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For decades, pit bulls have had a bad reputation. They’re seen as fighting dogs that are inherently aggressive and are more likely to bite, notions that are based on the racism and classism of the mid to late 20th century. But the reality is that the term ‘pit bull’ is more of a blanket term to describe a range of different bully breeds that all have different histories and temperaments. The idea that pit bulls are inherently aggressive or bad dogs relies less on the actual personalities of individual dogs and more on the misconceptions humans have about specific breeds.
History of Pitbulls
The term “pit bull” is a blanket term often used to describe a range of dog breeds with similar physical characteristics; these breeds are also described as “bully breeds” and typically share similar ancestors. Breeds like the Boston Terrier, English Bulldog, American Pit Bull Terrier, and Boxer are all considered bully/pit bull breeds. Characteristics that these breeds share include muscular, stocky builds, large square heads, deep chests, and short coats.
The closest actual breed to a “pit bull” is the American Pit Bull Terrier, a breed that can trace its roots to 19th century England. Unsurprisingly, both bulldogs and terriers were used to create this spirited, playful, and athletic dog. American Pit Bull Terriers typically stand 17-21 inches tall at the shoulder and often weigh 30-85 pounds. Their coats are short and smooth and coat colors include black, white, brindle, fawn, and others. Like their cousins, the American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, APBTs are known for having a wonderful and friendly temperament. They’re often eager to please but can be a bit determined.
The same tenacious spirit that makes these dogs so great at some dog sports is the same spirit that attracts unscrupulous and vile folks to the breed to involve them in dog fights. Bullbaiting and dog fighting are two inhumane and incredibly horrendous “sports” that people have long used dogs for and unfortunately, these are two sports that pit bull-type dogs were historically used and bred for. However, given the right outlets and training, like positive reinforcement, regular walks, dog sports, and puzzle toys, the American Pit Bull Terrier and other pittie/bully breeds are incredibly fun and adventurous dogs.
Bronwen Dickey, the author of the book “Pit Bull: The Battle Over An American Icon”, spoke with NPR’s Code Switch in November 2018. Dickey explained the history of breeding dogs and how the history of pit bull breeds can be linked with white flight of the 1950s and the often racist and classist concern over urban and inner-city unrest. As white Americans moved out of cities in the 1950s and into the suburbs, pit bull breeds didn’t follow and many folks in the city would adopt pit bull types as guard dogs. On Code Switch, Dickey goes on to say that many white Americans associated pit bulls as aggressive and:
… they implied that all pit bulls were fighting dogs and, therefore, were all innately violent. They were all innately unpredictable. They were kind of the canine super predator. Sure, are there specific family lines where they have been controlled for a really long time, and they’re selected for more athleticism or more energy or whatever? Yeah. Sure. But to then extrapolate that to all the dogs that have this vague shape is ridiculous. It’s like saying, you know, that the Navy SEALs represent all American men.
Aren’t Pit Bulls Dangerous?
Unfortunately, injuries and fatalities caused by dogs have happened and these instances are often used to support negative generalizations about pit bull-type dogs. There is one statistic that states pit bulls were responsible for the deaths of 232 Americans over a decade; while these deaths are tragic, this statistic is incredibly misleading and ignores everything else about the attacks to solely pin the deaths on the dogs’ perceived breed. These talking points are largely just scare tactics used to falsely paint certain breeds as inherently aggressive.
First and foremost, the chance of an American being killed by a dog in any given year is around one in ten million, meaning it is statistically rare for people to be killed by a dog. In fact, you are far more likely to die falling out of bed than from a dog. Second, one study from the American Veterinary Medical Association looked at dog-related fatalities between 2000-2009 and found that a majority of those cases included four or more significant factors that were unrelated to the dog’s breed. These factors include the dogs involved had not been properly socialized/trained, the dogs were often large and unaltered, they had no relationship to the person killed, and the dogs having a history of abuse or neglect. The dog’s breed was not one of the factors. A 2014 literature review from the AVMA also looked at dog bite studies and offered far more context to the conversation.
The genetic makeup and history of a dog breed can definitely influence the physical and behavioral traits of that breed; for example, Labrador Retrievers are more likely to retrieve, Great Pyrenees dogs tend to guard and protect livestock, and border collies tend to herd. But while breeds will typically have some genetic predispositions, there are plenty of variations in individual dogs. It is undoubtedly true that genetics can predispose any animal to behave in specific ways but like any other animal, canine genetics do not exist in a vacuum.
Thirdly, as mentioned, society at large has lumped a range of different breeds together when dealing with pit bulls and this also applies to bites and dog-related fatalities. This generalization and lumping together will obviously result in higher numbers for “pit bull” related injuries and fatalities. It would be like lumping every single retriever-related injury together and saying that labradors are inherently dangerous.
Lastly, there is a myth that pit bulls have lockjaw and it’s impossible to get them to release once they’ve bitten someone. However, “lockjaw” is misused in this context, as it is a term also used to describe tetanus symptoms or other medical conditions. If a dog is actually unable to open or close their jaws, there is a medical reason for it.
Breed Specific Legislation
Breed Specific Legislation in various cities and counties has banned pit bull types and other breeds from residing within city/county limits. It’s not just local governments banning specific breeds, as many landlords and insurance companies have banned pit bull-type dogs from homes or refused to cover homes that have pit bulls. However, breed-specific legislation does nothing to correct any sort of dog-related problems, like aggressive dogs or irresponsible owners, and these bans affect everyone, not just pit bull owners.
The reality is that issues of aggressive or dangerous dogs, excessive barking, dog fighting, and the like are often the result of human action/inaction. Irresponsible or backyard breeders could be breeding dogs with physical or behavioral issues, dogs that should not have puppies. Other people are mistreating, neglecting, and/or abusing dogs to profit off of them in dog fights. Other people might have the best intentions for their dogs but are ultimately far over their heads and use training techniques that ultimately result in further behavioral issues. These human-made problems happen across all breeds and are not solely limited to pit bull breeds.
Organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the American Kennel Club, the National Animal Control Association, the American Bar Association, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) all oppose breed-specific legislation. In its position statement on the matter, the AVMA states that it is opposed to breed-specific legislation because these bans “are a simplistic answer to a far more complex social problem, and they have the potential to divert attention and resources from more effective approaches”. Similarly, the AKC’s statement on the matter highlights the fact that public perception of breeds has changed; what society has deemed as dangerous has changed over the last few decades and breed-specific legislation is both costly and difficult to enforce.
Pitbull Flower Power
Sophie Gamand is a French photographer currently based in the New York City area and has many dog-related photography projects. One of her most famous projects is the Pit Bull Flower Power, where Gamand builds elaborate flower crowns and takes beautiful photos of pit bulls wearing them. Many of the pit bulls she photographs in this project are rescues and many are looking for their forever homes! Gamand published a coffee table book of her flower power photos in the fall of 2018, titled ‘Pit Bull Flower Power‘. Her project and related book are a reminder that pit bull types aren’t aggressive, mean dogs that the stereotypes will have you believe.
Ultimately, there is far more nuance and context to the conversation around pit bulls than people might realize. Society’s definition of the “most dangerous dog breed” has changed over the last seven decades and pit bulls happen to be the current focus. The assumptions and stereotypes of pit bull-type dogs rely in part on the racism and classism that are unfortunately so ingrained into American society.