Breed specific legislation, more commonly known as BSL, is a hot topic today with proponents on both sides. This particular proposed law targets a group of dogs referred to as “pit bulls”. In reality, there is no such breed. It is a label applied to a group of dogs exhibiting certain physical attributes and to whom a reputation has been applied for being “dangerous dogs”. Many deem “pit bulls” unstable and therefore hazardous to society at large, but there are equally as many people who stand up for “pit bull type dogs” claiming it is not the dog itself, but the manner in which is it is raised that determines the true nature. Such advocates believe that all dogs should be considered on a case by case basis as opposed to a blanket-style ban of all breeds who bear the distinguishing attributes of a “pit bull”.
With so many conflicting opinions, what is the truth?
What exactly is a pit bull?
Many breeds get lumped under the “pit bull” umbrella. The truth is that when dogs are brought into shelters, the staff there rarely have knowledge of what breeds were combined to produce the dog they are looking at. Because of this, they assign the dog a breed based on appearance alone. Of course, in mixed breed dogs, appearance can be very deceiving.
The media has also contributed to the problem with improper breed identification. Breeds who bear little physical resemblance to any type of “bully” breed often find themselves slapped with the “pit bull” moniker when they are involved in a dog fight or attack on a human. The dog may have no actual physical attributes to place him within this category, but because the media is quick to point fingers at “pit bull type dogs” whenever there is any type of unfortunate accident involving biting and dogs, this is a common occurrence. After all a pit bull attack is a sensational story that gets a lot of attention! It attracts a lot more viewers than a report regarding a German Shepherd Lab cross attacking and killing the neighbor’s cat.
While there is no one breed that is called a “pit bull”, there are several breeds that form the basis for this umbrella term. The two main breeds under the pit bull handle are the American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier. Both breeds are similar in many ways, sharing common bloodlines and a common history.
The American Kennel Club does not recognize the American Pit Bull Terrier as one of its registerable breeds. However, it does offer registration services for the American Staffordshire Terrier. The main difference between the two breeds is that the American Pit Bull Terrier is a much “gamer” dog than the American Staffordshire Terrier. Because both dogs were originally bred to fight other dogs in pits and both dogs belong to the terrier group, gameness was highly prized. After all, people put a lot of money behind these dogs and into the sport of dog fighting. Little tolerance was shown toward dogs who backed down when confronted or refused to fight. The American Pit Bull Terrier possessed this drive in greater quantities than the gentler American Staffordshire Terrier, also know as the “Amstaff”.
In physical appearance, these two breeds look virtually the same.
The American Kennel Club describes the ideal American Staffordshire Terrier in its breed standard in these terms:
“AmStaffs are stocky, muscular bull-type terriers standing 17 to 19 inches at the shoulder. The head is broad, the jaws well defined, the cheekbones pronounced, and the dark, round eyes are set wide apart. AmStaff movement is agile and graceful, with a springy gait that advertises the breed’s innate confidence. The stiff, glossy coat comes in many colors and patterns. AmStaffers describe their dogs as keenly aware of their surroundings, game for anything, and lovable “personality dogs” around the house.”
This description is often used to determine what breeds fall under the category of “pit bull”. If the dog in question has a blocky, broad head and a strong, stocky, muscular body, it becomes lumped in with the Amstaff and the American Pit Bull Terrier under the term “pit bull type dogs”. Among the breeds to whom this label would be applied are Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Dogue de Bordeaux, Dogo Argentinos, Cane Corsos, Bulldogs, Bullmastiffs, Boxers, Presa Canarios, Boerboels, and even Rhodesian Ridgebacks and Weimaraners! It is a broad grouping indeed, and in most cases, the only thing these dogs bear in common is one or two physical similarities, but even then, their qualities really aren’t alike at all.
What does the evidence say?
There is no doubt that pit bulls get a bad rap. A 2017 study of the entire United States showed that there were 39 deaths that were the result of dog attacks. According to the study, 74 percent of the dogs involved in the incidents were pit bull type dogs. However, it is important to note that several of the dogs lumped into this category are not bully breeds at all. Mastiffs, Rottweilers, and American Bulldogs, all distinctly different breeds, were included under the umbrella term. This, of course, skews the statistics.
Interestingly enough, pit bull type dogs do not get the highest billing on reports of which breeds are most likely to be involved in bite incidents or aggressive acts.
Here is the list based on statistics of bite incidents compiled by the American Temperament Test Society that details which breeds are most predisposed to aggressive behavior:
- Chow Chow
- Doberman Pinscher
- Jack Russell Terrier
- German Shepherd
- American Staffordshire Terrier/American Pit Bull Terrier
- Siberian Husky
The statistics don’t lie! You are far more likely to receive a bite from your neighbor’s Chihuahua than a pit bull. The difference is your neighbor’s Chihuahua does not have the strength of bite to do much damage. Because of their size and strength, a pit bull engaged in an attack can and will inflict far more harm than a smaller breed like a Dachshund or Jack Russell. Yet the propensity for an incident with a pit bull type breed scores far lower on the list. What does this tell us? Pit bull type dogs are less likely to be involved in bite incidents as compared to other types of dogs. They are simply reported more often because of the severity of injury when an attack does occur.
Nature versus nurture
We know that dogs are the product of genetics as well as their environment. When either of these components are less than ideal, serious problems can arise.
The American Staffordshire Terrier is considered to be well-suited to family living. They are loyal, affectionate dogs who are known for their playfulness and their gentleness with children. This is the polar opposite of what the media wants you to believe.
The truth is that most terriers were bred to a specific breed standard that required gameness for the dog to be able to do the job he was originally bred to do. Though obviously dog fighting is illegal and immoral, breeders still value high drive in their bully breeds because it is part of what makes them who they are. To remove this would change the dog into a shadow of its former self. Yet dogs with high prey drive often struggle to get along with other animals. This does not mean that it is impossible nor is it a predictor of the potential of human aggression. It is important note that a fighting dog had to be manhandled while in the pit. If that dog was to turn on the person who was there to assist with injuries or continue the fight, that dog was a danger and would be killed by the dog fighter. Human aggression was never tolerated.
Dog or small animal aggression was an entirely different matter. As with all breeds, socialization is key. If you raise these dogs with other animals, they are far more likely to learn to love to live with them. But dogs who lack this critical social commitment from their breeders or owners don’t have the fundamental education that they need to cohabit peacefully with other pets. This increases the likelihood of potential aggression against other animals. Care must then be put in place to ensure that the dog is properly contained at all times for the utmost in safety.
Again, this is not a trait specific just to pit bull type dogs. It is quite common in all breeds valued for their drive and gameness. These dogs are not for every dog owner. They require someone with experience, commitment, and strength to raise and train them properly.
Genetics plays a large role in dog breeding. Dogs that exhibit aggressive traits, regardless of breed, should never be bred. The world needs dogs with stable temperaments, especially when we are referring to power breeds. Dogs with sketchy personalities should never play a role in a breeding program. Unfortunately, many people are not so scrupulous in their breeding plans, and thus, the market becomes flooded with dogs that are potentially quite dangerous. These dogs, who are most often not purebred, are the ones that contribute to the bad reputation of the bully breeds as a whole and are the lifeblood behind the cry for a ban.
A number of myths continue to circulate about pit bull type dogs. One of the most common is that pit bulls have “locking jaws”. Research shows that the anatomy of the pit bull does not differ from any other canine breed. They do not possess locking jaws. They simply possess larger and more powerful jaws capable of inflicting more damage in a fight.
Studies show that in areas of the world where Breed Specific Legislation has been enacted that bite incidents have not been reduced at all. Breed bans are not the answer. They will not stop the breeding of pit bulls nor will they encourage correct ownership. They will simply force unscrupulous people underground.
Should pit bulls be banned? Likely not. The dog itself is not the problem. What we need is stricter legislation regarding ethical breeding, informed and honest reporting to provide us with correct statistics, and a commitment to raise and socialize well-bred pit bull type dogs properly.