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The outdated debate, "It's the owner, not the breed," has caused the pit bull violence problem to grow into a 40-year old societal problem.1 Designed to protect pit bull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.2

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.3 According to scientific forensic medical studies, similar injuries have only been found elsewhere on victims of shark attacks.4

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 2019, pit bulls killed 346 Americans, about one citizen every 16 days. Of these deaths, 53% involved a family member and a household pit bull.5 Notably, during 2018, nearly one-third, 27%, of individuals killed by a pit bull was its owner. One female victim had rescued the “death row” pit bull from an out-of-state shelter two weeks earlier.6

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 and officials just like the breed's history of multiple 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.7 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 of this bull breed 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 press coverage of Michael Vick's pit bulls, television shows devoted to pit bulls, such as Pit Bulls and Parolees, which finally ended in 2022 after 19 seasons, years of Cesar Millan’s celebrity pit bulls, "Daddy" and "Junior," 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 legally challenged. On all other occasions, such as dedicated free spay-neuter and microchipping services for pit bulls, aggressive adoption programs for pit bulls, free training services for pit bulls, and million dollar "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 allegedly "culled" to prevent dog handlers from suffering vicious bites. However, dogmen themselves and game dog 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.8

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 and bloodlines 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).9

In 1974, after a series of high profile news articles written by Wayne King and published by the New York Times, the spectacle 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 pit bull fanciers, who were breeding the dogs as pets.10

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.11 As early as 1980, pit bull maulings garnered national headlines, "Another Pit Bull Attack Reported; Boy, 8 Slashed (1980)," as well as reports of pit bull owners trying to bolster the breed's already "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 (1979 to 1998), co-authored by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and published in 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 must have "miscounted" or "double counted" the number of pit bull fatalities.12

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 of the study's authors -- Jeffrey Sacks, Leslie Sinclair, Julie Gilchrist, Gail Golab and Randall Lockwood -- openly oppose breed-specific legislation. This bias is clearly reflected in the joint CDC report.13 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 public pound, captured over 16,500 news headlines and web page results.14

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. “Well there, it’s out of the bag now,” he states. “The great, grand conspiracy of the media to destroy the fine upstanding reputation of pit bulls, by only reporting on attacks by this particular breed,” he states.

"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."15

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 15-year period from 2005 to 2019, pit bulls killed 346 Americans, about one citizen every 16 days.16 By 2025, the pit bull death toll is projected to reach 576 Americans since 1998, the year the CDC stopped tracking fatal dog attacks by breed, and over 665 Americans since 1980.17 Major news organizations 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. Researchers have documented that pit bulls have an increased capacity to engage in "surprise attacks" due to selective pressures that suppress or eliminate communication of aggressive intent. For instance, a pit bull may not growl, bare its teeth or offer a direct stare prior to an attack. Once initiated, attacks are often not ended by the display of submission or appeasement.18

In the ASPCA brief, Dr. Randall Lockwood -- a Senior Vice-President of the ASPCA, is cited as an expert. Despite Dr. Lockwood’s current potential hesitancy to bite the hand that feeds him, prior to his association with the ASPCA Dr. Lockwood’s writings were probably less subject to bias. In 1995, his opinion was that pit bulls had been selectively bred for the increased capacity to engage in surprise attacks upon their victims, stating the following:

"In addition to a lowered threshold for attack and higher pain thresholds in many fighting animals, selection for fighting has apparently resulted in the disruption of normal communication in individuals from recent fighting lineage. Under natural conditions, the aggression of wild canids is held in check by a detailed set of postural and facial signals that clearly indicate mood and intent (Fox, 1971a; Schenkel, 1967) ... Dogs from fighting lineages have been under selective pressures that suppress or eliminate accurate communication of aggressive motivation or intent. It is to a fighting dog’s advantage for its attack to be unexpected. Many accounts of such attacks on people note that the incident occurred ‘without warning’. Similarly, once initiated, such attacks are often not ended by the withdrawal of the opponent or the display of species-typical submissive behavior. Combat involving fighting dogs can continue for several hours and separation of the animals may require the use of a ‘parting stick’ to physically pry the animals apart.”19,20 - Brief of Amicus Curiae Dogsbite.Org in Support of Appellees, Tracey v. Solesky (2011)

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 misused 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: crowbars, hammers, baseball bats, shovels, and knives.

Experts have defined this unique characteristic of pit bulls as lacking an appropriate "cut-off" behavior that may require the use of a ‘parting stick’ to physically pry two fighting pit bulls apart, or to pry a pit bull's jaws from its victim.21 Other dog breeds “bite and release.” Pit bulls will repeatedly attack in an escalating manner, inflicting multiple bites in multiple anatomical regions, which is why this dog breed shows up so disproportionately in studies and reports about fatal and severe nonfatal attacks.22

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 the ancestry website, 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 a modest 25th.

Due to the different breed names that pit bulls are known by, Animal People ran searches on three breed names: pit bull terrier, Staffordshire, and American bulldog. As the organization 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.23

"Dead Game Pit Bulls"

Leading into World War I, The Dog Fancier magazine, circa 1911-1918, routinely advertised pit bulls as "game fighting" dogs, and "dead game pit bulls," not family dogs.24-25 Fighting dog breeder Chas. Werner even termed the dogs "Outcast American," to victimize the "much feared pit bull," due to the breed's widely recognized reputation of being violent. Werner pleaded in a 1911 editorial to: "eradicate the evil of prejudices caused by the impression that the pit bull terrier is a fighting dog only."26

Joseph Colby, whose father popularized selling fighting pit bulls to the public, remarked in 1936: "From the start the breed earned an unjust reputation due to his fighting ability and the character of the owner. To this day he is still trying to live down an unjust and undeserved reputation ... The general public is under the impression that this breed is carnivorous, vicious ... would devour a human being."27 By World War I, the public's perception of pit bulls was chiefly violence and needing regulation.28-29

Myth #9: Pit bulls pass the American Temperament Test

In 1977, Alfons Ertel designed the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS) test in hopes of creating a uniform temperament test for dogs. Of the 83.7 million dogs that are estimated to populate the U.S. today,30 3,506 are tested per year (0.004% of all dogs).31 The temperament data published by this dog 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 American Temperament Test Society 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 and pugs!"). 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.32-33

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%.34 Unlike the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test, no part of the ATTS test is performed without the dog owner present. The test 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 our pets. The slogan also accepts that a "new victim" must be created prior to penalty. 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 an email sent to us 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 studies35,36 involved pit bulls. If a ban "can prevent one death or one tragic injury," it would be worth it, Golinko said.

  1. Pit Bulls -- Family Pets and Fierce Fighters, by Tom Greely, Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1982.
  2. Excerpts: Dog Bite Prevention for Law Enforcement and Other First Responders, by Randall Lockwood, PhD, Tawzer Dog Videos, (Disk 1) 2004 (tawzerdog.com)
  3. One City's Experience: Why Pit Bulls are More Dangerous and Breed-Specific Legislation in Justified, by Kory A. Nelson, Senior City Attorney for the City of Denver, Municipal Lawyer, July/August 2005.
  4. 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.
  5. 2019 U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Statistics - DogsBite.org, by DogsBite.org, July, 2020.
  6. I-Team traces unknown history of dog that killed Columbia woman, by Deborah Weiner, WBAL-TV, November 20, 2018 (wbaltv.com)
  7. 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.
  8. Thirty Years with Dog Fighting, by George C. Armitage, Jack Jones, 1935. Chapter: The Battle Between Parren's Pat and Caire's Rowdy
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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, 133, 1995; republished in Animal Law and Dog Behavior, Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, by David Favre and Peter L. Borchelt, PhD, 1999; heavily revised in the 2nd Edition, The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour, and Interactions with People 2nd Edition, edited by James Serpell, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. The Google Search was performed in April 2018, 2.5 years after the man's death: Anthony Riggs rottweiler.
  15. Column: Today, pit bulls, tomorrow the world, by Andrew Holota, SurreyLeader.com, August 20, 2009 (bclocalnews.com)
  16. 2019 U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Statistics - DogsBite.org, by DogsBite.org, July, 2020.
  17. Fatal Pit Bull Attacks - The Archival Record, Fatalpitbullattacks.com, May 2024.
  18. Lockwood, Excerpts: Dog Bite Prevention, (Disk 2) 2004.
  19. Brief of Amicus Curiae DogsBite.org in Support of Appellees, Court of Appeals of Maryland, Docket No. 53, October 2011.
  20. Lockwood, The Ethology and Epidemiology, 133, 1995.
  21. ibid 133.
  22. Comments of DogsBite.org, Incorporated, Traveling by Air with Service Animals, April 5, 2020 (Docket No. DOT-OST-2018-0068, ID: DOT-OST-2018-0068-18935)
  23. How popular were pit bulls once upon a time?, by Merritt Clifton, Animal People, March 2006 (animalpeople.org)
  24. The Dog Fancier, Vol 20, edited by Eugene Glass, Battle Creek, MI, January 1911
  25. The Dog Fancier, Vol 27-28, edited by Eugene Glass, Battle Creek, MI, April 1918
  26. The Dog Fancier, Vol 20, 1911;15
  27. The American Pit Bull Terrier, by Joseph L. Colby, The News Publishing Co., Sacramento, CA, 1936; 11-16 (books.google.co)
  28. Written Testimony by DogsBite.org: Historical Baltimore Pit Bull Maulings - 1844-1922, Judicial Proceedings Committee, Maryland Senate, February 6, 2014 (dogsbite.org)
  29. A sampling of turn of 20th Century breed-specific pit bull ordinances, Fatal Pit Bull Attacks (fatalpitbullattacks.com) | 1896 Breed-Specific ‘Pit’ Bulldog Ordinance, Sacramento, CA; 1900: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Butte, MT; 1904: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Ordinance, Savannah, Georgia; 1904: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Charlotte, NC; 1904: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Richmond VA; 1905: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Ordinance, Lumberton, NC; 1905: Syracuse University Bans ‘Pit’ Bulldogs from Campus; 1906: University of Illinois Bans ‘Pit’ Bulldogs from Campus and Urges Urbana and Champaign to Pass Ordinances Banning the Breed; 1906: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Danville, VA; 1907: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Gastonia, NC; 1907: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Gainesville FL; 1908: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Tampa, FL; 1908: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Statesville, NC; 1909: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Hopkinsville, KY; 1909: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Walkerville, MT; 1911: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Ogden, UT; 1912: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, North Platte, NE; 1912: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Chicago, IL; 1912: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Muzzle Ordinance, Maysville, KY; 1917: ‘Pit’ Bulldog Tax, Lumberton, NC.
  30. Pet population still on the rise, with fewer pets per household, by the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2020 estimated 83.7 million dogs (Accessed: May 2, 2024) (avma.org)
  31. According to their website, between 1977 and 2012, 1,272 dogs were tested. As of January 2023, a total of 36,333 dogs were tested. Thus, between 2013 and January 2023, 35,061 dogs were tested. Over the 10-year period of (2013 through 2022), about 3,506 dogs, on average, were tested each year. American Temperament Test Society (Accessed: May 2, 2024) (atts.org).
  32. The Pit Bull Hoax: The ATTS, by The Truth About Pit Bulls, January 1, 2011 (Accessed: June 8, 2024) (thetruthaboutpitbulls.blogspot.com)
  33. Misunderstood Nanny Dogs: A Critical and Objective Analysis of the Facts and Myths Concerning Pit Bulls, by J. Thomas Beasley, Second Edition, 2018, Kindle Direct Publishing, North Charleston, SC, 63.
  34. Overall past rate as of January 2023, American Temperament Test Society (Accessed: Accessed: May 2, 2024) (atts.org)
  35. Characteristics of Dog Bites in Arkansas, by Smith AM, Carlson J, Bartels AB, McLeod CB, Golinko MS, South Med J, 2018 Aug;111(8):494-500.
  36. 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].