More than a decade ago, I was at a community adoption event with homeless animals, including a litter of puppies. Puppies generally attract a lot of attention, so taking them out into the community is a great way to get them into homes. I was carrying one of the puppies when a boy came up to me, his grandmother in tow. I could see the boy coming from a distance and he had clearly set eyes on the puppy he was carrying and was heading straight for us. When he was close enough to start petting the puppy, his grandmother asked, “What kind of dog is that?” I replied, “She’s a mixed breed puppy, maybe a pit bull type dog.” The grandmother immediately pushed the child away. Despite the boy’s protests, they turned and walked away. He was as if he was holding an alligator, a bear or a wild animal. I was not I was holding a 4 month old puppy. But, he had said a word that makes many respond the same way Grandma did: “pit bull.” As they walked away, I thought about how much fear and hatred the woman had for a puppy and how she would probably teach the child that. That’s when I knew that she not only needed to advocate for all animals, but specifically help everyone who looked like the pup she was carrying.
Pit bull-type dogs are one of the most villainous and misunderstood dogs. They fill our shelters, not because they are bad dogs, but because our society has done that to them. Let me get something out of the way. Do pitbull-type dogs hurt people? Yes, of course, all dogs do. Do their bites cause more damage than when biting a chihuahua? Yes of course, just like most bites from all larger dogs. But, in many cases, it is fear and not facts that causes them to fill shelters across the country.
First of all, “pit bull” is not a breed, but rather a general classification for any dog with a large blocky head. Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers, American bullies, American Staffordshire terriers, and sometimes American bulldogs and bull terriers are generally included in the classification. Studies have shown that even dog experts cannot accurately tell if there is a pit bull in a mongrel just by looking at it. I’ll be the first to admit that when we call a dog a “pit bull,” we’re just guessing without DNA testing. Many different breeds can be mixed to produce the bobbleheaded, short-coated dog we call a “pit bull.”
Second, pit bulls didn’t always face the discrimination they do today. There are numerous old photographs from the 1900s showing Pit Bulls with children showing us that they were popular and reliable family pets with children. During the two world wars, pitbull-type dogs were even used as a national mascot as “America’s dog.” They were some of the first dogs used in warfare due to their loyalty and intelligence. Sergeant Stubby is one of the best known dogs of war. And who could forget one of the most famous dogs of all time: Petey from The Little Rascals!
So what changed? In the 1960s to 1980s, dog fighting began to see a resurgence. As people saw more of these dogs used in conjunction with fighting, the fear of dogs increased. In 1987, the cover of Sport Illustrated even demonized any dog that looked like a pit bull-type dog. The media is much more likely to present a bite if the dog is identified as a pit bull (although the breed identifications are probably wrong anyway). The media seemed to believe that “Dog Bites Man” doesn’t get as much attention as “Pitbull Bites Man.” The 1980s was also when governments began to pass Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), particularly in large cities like Denver and Miami.
However, the trend is changing. Animal advocates are working hard to change the perception of pit bull-type dogs because they now fill shelters across the US, but consistently rank dogs less aggressive on temperament tests. The media is becoming a partner in the promotion of pitbull-type dogs. The stories now present the great benefits of adopting a pit bull type dog. For example, a recent news item read: “According to the American Temperament Testing Society, pit bulls pass the temperament test 87 percent of the time. This means they rank fourth out of 122 breeds tested, meaning they are one of the most affectionate and least aggressive dog breeds.”
The defense of the rescuers is also supported by recent studies not only in temperament tests, but also in the behavior of the breed. An extensive April 2022 study of more than 18,000 dogs published by Science confirmed what many in the rescue community already knew: Breed means very little in predicting an individual dog’s behavior and personality. “What the dog looks like won’t really tell you how the dog acts,” said study co-author Marjie Alonso. In fact, according to the study, pit bull-type dogs scored high on human sociability, a measure of how receptive a dog is to strangers.
Even Sports Illustrated, whose 1987 article stoked the fear, did another cover story reporting on the rehabilitation of Michael Vick’s dogs and reporting a much more favorable light on pit bull-type dogs. Pit bull-type dogs are now used as service animals, therapy dogs, search and rescue dogs, and police dogs. October is National Pit Bull Awareness Month. Celebrities like Jon Stewart, Jessica Biel, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Aniston, Rachel Ray, Kevin Bacon, Tom Brady, Cesar Milan, and many others advocate for rescued pit bulls.
Not only are perceptions changing, but company practices and laws are also changing. Insurance companies once prohibited families from owning “dangerous breeds,” including pitbull-type dogs. This practice meant that many more pit bull-type dogs ended up in shelters due to housing issues associated with having them. The largest homeowners insurance company, State Farm, now allows pit bull-type dogs (as do many others). The State Farm website says: “Like humans, dogs are individuals. Each dog has a unique personality. While a dog’s breed can dictate how the dog looks, how a dog reacts to people or situations is not guaranteed by breed or type.” Additionally, Denver voters recently overrode a mayoral veto to continue the pit bull ban. Earlier this year a bill was introduced in the Florida legislature to eliminate the BSL in Miami.
Pit bull-type dogs are unfortunate victims of many difficult circumstances. They are forgiving, they are understanding, they are sweet, and they are silly. When Rachael Ray’s beloved pit bull died in 2020, she wrote on her Instagram page, “I am sorry for the loss of a dog; a pit bull who taught us more about unconditional love, empathy and mutual understanding than we ever could.” have imagined.” If you have room in your heart, your home and your budget, I say from experience that bringing an animal in need into your home can help you become a better human being.”
Pitbull-type dogs are feared and hated by many, and this article is not going to change that opinion. The purpose of this article is to encourage people not to automatically discriminate against a dog because of the dog’s fear and appearance. There are many myths about Pit Bull-type dogs, including that they have locking jaws (False), that they are more dangerous (False), that they are not good family pets (False), as well as many other false and negative perceptions. Do your research and talk to shelter staff about the dog’s personality, not the breed. If you’re thinking of adopting a dog, give pit bull-type shelter dogs a try.
You may decide that a pit bull-type dog is not a good fit for your family, and that’s okay. Adopt one of the many other shelter dogs that don’t look like a pitbull-type dog. However, I only ask that if you ever attend a community event, you don’t stereotype a dog based on its appearance: let your child pet the pup. Give silly dogs with big square heads a chance. They may surprise you.