Tuesday, 17 February, 2004

Pit Bulls

There was a thread over on Free Republic today discussing two "pit bull" attacks, one involving a 53-year-old woman, and one involving a 91-year-old woman.  The discussion was mostly innocuous, except for one poster who insisted that "pit bulls" are inherently vicious and unpredictable and should be outlawed and the "breed" extinguished.  His postings are similar to comments that I see and hear every time a "pit bull" attack is reported in the media.  The people expressing these opinions show an astounding lack of understanding of basic canine behavior and reflect total ignorance of the breeds that informed people call "pit bulls."

First, there is no such "breed" as a "pit bull."  Bull Mastiffs, Boxers, Dobermans, and Rottweilers among others have been called "pit bulls" by the press and by uninformed individuals.  To many people, the term "pit bull" is synonymous with "vicious dog."  That is, any dog that bites or exhibits very aggressive behavior is a "pit bull."  In fact, many times a news story will say "pit bull attacks child," when the dog was actually a Labrador or a Cocker Spaniel.  The paper might print a correction, but of course then nobody cares.

The term "pit bull" refers to a handful of very similar breeds, including the American Bulldog, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and the American Pit Bull Terrier.  These all are medium sized dogs with broad shoulders and powerful muscles, 16 to 22 inches tall and weighing from 30 to 70 pounds.  They typically have a blocky head with powerful jaw muscles.  A pit bull's jaws, by the way, don't "lock."  They do, however, have very strong jaws and are very persistent.  If they do latch onto something, they tend to hang on more than most other dogs would. 

People who raise pit bulls intelligently will tell you that the dogs are energetic, playful, loyal, loving, protective, strong willed, and extremely intelligent.  In other words, they're not much different than many other breeds.  As with any dog, early positive training and socialization are important.  It's especially important not to indulge any dominant or aggressive behavior.  Like any other large and powerful dog, an out of control pit bull can do a lot of damage.  A Labrador or Golden Retriever can do just as much damage.

There's simply no good evidence that pit bulls are any less predictable than other dogs.  The stories of a dog suddenly turning on its owner or an innocent bystander for no apparent reason are just that:  stories.  Cocker Spaniels and Chihuahuas are much more likely to bite a child, and any dog that is abused or neglected and then set loose is likely to be a danger to people and other animals.  Whereas it's true that pit bulls (among others, like Dobermans and Rottweilers) have been trained by idiots to be "attack dogs," there is nothing to indicate that these breeds are inherently vicious.

My personal experience with Charlie and some of my friends' dogs bear this out.  A properly raised pit is a great family dog, fun to play with, and very tolerant of children who sometimes hit or tug inappropriately.  They're usually fine around family pets (cats and other dogs), but might be very aggressive towards other animals.  This is extremely variable from dog to dog, as it is with all breeds.  They are dogs, after all, and chasing things is in their nature.