Image via Mary Swift/Shutterstock.com
By Paula Fitzsimmons
Most of what you read about Pit Bull dogs is likely along the lines of Pit Bull Attacks Child or Unprovoked Pit Bull Seriously Injures Chihuahua. These pups are portrayed in the news as unpredictable, aggressive and vicious. Like most stereotypes, however, this one is steeped in misinformation.
Those who work in animal shelters, dog rescues and Pit Bull shelters have very different stories to tell from the ones you may be used to hearing. They say these dogs are misunderstood and have unfairly earned an inaccurate reputation. Several workers and volunteers who work closely with Pit Bull dogs share their experiences and insights. After learning the facts about Pit Bulls, you may just want to adopt one.
1. Pit Bulls Are Not a Recognized Breed
They’re a class of dogs comprised of a number of breeds, including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and English Bull Terriers, says Rena Lafaille, director of administration and promotions for the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City.
“Most of the dogs we see at the ASPCA Adoption Center that someone may refer to as a Pit Bull are some mix of another breed, making them a unique breed of their own with varying personality traits,” says Lafaille.
The term “Pit Bull” has different meanings for different groups, says Samantha Nelson, policy specialist for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “Animal welfare workers don’t agree on how to define a Pit Bull. Law enforcement officers don’t agree, and even dog owners don’t agree on exactly what a Pit Bull dog is. There is no standard legal definition for Pit Bull. People use the term arbitrarily and subjectively, and often apply it at random.”
2. Pit Bulls Are Frequently Misidentified
A substantial number of pups falling into the class of Pit Bull dogs are actually mixed breeds, says Haylee Heisel, Dogtown behavior consultant at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. And humans, she says, are notoriously unable to correctly identify mixed breeds. “Many studies have proven this—some indicating we are wrong up to 90 percent of the time.”
So dogs being identified as Pit Bulls may not even have Pit Bull-type breeds (American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, for example) in their genetic makeup, says Nelson. “Through canine genetic testing, studies have found that even people in animal-related professions can’t accurately identify the breeds in a mixed-breed dog’s genealogy through visual inspection,” says Nelson.
3. Pit Bulls Are Individuals (Not a Stereotype)
“One of the first things we want people to know is that all dogs are individuals. Regardless of physical appearance, each dog’s personality and behavior should be assessed individually,” says Lafaille.
Look at individual dogs within any given breed and you’ll find variations in temperament, behavior and physical ability. Pit Bull dogs are no different. “Like all other kinds of dogs, some Pit Bull-type dogs are active; some are lazy. Some are gregarious; some are quiet. Some love other dogs; some do not,” says Heisel.
The HSUS encourages potential pet parents to ask questions about the individual dog, says Nelson. “Is he good with other dogs? Does he want to run and play all day, or is he a couch potato? You will be most successful at finding your perfect match by viewing each dog as an individual.”
4. Breed-Specific Legislation Doesn’t Make Communities Safer
Opponents of breed-specific legislation (BSL) say it’s misguided and creates a false sense of security. “It attempts to increase public safety by cutting down on dog bites, yet instead of focusing on dangerous animals in general, it wrongly labels certain breeds, often Pit Bulls, as the dangerous ones. These bans play into very harmful stereotypes and are also discriminatory towards the pet and the people responsible for them. It is important for people to know that any dog can bite,” says Bretta Nelson, public relations manager for Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix.
BSL is also costly and difficult to enforce and adds to an already-overburdened animal services system, says Nelson. “These laws force dogs out of homes and into shelters, taking up kennel space and resources needed by animals who are truly homeless.”
Cities with BSL continue to have serious bite-related incidents, says Kelly Dalton, co-founder and president of Bombshell Bullies Pit Bull Rescue, Inc in Vernon Hills, Illinois. “In fact, the number of dog bite incidents in Toronto has increased over 50 percent since their BSL took effect in 2005.”
5. Pit Bull Dogs Are One of the Most At-Risk Shelter Animals
Because of the negative stereotype, Pit Bull dogs are now the most at-risk dog population in shelters today, says Lafaille.
In Arizona, the top three classifications of pets that enter Arizona shelters are Pit Bull-type dogs, Chihuahuas and cats, says Nelson. “In fact, there is a coalition, the Alliance for Companion Animals, which is made up of six animal welfare organizations—the Arizona Humane Society, Arizona Animal Welfare League, Altered Tails, Animal Defense League of Arizona, HALO Animal Rescue and PACC 911, who focus their Fix.Adopt.Save initiative on these breeds.”
A number of factors contribute to the high number of shelter Pit Bulls, says Heisel, “But I think the main ones to highlight are the difficulty that families have with insurance, housing restrictions, and of course, breed-specific legislation.”
6. Media Narratives Are Often Misleading
Pit Bull facts are being ignored. “Unfortunately, Pit Bull-type dogs are often victims of false preconceptions that can be life-threatening. Negative media coverage is very rarely counterbalanced by the thousands of successful Pit Bull-type dog adoption success stories. In reality, most adopted Pit Bull-type dogs are living peacefully with their families and historically have been popular family pets, noted for their affection and loyalty,” says Lafaille.
Instead, news stories tend to focus on the negative occurrences, which helps to perpetuate the vicious dog stereotype, Lafaille adds. “Media surrounding Pit Bull aggression receives much more coverage than successful adoption placements, leading people to believe that represents a majority of the breed.”
7. Pit Bull Dogs Can Be Amazingly Loving and Loyal
Continued research shows that dogs in the Pit Bull class signal like other dogs, says Heisel. “And they score about average on temperament testing.” Dogs use signals to communicate thoughts and feelings. For example, a scared dog might cower, and an aggressive dog may show his teeth and growl.
Nelson, who has worked in the animal welfare field for the past eight years, says she’s found Pit Bull dogs to be some of the most loving and resilient dogs she’s met. “They are amazing family dogs who are equal parts energetic and loving, perfect for both family outings and family cuddles, in no particular order.”
Nelson has also witnessed their ability to love unconditionally. “I have seen a Pit Bull puppy who was left in a dumpster to die after having both back legs broken (likely by a person), wiggle his way to kiss every person he meets.” She says these stories occur frequently, “Yet the dogs involved all have the same thing in common: No ill will towards people whatsoever.”
8. There Is No Epidemic of Pit Bull Attacks
Pit Bull dog attacks are a rarity in the US. “The reality is that most dogs never bite, and dog bites are actually at historic lows thanks to laws that target reckless owners. There are millions of Pit Bull dogs who live happily with their families without incident,” says Nelson.
Specifically, there are about 18 million Pit Bull-type dogs in the US (about 20 percent of the dog population), says Dalton. “If the breed itself was inherently aggressive, you would be hearing about millions of attacks instead of just the few you hear about per year.”
Dalton says Pit Bulls are indeed strong and can cause damage when they bite, but that doesn’t mean they’re more likely to engage in destructive behavior. “That's like saying a 250-pound body builder will beat someone up just because they're big and strong.”
Those who work to rescue Pit Bulls ask that you go to the animal shelter with an open mind when you’re ready to adopt a dog. By welcoming a Pit Bull dog into your home, you’ll save lives and help change the stereotype—and you may just very well end up with a loving companion who exceeds your expectations.