by Claire Anderson
I have always had a soft spot for the “underdog". It began when I was ten years old and my family moved to a new town. It was difficult for me to make friends and in an attempt to combat my loneliness, my mom took me to the local animal shelter. There happened to be a litter of Lab puppies (everyone’s favorite!) in a large pen right as we walked in, and my mom and brother went directly to them. It was the first time I had been to a shelter. Wide-eyed, I slowly made my way down the dirty walkway. I remember the strong scent of urine and bleach as well as the ear-piercing barks and cries echoing around me. Eventually, I got to the end of the hallway and there he was: a large, white mutt with brown spots sitting a couple of feet back from the door of his kennel. He was dirty and sad, with large soulful eyes and funny little ears. I remember thinking that he must have been there for so long that he had long since given up begging people to take him home. I sat down on the wet floor and coaxed him to me. Even though my brother had already picked out an adorable black fluff ball of a puppy, my mom could see in my eyes that I was not leaving without him.
And that’s how Chester, an abandoned and misunderstood dog, became my best friend. During our time together, Chester taught me the importance of giving the underdog a fair shot, which is an ideology I continue to practice.
In today's world, the Pit Bull is the “underdog” of dog breeds, and when I use the term "breed" I use it loosely when it comes to Pit Bulls—there are many breeds and mixes lumped under this name. Unfortunately, the poor Pit Bull has been misrepresented by and in the media (and other places) for decades and, as a result, this “breed” has been unfairly demonized.
I will be the first to admit that initially, my interest in Pit Bulls and the controversy surrounding them was purely emotional and based on my personal experience. Over the years, I have known and fostered many wonderful, rescued Pit Bulls without ever seeing an ounce of the supposed aggression for which they were notorious. So instead of relying on my assumptions and instincts, I began to seek scientific and behavioral resources on the topic and was relieved to find that many of my feelings and observations were supported by facts.
There are too many untruths surrounding Pit Bulls. I hope to not only debunk these myths, but also to offer some insight from my own experiences in training and working with them:
Myth #1: Pit Bulls are inherently aggressive
In my 12 years of experience working with dogs of all breeds and breed combinations, I have not found Pit Bulls to be any more aggressive than any other breed of dog. Every dog has a unique personality, so predicting behavior only by breed is impossible. Of course, certain breeds are predisposed to specific behavior traits, but breed is never the only factor to predict a dog's behavior, as environmental and social factors also play a huge role.
Aggression is never a clear-cut black and white situation, and it is commonly misdiagnosed. Many times, aggression is a case of leash reactivity or barrier frustration that is mislabeled as aggression. Many Pit Bulls are left alone in yards or leashed outside with a chain, and that immobility can lead to frustration and/or reactivity. However, any sign of aggression should not be taken lightly. If you suspect aggression, you should consult a behavior professional* to properly diagnose and treat the issue.
*Aggression should be addressed with the assistance of a professional dog trainer who has experience successfully solving aggression-related issues.
Pit Bulls generally tend to be very excitable with a special enthusiasm for life and people (especially children), but they can be rough and somewhat vocal in their play, which can be misinterpreted as aggression. Because of their enthusiasm and size, it is important to teach Pit Bull puppies good impulse control and proper social behavior so they do not get themselves in trouble by knocking someone over!
Sidenote: I have also found that every Pit Bull I have ever fostered or trained can give a wonderfully sloppy kisses and the best snuggles!
Myth #2: Pit Bulls are dangerous
In my experience, pit bulls are no more “dangerous” than any other breed of dog I have worked with. Generally, they can be confident and can get over-stimulated fairly easily, but with responsible ownership they are loving, trustworthy companions.
And there's evidence to support this: the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS) tested 870 Pit Bulls of which 755 passed and 115 did not. This amounts to an 86% pass rate which is a high score. In fact, the score for Pit Bulls is higher than the score for Golden Retrievers (generally perceived to be the gentlest, safest dogs.)
Sure, Pit Bulls are large, muscular dogs with the physical potential to cause damage, which can be true for many dog breeds. But this is why it is extremely important to get your puppy or adult dog the private dog training and/or group dog training classes they need, especially while they are young. Both you and your Pit Bull will benefit from training and you will learn how to communicate with your dog and prevent any behavioral issues before they start
Myth #3: Pit Bulls have locking jaws
A Pit Bull has the exact same basic jaw anatomy as any other dog, there is no locking mechanism. Pit Bulls are large dogs that may not want to let go of something (especially a toy during a good game of tug of war!) but that's no different than any other breed of dog!
Dr. I Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia has stated, “We found that the American Pit Bull terriers did not have any unique mechanism that would allow these dogs to lock their jaws. There were no mechanical or morphological differences.”
Good bite inhibition is one of the most important things you can teach a puppy, regardless of their breed. While a puppy is exploring your hands with her mouth, let her know when she has applied too much pressure. Her jaw and facial muscles are still developing, and it is essential to give that feedback to your puppy while they are still young before their muscles get stronger. When your dog has good bite inhibition, it's the difference between a moment of stunned silence and a trip to the hospital. We prefer the former.
Myth #4: It isn’t safe to adopt a rescued Pit Bull.
- If you are looking to adopt a certain breed such as a Pit Bull or Pit Bull mix, talk to other Pit Bull owners. They can fill you in on their experiences so that you are prepared!
- Find a responsible rescue group who keeps their dogs in foster homes, like our friends at Mae Day Rescue. This way, you can speak to the family that is fostering each dog and find out all their little quirks and any behavioral issues in advance.
- Hire a knowledgeable dog trainer to consult with and assist you in picking out your new family member! We can't recommend this enough. Tully’s Training offers free, in-home consultations with experienced behaviorists in Los Angeles and San Diego, California.
Myth #5: Pit Bulls will suddenly “snap” or turn on their owners
This misconception goes along with a few other absurd myths about how Pit Bulls will go crazy or rage out at some point in their lives because of a swollen brain or something. This claim is completely unsubstantiated. Generally, dogs do not suddenly explode into fits of rage. Barring a severe medical issue, Pit Bulls—like people—will show signs of discomfort or nervousness before they will ever act aggressively.
Unlike people, dogs cannot vocalize if or why they are uncomfortable. It is our job as dog owners to become educated in canine body language in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Dogs can exhibit about 30 different physical postures to show us that they are uncertain or uncomfortable with a given situation. They also might use these signals to show that they are not a threat, in an attempt to calm a nearby person or another dog. Go to a dog park, a vet’s office, or a dog-friendly café and watch for these visual calming signs–I promise, you will see them everywhere! Dogs are constantly communicating with us, we just need to start listening.
The most dangerous aspect of this whole issue is that many of these dogs are not even given a chance to live happy, healthy lives because of the negative generalizations and myths we've discussed: Pit Bulls are by far the most euthanized breed of dog, and breed-specific legislation around the world is unfairly targeting this family-friendly dog breed based on unfounded falsehoods.
The LA Times recently reported (in a great article titled We’re safer without pit bull bans) that the American Veterinary Medical Association, the National Animal Control Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Bar Association, the ASPCA and even the White House have denounced breed-specific bans and legislation.
Having rescued, fostered, owned, and trained countless Pit Bulls and other “bully” breeds over the years, it is easy for me to get emotional about the plight of the Pit Bull because I have experienced how sweet and gentle and amazing they are. Emotions are not enough to convince everyone, however.
Let’s stick to the facts and save the Pit Bulls, whose love and loyalty for humans has not wavered despite our gross mistreatment of them