October is Pit Bull Awareness Month, which is an opportunity to educate and advocate for these misunderstood dogs.
Pit bull type dogs have always been close to my heart, long before I had a pit bull of my own. I was in high school when the Michael Vick case hit the media, and I remember I had a large binder filled with news clippings and information on the case, as well as research about pit bulls, and a building passion. Since then, I’ve always wanted to be a voice for pit bulls, debunk the myths, and change minds.
In high school, someone very close to me said, “Even if you get a pit bull someday, who’s going to listen? Who’s going to really care?” I don't really know if anyone has ever listened, but I know that my pit bull changed the mind of my grandmother, and that's good enough for me.
For this blog post, I wanted to share some information and education about pit bulls, and some issues surrounding myths and misinformation.
1. The term "pit bull" can refer to American Pit Bull Terriers, or American Staffordshire Terriers, or Staffordshire Bull Terriers, or most commonly, mixes of those breeds plus Bulldogs, Boxers, etc. Most "pit bulls" are totally mixed breed dogs. When someone says "pit bull," it is usually just the type of dog, with characteristics of a blocky head, short hair, and muscles. For example, my dog Chester is a pit bull. But he is 20.9% Staffordshire Bull Terrier, 3.1% Rottweiler, 6.7% Boxer, 5.7% Bulldog, 4% Bull Terrier, 2.9% Boston Terrier, 2.5% French bulldog, and 54.2% of DNA they couldn't match to any one single breed - he is, for all intents and purposes, a mutt.
You may also hear pit bulls called bully breeds, blocky dogs, pitties, pibbles, house hippos, velvet hippos, and land seals. :)
2. Pit bulls generally fall under the Bull Dog genetic group (though there can be breeds mixed in from other groups too!). According to dog trainer, applied ethologist, and author Kim Brophey, dogs in the Bull Dog genetic group might have genetics from Guardian Dogs AND Terriers, which means they may have a muted predatory sequence from the Guardian side, OR more of a predatory sequence from the Terrier side. It can be a mix of very high tolerances and sociability, but the drive to engage completely once they do.
(on a related note, Kim Brophey's book Meet Your Dog and her L.E.G.S model are amazing!).
3. Pit bulls do NOT have locking jaws. Their jaws have the same mechanisms of any other dog.
4. Pit bulls do not have the strongest bite force of all breeds. This list ranks them at #19 for the strongest bite force, just a little more than a Labrador Retriever.
5. Pit bulls CAN feel pain. Just like any other dog or living being. They're not robots.
6. Yes, pit bull bites are most commonly in the news. But that's because pit bull bites are the most commonly reported and covered by the news. It's not often that anyone, especially the media, makes a big deal out of Fluffy the Poodle biting someone.
Also worth noting that often times, the media will say it was a pit bull, when in fact it was a Boxer, or a Bull Dog, or just a total mutt. But the media doesn't care what DNA might say - if it looks muscular and blocky, well, it must be another vicious pit bull. Which just further incites fear surrounding these dogs.
7. Yes, pit bulls are capable of harming other animals and humans. I will never deny that or not acknowledge that. BUT SO CAN ANY DOG. Does not matter the size, the breed, or the type of dog.
8. It is not all how they're raised. "Wait, what?!" This is a well-intended statement, to try to convince people that pit bulls aren't bad dogs if they are brought up as puppies in a loving home. But, genetics don't care how the dog was brought up. Of course environment IS also a factor, but genetics play a huge part. There is nurture, but there is also nature. You can raise a puppy of any breed from 8 weeks old, from a fantastic breeder, do everything right, and still end up with an aggressive dog. You can also adopt a pit bull (or any dog) that was used in a fighting ring, or as a bait dog, or lived on the streets, or used to be beaten, and it can still be a loving, loyal, companion with no aggression. Saying "it's all how they're raised" means well, but it's misguided, and actually hurts all the adult dogs waiting in shelters to be adopted.
9. Pit bulls do not suddenly "snap" and turn on their owners out of the blue. As with most any bite or aggression incident with any dog, there are triggers, and there are usually warning signs before the bite. True, some dogs' warning signs are very subtle and very quick, and sometimes not much at all (especially if the growl has been punished out of them), but they are there. Most people just don't pay attention, or know how to recognize the warnings, OR know to prevent the trigger in the first place.
10. Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and Breed Discrimination are still very real and very harmful. It makes it difficult for people to find rentals, to find home insurance, to live in certain cities, some cities require pit bulls to be muzzled in public, etc. Legislation created and enforced based solely on a dog's appearance is naive and outdated.
At the end of the day, all dogs are individuals.
There are so many factors that make up a dog's behavior, including environment, genetics, experiences, health, and more. Basing assumed aggression just on breed. guessed breeds, or even strictly on appearance alone, is not the best way to determine if a dog is or will be aggressive.
I have had to say a permanent goodbye to a foster dog for being very human-aggressive with other people (which is NOT normal), and he was a pit bull. I've personally been bitten by a mutt, an Australian Cattle Dog, a Shepherd mix, and a pit bull. When I was very young, our family had to rehome our Lab mix for biting my mom and other people. Our Sheltie/Shepherd/Chow mix once tried to bite my grandmother. I know people who have been bitten by a Chihuahua, a Dachshund, a Spinone Italiano, a German Shepherd, a Rottweiler, and mixed breeds.
One of the most dog-aggressive dogs I've met was a Golden Retriever, one of the most food aggressive dogs (toward humans) I've ever met was a Golden Retriever, and a Golden Retriever used to growl and chase me down the street on my bicycle as a kid. Does this lead me to believe that all Golden Retrievers are aggressive? Of course not. I know that's not true. And if someone tells me they have a Golden Retriever, I won't immediately bring up these bad experiences I've had with a few of them. I won't cross the street if a Golden Retriever is walking toward me on the sidewalk. But that's what people do when you say you have a pit bull. "Oh my cousin's brother's wife's uncle was bitten by a pit bull."
I encourage anyone who loves a pit bull type dog, a bully breed, or a dog that just looks like one to share their story, be good breed ambassadors, advocate, and educate. Sadly, a lot of people in this world still see them as a monsters. And the truth is, they’re not.
(And just throwing this out there - IF they were truly vicious, unpredictable killers, I definitely don't think they would be as popular and in as many homes as they are...).
Not everyone will listen and certainly not everyone will care, but if I can change just one person’s mind about these dogs, then I’ve been successful. If I can advocate and help change the lives of some of these dogs, then I'll have fulfilled my purpose.
Meet Your Dog by Kim Brophey