Pit Bull is a term that describes several breeds of dogs with similar physical characteristics. The American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier commonly fall under the category of "pit bull." There are several other breeds that are sometimes included under the rubric of "pit bull", including the Indian Bull Terrier, Argentine Dogo, the English Bull Terrier, the American Bulldog, and the Perro de Presa Canario due to some physical similarities between the breeds. These breeds are usually not included by breed name in any Breed Specific Legislation, but are sometimes included because of a broad definition and confusion as to what a pit bull actually is. All of these breeds as well as many others (including Great Danes, Newfoundlands and Rottweilers) are members of the Molosser family of dog breeds.
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The ancestors of modern pit bulls come from England. The English White Terrier, the Black and Tan Terrier and the Old English Bulldog are supposedly extinct breeds, this occasion stems from their forced retirement. However, in their own time the English White Terrier, the Black and Tan Terrier and the Bulldog were prized animals.
At one time every county in England had its own terrier. Many still exist, however, many have also come to pass or have mutated into a modern breed; such is the case for the English White Terrier and the Black and Tan, whose descendants include the bull-and-terriers, the Fox Terrier, and the Manchester Terrier. Terriers served a very real purpose in England. Vermin threatened people in more ways than just providing an unpleasant scare or as unwelcome guests; at their best, vermin ruined crops and damaged property; at their worst they served as a vehicle for fleas that carried the Black Plague. Dogs destroyed vermin efficiently and were easy animals to care for. As time went on the sports of badger and rat baiting — among others — caught on. It is from the terrier that pit bulls get their kind nature and juvenile behavior; it is also where the instinct to kill came from.
At the same time, Mastiff type dogs have existed in England for millennia. Their origins are somewhat uncertain, particularly because of myth. It can be assumed, however, that the Celts brought the Mastiff to Britain from the continent. It also known that the Normans introduced the Alaunt. Mastiffs of varying size existed in England for years, but it was not until the Renaissance that formal distinctions were made. These dogs were used in battle and for guarding, but they also served utilitarian purposes, such as farm work. Specifically, these dogs accompanied farmers into the fields to assist with bringing bulls in for breeding, castration, or slaughter. The dogs, known generally as bulldogs, protected the farmer by subduing the bull if it attempted to gore him. Typically a dog would do this by biting the bull on the nose and holding on until the bull submitted. Because of the nature of their job, bulldogs were bred to have powerful, muscular bodies, and the resolve to hold onto a violently-struggling bull, even when injured.
Eventually these dogs' purpose inspired the widespread practice of the bloody sports of bull-baiting and bear-baiting. In Elizabethan England, these spectacles were popular forms of entertainment. However, in 1835, bull-baiting and bear-baiting were abolished by Parliament as cruel, and the custom died out over the following years.
The sport of dog fighting, which could be carried out under clandestine measures, blossomed. Since Bulldogs proved too ponderous and disinterested in dog fighting, the Bulldogs were crossed to English White and Black and Tan Terriers. They were also bred to be intelligent and level-headed during fights and remain non-aggressive toward their handlers. Part of the standard for organized dog-fighting required that the match referee who is unacquainted with the dog be able to enter the ring, pick up a dog while it was engaged in a fight, and get the respective owner to carry it out of the ring without being bitten. Dogs that bit the referee were culled.
As a result, Victorian fighting dogs (Staffordshire Bull Terriers and, though less commonly used as fighters, English Bull Terriers) generally had stable temperaments and were commonly kept in the home by the gambling men who owned them.
During the mid-1800s, immigration to the United States from Ireland and England brought an influx of these dogs to America, mainly to Boston, where they were bred to be larger and stockier, working as farm dogs in the West as much as fighting dogs in the cities. The resulting breed, also called the American Pit Bull Terrier, became known as an "all-American" dog. Pit bull type dogs became popular as family pets for citizens who were not involved in dog-fighting or farming. In the early 1900s they began to appear in films, one of the more famous examples being Pete the Pup from the Our Gang shorts (later known as The Little Rascals).
During World War I the breed's widespread popularity led to its being featured on pro-American propaganda posters.
There are often more dogs (many are mixed breeds which are lumped into the category of "pit bull") than there are owners. Pit bulls or dogs that appear to be pit bulls may be destroyed in dog pounds due to the stigma associated with the breed. Few, if any, statistics exist for these issues. Pit bulls and pit mixed dogs are a common sight in animal shelters. According to Nathan Winograd, president of the No Kill Advocacy Group, shelters today have failed to educate people about pit bull ownership and have not focused on finding them responsible homes, but rather are engaging in a "witch hunt".
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) published a study concerning deaths from canine attacks. Although often cited, the CDC report cautioned that the accuracy of the data "requires complete ascertainment of deaths and an accurate determination of the breed involved, and the denominator requires reliable breed-specific population data (i.e., number of deaths involving a given breed divided by number of dogs of that breed).
However, such denominator data are not available, and official registration or licensing data cannot be used because owners of certain breeds may be less likely than those owning other breeds to register or license their animals."
These caveats notwithstanding a CDC study detailing dog bite related fatalities in the US between 1979 and 1998 reveals that roughly one-thirds were caused by Pit Bull type dogs. The highest number of attacks (118) were by Pit-bull type dogs, the next highest was Rottweilers at 67. The full report can be accessed at:
A followup to the study published in 2000 by Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association suggested that "generic non–breed-specific, dangerous dog laws can be enacted that place primary responsibility for a dog’s behavior on the owner, regardless of the dog’s breed. In particular, targeting chronically irresponsible dog owners may be effective."
There are many urban legends surrounding the pit bull, mostly based on the idea that the dogs are somehow physiologically different from other breeds of dog.
Many sources propagate the myth that pit bulls have a "locking jaw" mechanism, and that the dog cannot let go once it has bitten. This is untrue. Dr. I. Brisbin (University of Georgia) states:
The few studies which have been conducted of the structure of the skulls, mandibles and teeth of pit bulls show that, in proportion to their size, their jaw structure and thus its inferred functional morphology, is no different from that of any breed of dog.
There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of 'locking mechanism' unique to the structure of the jaw and/or teeth of the American Pit Bull Terrier.
Furthermore, the pit bulls that compete successfully in protection sports such as Schutzhund obviously do not display an inability to release their grips after biting, as releasing the decoy's sleeve on command is an integral part of scoring the competition. Reports of pit bull type dogs refusing to release a bite grip is more likely a function of the breed's gameness - a willingness to engage in a task (such as combat and aggression) despite pain and discomfort.
A variant of the 'locking jaw' story is told by Tom Skeldon, Lucas County (Ohio), dog warden, who said that an impounded pit bull that had been used in fighting started "going wild," biting at the walls of the kennel. He shot the dog with a tranquilizer, and then left it for five minutes to let it pass out. When he came back the dog had indeed passed out, but not before it had leaped up and clamped its jaws on a cable used to open the door of the kennel. "Everything else was relaxed, the dog was out cold, but its jaws wouldn't let go of that cable, and he was hanging in midair," said Skeldon. "Not even a jaguar will do that." There is a video which shows live action where Skeldon is engaging a pitbull dog, and the judge who viewed the video believed that it showed animal abuse.
However, an incident reported by the Associated Press suggests that other breeds may also fail to relax their jaws when they become unconscious. An Albuquerque police officer was attacked, in October 2005, by a Belgian Malinois, a herding breed with no significant commonality with "pit bulls", other than that which makes them both dogs. The dog bit the officer on the arm. When the officer couldn't shake free, she shot the dog, killing it. Still, other officers had to come to her aid, and pry the dead dog's jaws off the officer's arm.
In addition to the "locking jaw" myth, it is widely believed that "pit bulls don't feel pain". However, pit bulls have the same nervous system of any other breed, and they can and do feel pain. Historically, those dogs that would tolerate or ignore discomfort and pain and finish the task they were required to perform were the dogs that were bred and the sort of dogs breeders strove to produce. This is the trait of “gameness” that so many breed fanciers speak of, which may be defined as, “The desire to continue on and/or complete a task despite pain and discomfort.” Therefore, the difficulty in deterring a pit bull from its task is in fact not an inability to feel pain but rather a desirable trait in any trained working dog.
Another urban myth surrounding this breed states that pit bulls are the only type of dog that are not affected by capsaicin-based dog-repellent sprays. In fact, many other dog breeds also display this resistance to pepper spray when they are attacking. Documented cases include Bull Mastiffs, Rottweilers and many German Shepherds (including Police K9s). In the words of two police officers, it is "not unusual for pepper spray not to work on dogs" and "just as OC spray doesn't work on all humans, it won't work on all canines".
It is also untrue that the pit bull is the only dog that will keep attacking after being sub-lethally shot. Rottweilers, Mastiffs and German Shepherds have all exhibited this capacity.
One of the most popular and baseless urban myths about pit bulls is that pit bulls often ‘turn’ on their owners without provocation. However, no sane dog performs behaviors for no reason. When aggression becomes a problem the reasons can often be traced to such things as improper handling, lack of socialization or training, a misreading of dog behavior by the owner, lack of discipline, or even disease. When an owner is startled by a sudden, aggressive outburst, it is generally because they have been unaware of problems that were brewing.
Research performed by GoodPooch.com director, Marjorie Darby, finds that dogs involved in attacks overwhelmingly have a known history of aggression, even though many dog owners deny or minimize this fact. The neighbours are usually a better source for documenting negative aspects of a dog's history, than its owners. As such, it is further evidence that dogs, including 'pit bulls', don't just "turn" on their owners. A followup to a CDC report on dog bite fatalities came to a similar conclusion.
Urban myths about pit bulls are well enough established to be spoofed, as in The Onion's mock caption 'Heroic Pit Bull Journeys 2,000 Miles to Attack Owner' (Apr 17, 2002) and 'Department Of Homeland Security Deputizes Real Mean Dog', a Rottweiler-Pit Bull-Doberman mix introduced to the press corps approvingly by Tom Ridge (May 21, 2003).
Many homeowner's insurance companies in the United States are reluctant to insure owners of dogs that are considered to be a dangerous breed, like Allstate, which will not insure homes with pit bulls or even boxers, akitas, chow chows, dobermans, rottweilers, or wolf hybrids. The CDC estimates that 368,245 persons were treated in U.S. hospitals for nonfatal dog bites in 2001, and that 2% of the U.S. population are attacked by dogs per year. These attacks most often occur on the owner's property.
Pit bulls are also most responsible for the number of fatal dog attacks, when the breed had been identified. The Pit Bull Terrier and Rottweiler in particular are often considered to contribute the most to the serious injuries caused by dog attacks and are the most common breeds that insurance companies will refuse to insure.
Some insurance companies have taken a compromise position, and will only insure pit bull owners if their dogs have achieved a Canine Good Citizen award.
In response to a number of well-publicized incidents involving dogs that resemble pit bulls, some jurisdictions began placing restrictions on the ownership of pit bulls, such as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in the UK, an example of breed-specific legislation. Many jurisdictions have outlawed the possession of Pit bulls, either pit bull breeds specifically, or in addition to other breeds that are regarded as dangerous.
Pit Bull Terriers are regulated in the United Kingdom under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, administered by the government agency DEFRA. It is illegal to own any of these dogs without a specific exemption from a court. Licensing is done by local governments, dogs must be muzzled and kept on a lead in public, they must be registered and insured, and receive microchip implants. In November 2002, The Princess Royal was fined £500 under the provisions of the Act.
The Canadian province of Ontario, on August 29, 2005 enacted a ban on Pit Bulls. It was the first province or state in North America to do so. The breeds listed in the ban can no longer be sold, bred, or imported and all pit bull owners must leash and muzzle their pit bulls in public. A 60 day grace period has been put in place to allow for owners to have their pit bulls spayed or neutered. Also it left a period to allow municipalities to adjust to the new law. Prior to the bill's passage, the Ontario government cited what it deemed the success of a pit bull bylaw passed by Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Pit bulls were not the #1 biting breed in Winnipeg's dog bite statistics, prior to the ban being implemented in 1990. After the ban, overall bite numbers increased by an average of almost 50 per year for the following decade. Bites by other breeds increased dramatically, including the #1 breed reported for biting, German Shepherds and their crosses, at close to 100 annual bites by 1992.
In the United States, Denver, Colorado was one of the pioneers of banning pit bulls. The city had legislation on the books since 1989, but was nullified by a 2004 law passed by the Colorado General Assembly prohibiting breed specific laws. However, it was overturned in April of 2005 after the city challenged in court the constitutionality of the law. The city reinstated the ban which prohibits citizens from keeping "pit bull type" dogs after May 9, 2005. Over 260 "pit bull type" dogs have been seized from their homes and euthanised since this date, resulting in widespread protest from dog owners and animal rights lobby groups. Since this legislation has passed over 1000 family pets have been taken from homes and destroyed.
No such ban on other dogs deemed dangerous has been enacted and no reporting of a decrease in dog bites has occurred.
Breed specific legislation that restricted pit bull ownership in Toledo, Ohio was struck down on March 3, 2006, by a 2-1 vote of the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals. The law had relied on a state definition of a vicious dog as one that has bitten or killed a human, has killed another dog, or "belongs to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog." The lack of legal recourse of a pit bull owner to appeal the vicious dog designation of a particular animal was one of the deficiencies of the legislation. For the majority, Judge William Skow wrote in Toledo v. Tellings: "Since we conclude that there is no evidence that pit bulls are inherently dangerous or vicious, then the city ordinance limitation on ownership is also arbitrary, unreasonable, and discriminatory." In other words, the court found the law to be unconstitutional and the case is currently in the Ohio Supreme Court as the city apparently wants to "keep" their unconstitutional law.
The State of Virginia now has Anti-BSL laws prohibiting cities and counties from banning a dog of certain breed or cross breed.
The State of Florida, Statute 767.14 forbids local governments in Florida from enacting breed specific laws unless the law was in place before October 1, 1990. Several communities, including Miami and Dade County (where Miami is located) had such laws in place before the law took effect and pit bull ownership is banned there.
The extent to which banning a particular breed is effective in reducing dog bite fatalities is contested. Some people maintain that pit bull attacks are directly attributable to irresponsible owners, rather than to any inherent defect in the breed itself. Other people believe that the Pit Bull Terrier is a breed that, although not inherently dangerous, needs a particularly knowledgeable and committed handler and should not be freely available to novice owners. Still others maintain that pit bulls as a breed are invariably more unpredictable and dangerous than other dogs even when properly trained, and have no place in society.
Pit bulls are said to be popular with irresponsible owners, who see these dogs as a symbol of status or machismo. This type of owner may be less likely to socialize, train, or desex their pet. It is known that unneutered male dogs account for a disproportionate amount of all fatal dog attacks, though neutering a dog will not stop aggression against humans. Some say that many of those who do not believe in altering male dogs also believe that having and training an aggressive dog "goes with the territory," so to speak. Irresponsible ownership can have a great impact on how a breed is represented in attack statistics.
Some people argue that banning the pit bull will simply result in irresponsible dog owners seeking to own other large breeds with similar temperament, such as the Dobermann, Rottweiler or German Shepherd Dog, resulting in an increased occurrence of dog bites from these breeds.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which maintains the United States' database on fatal wounds inflicted by dog bites, does not advocate breed-specific legislation, instead encouraging "Dangerous Dog" laws that focus on individual dogs of any breed that have exhibited aggressive behavior. The CDC study is also admittedly flawed due to a large number of dog breeds being unknown when the study was compiled. It bears mentioning that using newspaper reports as evidence is hardly the most valid data available.
Huntsville, Alabama police raided a dog-fighting arena on Feb 28, 2002 and seized 10 Pit Bulls. The city's attempt to legally euthanize four pit bull puppies, never trained to fight, was stopped by Madison County Circuit Court Judge Joe Battle, who ruled that the pit bull puppies were not dangerous by virtue of their genetics alone (AP Wire; Apr 6, 2002).
Huntsville appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which affirmed (City of Huntsville v. Sheila Tack et al., 1010459, S.C. Alabama; Aug 30, 2002) the Circuit Court opinion by a 6-2 vote; the written dissent addressed procedural matters of legal status of the parties, not the nature of the dogs. The puppies were adopted. Animal Rights group PETA sent the Judge a letter calling for the execution of all the pups. Ingrid Newkirk president of PETA, officially advocates the euthanasia of all pitbull dogs, and the illegalization of their breeding.
American Airlines banned "Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and any mixed breeds containing one or more of those breeds" in August of 2002 following an incident involving an American Pit Bull Terrier puppy that escaped from luggage into the cargo hold of an airliner, causing damage to the cargo hold. The American Kennel Club lobbied the airline to lift the restriction, arguing that the incident was merely one of improper restraint, and could have involved any dog breed.
The restriction was lifted in May of 2003 after a compromise was reached that requires portable dog carriers in the cargo hold to employ releasable cable ties on four corners of the door of the carrier.
Pit bulls are sometimes used for dog fights, due to their strength, courage, dog-aggressive tendencies and widespread availability. Although dog fighting is illegal in the United States, it is still practiced, and is sometimes accompanied by gambling. In the United States Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, it is a felony to organize, promote, be employed by, or wager on a dogfight, whether one is physically present at the fight or not. Laws vary in other states, but most states have some laws to address dogfighting.
Most people who own these breeds direct their dogs' plentiful energy toward nonviolent athletic tasks. Some people train their pit bulls for dog agility. Others involve their pit bulls in weight pulling competitions, obedience competitions or schutzhund. The pit bull often excels at these sports. Out of the 25 dogs who have earned UKC "superdog" status (by gaining championship titles in conformation, obedience, agility, and weightpull), fourteen have been pit bulls.
Pit bulls are increasingly being prevented from participating in these events, due to the introduction of local legislation requiring the breed to be muzzled and on leash at all times when in public — with no exceptions for dog sports or obedience competitions.
Although negative information about pit bulls is widespread and highly publicized, there are also many positive stories. Some work in hospitals and care facilities as certified therapy dogs, many are well-loved family pets, and some have even saved people's lives. There are many incidences of pit bulls being productively employed by U.S. Customs, as police K9s and as tracking K9s in various Search and Rescue organizations.
Often pit bulls have been reported to "adopt" other species of animals (such as kittens or squirrels), earning the breed the nickname "nanny dog".
A rescued pit bull called Popsicle is a United States Customs dog, and is famous for sniffing out one of the biggest cocaine busts in history.
In February, 2006, New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell published an article surveying the research on pit bulls which concluded that legal attempts to ban the breed were both crude and unnecessary.
In February 2007 a pit bull named "Chief" rescued his family of humans from a spitting cobra by dashing in front of the attacking snake and taking the deadly bite himself. Chief subdued the snake but died of the venom 30 minutes later.
* The US Military chose an image of a pit bull to represent America on WWI war posters
* The pit bull is the only dog to have ever appeared on the cover of Life Magazine three times.
* Bandog Dread was an American Pit Bull who won multiple titles in conformation, competition obedience, Schutzhund, weightpull and herding, making him the most titled dog of any breed ever.
* Daddy is a "pack member" of Cesar Millan's Dog Psychology Center. Dennis Rodman, Daddy’s original owner gave the four-month-old puppy to Cesar.
* Dakota is a rescue pit bull who searched for the remains of the astronauts who lost their lives in explosion of the space shuttle Columbia.
* Neville is a pit bull originally from Ontario. When the provincial pit bull ban went into effect he was rescued to Washington state, where he is now a police dog.
* Popsicle, named after police found him in a freezer during a drug raid, is now famous for sniffing out drugs for the DEA.