The Truth About Pit Bulls

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Did you know that. . .

  • As many as 75% of mixed breed dogs in animal shelters, including pit bulls and pit bull mixes, are mis-identified as the wrong breed.
  • “Pit bull” type dogs are no more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than golden retrievers.
  • Breed discriminatory policies don’t make communities safer, and many are being repealed in favor of breed neutral approaches to dangerous dogs.
  • At least three dogs from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels have gone on to earn therapy dog certifications.

So what is the most important thing any person can do to help pit bull type dogs?  Treat them as individuals!  A good dog is a good dog – regardless of its breed or appearance.  You simply can’t judge a book by its cover!  (Warning:  this is a long post!  Forgive me, I get fired up about pit bulls.)

boxer mix

No Such Thing As a “Pit Bull”?

Have you ever wondered why our shelters are so full of pit bull type dogs and pit mixes?  Given that so many people have a negative perception of pit bull type dogs and are wary of having them as pets, how are there so many out there?   I’ve often been asked this question, and must admit that I can only speculate why.

First off, it’s important to know that the term “pit bull” does not apply to one specific breed of dog.  It’s commonly used to refer to American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers, which are all individual registered breeds, as well as their mixes.  As far as the public is concerned, any large, muscular dog with a big head and short hair is a “pit bull”.  This means that many other distinct dog breeds such as the American Bulldog, Cane Corso, Dogo Argentino, various mastiffs and others are mistaken for “pit bulls.”

brown pit bull

Pitbull, Right?  Wrong. . .  This is a Boxer!

The Pit Bull session at the 2011 HSUS Expo brought to light another interesting possibility – many of those dogs that we label as “pit bulls” and their mixes probably have very little of any of these breeds in them at all!  In fact, studies show that even trained animal welfare professionals are not very good at identifying any mixed breed dog’s lineage based on appearance.  This dog breed research, done at Western University in Pomona, compares the breed mix of shelter dogs as assigned by an adoption agency (based on looks) to their actual heritage based on DNA testing – and the results are shocking.

  • Only 25% of the dogs identified by agencies as specified breed mixes were also identified as the same predominant breeds by DNA.
  • No German Shepherd Dog ancestry was reported by DNA in the two dogs identified only as “shepherd mixes” by adoption agencies.
  • In the three dogs described as terrier mixes, a terrier breed was only identified by DNA in one dog.
  • In 15 of the 16 dogs, DNA analyses identified breeds as predominant that were not proposed by the adoption agencies.

Yikes!  All of us know that we are often guessing at the breed background of mixed breed dogs in the shelter, and it turns out that our guesses are wrong a lot more often than they are right.

 mixed breed case study picture

Another dog breed study from way back in 1965, gives some clues as to why our guesses are so often incorrect.  These folks crossed a purebred Cocker Spaniel and a purebred Basenji and the puppies looked nothing like either parent (see pictures above).  Then, they bred the offspring to each other to create a 2nd generation and things got even more diverse.  Not one out of 72 dogs in the 2nd generation looked like either of the originating breeds!

So if dogs look nothing like their purebred parents after just one or two generations, what happens when mutts breed with mutts?  Could it be that many of the “pit bull” type dogs in our shelters are actually 10th generation mixes of popular breeds like Labradors and German Shepherds with some Chihuahua and Cocker Spaniel thrown in along the way?  Hmmm. . .

 “Pit Bull” is Not a Dirty Word

While it’s fascinating to consider that many “pit bulls” in our shelters may be mislabeled, what about the dogs that do have an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier heritage?  Are pit bull type dogs different than other dogs such that they warrant breed discriminatory policies?  Some communities think so, and have had such policies in place since the 1980’s.  Turns out those communities are wrong about the dogs, and their breed specific policies aren’t working.  Fortunately, some of these same communities are now repealing these misguided laws.

Golden Retriever with stick

white pit bull

First up for myth busting, the idea that pit bull type dogs are more aggressive or dangerous than other breeds.  In 2000, a province in Germany ruled that 14 breeds of dogs, including the “pit bull” breeds were especially dangerous and placed restrictions on ownership. Exemption required that the owner and dog pass a standardized temperament test administered by veterinary behaviorists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover, Germany.  When 415 dogs of the targeted breeds were given this extensive assessment and compared to 70 Golden Retrievers, what do you suppose the results showed?  They showed that the targeted breeds were no more likely to show inappropriate aggressive behavior than Golden Retrievers!

Breed Discriminatory Policies Don’t Work

If the very premise of breed specific policies – that pit bull type dogs are different and more dangerous – is wrong, then it’s no wonder that those policies aren’t working.  A 2009 article entitled All Bark and Fiscal Bite—Are Breed-Discriminatory Laws Effective?” published by the Government and Public Lawyers section of the American Bar Association shares information from around the world about the failure of breed discriminatory policies.

Breed discriminatory laws do not make communities safer

  • According to a report released by the Toronto Humane Society, the province of Ontario has just as many dog bites now as it had before it enacted breed discriminatory regulation.
  • After Winnipeg, Manitoba passed breed specific regulation, dog bites went up!
  • A study in Spain comparing the total of dog bites reported for the period five years before breed regulations were enacted with the period five years after revealed no reduction.
  • After Denver, Colorado enacted its breed ban, its citizens continued to suffer a higher rate of hospitalization for dog bite injury than Colorado’s breed-neutral counties in Colorado.
  • In Omaha, Nebraska, reports of dog bites were declining until breed regulations were enacted.   Then bite reports started to rise.
  • In the United Kingdom, almost 20 years after Parliament passed breed specific regulations, reports of serious incidents involving dogs have continued to increase.

Breed discriminatory laws are being repealed

  • Delta, Vancouver, British Columbia is in the process of repealing its breed legislation.
  • In 2008, the Netherlands set aside its breed ban because it had done nothing to reduce dog bites.
  • In 2009, Italy scrapped a dangerous breeds list that was 17 breeds long, in favor of laws holding owners responsible. Health Undersecretary Francesca Martini said: “. . . the previous laws had no scientific foundation. Dangerous breeds do not exist.”
  • The German state of Lower Saxony repealed its breed discriminatory laws after standardized temperament tests showed that dogs of the targeted breeds were no more likely to show inappropriate aggressive behavior than Golden Retrievers.

If breed discriminatory policies don’t work to address dangerous dog issues, what does?  It’s simple really; breed neutral regulation that holds an owner responsible for their animal.   This recent tongue-in-cheek article from the UK illustrates beautifully the concept that the two legged animal at the other end of the leash is usually where dangerous dog problems begin.  Calgary Canada, which has a long standing breed neutral approach to dangerous dogs, is a great example of their effectiveness with an enviably low rate of dog bites with just 159 reported for a population just over 1 million in 2009.  (No city in Europe or North America with breed discriminatory policies can claim nearly as low a rate.)

bad rap logo

All dogs are Individuals

What then, does all of this mean for addressing the challenges that face pit bull type dogs?  It means that we need to start treating all dogs as individuals.  It means we need to stop relying on breed identification as a predictor of a dog’s temperament or behavior  – for “pit bulls”, chihuahuas, and everything in between.

“It is impossible to breed label or predict the behavior of dogs of unknown history and genetics solely on the basis of their appearance. There is so much behavioral variability within each breed, and even more within breed mixes, that we cannot reliably predict a dog’s behavior or his suitability for a particular adopter based on breed alone.  We must take the lead and free ourselves from stereotypes that imply simple solutions to complex issues, in order to better serve our animals and society.”

- Amy Marder, VMD, CAAB, Director, Center for Shelter Dogs

Even a dog’s background is not a reliable indicator of their temperament or behavior.  The Michael Vick dogs are a shining example of what can happen when dogs are treated as individuals.   At least three former residents of Bad Newz Kennels – Hector, Leo, and Jonny Justice – are all now certified therapy dogs.

So let’s start judging and describing dogs based on their personality and behavior, not on their appearance.  Rufus, Monkey, Chunk, and thousands of other great pit bull type dogs out there thank you!

2 pit bulls laying together

Information for this blog was provided in part by the Animal Farm Foundation and the National Canine Research Council.

Anything to add? Leave a comment below.

11 Responses

  1. Genie Latshaw says:

    Hi! I’ve just stopped by to say thanks for this interesting article. Take care!

  2. Molly Mallow says:

    excellent post! It’s info like this that persuades people to keep an open mind, Thank you

  3. Rvb-boy says:

    Love this article! i’m going to use this for my speech in school. Thanks for the info. :)

  4. Rayne says:

    If more people realized that it is the owner and not the breed that is the cause of the problem, maybe we could help to solve the problem of dangerous dogs by addressing the owners and not the breed. Excellent article.

  5. garrett says:

    I am from a long line of american pitbull terriers breeders I have seen dozens of pitbulls come and go in my time and i love most of them more then the people around me they are so innoscent just like any other dog now we have always raised them to have a very mellow termperment and from personal expericnce they are the best breed on the planet.

  6. garrett says:

    thanks for getting some good info out there – much appreciated

  7. Shelley Mack says:

    I too have a very special place in my heart for Pitbulls. In my experience running a dog rescue for 5 years and volunteering years before that at shelters, I have grown to love and actually prefer Pits over other breeds. Thanks for spreading the word on how fantastic these babies are!

  8. Sara Bayles says:

    Such an informative and astute article! Hopefully, more and more people will become educated instead of ignorant and learn that aggression is not found in a gene, but in one’s environment! Perhaps when people realize our development works in quite the same way as any animals’ development, we can stop ostracizing particular breeds or species!

  9. Awhina Ngatai says:

    Well after reading this blog, im starting to wonder if my pup is actually a pitbull crossed with ridgeback like the lady i got him off told me, however whatever breed he maybe my family and i love and want nothing but the best for him and thats what matters :) hes 8 weeks old and has brought such joy, love and happiness to my family but if anyone out there is able to show me a pic of what a pitbull crossed with a ridgeback is could you please send a pic to, it would be much appreciated :)

    • Annie M says:

      Awhina, I suggest you go on petfinder and search. You can put in a first and secondary breed but not all crosses will look the same, even in the same litter they look different, that’s the magic of genetics. Glad you are having a good time with your new puppy.

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