Pit bull myths ::
Pit bull owners, breeders and animal advocacy groups have created a slew of myths and distortions about the pit bull breed to fight breed-specific laws. Below are the top 10 myths.
Myth #1: It's the owner not the breed
The outdated debate, "It's the owner, not the breed," has caused the pit bull problem to grow into a 30-year old problem.1 Designed to protect pit bull breeders and owners, the slogan ignores the genetic history of the breed and blames these horrific maulings -- inflicted by the pit bull's genetic "hold and shake" bite style -- on environmental factors. While environment plays a role in a pit bull's behavior, it is genetics that leaves pit bull victims with permanent and disfiguring injuries.
The pit bull's genetic traits are not in dispute. Many appellate courts agree that pit bulls pose a significant danger to society and can be regulated accordingly. Some of the genetic traits courts have identified include: unpredictability of aggression, tenacity ("gameness" the refusal to give up a fight), high pain tolerance and the pit bull's "hold and shake" bite style.2 According to forensic medical studies, similar injuries have only been found elsewhere on victims of shark attacks.3
Perpetuators of this myth also cannot account for the many instances in which pit bull owners and family members are victimized by their pet dogs. From 2005 to 2012, pit bulls killed 151 Americans, about one citizen every 19 days. Of these deaths, 52% involved a family member and a household pit bull.4 Notably, in the first 8 months of 2011, nearly half of those killed by a pit bull was its owner. One victim was an "avid supporter" of Bad Rap, a recipient of Michael Vick's dogs.5
- 2012 Dog Bite Fatality: Pet Pit Bull Kills 74-Year Old Santa Fe Man
- 2011 Dog Bite Fatality: Pregnant Pacifica Woman Killed by Family Pit Bull
Myth #2: It's impossible to identify a pit bull
Pit bull advocates frequently claim that the average person cannot correctly identify a pit bull. As discussed in the Pit Bull FAQ, the pit bull is a class of dogs made up of several close dog breeds (See: What is a pit bull?). This false claim is designed to confuse the public just like the breed's history of changing names is intended to do (See: Disguise breed name). As recently told to us by a top U.S. animal control enforcement officer, "If it looks like a pit bull, it usually is."
Pit bull advocates have even created deceptive online tests (Find the Pit Bull) to further confuse the media, policymakers and the public. These tests are inaccurate and intentionally crafted to show that the average person cannot correctly identify a pit bull. DogsBite.org has created a more realistic test that shows a variety of popular dog breeds. Once one begins to understand the frame, posture and distinct head and jaw size of a pit bull, identification is immediate.
Can you identify the pit bull?
Pit bulls in the news
Given the enormous amount of press coverage of Michael Vick's pit bulls, television shows devoted to pit bulls, such as DogTown by National Geographic, Pit Bulls and Parolees and Pit Boss by Animal Planet, and the constant production of "positive pit bull" stories by the pit bull community, it seems unlikely that the average person cannot identify a pit bull. Pro-pit bull groups cannot on one hand parade such imagery and on the other say the public cannot identify a pit bull.
There are only two instances in which pit bulls are "misidentified," according to pit bull advocacy logic: after a serious or deadly attack or when a breed-specific law is being tested. On all other occasions, such as free spay-neuter services for pit bulls (backed by grants for free spay-neuter services for pit bulls), special adoption programs for pit bulls and national "reputation enhancement" campaigns for the breed, pit bulls and their mixes are 100% identifiable.
- Blogger Dissects Deceptive Online Pit Bull Identification Test, 'Find the Pit Bull'
- 2010 Dog Bite Fatality: 3-Year Old Mauled to Death by Pit Bull Type Dog in Ocala
Myth #3: Human-aggressive pit bulls were "culled"
Historically, it is believed that dogfighters removed human-aggressive pit bulls from the gene pool. "Man biters," as dogmen referred them, were "culled" to prevent dog handlers from suffering vicious bites. However, dogmen themselves and pedigrees show a different story. As far back as 1909, George Armitage shares a story in, "Thirty Years with Fighting Dogs." He describes Caire's Rowdy as not a mere man-biter, but as a "man-eater," the most dangerous biter of all.6
In more modern years, a substantial number of champion (CH), grand champion (GR CH) and register of merit (ROM) fighting dogs carry the title of a man-biter or a man-eater. These pit bulls were championship-breeding stock, whose famed owners never for a moment considered culling the dogs. Some of the most well known dogs include: Adams' GR CH Zebo, Indian Bolio ROM, Garner's CH Chinaman ROM, Gambler's GR CH Virgil and West's CH Spade (man-eater).7
In 1974, after a series of high profile news articles written by Wayne King and published by the New York Times, the image of the ferocious fighting pit bull moved from the shadowy world of dogmen into the mainstream. This period, between 1975 and 1979, is known as the "leakage period" when the breeding of pit bulls drastically increased through gang members and drug dealers, who wanted the "toughest dog" on the block, as well as by pet pit bull breeders.8
While some dogmen of the past may have culled human-aggressive dogs to keep their stock free of man-biters, once the leakage period began, there is no evidence that similar selective pressures were maintained.9 As early as 1980, pit bull attacks begin headlining newspapers, "Another Pit Bull Attack Reported; Boy, 8 Slashed (1980)," as well as reports of pit bull owners trying to bolster the breed's "deteriorating" public image, "Pit Bull Attacks As Owners Fight Image (1980)."
- Pit Bulls Lead 'Bite' Counts Across U.S. Cities and Counties
- 1909 Dog Bite Fatality: John P. Colby's Fighting Pit Bull Kills Nephew
Myth #4: Fatal attack statistics about pit bulls are false
Pro-pit bull groups argue that the 20-year fatal dog attack study (from 1979 to 1998) issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2000 is inaccurate because the study relied "in part" on newspaper articles. Pit bull advocates say that pit bull fatalities are more extensively reported by the media, therefore the authors of the study (most holding PhD credentials) must have "miscounted" or "double counted" the number of pit bull fatalities.10
As stated in the CDC report, the authors collected data from media accounts as well as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) registry of fatal attacks. Also, all five authors, Jeffrey Sacks, Leslie Sinclair, Julie Gilchrist, Gail Golab and Randall Lockwood, openly oppose breed-specific laws. This bias is clearly reflected in the CDC report as well.11 If discrepancies were made in the report, it seems more likely that fatal pit bull attacks were underreported not over reported.
- Animal People Editor Responds to Fact Cooker Article by Mark Robison
- Who Authored the CDC Fatal Dog Attack Report (1979 to 1998)?
Myth #5: The media conspiracy against pit bulls
Pit bulls have the highest propensity and frequency of any dog breed to be involved in a severe mauling. Media members understand this and are quick to report such attacks. The reason why "Child Suffers Dog Bite" does not dominate dog attack news headlines is due to the lower degree of injury inflicted. In 2012, the death of 2-day old Howard Nicholson Jr., who was killed by the family's newly adopted husky, captured over 200,000 news headlines and web page results.12
Recently, a writer from British Columbia commented on the "media conspiracy" claim voiced by pit bull advocacy groups. In a charming, yet biting piece titled, "Belligerent Bassets?" writer Andrew Holota, points out the ridiculous nature of this claim:
"Yessir, there are oodles of poodles popped by cops all the time, and the press does not report it.
And attacks by psychotic shih tzus? Covered up. Muzzled, so to speak.
Children savaged by Scottish terriers? Quashed. Hushed puppies, if you will. Oh yes, the conspiracy runs deep indeed."13
What is true is that there is an absence of media regarding the collective damage inflicted by the pit bull breed since the early 1980s. In a recent 8-year period, from 2005 to 2012, pit bulls killed 151 Americans, about one citizen every 19 days.14 By 2016, pit bulls are projected to maul 275 Americans to death since 1998, the year the CDC stopped tracking fatal dog attacks by dog breed, and over 350 people since 1980.15 Major news agencies are AWOL on these important issues.
- Editorial: Deflating the 'Media Conspiracy' Fueled by Pit Bull Groups
- I'm Tired of 'Pit Bulls Before People,' A Response to Carrie Pollare
Myth #6: Pit bulls are not unpredictable
Despite pro-pit bull claims that pit bulls are not unpredictable, the breed frequently attacks without provocation or warning. It is well documented by humane groups that to excel in dogfighting, pit bulls were selectively bred to conceal warning signals prior to an attack. For instance, a pit bull may not growl, bare its teeth or offer a direct stare before it strikes. Unlike all other dog breeds, pit bulls are also disrespectful of traditional signs of submission and appeasement.16
According to expert Randall Lockwood, pit bulls are also liars. In a 2004 law enforcement training video, taped when Lockwood was vice president for research and educational outreach for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), he shares the following story:
"Fighting dogs lie all the time. I experienced it first hand when I was investigating three pit bulls that killed a little boy in Georgia. When I went up to do an initial evaluation of the dog's behavior, the dog came up to the front of the fence, gave me a nice little tail wag and a "play bow" -- a little solicitation, a little greeting. As I got closer, he lunged for my face."17
If a pit bull can fool an expert such as Lockwood, how can the average citizen anticipate a pit bull's future action? In a separate example, animal behavioral expert Peter Borchelt was sued after the pit bull he was training for a client "suddenly" attacked an ex-fireman. After encountering Gabriel Febbraio on the street and assuring him that the pit bull was friendly, the dog broke free from Borchelt and attacked Febbraio in the groin. The jury awarded Febbraio $1 million dollars.18
- 2013 Dog Bite Fatality: Fulton County Infant Killed by Family Pit Bull
- ASPCA Euthanizes 'Unpredictable' Pit Bull After Rehabilitation Fails
Myth #7: Pit bulls do not have a locking jaw
Pro-pit bull groups continuously attempt to debunk the pit bull "locking jaw" expression that is often used by the media and the public. A pit bull's jaw may not physically lock, but due to selective breeding for a specific bite style -- to hold on and to shake indefinitely -- we consistently hear in news reports that the dog "would not let go." DogsBite.org has recorded numerous tools used to try to get a pit bull to release its grip including: shotguns, hammers, baseball bats and pipes.
Learn more in our Pit Bull FAQ: Why do people say that pit bulls "don't let go?"
- Zupf Tackles the "Pit Bull Locking Jaw" Bite Style
- Crow Bar Used to Unlock Pit Bull's Jaws Engaged in Fight
Myth #8: Pit bulls used to be the most popular dog in America
Pit bull advocates often claim that by World War I, the pit bull had become the "most popular dog in America." A source is never cited with this claim. In 2006, the publication Animal People tested this claim. By searching the classified dogs-for-sale ads between 1900 to 1950 on NewspaperArchive.com, the group discovered that huskies and St. Bernards were the most popular dogs of that period. Of the 34 breeds searched, pit bulls ranked 25th.
Due to the different names that pit bulls are known by, Animal People ran searches on three names: pit bull terrier, Staffordshire, and American bulldog. As the group states, "The exercise was skewed toward finding more pit bulls rather than fewer, since multiple searches were run to try to find pit bulls under a variety of different names." The combined sum of these three breeds came to 34,770; 1% of the sampling of nearly 3.5 million breed-specific mentions of dogs.19
- 1911 Pit Bull Terrier Depicted as ‘Outcast American’ to Victimize the Breed
- ASPCA Perpetuates Myth that Pit Bulls Were Once a Popular Family Dog
Myth #9: Pit bulls pass the American Temperament Test
In 1977, Alfons Ertel designed the American Temperament Test in hopes of creating a uniform temperament test for dogs. Of the 75 million dogs that populate the U.S. today,20 about 933 are tested per year (0.001% of all dogs). The temperament data published by the group is not based upon scientific random sampling of any dog breed. It seems it would be virtually impossible to develop such a reliable study, as the base population source group is unidentifiable.
Due to the temperament data being objectively statistically unreliable, it is also highly misleading. Pit bull advocates frequently use this misleading data to point to the breed's good temperament and to advocate against breed-specific laws ("Pit bulls pass the ATTS test more often than beagles!"). Yet anyone one who has a minimal understanding of critical statistical analysis should be able to see that the ATTS "breed statistics" temperament data21 is essentially valueless.
The 12-minute test stimulates a casual walk through a park with a range of encounters. The test focuses on stability, shyness, aggressiveness and a few other factors. According to the group, the overall pass rate (the combination of all breeds) is 81.6%.22 Unlike the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test, no part of the ATTS test is performed without the dog owner present. It also fails to evaluate the most basic scenario that leads to aggression: How a dog reacts when it sees another dog.
- Blog Dispels 'ATTS' Myth Used as Arsenal by Pit Bull Advocates
- Week of Escalating Violent Attacks by Rescued and Adopted Pit Bulls
Myth #10: Punish the deed not the breed
The slogan often voiced by pit bull advocates, "Punish the deed not the breed," works to the benefit of pit bull breeders and owners who accept the large collateral damage the breed inflicts upon the public and has been for the last 30-years. The slogan also accepts that a "new victim" must be created prior to punishment. The goal of breed-specific laws is to prevent the deed, as civil and criminal recourse for victims after the deed may be impossible to achieve.
Parts of a recent email sent to DogsBite.org outlines this reality clearly:
"She nearly lost her left arm in that attack and since then has piled up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. She has brought a lawsuit against the dog's owner. He had no liability insurance and has since moved out of the neighborhood. The main witness also has moved.
This woman and her family basically have no recourse. The lawsuit is fine but who knows if they will ever get a penny out of it.
I'm assuming this is a fairly common occurrence that you folks know about all too well."
Much like the outdated myth #1, "It's the owner not the breed," this last myth lies at the heart of archaic and insufficient U.S. dog policy. The modern answer to this final myth is to develop policies that prevent future victims from being created. Waiting until after a treacherous pit bull bite is too late. As former Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon states in a WTOL-TV interview about this issue, "there is no deep pocket to put these kids back together again" after a serious mauling.23
Prevent the deed, regulate the breed!
- U.S. Marine Corps Bans Pit Bulls and Other Breeds; Policy Affects All...
- U.S. Army Adopts Breed Restriction Policy for RCI Privatized Housing
If one peers more closely into mauling threads -- a comment thread following a serious or deadly pit bull mauling -- and writings dispersed by national animal organizations and the pit bull community, one can find many more myths about pit bulls. Two excellent resources to learn the truth behind these myths, some of which are reckless in nature, include the Maul Talk Manual and The Truth About Pit Bulls websites. We've listed several key themes to help readers get started.
Maul Talk Manual:
The Truth About Pit Bulls:
- Pit Bulls -- Family Pets and Fierce Fighters, by Tom Greely, Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1982.
- One City's Experience, by Kory A. Nelson, Senior City Attorney for the City of Denver, Municipal Lawyer, July/August 2005.
- Pit Bull Attack: Case Report and Literature Review, by Steven F. Vegas, MD, Jason H. Calhoun, MD, M. Eng., John Mader, MD, Texas Medicine Vol. 84, November 1988.
- 2012 U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Statistics - DogsBite.org, by DogsBite.org, January 11, 2013.
- Pit bull kills pregnant Calif. woman, UPI.com, August 15, 2011.
- Thirty Years with Dog Fighting, by George C. Armitage, Jack Jones, 1935.
- Dogmen Conversations About Man-Biters and Man-Eaters, by DogsBite.org (a compilation of various Internet dogfighting forum board conversations).
- Fighting Dogs' Attacks Raise Alarm on Coast, by Wayne King, New York Times, February 12, 1982.
- The Ethology and Epidemiology of Canine Aggression, by Randall Lockwood, The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour, and Interactions with People, edited by James Serpell, Cambridge University Press, 1995; republished in Animal Law and Dog Behavior, Ed. David Favre and Peter L. Borchelt, PhD, 1999.
- Profiling Two Sides of the Issue, edited by Bernard E. Rollin, Phd, contributions by Alan M. Beck, Sc.D. and Ledy VanKavage, Esq, Veterinary Forum, January, 2007.
- Viewpoint: The CDC Fatal Dog Attack Report Issued in 2000 Was Positively Biased, by DogsBite.org, January 2010.
- The Google search was performed in January 2013, nearly one year after the infant's death: mckeesport husky baby death.
- Column: Today, pit bulls, tomorrow the world, by Andrew Holota, SurreyLeader.com, August 20, 2009.
- 2012 U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Statistics - DogsBite.org, by DogsBite.org, January 1, 2013.
- Fatal Pit Bull Attacks - The Archival Record, Fatalpitbullattacks.com, January 2013.
- Dog Bite Prevention for Law Enforcement and Other First Responders, by Randall Lockwood, PhD, Tawzer Dog Videos, 2004 (View partial transcript).
- Dog Bite Prevention for Law Enforcement and Other First Responders, by Randall Lockwood, PhD, Tawzer Dog Videos, 2004 (View partial transcript).
- Pit Bull's Nip Nets Man $1M, by Owen Moritz, New York Daily News, December 17, 2000.
- How popular were pit bulls once upon a time?, by Merritt Clifton, Animal People, March 2006.
- 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey, American Pet Products Association (APPA).
- ATTS Breed Statistics as of December 2008, by atts.org.
- About the ATTS as of January 19, 2010, by atts.org.
- Tom Skeldon, the "Biased" Blade and Recent Ruling Halting Enforcement of Toledo Pit Bull Laws, by DogsBite.org, February 2010.