For those unfamiliar, there is a movement throughout the West that is placing restrictions on the ownership, importing/exporting and breeding of “dangerous breeds” in an attempt to curb or eliminate dog bites, mauling and killing of humans. Most notably and controversial of these breeds is the infamous “pit bull”. A handful of breeds are included in these legislations, and as anybody with a large breed dog will know, these restrictions are often even placed on leases of housing. Nearly every state in the US has some form of restriction of these breeds, and a handful of countries have banned pit bulls all together including most of Scandinavia, Canada, France, Poland and others. I will not get into the efficacy of these laws, nor the ethics of how they are carried out, as that is a trip down a rabbit hole that I am less concerned with for the sake of this article. I will focus on “pit bulls” because of the intense debate and polarization in the dog world regarding this “breed”.
I am using quotation marks to say “pit bull” and “breed” because neither is entirely accurate. “Pit bull” is not a breed. It is a colloquialism for a group of dogs that fall under the “bully breed” category. American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bull Terrier, English Bull Terrier and even Bull Terriers, among others, are often grouped into this term “pit bull” when bites or deaths are reported. The problem with this is that because most of these breeds look alike to the untrained eye, when one of these breeds bites or mauls someone, the term “pit bull” is how they are characterized and therefore placed in statistics. This means that the bite statistics for a supposed single breed is actually the combined statistics of a dozen or so breeds. It would be like saying bite statistics from “breeds that were created in Germany” (nearly each of those common breeds also dominate bite statistics, so this is actually a great analogy) being a single breed. So in that instance, the bite numbers of Rottweilers, Dobermans, German Shepherds, Dachshunds, Miniature Pinschers, Giant Schnauzers, Miniature Schnauzers and Pomeranians would all be put together into a single “breed”. You can see how this would get very warped, very fast. This ambiguity is an additional problem for behaviorists like myself who work on a preventative measures to help prevent the overwhelming statistics of “pit bull” violence against people. Whether you are a dog-aggression nerd like myself or not, knowing these numbers and taking breed into account when adding a dog to your home is essential. If pit bulls were a solid and pure breed, then the huge number of deaths attributed to the breed would be a pretty obvious indication that they may not be the best playmate for your 4 year old. But because of the ambiguity in the categorization of pit bull, how can we make an educated choice? Among the above mentioned breeds lumped into the PB category, only a couple fall into the realm of “probably a bad family dog” given their intended job bred deeply into their genes for centuries.
There is no easy answer. As someone who works almost exclusively with aggressive dogs, I have a very polarized view of family-appropriate breeds, which probably isn’t fair because I only see the worst of the worst. However, I cannot overemphasize the significance of breed purpose. For instance, if I were dictator of dogs, I would never allow a Border Collie, Belgian Malinois, Soviet-lined German Shepherd (the group of lines bred for working in the former Soviet Union, not to be confused with “Soviet Shepherd” or “Eastern European Shepherd”) or Cane Corso to be kept by a family that does not specifically work the dog for more than 6 hours a day. I can already feel the blood pressure rising from the dog nerds reading this. As I said, this may not be a fair recommendation, and I do have an authoritarian nature, but I personally feel that the majority of breeds and individual dogs out there are a disaster in the average family home. I will harp on until the day that I die that a dog is not an obligatory addition to the average home like our culture makes it seem, and even more face-palming is when a hardcore working dog is kept because they are “smart” or cool. It is unfortunate that the most impressive, beautiful and intelligent breeds are the ones that most people want, but are also the absolute worst decision to make for the average family. I am a trainer and behaviorist of 15 years and there is not enough money in the world to make me keep a Belgian Malinois. Let that one sink in. But, I digress…
Now, let me melt your brain. While technically the above is true (and is the absolute first argument that educated anti-BSL advocates will throw out), in practice, the “pit bull” is indeed an unofficial breed, at least in the US. This is because the vast majority of “pit bulls” owned and bred in the US are not purebred from one of the bully breeds I mentioned in the beginning of this article. Search “pit bull puppies” in any city’s craigslist and you will get dozens and dozens of pit bull litters advertised. These dogs are not under any circumstances pure bred American Bull Terriers masqueraded as pit bulls. They are also not purebred American Pit Bull Terriers. They are “pit bulls”. These dogs have been carelessly bred for so many years that their genetics, temperament and appearance are completely unrelated to the handful of pure breeds it began with a hundred years ago. Because of this, it can be argued that pit bull is in fact a breed of its own, though no registry is created nor breed standard written, but nonetheless, the pit bull is a very recognizable dog. If there was a lineup of well-bred, purebred bully breeds, and the average pit bull, even the lay dog lover can tell which is the “pit bull”. This does not negate the ambiguity of the bite statistics, but if we are honest and objective, we have to recognize that this blocky headed mutt known colloquially as “pit bull” is far more common than a purebred American Bull Terrier or Staffordshire Bull Terrier. It is for this reason that I will argue that the bite statistics, though technically not precise, are still valid in the unfortunate favor of the pit bull. And so, for the remainder of the article, I am going to drop the quotation marks and simply refer to this vague pseudo-breed as pit bull. And though this scientific inaccuracy is frustrating, the reality is that a family that wants a pit bull because that is what they think is the breed, they are going to buy a pit bull, not a purebred American Staffordshire Terrier or a Bull Terrier. Thus, when one of those dogs kills someone, it is not inaccurate to mark it as “pit bull”. Off the top of my head, I would guesstimate that for every 100 pit bulls in America, only 1 is a purebred dog that is similar in appearance. That is nowhere near enough to be a significant slant when looking at the overwhelming number of “pit bull” attacks. Therefore, I will argue that bite statistics are indeed more-or-less accurate in the real world and would tend to not recommend a “pit bull” as a family dog. But I would advocate a purebred bully breed!
TL;DR: the pit bull is not a breed, but a general term used to describe a handful of various purebred breeds who all share a common appearance. However, at least in the US, the average “pit bull” owned and bred is not a purebred dog. It is decades and decades of atrocious breeding to the point where it can be argued that the pit bull is in fact an unofficial breed in itself, as its genetic makeup is so far off its purebred ancestors that it cannot be said to be the same. Thus, the bite statistics for pit bulls is not as ambiguous as is argued, because this pit bull pseudo-breed is immensely more present than purebred bully breeds it may be mistaken for. And as such, the pit bull may not be a great family pet.
But my (insert familial relation) has a pit bull and she’s the sweetest thing!
Awesome! The majority of pit bulls are great dogs. The prevalence of bites/deaths doesn’t negate that a great deal of these dogs are just fine, friendly, sociable, gentle and with a very high bite inhibition. I have met dozens of these dogs and fell in love with them from the get-go. HOWEVER… going back to how the pit bull isn’t a breed, this means that there is no standard for temperament, genetic predispositions, health, bite inhibition, civilness, “nervy”ness, aggression towards small animals, prey drives, ball drives, energy level and on and on. Each of those qualities are genetic and not personality. That means that any particular dog is genetically tuned with those qualities to a greater or lesser degree, but their personality, i.e. fears, affection, playfulness, quirks, funny habits and all the other qualities that make us love our dogs is not necessarily genetic. This is the good ol’ nature vs. nurture debate. Is a dog aggressive because of “how you raise them”, or is it hardwired? So because there is no breed standard for pit bulls, there is no template with which to breed towards. For example scent hounds being purposefully bred to increase their scent tracking abilities, or border collies being bred to fine tune herding techniques. The pit bull doesn’t have those things because it is not a breed. Therefor, no two pit bulls temperaments can be compared. Just like no two dogs have the same personality, pit bulls temperaments are all over the place, some are hyper, some are chill, some are nervy, some aren’t bothered by anything, some love other animals, some are cat killers, some would never bite a human, and some will maul and kill a child. Other breeds have a very predictable temperament, pit bulls do not. So the argument of “my pit bulls are sweet!” in no way negates the reality here. That’s awesome that your dog is sweet! I love sweet pit bulls, and I have a soft spot for them.
But Chihuahuas are so much meaner!
Damn right they are! And chihuahuas are way up the list of bite statistics. Just because pit bulls have a propensity to bite doesn’t mean other breeds don’t either. This isn’t an “all lives matter” issue. It is not that pit bulls are the only “breed” that has ever bitten anyone ever! it just means that the category dominates the bite and death numbers. Chihuahuas are another that are grossly an carelessly overbred with horrid genetics, an inconsistent temperament, etc. Pit bulls are not the only ones, I am just using them as an example for this article because of the love-hate relationship the public has, and as an extreme example based on the numbers. Keep your wig on, folks.
All dogs can bite!
Abso-freaking-lutely. It is my life’s work to remind people of this often overlooked, and very serious, fact. All dogs bite, all breeds can bite, all personalities and temperaments can bite. Labradors bite just as Rottweilers bite (though not as often). All dogs have teeth, and all dogs relieve stress by biting. Every breed has a bite inhibition (the genetic quality that controls how likely a dog is to bite from stress), but some dogs have a very, very low one. Some dogs’ bite inhibition is solid rock and they do not, under any circumstances, bite. But they have it in them! Some dogs will tear another dog to shreds but allow a 2 year old to use their ears as a balancing apparatus. Some dogs will bite out of literally nowhere, and some have solid judgement and bite only when it is absolutely necessary. All dogs can bite. This doesn’t negate the fact that pit bulls tend to bite more, and with more damage, than other breeds (as the numbers suggest).
It’s all how you raise them!
ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY NOT. Bite inhibition is genetic. A dog that is severely abused and terrified of everything will not bite if they have a very solid bite inhibition. The most well trained and well socialized dog ever will bite if they have a very low bite inhibition. It is not how you raise them. How you raise them plays a part – if you have a severely abused dog who also has a low bite inhibition then yes, you are in for a terrible incident. And granted, this is a common reason the numbers are so high. But just as many perfectly healthy and happy dogs “raised right” also bite and kill. Another reason for this is that what the average person thinks “raising them right” is, is not. But that is a different topic for a different article.
So coming full circle, what do we think about breed-specific-regulations and pit bulls? If the propensity to bite is genetic, then is it fair to ban entire groups of dogs when the issue is bad breeding + improper handlers? A dog with a very low bite inhibition in a home that knows exactly what they are doing can live out its days never biting anybody. Personally, I think a greater social movement would be to educate the public and regulate the breeding of these “dangerous breeds”.