Pit Bull

Pit Bull

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Pit Bull is not a specific breed of dog, but rather a term used to describe several breeds of dogs with similar physical characteristics. The American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier commonly fall under the category of “Pit Bull.” There are several other breeds that can fall under the rubric of “pit bull,” including: the Argentine Dogo, the English Bull Terrier, the American Bulldog, Perro de Presa Canario and the Boxer. These breeds are usually not included by breed name in any Breed Specific Legislation (see below), but are usually ensnared because of a broad definition, and confusion as to what a “pit bull” actually is. Again, there is no breed of dog called “pit bull” but the term can be the nickname for the American Pit Bull Terrier.

In the media the term is vague and may include other breeds with similar physical characteristics, such as:

  • Perro de Presa Canario
  • Cane Corso
  • Dogo Argentino
  • Alano Espanol
  • Japanese Tosa
  • Dogue de Bordeaux
  • Cordoba Fighting Dog
  • American Pitt Bull Terrier
  • Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog
  • American Bulldog
  • Boxer
  • Valley Bulldog
  • Olde English Bulldogge
  • Bull Terrier
  • Bullmastiff

These breeds are rarely listed by name in breed-specific legislation, but they are sometimes included when the term is defined broadly and based on physical appearance.

Overview: These dogs have a controversial reputation due to commonly cited attack statistics and highly publicized incidents of aggression by dogs fitting the broad “pit bull” description. Verification of many attacks is difficult due to that wide variation in pit varieties, and the tendency to label all dangerous dogs as pit bulls. These attack statistics have led to a certain degree of reactionary fear, and many governments and community organizations have called for bans and restrictions on pit bulls. The hip hop world adds a catalyst to this ongoing fear of pitbulls as many hip-hop stars glorify the uses of pitbulls in gangster-related activities.

Some breed supporters claim pit bulls make good family pets, showing loyalty, playfulness, and a desire to please people. They also claim that most pit bull animals are no more or less likely to be aggressive than any other large domesticated dog. In fact many dog fancying websites and humane societies recommend “pit bull” type dogs as family pets because of their stable temperament, high pain tolerance, and desire to please people. However, because of their physical attributes and the social stigmatization surrounding them, the pitbull seems to be a popular choice among unsavoury owners. Those who primarily want an animal to fight or to intimidate do not properly train or socialize their dogs and are partly responsible for the negative stereotype of the “pit bull” in today’s society.

Characteristics: The “pit bull” is a medium-sized dog: males weigh 45 – 85 lb. (20 – 38 kg) and females generally weigh 30 – 80 lb. (14 – 36 kg). Their short coat accentuates their muscular bodies, giving them the appearance of a “doggy bodybuilder.” They are known for confidence, intelligence, and loyal temperament. In addition, they have an extremely high pain threshold. As athletic and energetic dogs, “pit bulls” need to be exercised frequently. They shed and their skin can be extremely sensitive.

“Pit bulls” were historically bred to display dominance and aggression toward other dogs—a relic of the breed’s dog fighting past. Even today, some pit bulls still retain the predisposition towards dog aggression. However, a “pit bull” displaying the correct breed temperament is friendly towards humans, and is generally a poor choice as a guard dog. 

Unfortunately, many unethical breeders do not breed to the standard, producing “pit bulls” that are both human and dog aggressive.

“Pit bulls” were historically bred to display dominance and aggression toward other dogs—a relic of the breed’s dog fighting past. Even today, some pit bulls still retain the predisposition towards dog aggression. However, a “pit bull” displaying the correct breed temperament is friendly towards humans, and is generally a poor choice as a guard dog.

Unfortunately, many unethical breeders do not breed to the standard, producing “pit bulls” that are both human and dog aggressive.

History: The ancestors of modern “pit bulls” come from England. The English White Terrier, the Black and Tan Terrier and the Bulldog are supposedly extinct breeds, this occasion stems from their forced retirement; as with many dog breeds, the purpose of these said dogs ceased. We do know, however, that in their own time the English White Terrier, the Black and Tan Terrier and the Bulldog were prized animals, highly adapted to very unsavory, al beit necessary, tasks.

At one time every county in England had its own terrier. Many still exist, however, many have also come to pass or have mutated into a modern breed; such is the case for the English White Terrier and the Black and Tan, whose descendants include the bull-and-terriers, the Fox Terrier, and the Manchester Terrier. Terriers served a very real purpose in England, vermin threatened people in more ways than as providing an unpleasant scare or as unwelcome guests; in the least vermin ruined crops and damaged property, at worst they served as a vehicle for The Great Pestilence. Terriers destroyed vermin efficiently and were easy animals to care for. As time went on the sports of badger and rat baiting – among others – caught on. It’s from the Terrier that “pit bulls’ get their kind nature and juvenile behavior, it is also where the instinct to kill came from.

At the same time, Mastiff type dogs have existed in England for milennia. Their origins are somewhat uncertain, particularly because of myth. It can be assumed, however, that the Celts brought the Mastiff to Britain from the continent. It also known that the Normans introduced the Alaunt. Mastiffs of varying size existed on the Island for years, but it was not until the Renaissance that formal distinctions were made. These dogs were used in battle and for guarding, but they also served utilitarian purposes, such as farm work. 

Specifically, these dogs accompanied farmers into the fields to assist with bringing bulls in for breeding, castration, or slaughter. The dogs, known generally as bulldogs, protected the farmer by subduing the bull if it attempted to gore him. Typically a dog would do this by biting the bull on the nose and holding on until the bull submitted. Because of the nature of their job, bulldogs were bred to have powerful, muscular bodies, and the resolve to hold onto a violently-struggling bull, even when injured.

Eventually these dogs’ purpose inspired the widespread practice of the bloody sports of bull-baiting and bear-baiting. In Elizabethan England, these spectacles were popular forms of entertainment. However, in 1835, bull-baiting and bear-baiting were abolished by Parliament as cruel, and the custom died out over the following years.

The sport of dog fighting, which could be carried out under clandestine measures, blossomed. Since Bulldogs proved too ponderous and disinterested in dog fighting, the Bulldogs were crossed to English White and Black and Tan Terriers. They were also bred to be intelligent and level-headed during fights and remain non-aggressive toward humans. Part of the standard for organized dog-fighting required that the match referee who is unacquainted with the dog be able to enter the ring, pick up a dog while it was engaged in a fight, and get the respective owner to carry it out of the ring without being bitten. Dogs that bit the referee were culled.

As a result, Victorian fighting dogs (Staffordshire Bull Terriers and, though less commonly used as fighters, English Bull Terriers) generally had stable temperaments and were commonly kept in the home by the gambling men who owned them.

During the mid-1800s, immigration to the United States from Ireland and England brought an influx of these dogs to America, mainly Boston where they were bred to be larger and stockier, working as farm dogs in the West as much as fighting dogs in the cities. The resulting breed, also called the American Pit Bull Terrier, became known as an “all-American” dog. “Pit bull” type dogs became popular as family pets for citizens who were not involved in dog-fighting or farming. In the early 1900s they began to appear in films, one of the more famous examples being Pete the Pup from the Our Gang shorts (later known as The Little Rascals).

During World War I the breed’s widespread popularity led to its being featured on pro-American propaganda posters.

Dog bite statistics: Of the 279 dog-attack fatalities in the USA between 1979 and 1996, dogs identified as “pit bulls” were responsible for 60 attacks—just over a fourth; followed by Rottweilers, responsible for 29 attacks.

These statistics may be tainted by the fact that the breed recorded as responsible is taken from the reports of witnesses and is rarely confirmed by dog experts or registration papers. Because pit bull is an all-encompassing term used to describe several breeds of dogs, determining whether a dog is a “pit bull” is often particularly difficult. 

A study for the United States Department of Health and Human Services discusses some reasons why fatalities might be overstated for “pit bulls,” in large part because most people (including experienced dog owners) often can’t distinguish an American pit bull Terrier from any other stocky, broad-faced, muscular dog. For additional discussions on this and dog-human aggression in general, see dog attacks.

According to The Age, American pit bull terriers have been responsible for four of the seven dog attacks in which Australians have died between 1991 and 2002. The Endangered Dog Breeds Association of Australia denies these figures, claiming that these dogs were mutts and that registered, purebred American pit bull terriers have caused no known fatalities in Australia. Most Australian state governments have introduced new legislation specific to pit bulls, requiring pit bull owners to muzzle and leash their dogs at all times when in public. Unlike American legislation, these breed specific laws do not include the American Staffordshire Terrier or Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

Some people contend that “pit bulls” are especially likely to cause fatalities when they do attack, due to their strong jaws and their tendency to clamp on to their victim when attacking. However, although American pit bull terriers are indisputably powerful dogs, there is no scientific evidence showing them to have a stronger bite than other large dog breed. In fact, when Dr. Brady Barr of National Geographic (Dangerous Encounters: Bite Force, 8/18/2005) measured the bite forces of three dog breeds using a computerized bite sleeve, the American Pit Bull Terrier generated the least amount of pressure out of the 3 dogs tested, (the other two dogs were a German Shepherd Dog and a Rottweiler.).

What is undisputed is that any untrained, unsocialised dog can be dangerous, particularly when the dog is as large and as powerful as the “pit bull.” The “pit bull” is not a suitable dog for a novice dog owner. Although these dogs can be good pets and working dogs in the right hands, they can become dangerous when kept by negligent or ignorant owners.

As yet authorities continue to debate whether the pitbull is intrinsically more dangerous than other dogs, or whether it is no more dangerous than any other large and dominant dog breed – such as the Rotweiller, Mastiff, Dobermann, German Shepherd or Chow.

Urban myths: There are many urban legends surrounding the “pit bull,” mostly based on the idea that the dogs are somehow physiologically different from other breeds of dog.

Many websites propagate the myth that “pit bulls” have a “locking jaw” mechanism, and that the dog cannot let go once it has bitten. It is indisputable that pitbulls generally have strong jaws for their size. However, as stated by Dr. I. Brisbin (University of Georgia) “The few studies which have been conducted of the structure of the skulls, mandibles and teeth of pit bulls show that, in proportion to their size, their jaw structure and thus its inferred functional morphology, is no different from that of any breed of dog. 

There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of ‘locking mechanism’ unique to the structure of the jaw and/or teeth of the American Pit Bull Terrier.” Furthermore, the “pit bulls” that compete successfully in protection sports such as Schutzhund obviously do not display an inability to release their grips after biting, as releasing the decoy’s sleeve on command is an integral part of scoring the competition.

An interesting variant of the ‘locking jaw’ story is reportedly told by Tom Skeldon, Lucas County (Ohio) dog warden, who said that an impounded “pit bull” that had been used in fighting started “going wild,” biting at the walls of the kennel. He shot the dog with a tranquilizer, and then left it for five minutes to let it pass out. 

When he came back the dog had indeed passed out, but not before it had leaped up and clamped its jaws on a cable used to open the door of the kennel. “Everything else was relaxed, the dog was out cold, but its jaws wouldn’t let go of that cable, and he was hanging in midair,” said Skeldon. “Not even a jaguar will do that.”

In addition to the “locking jaw” myth, it is widely believed that “pit bulls don’t feel pain.” However, pit bulls have the same nervous system of any other breed, and they can and do feel pain. Historically, those dogs that would tolerate or ignore discomfort and pain and finish the task they were required to perform were the dogs that were bred and the sort of dogs breeders strove to produce. This is the trait of “gameness” that so many breed fanciers speak of, which may be defined as, “The desire to continue on and/or complete a task despite pain and discomfort.” Therefore, the difficulty in deterring a pit bull from its task is in fact not an inability to feel pain but rather a desirable trait in any trained working dog.

Another urban myth surrounding this breed states that “pit bulls” are the only type of dog that are not affected by capsaicin-based dog-repellent sprays. In fact, many other dog breeds also display this resistance to pepper spray when they are attacking. Documented cases include Bull Mastiffs, Rotweillers and many German Shepherds (including Police K9s). In the words of two Police Officers, it is “not unusual for pepper spray not to work on dogs” and “just as OC spray doesn’t work on all humans, it won’t work on all canines”.

It is also untrue that the “pit bull” is the only dog that will keep attacking after being sub-lethally shot. Rotweillers, Mastiffs and German Shepherds have all exhibited this capacity – as, of course, have many humans.

One of the most popular and baseless urban myths about pit bulls is that “pit bulls” often ‘turn’ on their owners without provocation. However, no sane dog performs behaviors for no reason. When aggression becomes a problem the reasons can often be traced to such things as improper handling, lack of socialization or training, a misreading of dog behavior by the owner, lack of discipline, or even disease. When an owner is startled by a sudden, aggressive outburst, it is generally because they have been unaware of problems that were brewing.

Urban myths about pit bulls are well enough established to be spoofed, as in The Onion’s mock caption ‘Heroic Pit Bull Journeys 2,000 Miles to Attack Owner’ (Apr 17, 2002) and ‘Department Of Homeland Security Deputizes Real Mean Dog’, a Rottweiler-pitbull-Doberman mix introduced to the press corps approvingly by Tom Ridge (May 21, 2003).

Insurance problems: Many homeowner’s insurance companies in the United States are reluctant to insure owners of dogs that are considered to be a dangerous breed. The CDC estimates that 368,245 persons were treated in U.S. hospitals for nonfatal dog bites in 2001, and that fully 2% of the U.S. population are attacked by dogs per year. These attacks most often occur on the owner’s property. While breed-specific statistics were not collected in this particular study, the Pit Bull Terrier and Rottweiler in particular are often considered to contribute the most to the serious injuries caused by dog attacks and are the most common breeds that insurance companies will refuse to insure.

Some insurance companies have taken a compromise position, and will only insure “Pit bull” owners if their dogs have achieved a Canine Good Citizen award.

Breed Specific Legislation or BSL: In response to a number of well-publicized incidents involving dogs that resemble “Pit Bulls,” some jurisdictions began placing restrictions on the ownership of “pit bulls,” such as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in the UK, an example of breed-specific legislation. Many jurisdictions have outlawed the possession of “pit bulls,” either “pit bull” breeds specifically, or in addition to other breeds that are regarded as dangerous.

Recent “pit bull” mauling cases include the June 2005 attack on 12-year old Nicholas Faibish, who was locked in the basement of his families home then killed by his father’s dog in San Francisco while his mother not home. “Pit bull” owners point out that Nicholas was bitten earlier in the day by the same dogs and, instead of doing something to protect her son, Nicholas’ mother locked him in the basement. It is also relevant that both dogs were also entire and the female was in oestrous. This attack, and others occurring shortly afterwards in the San Francisco Bay Area, has led local and state politicians to consider ways to control “pit bulls.”.

The Canadian province of Ontario, on August 29, 2005 enacted a ban on “pit bulls.” It was the first province or state in North America to do so. The breeds listed in the ban  can no longer be sold, bred, or imported and all “pit bull” owners must leash and muzzle their pit bulls in public. A 60 day grace period has been put in place to allow for owners to have their “pit bulls” spayed or neutered. 

Also it left a period to allow municipalities to adjust to the new law. Prior to the bills passage, the Ontario government cited what it deemed the success of a “pit bull” bylaw passed by Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In the United States, Denver, Colorado was one of the pioneers of banning “pit bulls.” The city had legislation on the books since 1989, but was nullified by a 2004 law passed by the Colorado General Assembly prohibiting breed specific laws. However, it was overturned in April of 2005 after the city challenged in court the constitutionality of the law. The city reinstated the ban which prohibits citizens from keeping “pit bull type” dogs after May 9, 2005. Over 260 “pit bull” type dogs have been seized from their homes and euthanised since this date, resulting in widespread protest from dog owners and animal rights lobby groups. Since this legislation has passed over 1000 family pets have been taken from homes and destroyed. No such ban on other “dangerous” dogs has been enacted and no reporting of a decrease in dog bites has occurred.

Breed specific legislation that restricted “pit bull” ownership in Toledo, Ohio was struck down on March 3, 2006, by a 2-1 vote of the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals. The law had relied on a state definition of a vicious dog as one that has bitten or killed a human, has killed another dog, or “belongs to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog.” The lack of legal recourse of a pit bull owner to appeal the vicious dog designation of a particular animal was one of the deficiencies of the legislation. For the majority, Judge William Skow wrote in Toledo v. Tellings: “Since we conclude that there is no evidence that pit bulls are inherently dangerous or vicious, then the city ordinance limitation on ownership is also arbitrary, unreasonable, and discriminatory.”

Debate: The extent to which banning a particular breed is effective in reducing dog bite fatalities is contested. Some people maintain that pit bull attacks are directly attributable to irresponsible owners, rather than to any inherent defect in the breed itself. Other people believe that the pit bull terrier is a breed that, although not inherently dangerous, needs a particularly knowledgeable and committed handler and should not be freely available to novice owners. Still others maintain that pit bulls as a breed are invariably more unpredictable and dangerous than other dogs even when properly trained, and have no place in society.

Pit Bulls” are said to be popular with irresponsible owners, who see these dogs as a symbol of status or machismo. This type of owner may be less likely to socialize, train, or desex their pet. These are all factors that have been shown to contribute to increased likelihood of dog aggression, and may partially explain why pit bulls feature so heavily in dog attack statistics. It is known that unneutered male dogs account for 96% of all fatal dog attacks. (Fatal Dog Attacks by Karen Delise), showing that irresponsible ownership can have a great impact on how a breed is represented in attack statistics.

Some people argue that banning the “pit bull” will simply result in irresponsible dog owners seeking to own other large breeds with similar temperaments (such as the Dobermann, Rottweiler or German Shepherd Dog), resulting in an increased occurrence of dog bites from these breeds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which maintains the United States’ database on fatal wounds inflicted by dog bites, does not advocate breed-specific legislation, instead encouraging “Dangerous Dog” laws that focus on individual dogs of any breed that have exhibited aggressive behavior.

Huntsville, Alabama police raided a dog-fighting arena on Feb 28, 2002 and seized 10 pit bulls. The city’s attempt to legally euthanize four pit bull puppies, never trained to fight, was stopped by Madison County Circuit Court Judge Joe Battle, who ruled that the pit bull puppies were not dangerous by virtue of their genetics alone (AP Wire; Apr 6, 2002). Huntsville appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which affirmed (City of Huntsville v. Sheila Tack et al., 1010459, S.C. Alabama; Aug 30, 2002) the Circuit Court opinion by a 6-2 vote; the written dissent addressed procedural matters of legal status of the parties, not the nature of the dogs. The puppies were adopted.

American Airlines banned “Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and any mixed breeds containing one or more of those breeds” in August of 2002 following an incident involving an American Pit Bull Terrier puppy that escaped from luggage into the cargo hold of an airliner, causing damage to the cargo hold. The American Kennel Club lobbied the airline to lift the restriction, arguing that the incident was merely one of improper restraint, and could have involved any dog breed. The restriction was lifted in May of 2003 after a compromise was reached that requires portable dog carriers in the cargo hold to employ releasable cable ties on four corners of the door of the carrier.

Dog fights: In the United States, “pit bulls” are the breed of choice for dog fights, due to their strength, courage and dog-aggressive tendencies. Although dog fighting is illegal in the United States, it is still practiced, and is usually accompanied by gambling. In the United States Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, it is a felony to organize, promote, be employed by, or wager on a dogfight, whether one is physically present at the fight or not. Laws vary in other states, but most states have some laws to address dogfighting.

The term “game-bred” may be used as a code for a fight dog, but sometimes merely refers to a dog that is very determined to complete a task – be it a race, weight pull, or unfortunately even a fight. “Pit bulls” are often brutalised and abused to make them “mean”, and may be terribly maimed or killed during the fight. A few centuries ago, it was common to pit these dogs against Pumas and wolves. Pitting them against boars is still carried out in some places.

Dog fighters are the minority among pit bull owners. Most people who own these breeds direct their dogs’ plentiful energy toward nonviolent athletic tasks. Some people train their pit bulls for dog agility. Others involve their pit bulls in weight pulling competitions, obedience competitions or schutzhund. The pit bull often excels at these sports. Out of the 17 dogs who have earned UKC “superdog” status (by gaining championship titles in conformation, obedience, agility, and weightpull), nine have been “pit bulls.” Unfortunately pit bulls are increasingly being prevented from participating in these events, due to the introduction of local legislation requiring the breed to be muzzled and on leash at all times when in public – with no exceptions for dog sports or obedience competitions.

Positive press: Although negative information about “pit bulls” is widespread, there are also many positive stories. Some work in hospitals and care facilities as certified therapy dogs, many are well-loved family pets, and some have even saved people’s lives. There are many incidences of “pit bulls” being productively employed by U.S. Customs , as police K9s and as tracking K9s in various Search and Rescue organisations

A rescued “pit bull” called Popsical is a a United States Customs dog, and is famous for sniffing out one of the biggest cocaine busts in FDA history.

Another little known fact is that the dog who has obtained the most titles of any dog of any breed, ever, was an American Pit Bull Terrier. Bandog Dread (Ch Bandog Dread, SchH3, IPO3, WH, WDS, CD, TD, U-CDX, S.D.-ducks/sheep) owned by Dianne Jessup has obtained multiple titles in conformation, competition obedience, Schutzhund, weightpull and herding.

In February, 2006, New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell published an article surveying the research on pit bulls which concluded that legal attempts to ban the breed were both crude and unnecessary.

Famous pit bulls:

  • Michael Vick has owned multiple pit bulls. 
  • DMX owns 9 pit bulls.
  • Jessica Biel owns three Pit Bulls.
  • Alicia Silverstone owns a rescued pit bull.
  • Michael J. Fox.
  • Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson have a Pit Bull named Penny Lane.
  • Cesar Millan, otherwise known as The Dog Whisperer owns several Pit Bulls and uses them as model dogs with which to aid in rehabilitating misbehaved dogs in some circumstances. 
  • Big Boi from hip-hop duo Outkast is a registered Pit Bull breeder.
  • Radio host Ira Glass has a Pit Bull.
  • West Coast Choppers owner Jesse G. James owns three Pit Bulls.
  • TV cook Rachael Ray has one Pit Bull. Her Pit Bull’s name is Isaboo and has appeared in cooking episodes and on her talk show. Rachel had another Pit Bull named Boo before she became famous.
  • Comedian Jon Stewart has two Pit Bulls, named Monkey and Shamsky.
  • Monica has a pitbull that has made many public appearances with her, including in the video for Everytime tha Beat Drop. 
  • Author Andrew Vachss, a vocal opponent of Pit Bull fighting and breed-specific bans, has a Pit Bull named Honey.
  • Pete the Pup (or “Petey”) from The Little Rascals series of films was a pit bull.
  • Tige from Buster Brown shoe advertisements
  • The dog in the film Snatch is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • FDR had a pit bull type dog in the White House during his presidency.
  • Dakota and Cheyenne, search and rescue dogs active at the World Trade Center disaster and the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia.
  • Popsicle, famous for sniffing out one of the biggest drug busts in FDA history.
  • Veronica Mars from the UPN show of the same name owns a pit bull named Backup.
  • Jennifer Lopez used a pit bull in her “I’m Glad” Video
  • Helen Keller had a pit bull as a family pet
  • The pit bull was so respected in the early 1900’s that the US Military chose an image of a pit bull to represent the country on war posters
  • The pit bull is the only dog to have ever graced the cover of Life Magazine three times.
  • Ira Glass has a pit bull.
  • Jessica Alba owns a pit bull.
  • Jamie Foxx has two pit bulls.
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