ignore the dog’s warning signs.” Most dogs resort to biting as a protective behavior. In her book Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression, fatal dog attack and canine aggression expert Karen Delise states that during 50 years of newspaper reporting on fatal dog attacks, most attacks were precipitated by severe abuse to the dog.[xi] The dogs were either starving, injured, or were restrained with ropes or chains and were vulnerable and unable to protect themselves through fleeing. As with any breed, there are some pit bulls that, due to medical conditions or genetic disease, can behave unpredictably or show aggression toward humans, and in those rare cases the animals may need to be humanely euthanized.[xii]
Humans control every aspect of the “pit bull,” from birth to death. Humans created this breed and influence the breed’s temperament through breeding practices, training, and treatment of these animals. As Karen Delise eloquently states, the claim that humans are “hapless victims of the pit bull’s strength, temperament or anatomical traits is denying the indisputable fact that breeds of dogs are man-made, while at the same time failing to acknowledge the very essence of the human-dog bond—dogs will perform functions or behave in ways to serve their owners.” Pit bulls have been demonized through unsubstantiated myths that create unreasonable fear of these innocent animals. Pit bulls are dogs, just like any other breed, and they will do what humans breed and teach them to do. They are naturally loyal, obedient, courageous, patient, and loving animals that depend on humans to separate the fact from fiction and treat them accordingly.
By Charlene Sloan
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