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The outdated debate, "It's the owner, not the breed," has caused the pit bull problem to grow into a 35-year old problem.1 Designed to protect pit bull breeders and owners,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

Purveyors of this myth also cannot account for the many instances in which pit bull owners and their family members are victimized by their pet dogs. From 2005 to 2020, pit bulls killed 380 Americans, about one citizen every 15 days. Of these deaths, 53% 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 BadRap, a recipient of Michael Vick's dogs.5

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 was 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.6 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 shape and jaw size of a pit bull, identification is immediate.

Can you identify the pit bull?

Rottweiler Golden retriever English bulldog Boxer
Bullmastiff German shepherd Labrador Great dane
Pit bull Beagle Australian cattle dog Doberman

Pit bulls in the news

Given the staggering amount of press coverage of Michael Vick's pit bulls, television shows devoted to pit bulls, such as Pit Bulls and Parolees, now in its tenth season, Cesar Millan's Dog Nation, co-branded with a pit bull, and the constant production of "positive pit bull" campaigns on the Internet, 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 challenged. On all other occasions, like free spay-neuter services for pit bulls (backed by grants for free spay-neuter services for pit bulls), aggressive adoption programs for pit bulls and national "socialization" training grants to improve the breed's reputation, pit bulls and their mixes are 100% identifiable.

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.7

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).8

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.9

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.10 As early as 1980, pit bull attacks garnered headlines, "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)."

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 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.11

As stated in the special report, the authors collected data from media accounts and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) registry of fatal dog attacks. Also, all five authors, Jeffrey Sacks, Leslie Sinclair, Julie Gilchrist, Gail Golab and Randall Lockwood, openly oppose breed-specific legislation. This bias is clearly reflected in the CDC report.12 If discrepancies were made in the report, it seems more likely that fatal pit bull attacks were underreported not over reported.

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 2015, the death of Anthony Riggs, who was killed by a rottweiler he adopted a few hours earlier from a shelter, captured over 16,500 news headlines and web page results.13

In 2009, a writer from the British Columbia publication, Surrey Leader, 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."14

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 16-year period from 2005 to 2020, pit bulls killed 380 Americans, about one citizen every 15 days.15 By 2025, the pit bull death toll is projected to reach 555 Americans since 1998, the year the CDC stopped tracking fatal dog attacks by breed, and over 630 Americans since 1980.16 Major news agencies are silent on this collective damage.

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 (fighting dogs) are also disrespectful of traditional signs of submission and appeasement.17

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."18

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.19

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 jaws including: crow bars, hammers, baseball bats and knives.

Learn more in our Pit Bull FAQ: Why do people say that pit bulls "don't let go?"

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 March 2006, the publication Animal People tested this claim. By searching the classified dogs-for-sale ads from 1900 to 1950 on NewspaperArchive.com, the organization discovered that huskies and St. Bernards were the most popular dog breeds of that period. Of the 34 dog breeds searched, pit bulls ranked 25th.

Due to the different names that pit bulls are known by, Animal People ran searches on three breed 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 breed names came to 34,770; 1% of the sampling of nearly 3.5 million breed-specific mentions of dogs.20

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 77 million plus dogs that populate the U.S. today,21 6,670 are tested per year (0.008% of all dogs).22 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 who has a minimal understanding of critical statistical analysis should be able to see that the ATTS "breed statistics" temperament data 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 84%.23 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.

For more information regarding the unreliability of all temperament testing, please see: Behavior Testing Shelter Dogs -- A Summary of Where We Are Now by animal behaviorist and author Alexandra Semyonova (2016) and our section for Dog Behavior Studies.

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 40 years. The slogan also accepts that a "new victim" must be created prior to punishment. The goal of breed-specific legislation is to prevent the deed, as civil and criminal recourse for dog attack victims after the deed is often impossible to obtain.

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. As Dr. Michael Golinko told the The Fifth Estate in 2017, "one half" of the cases that required surgery in his large-scale pediatric dog bite studies24,25 involved pit bulls. If a ban "can prevent one death or one tragic injury," it would be worth it, he said.

  1. Pit Bulls -- Family Pets and Fierce Fighters, by Tom Greely, Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1982.
  2. One City's Experience, by Kory A. Nelson, Senior City Attorney for the City of Denver, Municipal Lawyer, July/August 2005.
  3. 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.
  4. 2020 U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Statistics - DogsBite.org, by DogsBite.org, June 1, 2021.
  5. Pit bull mauling of pregnant Pacifica woman remains a mystery, by Joshua Melvin and Lisa Fernandez, San Jose Mercury News, August 12, 2011 (mercurynews.com)
  6. Over the years, multiple online deceptive tests have been devised by pit bull advocates. The main two websites, Pick the Pit and Find the Pit Bull only exist in Internet archives now. Today the goal post has moved even further and with deeper deception, such as: Find the Pit Bull Mix.
  7. Thirty Years with Dog Fighting, by George C. Armitage, Jack Jones, 1935. Chapter: The Battle Between Parren's Pat and Caire's Rowdy
  8. Dogmen Conversations About Man-Biters and Man-Eaters, by DogsBite.org (a compilation of various Internet dogfighting forum board conversations). Also, see a June 2015 blog post about GR CH Zebo who had a Hercules-sized man biter reputation.
  9. Fighting Dogs' Attacks Raise Alarm on Coast, by Wayne King, New York Times, February 12, 1982 (nytimes.com)
    1. Dogfighting, Illegal, Brutal, Growing, by Wayne King, Special to The New York Times, August 15, 1974.
    2. Law Officers Are Found to Be Usually Unaware of Dogfighting, by Wayne King, The New York Times, August 29, 1974.
    3. Congress Plans Hearings on Dogfighting, by Wayne King, The New York Times, September 3, 1974.
    4. Texas a Major U.S. Center for Illegal Dogfighting and Gambling, The New York Times, September 16, 1974.
    5. A Federal Law to Curb Dogfighting Is Urged at a Congressional Hearing, by Wayne King, Special to The New York Times, September 30, 1974.
    6. Magazine on Breeding and Matching of Pit Dogs Under Inquiry, by Wayne King, Special to The New York Times, October 2, 1974.
    7. Three Illinois Men Charged in Inquiry on Illegal Dogfights, by Wayne King, Special to The New York Times, December 12, 1974.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Please see our joint statement with Daxton's Friends for Canine Education and Awareness issued on July 24, 2014 and and our key correspondence document with CDC (DogsBite.org Remedy Document) that explains these biases. Previous to this, in January 2010, we also released: Viewpoint: The CDC Fatal Dog Attack Report Issued in 2000 Was Positively Biased, by DogsBite.org.
  13. The Google Search was performed in April 2018, 2.5 years after the man's death: Anthony Riggs rottweiler.
  14. Column: Today, pit bulls, tomorrow the world, by Andrew Holota, SurreyLeader.com, August 20, 2009 (bclocalnews.com)
  15. 2020 U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Statistics - DogsBite.org, by DogsBite.org, June 1, 2021.
  16. Fatal Pit Bull Attacks - The Archival Record, Fatalpitbullattacks.com, June 2021.
  17. Dog Bite Prevention for Law Enforcement and Other First Responders, by Randall Lockwood, PhD, Tawzer Dog Videos, 2004 (tawzerdog.com)
  18. Dog Bite Prevention for Law Enforcement and Other First Responders, by Randall Lockwood, PhD, Tawzer Dog Videos, 2004 (tawzerdog.com)
  19. Pit Bull's Nip Nets Man $1M, by Owen Moritz, New York Daily News, December 17, 2000 (nydailynews.com)
  20. How popular were pit bulls once upon a time?, by Merritt Clifton, Animal People, March 2006 (animalpeople.org)
  21. Fuzzy statistics: How many of us have pets?, by Karin Brulliard and Scott Clement, The Washington Post, February 22, 2019 (columbian.com) is based upon the 2017-2018 edition of the Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook by the American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org). The 2018/2019 survey by the American Pet Products Association (APPA) estimates the total U.S. dog population to be 90 million (Accessed: April 18, 2018) (americanpetproducts.org)
  22. According to their website, between 2012 (1,272 tested) and December 2017 (34,686 tested), about 6,670 dogs were tested on average each year (2013 through 2017). American Temperament Test Society (Accessed: August 30, 2019) (atts.org).
  23. Overall past rate as of December 2017, American Temperament Test Society (Accessed: August 30, 2019) (atts.org)
  24. Characteristics of Dog Bites in Arkansas, by Smith AM, Carlson J, Bartels AB, McLeod CB and Golinko MS, South Med J, 2018 Aug;111(8):494-500.
  25. Characteristics of 1616 Consecutive Dog Bite Injuries at a Single Institution, by Golinko MS, Arslanian B, Williams JK, Clinical Pediatrics (Phila), April 2017;56:316–325 [July 2016, Epub].