Pit Bull Myths

From the American Humane Association, here is a list of common myths about Pit Bulls,
all referenced and backed with science. Click the gallery to read through FACT and FICTION about Pit Bulls. I posed this, in great part, because of a noon news segment on WGN TV which had it wrong.

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  • Let me preface my post by saying that I like "pit bull" type dogs and have not met any at any dog events that were not little wiggly happy dog-sausages wanting to be petted and loved.

    That said, however, I think the article you wrote about Pit Bull myths has a couple of issues that make it appear less than credible. As you've taken a large part of the information from the American Humane Association's PDF file, that's not really your fault, but it does bother me that they would cite examples that don't really stand up to scrutiny.

    I have the biggest issue with the percentages cited by the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS). While they accurately reflect the numbers of dogs they have tested and the percentage of dogs that have passed their testing, they do not accurately reflect temperament in any breed compared to the whole. Here's why:

    The primary flaw with ATTS percentages is that they only apply to the dogs ATTS has tested - which are dogs whose owners decided to sign them up for the test, pay the fee (it's $30 per dog), and do the test. The sort of people who would pay $30 - and often drive hours to find an ATTS test - are the sort of people who are already responsible dog owners who train their dogs, and probably got them from rescue or responsible breeders.

    I do not think that their dogs, regardless of breed, accurately reflect the breed as a whole. If we started testing dogs produced by backyard breeders, dogs that are kept just as pets and whose owners don't do any training or competing with them and won't pay $30 just to get their dog evaluated, maybe then would get get a more accurate percentage.

    In a way, this is very much along the same lines as the statistic that "Labradors bite more people each year than any other breed." Of course they do, there are more of them. And more "pit bull" type dogs pass the ATTS than other breeds because so many responsible pittie owners will go out of their way to prove that THEIR dogs are not dangerous, because there is such a stigma attached to the breed.

    Make sense?

    The other statement I really have a problem with is this: "serving big time as military working dogs". Really? When? Where?

    As a history nerd who has done a lot of research on military working dogs, I am not aware of any facts to back up this statement.

    First, the US military did not have a working dog program until World War II, although many units saw working dogs from other countries during World War I. (The US military figured they didn't need such a program - it wasn't until a civilian organization, "Dogs For Defense" approached the War Department in World War II that such a program was even considered.)

    Although the US military accepted breeds other than German Shepherds during World War II - Great Danes, Poodles, Border Collies, Airedales, Boxers, mixed-breeds, etc. - I see no great numbers of "pit bull" type dogs, either mentioned or in photographs from the time period. I have not seen any in literature or photographs from other countries in the same time period, either.

    After WWII, the US military discontinued its working dog program until Korea, and after Korea still primarily relied on donations of dogs, but narrowed the breeds to Shepherds and mixed-breed dogs "with primarily Shepherd characteristics", and "at least 23" tall." (The military now uses German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois (and mixes of the three) exclusively for dual-purpose dogs, and Labradors for detection purposes, with more than half of those being imported from overseas.

    The ONLY "pit bull" type dog in the service I am aware was during World War I when a dog named Stubby, who is often cited as "the most-decorated dog of World War I." There are two issues with this - the first being that nobody actually knows what Stubby's breed was, with period sources differing between calling him a Bulldog, a Boston Terrier mix, and an Olde Boston Terrier. And two, Stubby was not actually a military working dog, being that he was adopted as a stray at Yale University, smuggled to France, and kept as a mascot. (However, there's no disputing that Stubby went on to save soldiers' lives, much like some of the dogs soldiers are currently keeping in Afghanistan. Who are heroes, but they are not "military working dogs", never having been trained and not being kept by the government.)

  • In reply to dfdk9:

    Ok, even if you forget about the American Temperament Society testing, my point is that individual dogs are individuals. And the temperament of Pit Bulls is not a problem, per se - In fact, they are generally great family dogs.

    About military working dogs, I can provide MANY references - and you can find them on the Net, Pit Bull type dogs were indeed in WW II and after. Today, while not working for the military in any numbers, Pit Bull types are often trained for other work having to do with security, and even bomb detection. And yes Stubby did go onto save lives.

  • In reply to SteveDale:

    Steve,

    I am not at all disputing that pitties don't make excellent family pets. As I said in my first paragraph, I have met many pitties and my general experience with the breed has been one of happy dogs wanting to interact with people.

    However, and this is the same reason the ATTS statistics are flawed, the types of people I meet with pitties are people who actively compete them in obedience, take the CGC, work them as therapy dogs, or otherwise attend dog events. They are the GOOD owners whose dogs are usually from a rescue, shelter, or a good breeder.

    The problem is that there is a large portion of the pittie population who don't come from good breeders and who are not owned by responsible owners like the ones testing with ATTS to prove that their pitties are stable, friendly dogs. And there is a large population of pitties that doesn't fall into those categories and yes, many of them DO have temperament issues which are, very often, genetic and caused by bad breeding.

    (The same holds true for German Shepherds coming from many of the backyard breeders who produce them in so prolific numbers and who do produce bad temperaments, usually advertised as "great guarding instincts".)

    And please, do provide some of the MANY references of pit bull type dogs that were used in World War II and after. They were, by far, a small minority in type of breeds, with most dogs that made it through the selection process being Shepherds and Shepherd mixes. Even Poodles, which were more commonly used by the military, are only a minority when it came to war dog work during World War II.

    I also don't know of any great numbers of pitties trained for detection or other work. I think to say "often" is trying to inflate the true numbers of pitties actually working. (Though there are a fair number in various dog sports - but let's bear in mind that protection sport is nothing at all like true protection work.)

  • @DFD K9
    All the breeds pay $30, don't the other breed owners want the same outcome? you are correct it's a limited sample, and I agree, a wide perspective would be more accurate, but at that point aren't you testing the owner?
    And as far as Stubby, thats why BSL's don't work!(Bulldog, a Boston Terrier mix, and an Olde Boston Terrier) name that breed.

  • In reply to mpsky:

    agreed!

  • In reply to mpsky:

    As a dog owner and dog lover I am simply disgusted by the negligence of this article. It completely misses the primary problem with pit bulls - they do not just bite, they maul, sometimes to the point of death. You can compare bite v breed statistics all you want but do not ignore the fact that pit bulls maul when they attack. I'm sure you will argue that other breeds such as Rottweilers or German Shepards can maul too but that is a completely separate argument. Most pit bull attack stories I've read usually contain a similar refrain - "he was the sweetest, kindest dog, right up until he decided to rip little Timmy's face off".

  • In reply to Tommycp1:

    @ Tom -

    Regarding your quote - "he was the sweetest, kindest dog, right up until he decided to rip little Timmy's face off".

    I think that is a refrain you read in ANY story about a serious dog attack, and I can tell you from personal experience working with and training dogs, that more than 90% of the time, attacks are by NO MEANS as unprovoked as the victim (or the victim's parents) attempt to make it sound.

    Most victims are young children and most victims are bitten by the family dog. Do you know why that is? It's not because the dog has an unstable temperament, but because the parents are not supervising or teaching their children how to properly interact with the family pet.

    One story I always tell is that of a family Cocker Spaniel who seriously mauled a young boy's face. The child and dog had been, like so many times, alone in the family room where the child was coloring paper with crayons and the dog was playing with a toy. The parents were in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Next thing they knew, the dog had mauled the child's face - a dog that had never, every shown any kind of aggression and was very patient with the child, even when the kid was hanging on him, tugging his tail and ears, etc.

    Long story short, after the child was admitted to the hospital, the father called the vet and took the dog in to be euthanized. As the vet prepped the dog for euthanasia, he found a CRAYON lodged inside the dog's ear canal.

    Point of the story being, most bites happen because many people do not teach their children to be safe around dogs and do not supervise. I have found that children who had dogs at home are much more likely to interact inappropriately with dogs they don't know elsewhere simply because they lack this education and are allowed to interact inappropriately with the family dog. (The first thing those kids always say before they hug my dog or yank on her whiskers is, "I do this to my dog all the time and he loves it!")

  • In reply to Tommycp1:

    @DFD K9

    I understand your issues with some of the data sighted in this article. My only question is, and correct me if I'm wrong. What I see in your comment is that you have problems with this artcile, due to some of the science collected. mainly the sample group is too small and is bias in some way. While I agree that this is quite probably the case. Wouldn't that lend creadence to the fact that the problem with these dogs, is not the dog, but the owner? And if that's the case the focus should be on teaching owners how to deal with there dogs. No matter what bread they are.

    And if that's the case, Why are Pit bulls singled out? I've owned many different breads of dog in my life. I have to say that the least scaring and quite probably the most loving and loyal of all the dogs I have had are the two Pit Bulls I live with right now.

  • In reply to sivad2:

    @ Sivad -

    I don't have a problem with the article at all. I agree that there are many myths about pit bulls and that this is a problem. However, I have a problem with articles that cite sources that may be incorrect or flawed.

    And I agree, the problem is not usually the dog. Most of the time it's the owner. Some of the time it's the breeder - as some breeders produce weak nerves / bad temperaments due to bad breeding choices and lack of knowledge.

    I agree that owners should know how to handle their dogs. I see many people with Labs and any other kind of dog who don't understand the first thing about their dogs and don't know how to train or handle them.

  • In reply to Tommycp1:

    @Andy-Kid

    I've got to that opinion sounds like one of a person who has never been around a pit bull. As I stated in my comments earlier, I've been around many dogs in my life. And trust me, The lab mix I used to own, had a better chance of hurting you than the pitbulls I live with now.

  • In reply to sivad2:

    No, I've been around pit bulls. What worries me about any large dog, not to mention a dog as muscular as put bulls, is their capacity to injure. I'm not suggesting that ALL pit bulls are aggressive, just like I'm not suggesting that all chihuahuas are dainty Paris Hilton dogs. What I'm saying is a dog as strong as a pit bull has the chance to inflict much more dammage than a smaller less muscular breed.

    But I'm not gonna lie, I don't like pit bulls or german shepards. I don't care what anyone says or how many "nice" pit bulls or german shepards I encounter, I'm still afraid of and dislike these breeds.

  • In reply to drewkent23:

    Then I guess my question would be this. Why draw the line at pitbulls and shepards? Like I said my last lab, could do some damage if he wanted to or felt the need to. Why not draw the line at standard poodles? Or Huskies? Or any other dog then might be able to hurt someone.

    I don't argue the point that Pit bulls are strong animals. But in my experience the problems with dogs tend to come from there master, not the other way around.

    Now if we want to get in a discussion about what types of people should own these dogs...... well there i would have to say that quite a few of those people probably shouldn't.

  • In reply to sivad2:

    Ok, I'll include any large dog. Huskies, Akitas, big Labs etc also scare me. Just like a person, I try to judge dogs on their actions. But let's be honest here and admit that a larger dog poses a greater threat than a smaller dog. I'm much more likely to be injured by a massive Rotweiler than a Pug. That's just common sense.

  • In reply to drewkent23:

    As someone who works with dogs daily, the chance of injury from a small dog is much greater, because their owners are like you. They think that because it's small, it can't do much damage, so they don't put a stop to aggressive behaviors when they crop up. Like I noted above, pomeranians have caused fatalities in the past. Maybe you should steer clear of dogs in general.

  • In reply to drewkent23:

    No disrespect, but that's the same as saying you're scared of larger people, because they pose a greater threat. Maybe people wouldn't fear pits so much of so many irresponsible people didn't own them as a symbol of the masculinity they themselves lack.

  • In reply to sivad2:

    myths are so hard to dispel because they are hard-wired into society. Presenting facts may not be enough to change the minds of those who choose not to or are otherwise afraid to acknowledge the truth. I hope some people read this and understand that Pitbulls don't need to be feared...they need to be helped. Great post

  • In reply to CDignan:

    'don't need to be feared...they need to be helped.' NICE ONE!

    Pitbulls and pitbull mixes are - I believe - victims! In so many ways, if I describe them all here - would be long enough for another blog post.

  • In reply to sivad2:

    Here another pit bull "myth" that is not a myth.....the locking jaw.

    Today, in South Carolina, a pit bull owners dog beserked, mauled several bystanders, then locked its jaws on its owners arm. Police arrived - they shot it once at point blank range - absolutely no effect...a second shot kills the pit bull. But one problem - it is still locked onto its owners arm!
    911 EMT first responders - several of them - had to work together to "pry the dead pit bull off the pit bull owners arm".

    Now, if I locked my door to keep someone out, but 911 EMT responders needed to get in to save my life, it would likewise take several of them to pry my locked door open.

    The bottom line, is if the pit bull can maintain a locked effect in its bite, even after it is long dead, that is in fact a locking jaw - wouldn't you agree?
    If not, what would you consider to be criteria for a locking jaw?

    heres the report (and by the way, just days ago another South Carolina man was killed by his pet pit bull in his own house):

    http://www2.wspa.com/news/2010/nov/22/deputy-shoots-pit-bull-after-animal-control-no-sho-ar-1121530/

  • In reply to sivad2:

    pit bull advocates always create the straw man argument that the "locking jaw" must refer to a mechanism in the bony structure of the jaw that doesn't exist. The truth is that pit bulls are known to have inherited the locking bite from their bull baiting bulldog ancestors that were known to bite and hold the bulls lips, pulling the bull's nose to the ground. The addition terrier created the famous pit bull bite, hold, shake attack style that removes flesh extremely effectively.

    As to the statistics about pit bulls biting more. There were two long term dog bite studies in two different metropolitan areas focusing on pediatric dog bites requiring reconstructive surgery that show that pit bulls were responsible for over 50% of the bites in each study.

    http://www.aaps1921.org/abstracts/2008/P13.cgi
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19644273

    And I'd be very interested in seeing where I can read about pit bulls currently being used as military dogs.

  • In reply to sivad2:

    Great article, Steve. I never thought of pit bulls, except for with fear until a poor little 8-week old puppy was kicked out of a car by an inbred redneck in my town. A friend picked her up and brought her to me. My parents tried to talk me into getting rid of her, "those dogs are vicious". Instead, I came home and started bully surfing the web to find out everything, and I mean everything there is to know about the type of dog a pit bull is. At the end of the night, I decided to keep her and be the best dog owner I could be. Three years on...we have a great life. She is the best hiking buddy, good friend and most easy going dog I've ever had. But she knows I'm the boss. One thing I learned for sure: We human beings need to be 100% responsible for all that happens in our lives, and that is ultimately where this country is falling down and the treatment of our dogs is but a symptom.

  • In reply to gjwriter:

    Awesome outlook!

  • In reply to gjwriter:

    It is a good thing to dispel myths, and there are plenty of myths surrounding pit bulls that deserve to be aggressively dispelled. My only complaint is that the American Humane paper, due both to its brevity and content, fails to dispel myths so much as counter them with arguably questionable data. I mean, a quote from a book is not going to dispel a myth that has been hardwired into the psyches of a majority of people. And frankly, certain of the myths are not so much myth as simply unsubstantiated. Others are at worst half-truths.

    Do pit bull jaws lock by virtue of their semi-magical anatomy? Of course not, but that is not to say that, as with a number of breeds, pits are both capable of and often pre-disposed to "locking on" to their target. The language may be misleading if interpreted literally, but the tendency to grip and hold is a genuine trait, and one that is not dealt out evenly among all dogs or all breeds.

    I suppose my problem with most efforts to dispel pit bull "myths", is that they tend to skirt the real issue, which is a failure to see the dogs for what they are and are not. These are dogs that deserve respect and appreciation. They deserve to be understood. They can be excellent companions, can be gentle with children, and can be great ambassadors of their species. But they can also be dangerous, and that should be acknowledged more often, in my opinion, by those fighting to improve their reputation. Are pit bulls uniquely, or even especially dangerous? No, at least not on average. But when I read some of the positive press on pit bulls, it strikes me as more apologist than informative.

    I say this as someone who owns a pit bull and greatly enjoys working with them, but also believes not everyone should own one. And yes, I could say the same of many other breeds.

  • In reply to RCrisler:

    You hit the nail on the head by saying "not everyone should own one." Pits are great dogs when handled approriately. They are very powerful and headstrong, and need an assertive master. I love my pittie with all my heart and I know she is a wonderful dog. I also know that I am a responsible dog owner. Unfortunately, these dogs all too often end up in the wrong hands and the dogs ultimately pay the price.

  • In reply to Tommycp1:

    Part of the problem might be that you're reading "pit bull" attack stories. The media has admitted that they over-report pit bull attacks, and reliable studies have shown that that dogs are often misidentified as pit bulls. Additionally, there is a difference between a dog biting and a dog attacking and mauling someone. Pit bulls have not been shown to be more likely offenders in either case, while dogs as small as pomeranians have caused human fatalities. I'd say you're negligent for not informing yourself.

  • In reply to mpsky:

    As a Pit Bull owner, every time someone asks me what type of dog I own I get ready for the expression and the comments on "you have to be very careful with those type of dogs" there is never a time that I do not hear that. The only time that it doens't occur is when the person I am talking to also owns a Pit Bull themselves.

    There might be many arguments and different opinions on this article but what I think Steve is trying to bring up is that things that are said about Pit Bulls aren't always true. He is not telling you that Pit Bulls are the the only breed out there that deserve this type of list, but he wants to clarify some issues that have been stated out there.

    I was reading a magazine this weekend, matter of fact, about how a Lab bit the face off its owner. Now did that Lab get put to sleep? No becuase since it was a Lab it was a minor accident only. (& this dog did not just tear off a cheek or a lip he destroyed its owners bone structure in her face.) Let it had been a Pit Bull that did this it would be called a killer, distempured and far worse.

    There will always be bad talk about this breed whether we like it or not. My dog is almost 1 year old and he has never bit anyone, never attacked anyone. He gets to be infront of our property WHEN KIDS GET OUT OF SCHOOL and he will not approach them unless they call his name and then ONLY then will he want to lick them to death. Very playful loyal dog. My husband and I never thought to own a Pit Bull he wanted a Husky and I wanted a Westie, but I will never change my Pit Bull for any dog, matter of fact we want to adopt one as soon as we find a bigger place.

  • In reply to mpsky:

    Whatever. Put Bulls are scary dogs. They're rather large, very muscular and more or less aggressive. They're walking razor blades, just like German Shepards.

  • In reply to mpsky:

    A big thumbs up to Steve's #7 point. Our shelter Pit Bull, Reese, is going on 8 years with us.

  • In reply to mpsky:

    @mpsky - Pittie owners are more likely to test their dogs than the owners of many other breeds because they are more likely to have a stigma attached to their breed as being "aggressive".

    Any breed that is commonly listed as being "aggressive", especially by insurance or rental companies, will be tested in larger numbers. Responsible owners who have good dogs go out of their way to get their dogs tested so they can have proof that their dogs are safe and stable - and having an ATTS certificate certainly helps get insurance or find housing if you own an aggressive breed.

    A lot of breeds, especially small dog breeds, don't get tested in any great numbers because their owners don't have to worry about the stigma, and most aren't even worried about aggression if it comes from a Chihuahua. You bet they would be worried if the same behaviors came from a Rottweiler, though.

  • In reply to dfdk9:

    Can you provide some evidence to back up your claim that pittie owners are more likely to test their dogs? Or that dogs that don't come from responsible homes and breeders (for instance, rehabilitated fighting dogs)are aggressive to people?

  • In reply to rubisca:

    Rubisca -

    I cannot give you any statistical information, but I can tell you that, having attended many ATTS tests, CGC tests, and TDI (therapy dog) tests, there is a surprisingly large number of pittie owners participating with their dogs exactly because they often feel they need to "go the extra mile" to prove their dogs are not dangerous.

    Regarding dogs that come from irresponsible breeders, this is an issue with all breeds, not just limited to pitties. I have worked with Shepherd Rescue for the past 10 years and it has been my experience that most backyard breeders do not know correct temperament, do not evaluate for it, and often mistake "aggression" for "protection" behavior. People like those breed dogs with faulty temperaments and weak nerves. While these dogs are not inherently "people aggressive", they are very often fear aggressive, meaning they react to being frightened with aggression, which is a very common problem in many breeds (German Shepherds being one of them).

  • In reply to mpsky:

    Excellent job Steve! I love the fact that you're pointing out the myths and your readers ARGUE with you. Regardless of the facts, it seems people will use their own opinions or articles designed to sell newspapers (ie: Pit Bull Rampage) as their basis for fact. There is a lot of data that clearly shows Golden Retrievers and Pit Bull Terriers are very close in temperament. And yes, Pit Bull Terriers are currently be used as military, police and service dogs. They are incredibly smart, loyal and obedient. A great combination. There was also an AMAZING article written by Malcolm Gladwell for the New Yorker entitled: What we can learn about RACIAL PROFILING from pit bulls. I suggest ALL of the people reading and commenting on your article read that article as well so they are educated. The negativity and comments shown here are just another case of stereotyping and "racial profiling". No facts have been presented in any of the comments --- just very biased opinions. Remember folks: stereotyping and racial profiling is what you're doing. Thanks again Steve for presenting the truth for a change. Refreshing.

  • In reply to thyra84:

    Like (and I wish I could draw a thumbs ups)

  • In reply to thyra84:

    I would like to see some proof for your statement that "pit bull terriers are currently being used as military (...)" dogs. I very much doubt there are any in the United States, but people keep saying they're being used.

    For what it's worth, here's what the MWD program's requirements for dogs are: "The Department of Defense Military Working Dog School is
    looking for a few good dogs for duty with the Armed Forces
    and Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Specifically, we are looking for German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherds and Sporting Breeds, 12 to 36 months of age. Dogs do not have to be purebred; however, they must have the predominant characteristics of one of the breeds listed."

    (Sporting breeds are Labradors and similar retriever breeds, Springer Spaniels, Pointers, etc.)

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to dfdk9:

    In respoonse to military working dogs...there are a few - maybe not as many bully breeds as shepherds or labs - but a few. And they are mostly used for bomb detection.

    Here's one example.

    https://www.facebook.com/MilitaryWorkingDogs?v=feed&story_fbid=128518646780&ref=mf&filter=1

    Moto is part of the Black Jack Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

    "Meet Moto, a pitbull mix TEDD (Tactical Explosive Detection Dog) stationed here at FOB Airborne. These amazing dogs sniff out mines & other explosives. Moto's rank is SGT (Military Working Dogs are 1 rank higher than their human handlers) & he is eligible for awards & medals just like human soldiers.

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