The Truth About Pit Bulls: Part 1

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Written by:
Published: June 3, 2013
The Truth About Pit Bulls: Part 1

A discussion about Pit Bulls and breed specific legislation recently erupted on this blog in response to my post about two pieces of dog-friendly legislation passed this year in Colorado. I’ve written before about the inanity of breed specific legislation so I don’t want to go into that again, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to go in depth about one of my favorite breeds of dogs (which is saying something since I’m a mutt person at heart). I hope the information will help this misunderstood breed get the positive recognition it deserves.

First I need to define what a Pit Bull is since, technically, no such breed exists. The United Kennel Club and American Dog Breeders Association recognize American Pit Bull Terriers, while the American Kennel Club registers American Staffordshire Terriers or Staffordshire Bull Terriers. All three of these breeds tend to be referred to as Pit Bulls, often to their owners’ consternation.

Every variety of dog has its own distinctive characteristics, and the Pit Bull is no exception. These traits are not only limited to a dog’s outward appearances but also involve the way in which individuals see and react to everything in their environment. While it is true that different types of dogs share much in common, generation after generation of selective mating certainly leaves its mark upon a breed. Knowing what makes a Pit Bull special is essential to appreciating these often misunderstood dogs.

Ask a knowledgeable Pit Bull enthusiast to describe the dogs, and you will likely hear what, on the surface at least, seems like a paradox. On the one hand, Pit Bulls can be confident, fearless, tenacious, brave, and yes it has to be said, sometimes aggressive, particularly towards other animals. On the other hand, you are just as likely to learn that these dogs are often playful, eager to please, good with kids, intelligent, loyal, devoted, and oftentimes just plain goofy. How can these apparent contradictions all apply?

To understand the Pit Bull personality, one has to look back at its history. When these dogs were being bred to fight in the ring, no trait was more sought-after than “gameness.” A dog that was game was not necessarily a frequent winner or even a particularly effective fighter, but he never gave up. No matter if he was injured or hopelessly over-matched, a game dog would continue to fight until the fight was over, one way or the other. Dogs that were game were chosen for breeding and passed this trait on to the next generation. Dogs that had more of a “this just ain’t worth the effort” attitude were not bred.

Many generations later, modern Pit Bulls still display the tenacity of their ancestors. Gameness can be an incredibly valuable asset in a search and rescue dog or in a weight-pulling contest, but it can also make Pit Bulls difficult to distract and sometimes a bit stubborn. In either case, gameness is one of the characteristics that makes a Pit Bull a Pit Bull.

Gameness should not be confused with aggressiveness, but it can’t be ignored that mating decisions made with an eye towards developing an animal that could win in a fight created a breed with a tendency towards interdog aggression. This in no way means that an individual Pit Bull is likely to be involved in an attack. With proper socialization and training most Pit Bulls can safely interact with other well-mannered dogs, but to ignore the fact that the breed was developed to fight is irresponsible. Pit Bull owners must take special responsibility for preventing fights between dogs.

Tomorrow: Part 2

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Zanna Demcenko / via Shutterstock

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