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Pit Bulls: What's Hype, What's Not

WebMD talks to experts about pit bull safety and pit bull attacks.

Doberman pinschers, rottweilers, and German shepherds topped lists of dogs some considered dangerous in the not-too-distant past.

These days, pit bulls often make headlines and it’s rarely good news. If it isn’t about an attack on a child or a shooting by police, it’s a tale of neglect or abuse. The heat of such reports has forged a frightening image of the pit bull as having a hair-trigger temper and a lock-jawed bite.

But pit bull advocates and some experts say the dogs get a bad rap. They say the dogs are not inherently aggressive, but in many cases suffer at the hands of irresponsible owners drawn to the dog's macho image who encourage aggression for fighting and protection.

Indeed, the ASPCA web site gives the breed an endorsement that could fit a golden retriever. It says, “A well-socialized and well-trained pit bull is one of the most delightful, intelligent, and gentle dogs imaginable.”

In general, pit bulls aren’t aggressive with people but are “less tolerant” of other dogs than many other breeds, says Pamela Reid, PhD, vice president of the ASPCA’s Animal Behavior Center in New York. They also have “great tenacity. They put their mind to something, and they do it. That’s what makes them great dogs for sports like weight pulling. They are very strong, athletic animals," Reid says.

Owning a pit bull should not be taken lightly. Some cities and towns have banned the breed. You also may face rising insurance rates or cancellation of your policy, difficulty renting, and the watchful eye of neighbors and passersby.

Origins and Nature

The American Pit Bull Terrier is technically the only true pit bull, although the American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier are often referred to as pit bulls. So are a handful of other breeds and mixed breeds.

Pit bulls were originally used for bull- and bear-baiting, and later were bred to fight dogs in an arena. They had “a fabulous reputation early on and were considered the ideal family pet because they were so good with people,” Reid says.

“Petey” from The Little Rascals was a pit bull. Helen Keller, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Fred Astaire all had the breed as family pets.

But the tide turned in the late 1990s, when pit bulls became popular among people who "weren’t focused on the positive attributes of the breed - they were looking for a strong, scary-looking dog," Reid says.

National Attention

The abuse of pit bulls drew national attention in 2007, when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to running a dog-fighting operation. He spent nearly two years in federal prison.

Jim Gorant, a Sports Illustrated senior editor and author of The Lost Dogs, a book that documents Vick’s dogs and their path to redemption, says pit bulls are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of incrimination and bad ownership.

“Every dog is an individual,” Gorant says. “Pit bulls are just dogs and if they are not raised properly and socialized and treated right, they can have behavior problems. But they aren’t any more problematic than any other breed by nature.”

Bites, Bans, and More

Opponents argue that pit bulls are more likely to attack. But the ASPCA, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and some other groups have recommend against breed-specific laws. They cite a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association on Sept. 15, 2000. 

The study, which focused on fatal dog attacks, notes difficulties identifying various breeds (particularly mixed breeds) and in calculating a bite rate. The researchers noted that there isn’t consistent data on breed populations and bites, especially when the injury isn’t serious enough to require an ER visit.

Reid says many things can lead to a tendency toward aggression. That includes breeding dogs for protection, dog  fighting, social status, or financial gain. Abuse, neglect, chaining, tethering, and inadequate obedience training and supervision also make the list.

Myths About Pit Bulls

Here are three myths about pit bulls:

They have locking jaws. There’s nothing anatomically different about a pit bulls’ jaw - “they cannot lock,” Reid says. But like other terriers, “they are more likely than other breeds to grab a hold of something and to shake.” It doesn’t mean they won’t let go, but owners need to know how to break up a fight.

They can tolerate huge amounts of pain. “Pit bulls are incredibly wimpy in many respects - they don’t like to go in the cold and rain,” Reid says. But when aroused or agitated, they may be less responsive to pain.

They’re unpredictable. The popular notion is that pit bulls can be fine their entire lives and suddenly snap and turn on their owner. Reid says that’s no more likely to happen with pit bulls than it is with any other breed.

Considering a Pit Bull?

You’ll need to do more than the average dog owner to counteract negative perceptions. Socializing the dog with people and other animals is key. Here are some other tips:

  • If your pit bull is friendly with other dogs, maintain that socialization by meeting up with friends or going to the dog park, if your dog doesn’t get too rowdy in such settings.
  • Monitor your dog’s play and be prepared to distract your dog if she gets too intimidating. “The ones that are friendly with other dogs are sort of the life of the party, but they can play rough sometimes because they are so strong,” Reid says.
  • If your dog isn’t friendly with other dogs, make sure he’s on a leash and there are no unleashed dogs around.
  • When it comes to other pets, Reid says some pit bulls “are absolutely lovely with other animals - cats and bunnies,” but others are not. Take introductions slowly. “The more you know about the dog, the better off your are,” Reid says.

Responsible pet ownership includes spaying or neutering your pet. That will help decrease some undesirable behavior, such as male dominance aggression.

Looking Ahead

Awareness about pit bulls is growing and more are being adopted, says Stacey Coleman, executive director of the Animal Farm Foundation Inc., a Bangall, N.Y. pit bull advocacy group.

“It has gotten much better for the dogs,” Coleman says. “People have seen that these dogs are out there and deserve help right now.”

Of the 51 pit bulls seized from Vick’s kennels, about 17 have been adopted. About a dozen of those adopted dogs have passed their AKC Canine Good Citizen test and several have become therapy dogs.

Among them is Hector, a dog that is covered with physical scars but is "just great with other dogs, great with kids, and great with people,” Gorant says. Hector frequently visits hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

If there’s an upside to the Vick case, Gorant hopes it helps sway public opinion because it helps people see pit bulls as victims. But he admits, there’s still “a long way to go.”

“On any given day, probably 10 people get bit by a dog,” Gorant says. “But it’s only news when it’s a pit bull.”

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