A myth, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. A myth is an unfounded or false notion.
In the canine world, there are many tales about dogs that become myths through oral tradition and are now accepted as truth. Many of these myths revolve around the breeds of dogs in the pit bull family. Often, the lore can be extended and applied to other breeds of dog. Each myth must be addressed and challenged as they often lead to the public being ill informed to make educated decisions about their personal safety as well as the welfare of their family and their community.
When a fighting breed injures or kills a human or pet, advocates say “it’s not the breed, it’s the owner.” They claim that dogs only act aggressively if abused or mistreated.
- Many breeds of dogs suffer a lifetime of pain and mistreatment without behaving aggressively. Examples include laboratory Beagles, cart-pulling dogs (pre-20th century), and the millions of street dogs living today all over the third world.
- About half of dogs that kill humans are indoor, middle-class family pets with no history of being abused or neglected. Most police investigations conclude that the owner did not contribute to the dog’s aggression through mistreatment of any sort.
- As a rule, dogs involved in violent incidents act very differently from abused dogs. Abused animals have a tendency to avoid conflict. They usually only bite when they are cornered and perceive that they have to defend themselves. This is called “fear biting”. They rarely inflict damage worse than a puncture wound. They do not escape from leashes, scale fences, or jump off of second floor balconies to launch an attack. They do not chase people or animals down to bite or maul them. Behaviors associated with abuse are actually considered “bold” behaviors that are rooted not in abuse, but in the dog’s own genetics.
Current research shows that animal behavior is primarily guided by instincts predetermined by their genetic profile or inherited traits. Socialization and training account for only a fraction of how a dog will react to strangers or family members. Nevertheless, using non-harsh training techniques remains one of the first lines of defense against generating aggression in a dog that would otherwise be okay.
Many people believe that puppies do not have formed traits or personalities. They are balls of clay that can be molded into any dog the owner wants them to be. Many people believe that “starting with a puppy” is the best way to ensure a safe family pet.
Dogs are born with a combination of genetically bred traits and individual personality. Often behavior can be shaped by the dogs’s experiences, both good and bad. In many cases, no amount of training and socialization can overcome certain hard-wired genetic traits. Nature is much more in control of what a dog becomes than the nurturing owner. In other words, breeding is a larger determinant of behavior than environment.
Most dogs will not exhibit their true behaviors and personalities until they reach maturity, which is usually 1-3 years of age, depending on breed. Just because a puppy is raised with children, does not mean it will tolerate children as an adult. As the dog matures it may demonstrate that it does not possess a disposition suitable for infants and small children. Sometimes, even puppies are not safe with our toddlers or kids. Pit bulls as young as 4-6 months of age have mauled, and even killed humans.
Of course, the vast majority of puppies, even those from fighting breeds, will not grow up to kill humans. However, there have been at least two recent, unrelated cases where pit bulls were purchased as puppies and raised as beloved indoor pets with the owners’ children. At the ages of 8 and 9 years old, these dogs—neither of which had a bite history—each killed a child. In the 2013 case, the dog decapitated the owner’s toddler while the mother was briefly in the bathroom. No noises were heard from either dog or child. Our strong position is that bringing a dog into the home as a puppy and raising it with children is definitely not a guarantee that the dog will be “safe.”
Before bringing a dog into your house, we recommend:
- Educate yourself about the history of the breed. Give serious consideration to the breed’s safety record. Just like with consumer goods, not every individual has to be dangerous for a recall to be initiated. If you are a parent, would you choose a recalled crib model for your child when much safer models are readily available? Remember, you are bringing in another member of your family for a long period of time.
- Evaluate the dog’s parents or other relatives, if possible. For instance, the mother of the dog described above had been euthanized prior to the arrival of the second child due to aggression. Yet the owner still believed her own dog to be “safe,” because she had raised it from puppyhood with her children.
- Performing a standardized temperament test such as the one in Sue Sternberg’s book “Successful Dog Adoption.” This test is more stringent and more predictive of future behavior than many of the abbreviated tests used by animal shelters. This test can be easily done by any adult, and most of it can be performed while you stand outside of the dog’s kennel.
There is an assumption that showing a dog love, affection and compassion will eliminate behavioral issues.
Having a loving relationship with a dog can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience, but it does not prevent or eliminate behavioral issues that are predetermined by their DNA. There are many things that can be done to control or maintain behaviors. However, affection and training plays a lesser role. It is important to show love to your dog, but keep your expectations realistic. Maintain appropriate emotional boundaries and remember your dog is not a human being and does not possess human emotions.
Even if a dog has aggressive tendencies, these can be overcome or prevented with proper training. In other words, you can “train it out”.
Canine temperament and behavior is mainly the result of breeding and genetics, rather than training. Anyone with enough experience with dogs will eventually observe that many under-socialized and poorly trained dogs turn out to be great with people and other pets, while other dogs with the “perfect” socialization and training history grow up to be aggressive.
With hundreds of hours of training, an aggressive dog may be under enough control to come to the owner and lie down, rather than bite a visitor. However, the training has not changed the dog’s genes. Once the owner walks out of the room, the dog is likely to follow his innate aggressive pattern. For example, if the visitor stands up, the dog may growl and pin him against the sofa. Training can temporarily redirect an unwanted behavior, but does not eliminate it.
Many pet dogs receive no overt socialization and no obedience training, yet never go on to harm another living creature. Conversely, some dogs were raised “right,” but have still harmed people or pets. When considering which dog to bring into your home, genetics is more important than the amount of training the dog will receive. Any dog that has once shown it will deliver a serious, uninhibited bite is at risk of doing this again in the future. Training might decrease the likelihood somewhat, but it will never “cure” this behavior once it has been shown. This is true regardless of whether the biting is a result of genetic predisposition or of abuse.
Today, there really is no difference between breeds with regard to behavior. Breeds have lost their instincts. Now, they are bred just for “looks.” Therefore, no breed is more dangerous than any other breed.
The physical appearances of dog breeds may have changed and evolved selectively over the years. However, the majority of dogs were bred for specific abilities and behaviors. Phenotype or “looks” were of secondary consideration. These historical traits, both physical and temperamental, are still inherited by dog breeds today. Here are a few examples:
Siberian Huskies: Bred to pull dog sleds in cold climates, these dogs usually have a high energy level, great endurance, and have a passion for cold temperatures. They have fur designed to withstand the cold because they were used as sled dogs in geographical areas that experience harsh winters. Even today, these dogs are not well suited for hot environments and can overheat easily.
Border Collies: Structured to allow them to move for extended periods in a crouch, while using their “collie eye” (a directed stare) to control livestock. No other breed, including other herding breeds, uses this combination of traits to move stock.
Beagles: Originally designed to assist hunters by locating and chasing rabbits while giving voice, their vocal ability is still seen in pets today. Beagles also have an extremely advanced sense of smell that is used to track prey. Even the white tips of their tails were originally designed to let hunters easily follow them as they track.
Labrador Retrievers: Designed to retrieve game from the water and be the ideal hunting companion for humans. The Lab coat has insulating qualities that protect the dog when swimming in cold water. Their retrieving skills can often be seen in the home environment when playing fetch or gently carrying toys in their mouths. This is an inherited trait that is not trained for the breed,
“There’s no such breed as a pit bull.” “Pit bulls aren’t a breed; they are just a ‘type’ of dog.”
The term “pit bull” in lower-case letters refers to three closely-related breeds. The original breed was the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a dog bred for pit fighting in the 18th and 19th centuries in the UK. After importation to the U.S. in the late 19th century, they continued to be used for fighting, but were bred to be taller and heavier. These larger cousins were then registered in the UKC as “American Pit Bull Terriers” (1898) and in the AKC as the “American Staffordshire Terrier” (1936). Note that these are identical breeds under two different names, and many individuals hold conformation championships in both registries. In addition, some of the original, smaller dogs were reimported from the UK and were recognized in the AKC as the original “Staffordshire Bull Terriers” (1935).
A 2013 ASPCA double-blind study revealed that shelter workers were able to correctly identify dogs with significant ‘pit bull’ blood (‘pit bull’ = the 3 breeds above) 96% of the time, as confirmed by DNA tests. (click here to see the study).
The American Pit Bull Terrier is actually one of the purest and oldest of registered breeds. The second-largest national kennel club in the world, the UKC, was originally founded in 1898 for the express purpose of registering fighting pit bulls. For approximately the first 50 years, a pit bull not only had to be purebred, but had to win 3 dog fights in order to be registered with the UKC. Today, these dogs’ descendants compete to win prizes in conformation, weight pull, and other sports. Thousands have earned the title of UKC Conformation Champion.
No one can correctly identify a pit bull. Fighting breed advocates claim that most people shown a collage of dog photos online can’t tell which one is the pit bull.
Many pit bull advocate groups post a collage of dog pictures online and ask the public to “identify the pit bull”. What the public does not know is that the majority of dogs pictured are shot from camera angles deliberately designed to mislead. In addition, they show heads only, so size cannot be considered—this would not be the case when seeing the dog in real life. They also feature many rare breeds that are related to pit bulls, but which are extremely uncommon in the United States (e.g., the Dogue de Bordeaux, Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog, and Ca de Bou). And one of the dog breeds that is included is an American Staffordshire Terrier which is the exact same breed as the American Pit Bull Terrier, but registered with another organization. Click here for an in-depth, illustrated article about this misleading test.
It should also be noted that many humane societies offer discounts on spaying/neutering of pit bulls. If pit bulls are so difficult to identify, then how do shelter workers identify who qualifies for the discount? There are also many pit bull rescues with the term “pit bull” in the organization name. How do these groups know which dogs to rescue?
See also: Pit Bull Breed Identification
Fighting breed advocates often erroneously claim that other breeds (Chihuahuas, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, etc.) bite, and even kill, more often than fighting breeds.
The statistics vary depending on breed popularity in a particular area. However, Chicago IL, Las Vegas NV, and New York NY all verified that pit bulls were the #1 breed for reported bites in 2013.
We believe that the focus shouldn’t be on the number of bites, but on the severity as well as the fatalities. Dog “bite” victims usually endure a brief attack lasting seconds, while dog “mauling” victims often endure lengthy attacks should they survive. One of the longest dog attacks on record was in Cary, Illinois and involved 6 peopled being mauled for an hour and half total. Nationwide, pit bulls rank as the #1 breed whose attack is likely to result in the victim’s death.
Unfortunately, many communities do not record the severity of reported bites. Both a single shallow puncture from a Chihuahua and a fatal mauling by a 100 lb. Cane Corso are officially reported as a “bite.”
It is important to understand that fighting breeds have a completely different bite profiles than most other breeds. They are bred to bite down, clamp and shake, causing severe tissue damage. Many attacks can go on for 10-30 minutes, even as passers-by try in vain to remove the attacking dog by choking it, kicking it, beating it with shovels or baseball bats. There are cases of fighting breeds continuing to maul their victim even after the police have shot the dog multiple times at point-blank range.
Pit Bulls have high scores on the American Temperament Test (ATT). and are therefore good candidates to become family pets.
This test is not the typical temperament test used in animal shelters, animal control agencies, or private rescues. The most common temperament tests administered to shelter animals is the ‘Assess a Pet’ test designed by Sue Sternberg and the ‘Safer Test’ designed by Emily Weiss. The ATT is a private test that owners themselves register their pets to take. The dogs compete with scores against other dogs in their breed category. The owner is present for the test and the test evaluates the animal’s behavior when in “everyday” situations such as passing strangers. Dogs being comfortable or exhibiting bold behaviors receive positive scores. The dogs are not tested on how they relate to other dogs or animals. The ‘Asses a Pet’ and ‘Safer test’ are completely different and put value on other aspects of dog behavior. Temperament tests used in sheltering situations can be an excellent tool for predicting future behavior and aggression issues if administered correctly by unbiased handlers. There is not a temperament test that can be administered with 100% accurate results. Dogs that do pass temperament tests can go on to cause injury to humans or other animals.
There is an assumption that the media only reports pit bull incidents and fatalities.
The media reports incidents with all breeds. As recently as December 2013, the media reported the death of an infant cause by injuries sustained from an attack by two Shiba Inus. Pit bulls are in the media more because they are the most common offenders for severe attacks on animals and humans. Since 1982, pit bulls have accounted for 67% of dog attacks resulting in bodily harm. As pit bulls have become more popular as pets, this number has begun to rise.
The media merely reports news of an occurrence based on facts or observations given to them by witnesses and investigators. If anything, the media has a tendency to under-report the breed associated with the incident or attack due to lack of detail regarding the incident. Pit bull attacks have become so frequent in the U.S. today (one lost body part every 5.4 days and one fatality every 2 weeks) that many attacks never make it to the media. The occurrences that are reported in the news often get minimal coverage. “Man bites dog is news, dog bites man is not.”
To explain vintage black and white photographs that depicted children and pit bulls together, a story was created that back in the Victorian age the pit bull was the “nanny dog”. These so-called nanny dogs were said to be so good with children parents relied on them to babysit and protect them.
One fighting breed advocate created this “legend” in 1971 to distance her breed from its fighting origins. This mention was picked up by a newspaper in 1987 and has since been promoted as historical “fact.”
At no point in history were pit bulls ever “nanny dogs”. There has not been any proof ever given to make this myth a reality. The pit bull advocacy group “BADRAP” (Bay Area Dog Lovers Responsible About Pit Bulls) recently admitted that pit bulls were never nanny dogs and that this myth was dangerous to children. The retraction of the “nanny dog myth” has been highly publicized. Despite the retraction, the myth has lived on and pit bull advocates still repeat it regularly
“Did you know that there was never such thing as a ‘Nanny’s Dog’? This term was a recent invention created to describe the myriad of vintage photos of children enjoying their family pit bulls (click this link for details about vintage photos). While the intention behind the term was innocent, using it may mislead parents into being careless with their children around their family dog – A recipe for dog bites!”
Most people believe that a “dangerous” dog is a dog that barks, growls or tries to bite consistently and predictably.
Some dogs that bark and lunge at people are actually anxious or fearful. In most cases they are bluffing until they can safely find a place to run and hide. These dogs may inflict a minor bite or grab a pants cuff, but are not known for initiating serious attacks.
The “obviously aggressive” dogs who deliver multiple puncture wounds in their first year frequently result in euthanization by the owner, a shelter, or Animal Control.
As with human serial killers, the most dangerous dogs are the ones who lead apparently normal lives and interact normally with 99% of people they meet. These dogs may visit the dog park every day for years with no incidents, then suddenly grab a small dog at a picnic and shake it to death. Or the dog may be a repair shop mascot who greets children all day, but then launches an unprovoked attack on the owner’s visiting niece the same evening.
Some owners think it’s funny when their dog curls a lip at them or growls at their kids. Others believe that growling is a sign of restraint and tolerance in a dog, and indicates that the dog will not bite.
Not all dogs warn before biting, but when the dog is giving a warning signal, it should always be taken seriously and potential victims should be removed from reach.
Owners often have two reactions to their dog’s aggression issues: denial, or trying to “manipulate” the dog behavior. Owners who are in denial often recognize that their dog is aggressive, but think it will blow over. They may be defensive when others point out the dangerous behavior. Others try to reason with their dogs by saying things such as “Don’t growl at mama.” We must remember that dogs are animals and as such do not have a human’s extensive vocabulary or complex emotions.
Another group of owners is simply uninformed about the signs and progression of aggression. These owners believe that that growling and snapping are “funny,” and are unlikely to ever escalate into an actual bite. There are numerous YouTube videos showing parents filming and laughing while their child—who is out of their reach—risks a disfiguring bite. In some videos, a baby may approach the family dog on the sofa and attempt to pull a rawhide from the dog’s mouth. In others, children are encouraged to surround and hug the family dog in hopes of making a cute video. In these videos, the dogs frequently show multiple signs that they are uncomfortable and at risk of escalating to a bite. They avert their eyes, curl a lip, growl, lick their mouths anxiously and even snap towards a child’s face. Meanwhile, the parents continue to laugh and film.
Don’t let yourself, a visitor or a child become the next victim. Signs of aggression are a warning to remove children and get everybody out of the dog’s reach. Click here to visit our page on Identifying Dangerous Behavior.
A look around the Internet will find many sites claiming that fighting breeds were beloved “nanny dogs” in the past, and have only recently become vilified in the media. A look at historical articles, advertisements and even political cartoons shows that the opposite is true. Throughout the 1800’s and most of the 1900’s, these breeds were considered extremely dangerous. Only in the past 30 years or so—after dog fighting became illegal in most U.S. states—did people suddenly begin promoting fighting dogs as “ideal family pets.”
Those who actively promote these breeds have created several justifications for why these dogs were never dangerous, or are no longer dangerous. This section will examine each of these myths.
Note: “Fighting breeds” can be defined as breeds of dogs that were developed for hundreds of generations—sometimes up to the present day—to kill other animals and to attack people. For purposes of this article, fighting breeds include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier (these three breeds being collectively referred to as “pit bulls”), the American Bulldog, Bullmastiff, Dogo Argentino, Cane Corso and Presa Canario. Some of these breeds are closely related, and others aren’t. However, they all fight by means of gripping and extended shaking of the victim.