Do Pit Bulls Get a Bad Rap?

Originally posted July 9, 2008 on TNKN contributor Nathan Winograd’s No Kill Blog
Do Pit Bulls get a bad rap? The question is, of course, rhetorical.

In a recent Seattle case, a local television news story ran the headline: “School Plumbers Save Girl From Pit Bull Attack.” The story opened with a vivid and frightening image: “A 9-year-old girl was on the playground at Lafayette Elementary School when a pit bull attacked her. She was bruised and sore, but not seriously hurt thanks to two men who bravely stepped in to save her.”

At the risk of being pedantic, let’s break that out:

1. A Pit Bull
2. Attacked
3. The Girl needed to be saved
4. If she had not been saved, she would have been seriously hurt.

Before reading further, imagine the horrific scene as described.

But is that what actually happened? According to police reports, a 9-year-old girl was playing on the school’s playground when a brown-and-white pit bull puppy “was playing with her shoelace and accidentally bit her left ankle.” The pit bull puppy, which was not aggressive and sitting on the playground when police arrived, was taken by a Seattle Animal Shelter officer.

Let’s break that out:

1. A puppy
2. Played with her shoelaces
3. In trying to grab the shoelaces with his mouth, he got skin
4. The puppy was not aggressive
5. When police arrived, the puppy was just sitting on the playground.

The reality and the false image created could not be more striking. But it is not an aberration.

In a separate incident indicative of this bias, results of temperament testing on a puppy in Portland’s (OR) animal control system showed the following:

1. The puppy was easy to leash from the kennel
2. Tail and “whole rear end” were wagging
3. Gets playful
4. Readily approaches everyone in a friendly manner
5. Readily approaches handler in a friendly manner
6. No guarding seen when back is petted
7. No guarding seen when ears are checked
8. No guarding seen when food bowl is removed
9. General mouthiness and whirls around when tail is stroked
10. General mouthiness and gets excited when two front paws are picked up
11. Allows teeth exam (mild struggle)
12. Allows exam and interested in attention during whole body hug

The puppy was killed for aggression—consistent with the fact that the agency kills the vast majority of all Pit Bulls by similarly labeling them as “unadoptable” after temperament testing, a de facto ban on the breed.

At the Philadelphia Animal Care & Control Association during my visit several years ago, staff had determined that a “Pit Bull puppy” needed to be killed for “food aggression.” Put aside the fact that the dog turned out to be a two-year old Boston Terrier mix. The dog was only 8 pounds, severely malnourished and was hungry. After I intervened, the dog was adopted. His adopter sent the following several weeks later:

He is now 23 pounds-–he gained 15 pounds in 5 weeks, and he could probably stand to gain 1 or 2 more pounds. He no longer walks on his joints, his malnourished legs couldn’t hold him up before and he was walking totally improperly. Now he stands tall.

Pit Bull advocates have long believed that this type of reporting and results are the result of breed stereotypes. And with the nation’s self-proclaimed “experts” feeding fuel to the fire, the deck appears stacked against them.

Now, a recent study published last month by a team from the University of Pennsylvania supports this point of view. According to the team of researchers, “Information on breed-specific aggressiveness derived from such sources may be misleading due to … the existence of breed stereotypes.”

The Pennsylvania study surveyed more than 30 breeds of dogs. According to the study’s authors, the most aggressive breeds of dogs in terms of aggression to people were Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, Beagles, Jack Russell Terriers, Australian Cattle Dogs, Cocker Spaniels and Border Collies in that order. However, before we develop irrational fears of these breeds, those results showed levels of aggression in dogs were generally at less than 10% of all dogs and included even minor “nips” of the owner no matter how insignificant or what the trigger was. The study is also very problematic for other reasons and it is doubtful that Dachsunds, Beagles, and other breeds are worthy of the distinction.

Nonetheless, the incident rates are consistent with progressive shelters nationwide; proving that the vast majority of dogs—including Pit Bulls—are friendly. In Tompkins County, NY, the open admission animal shelter found that roughly 92-93% of all dogs were not aggressive to kids, cats, or dogs and therefore safe to be adopted (the number was slightly lower at 86% if you isolate Pit Bulls as a breed, but that still represents roughly nine out of ten dogs).

This outcome has also been confirmed by the American Temperament Test results which gave the three breeds typically identified as Pit Bulls—American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier—a combined pass rate of 86.6%, higher than the Golden Retriever.

As I have said before, if we take this as a representative sample of dogs in society, then we do not have either an epidemic or even a significant problem of dangerous dogs in the United States that would justify a further clamp-down of Pit Bulls (or any dogs for that matter). If, on the other hand, we take dogs who enter shelters to be at higher risk of aggression (say, for the sake of argument, we can show that they have less training, spend more time isolated outdoors, have less care than dogs who do not enter shelters), then the situation is actually of less concern since we would expect to see more aggression in shelter dogs than dogs who live with their families their whole lives. And given that 93% of shelter dogs are friendly to kids, cats and dogs—the number is higher if we just isolate aggression to people (about 96-97%)—the fear-based hysteria of dangerous dogs and Pit Bulls becomes demonstrably false. On top of this, the vast majority of the remainder will never bite.

What is true, however, is that public health authorities, dog bite lawyers, legislators, animal control shelters, police departments, humane societies, and even national animal welfare groups argue that millions of people are bitten every year by dogs. Some of these groups call for a ban on certain breeds, others claim we need to teach or enforce “responsible pet ownership;” others seek more and tougher laws. But just because they say it is so doesn’t make it so.

And while our hearts go out to the victims of serious dog bite attacks, there is little in the way of evidence that more regulation, more laws, further crackdowns on dogs is justified as a way to prevent these. At the end of the day, the vast majority of Pit Bulls are friendly and will never act aggressively, dogs are already heavily regulated, and there is little by way of additional public policy initiatives (e.g., legislation) that is needed in trying to prevent a “dog bite epidemic” that simply does not exist.

Animal protection groups should stop focusing on this type of fear-based advocacy, stop perpetuating myths, and start educating the public about the truth regarding the dogs they theoretically exist to protect, who they fundraise off of, and who they claim they are working to save. It is not the job of an animal protection group to mimic the claims of a dog bite lawyer. Where there is fear and misinformation which would call for a crackdown on dogs and dog lovers, with little justification and through methods that provide little in the way of actual protection, it is our job to quell that, not fan the flames of distortion, as they so often do.

We will never eliminate risk in society. We can minimize it, but in the case of dogs, there is little more that can and should be done. And, in many ways, we need to undo some of the laws and regulations because they allow friendly dogs to be killed without making anyone safer (such as breed bans).

Dogs are already heavily regulated: they must be licensed with local authorities, they cannot go in public places without a leash (if at all), they must be vaccinated against rabies, you can’t live with more than a small number of them, animal control officers can seize and destroy them if they determine that they are a nuisance, and the threshold of making a determination that they are dangerous and subject to extermination puts dogs at a disadvantage, even when the facts show otherwise. Together, license laws, leash laws, vaccination laws, pet limit laws, nuisance laws, health codes, property laws, and dangerous dog laws control dogs, in concert with an animal sheltering system built on overkill, that there is little justification to tighten the noose even further.

Furthermore, banning Pit Bulls or any breed of dog is geared to overkill by definition because—media hysteria to the contrary—the vast majority of dog bites occur within the home by many breeds, with the dog biting a member of the family after some provocation, a different causal mechanism than the false image presented: an epidemic of free roaming Pit Bulls attacking unknown children or the elderly. As a result, a breed ban won’t stop the vast majority of dog bites. On top of that, roughly 20% of those bites are a result of the dog defending him or her-self from being attacked.

And although breed specific legislation proponents like to say that millions of Americans are bitten every year (a dubious proposition), what they don’t say is that, even if that were true (it is not), over 92% of dog bites result in no injuries. Let me repeat, over nine out of ten bites that do occur result in no one getting hurt. And of the remaining 8%, 7.5% are minor. In fact, they are less severe than any other class of injury. That leaves less than 1% (0.08% to be exact) of all bites ranking at moderate or above.

Moreover, recent research shows that the number of dog bites are on the decline and have been falling for the last three decades to all-time lows. And while the vast majority are insignificant, the majority of serious bites were determined to be “largely preventable.” I am not downplaying even the death or maiming of a single person. It is tragic. And as an animal control director, I had no tolerance for the adoption of aggressive dogs. But creating public policy—and shelter standards—needs careful and thoughtful deliberation, not incendiary fanaticism based on an irrational fear of the Pit Bull.

For further reading.

Blogs/Websites:

KC Dog Blog: www.kcdogblog.com
National Canine Research Council: www.nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com

Articles:  
Books:

Redemption by Nathan J. Winograd
Dogs Bite by Janis Bradley
The Pit Bull Placebo by Karen Delise (I have not read this book yet but it is next on my list!)
How to Stop Breed Bans by Barbara Haywood (I have not yet read this e-book but it is on my list!)

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2 Responses to “Do Pit Bulls Get a Bad Rap?”

  1. Barbara Saunders says:

    One of the irritating labels I heard in this arena: a well known trainer saying that pit bulls can have “late-stage gameness.” What the heck does that mean? If all it means is that they go through puberty, become adults, later than some other breeds, and that the changes that go along with that come later as a consequence, why the mystifying language?

  2. How can these media people live with themselves. Its sick… Its so sad that such a fine pup had to be killed.

    Mats Carlsson
    Sweden

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