The Truth About Pit Bulls

shutterstock_105631460With the amount of fear mongering that exists currently regarding pit bull-type dogs, I feel it's important to publish the truth about these dogs. Although most dogs labeled as pit bulls are actually a mix of different breeds with similar physical characteristics, anything that has the appearance of an American Pitbull Terrier is incorrectly labeled as a pit bull, even when there is no relation to the APT at all. For the purpose of this article, therefore, I will call dogs with similar physical characteristics pit bull types, unless I am referencing the American Pitbull Terrier specifically.

Since I came to the US fifteen years ago, I have worked with American Pitbull Terriers and pit bull types and have treated everything from minor to major behavioral issues in these dogs, including aggression. For the past 3 years I have also been working with my colleague and friend Jim Crosby, canine aggression expert and forensic dog bite investigator, on investigations where people – including children – have been mauled or killed by dogs. Jim Crosby has had his hands on more dangerous dogs and dogs that have killed people than anyone else in the world. There is no one more qualified when it comes to understanding why dogs aggress and why tragic incidents such as human deaths from dogs happen. Yes, some people have been killed by pit bull types and some have been killed by other breeds, but the correlation between the majority of these deaths, regardless of breed or breed type, is owner ignorance, recklessness and irresponsibility. Most of the human deaths from dogs he has investigated over many years could have been prevented if human failure had not been such a significant contributing factor.

My experience therefore qualifies me to write and talk about this breed type more than any journalist or scaremonger out there determined to instill fear. And to be clear, I’m not an American Pitbull Terrier or pit bull type advocate. I’m an advocate for all dogs. I’m also a realist and these are my observations.

Does Breed Type Predict Behavior?
Every dog has their own set of personality traits that make them unique, and it’s impossible to predict a dog’s behavior solely on its breed type, because the way a dog is raised and the environment in which he is raised in has a significant impact on behavior, regardless of breed. So while I do take breed predisposition into account when I’m working with any dog, I never rely on it solely as a predictor of behavior. The myth that all pit bulls are dangerous or 'bred to be violent' is simply not true, but myths like these continue to instill fear in the general public and cause devastating misunderstandings.

Do All Pit Bull Types Have Similar Behavioral Traits?
No. Some have a tendency towards certain behaviors, but not all. Their range of behavior defies any singular label and is as complex and variable as any other breed type, crossing the spectrum from the gentle and even-tempered therapy dog used to help children read more fluently in school programs, to the dog labeled a liability for biting or even causing a human fatality.

Are There Any Accurate Pit Bull Type-Specific Generalizations?
If I had to pick some tendencies and make a few generalization about pit bull types they would be the following:

  • Although there are always exceptions, pit bull types and bully breeds generally tend to mature earlier and show demonstrative behaviors from a very young age, with pups engaging in rough play and muzzle punching. They tend to get overly excited during play, (normal for many breeds) which can frighten other dogs. As the puppy matures, play can become rougher with adolescent and adult dogs becoming less tolerant and sometimes reactive. Overly exuberant play can provoke a negative response in other dogs’, which can quickly escalate into a squabble or fight. To avoid this situation, play should be supervised and controlled with human intervention to avoid negative behavior. This is the case for any dog that plays with other dogs, regardless of breed or breed type.
  • Pit bull types enjoy a zest for life that is often incomparable to others, but they can sometimes offend other dogs or scare people with their enthusiasm. Body slamming, jumping and sometimes grabbing an arm or piece of clothing is an exuberant (but usually non-violent) way of greeting, and can be interpreted or perceived as threatening or even aggressive. Because of their friendliness and willingness to engage, there are no parameters for some pit bull types when it comes to invading personal body space.
  • Like any dog, pit bull type pups need to be well-socialized from a young age and taught self-control. Teaching a pup to greet a person by sitting rather than jumping is a good way to start, and a pup should be removed when play gets too rough or when the greeting is too energetic. This will help set boundaries that will guide the puppy into making better greeting choices.
  • Pit bull types tend to be highly demonstrative and emotional dogs that think with their hearts rather than their heads. Some find it hard to control their impulses in different situations. Teaching any dog to think before acting helps to focus an emotional brain into one that is actively thinking and problem solving. For example, asking a dog to wait while his food bowl is put down and eat only when given a release cue, teaches valuable impulse control that helps focus attention. Pit bull types are exceptionally quick learners when given the right motivators.

Do Pit Bull Types Suddenly Explode?
There are countless stories of pit bull type dogs 'suddenly exploding'. This seems to be the common layperson's explanation whenever there has been a bad bite or a fatality, but the actual incidents of true explosive rage in any breed of dog are very rare. Many bites are the result of a combination of environment and circumstance. The signs of discomfort might be subtle and easily misunderstood, ignored, or go unnoticed until they come together in a perfect storm that ends in a bite. Dogs never bite 'out of the blue' or 'for no reason.' There is always a reason for every behavior.

Can People Cause Their Dogs to Bite?
Yes. All too often people get pit bull types and fail to give them the outlets they need, or worse, turn them into loaded weapons. Their ‘gameness’ and desire to please tends to attract the wrong kind of people who use them to enhance personal image and status, or as protection for themselves or their families. Many pit bull types are kept in the yard tethered to a chain their entire lives, causing hyper-reactivity and fear which has on occasion led to disaster. Until authorities take more notice of the other end of the leash and hold people accountable for their dogs’ behavior, the situation will remain the same.

Can the Number of Dog Bites Be Reduced?
The key to reducing the number of dog bites and keeping people safe is not to ban an entire breed, but instead to make all dog owners accountable and responsible for their dogs’ behavior while encouraging them to raise their dogs appropriately. Good socialization and using only positive training methods creates emotionally balanced dogs, a fact that science has proven again and again. Force free training and humane discipline is more effective, less confrontational and therefore safer for any breed of dog.

Mandatory education in all schools to empower children with a clearer understanding of canine body language as well as educating parents and caregivers to be more aware when mixing children and dogs will also keep people safer.

Why Are There So Many Pit Bull Types In Shelters?
In some cities in the United States pit bull type dogs account for half of all dogs that end up in shelters, and the devastating reality is that very few of them make it out alive. All too often, owners have damaged and abandoned these dogs to the point where re-homing becomes impossible, and it’s because of human irresponsibility along with media hype that the pit bull and other bully types are now a breed type many people fear.

Do American Pitbull Terriers and Pit Bull Types Make Safe Family Dogs?
Yes. Any dog that is raised responsibly can be a great family dog including the Pit bull and pit bull type dog, but with a reckless or clueless owner, any breed or type can become an out-of-control liability that ends up either hurting somebody or on a shelter’s euthanasia list.


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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


111 thoughts on “The Truth About Pit Bulls

  1. Miss Cellany

    Because all cocker spaniels, border collies, poodles and other assorted breeds are always owned by educated owners and are never neglected.... yeah..... >_>

  2. Miss Cellany

    There are more golden retrievers than pit bulls, Golden retrievers are the 3rd most popular dog in the US, behind Labradors (1st) and German Shepherds (2nd).

    Of course if there are more GR you will get more GR bites than Pit Bull bites. If you look at fatalities by breed I'm sure you'll find very few Golden Retrievers killing humans, but many pit bulls killing humans.

  3. Mary Rae

    I'm sure the groomer will continue to tell people that she has never been bit by a pit bull, but will fail to tell how many innocent Other dogs her pittie has attacked.

  4. Miss Cellany

    American Pit Bull Terrier is a breed, American Staffordshire Terrier is a breed, Staffordshire Bull Terrier is a breed, English Bull Terrier is a breed - all 4 are commonly referred to as pit bulls and all 4 were originally bred for bloodsports (bull baiting / dog fighting) - they all had a common ancestor, the "bull and terrier" from the UK, which was originally a cross of bulldogs used for bull baiting with terriers used for ratting. The bull and terrier breed was created for dogfighting and later split and diverged into the 4 "pit bull" breeds above (and possibly into many other breeds).

    Some breeds are incorrectly referred to as pit bulls, e.g. American Bulldogs, Bull Mastiffs and even Boxers.

    The 4 pit bull breeds have very similar temperaments and physical characteristics because they were all bred for essentially the same job and they all had a common ancestor. They are validly grouped into a "type" called "pit bull" because of this, just as the many collie breeds are all from a common landrace "breed" originally and all were bred for the same job, have similar temperaments and physical characteristics.

    I don't know how you can think no dog is created specifically for violence... what do you think APBTs were bred for then? Sniffing roses and cuddling babies? That's obviously why they needed a muscular body, huge head, powerful jaws and the instinct to grab, shake and not let go even when in severe pain or dying...I mean, how can you sniff roses and cuddle babies without those things??

  5. Michael White

    Karen, Lets say you are right, that pit bulls were bred for fighting. Consider two things. The pitbulls I seen, mine really love their masters, and upon breaking up a fight would be more liable to leave their owner unharmed. Now the other... Pit bulls were bred some 150 years ago. That is about 24 - 48 generations. Are you going to tell me that with 48 new genealogical mixes that the original breeding will come out unscathed?

  6. Turtlepea

    Had no idea a pit bull was actually a breed. I always thought the term "pit bull" was a mislabel for what actually is a staffy cross. Could you refer to me some accurate information about the history of the breed so I can research more? Does the genetic testing recognise pit bull genetics if we were to subject our pet to testing?


    I'm guessing you've never owned a pit so just go back to sleep and keep believing everything the media tells you

  8. Jess Schneggenburger

    While reading this article the first statement we agreed was with Victoria stating that yes, people have died from pit bulls but many have died from other breeds. Due to the owners incapability of raising and caring for the dog breed correctly. We agree with the author of this article, that any bred dog can be dangerous, and we also agree because of the experiences we have had with other breeds
    Among our experiences with other breeds of dogs attacking, I Taylor have experienced a dog attack with a Welsh Corgi, where that breed of dog had given my grandmother 20 stitches in her arm. Another statement that we do not agree with is that all pit bulls are dangerous or “bred to be violent” and it's simply not true but known as a myth.
    As these myths continue many people will start to began to get the wrong idea about these cute little dogs that are not as dangerous as this world turns them out to be. I Moinique have a pitbull as a pet, and from my experience I have not had any threats from this adorable dog that is just there to protect his family.
    We do not agree with the second paragraph, which states we do not agree with that all pit bulls have the same traits because no dog is the same. We can see in other people's perspective that many people think these breeds of dogs are aggressive which, is a myth. We believe it is a myth because there are some pit bulls that are used for therapy dogs for children that help them read in school.
    Moinique and I do agree with the statement in the bulleted list by Victoria that when pit bulls are pups they should be supervised and told no when they start to show negative behavior because then it will show them that they are in the wrong and know when not to play so hard. No matter what type of breed all dogs can be aggressive when playing around, such as body slamming, jumping and arm grabbing which that is how they say hello to people. These dogs they do not know that it is scaring you or harming you in any way.
    Now the biggest issues Moinique and I have is that people can cause dogs to bite. We believe they can be the issue -- and mainly are the issues -- because pit bulls do not just randomly attack unless they think you’re doing harm to their family or threatened. As Victoria states mid-article, that when humans own these dogs they are usually kept chained up in the yard their entire lives. Which, having them kept chained makes them all hyper and makes them have fear because of how their owner is treating them.
    We need to look at both ends of the leash and not just blame these pups, but also need to see how their owners are taking care of them and raising them.
    The reasons that these poor dogs are put into shelters is the lack of care and proper treatment from their owners. Pit bulls are misjudged to the point where people believe they are in the shelter because they harmed someone, but it is mainly the neglect the people do not see. They are known to be fearful dogs to the peoples eye but there are other breeds that can get out of control due to the lack care.
    In conclusion, Taylor and I agree with a lot of facts and statements that are in this article that Victoria Stilwell has written. We hope that writing this comment will change how some people look at this cute dog and see that they can be a wonderful family dog and help them become less sheltered.

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