Elizabeth Tissot
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

At a meeting concerning Riverside County’s proposed new pit bull sterilization ordinance, discussed by Anna Bennett in this issue, many things were said about pit bulls: that pit bulls are “inherently vicious,” that owning a pit bull is “like playing Russian roulette with your life,” that pit bulls are “just different” than other dogs. Most of what was said is false. This piece serves to debunk some common myths about pit bulls.

 “A pit bull is…”

First, it’s important to understand that the term ‘pit bull’ doesn’t describe a single breed of dog. Depending on who you ask, it can refer to as many as five different breeds of dogs, and all mixes between these breeds. The term ‘pit bull’ most properly refers to two breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier. Some people also include the Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and American Bulldog in this group, because the breeds share some similar physical characteristics. A lot of people, however, are confused about just what physical characteristics a pit bull is supposed to have. Check out how well you can spot the pit bull here!

 “Pit bulls were bred to fight humans.”

Pit bulls were never bred to fight humans, though they were initially bred to fight bulls. The pit bull’s ancestors emerged in nineteenth century England, where they were forced to act as ‘bull baiters’. As bull baiters, these dogs were pitted against bulls and other large animals and expected to fight for their lives. When animal baiting was banned as inhumane, people began pitting the dogs against each other, creating the foundation for modern dog fighting. Desiring a more compact and tenacious dog, some dog fighters began to strategically breed their bulldogs with terriers. These dogs would go on to become the modern-day pit bull. Read more about the history of the pit bull here.

These dogs are called “bully breeds.” Doesn’t that mean they’re inherently mean?

No! This term has nothing to do with the behavior of dogs, but with their history. See the busted myth above for an explanation of how pit bulls and other “bully breeds” got their nickname.

“Pit bulls are inherently aggressive.”

Actually, there is evidence that pit bulls are less aggressive toward people than many other breeds. Tests conducted by the American Temperament Test Society show that pit bulls have a passing rate of 82 percent or better—compared to only 77 percent of the general dog population. According to the ASPCA, pit bulls were once considered especially non-aggressive toward people, and used to be used as “nanny dogs” to take care of young children (see below for more details). Furthermore, the United Kennel Club doesn’t recommend using pit bulls as guard dogs because they’re too friendly with strangers. Check out how your favorite breed measures up at ATTS.org

Human abuse, neglect, or error is responsible for most factors that contribute to a dog’s tendency toward aggression. The National Canine Research Council, for example, concluded that 68 percent of fatal dog bites in 2011 involved “resident” dogs, or dogs that are confined and isolated from regular human interactions. The status of another 13 percent of dogs was unknown.

Studies also show that unaltered (dogs that have not been spayed or neutered) dogs are more likely to exhibit aggression than spayed or neutered dogs. For example, in 2003 more than 70 percent of dog bite cases nvolved unneutered male dogs, who are 2.6 times more likely to bite than a neutered dog. In fact, 97 percent of dogs involved in fatal attacks on people in 2006 were not spayed or neutered (See more at the ASPCA).

What does all of this mean? That ultimately, the breed most responsible for dog aggression is human, not the pit bull.

“Pit bulls have locking jaws.”

Actually, no breed has been found to have a “locking jaw,” or a mechanism that allows them to “lock” their top and bottom jaws together. In proportion to their size, a pit bull’s jaw structure and its functional morphology is no different than that of any other breed of dog.  In fact, German Shepherds and Rottweilers have a much higher bite-pressure (registered in pounds-per-square-inch) than pit bulls.

“Pit bulls snap without warning.”

There are almost always discernable warning signs that a dog feels threatened in some way. Dogs are expressive animals and fortunately, their behavior in certain situations is predictable enough that we can learn to recognize and interpret it. Take a crash course on dog body language here.

“If I have children, I can’t adopt a pit bull.”

Actually, pit bulls have enjoyed a long history as America’s favorite family dog. In the early twentieth century, they were called “nanny dogs” because they were so reliable with young children. In fact, some people think that pit bulls are ideal pets for young children because they are less sensitive to the pain children may unintentionally inflict on them, and thus less likely than some other breeds to react negatively. However, despite their patient and loving nature, common sense dictates that children must be taught how to properly interact with dogs, and should not be left unsupervised with dogs of any breed. Click here to see pictures of pit bulls and children hanging out!

To sum it up: The new proposed Riverside County ordinance ignores the fact that each dog is an individual with a distinct set of needs. Check out these 17 pit bulls that prove breed-specific legislation doesn’t know what it’s talking about.