Pitbulls: Everything You Need to Know

Whether you love them, fear them or are on the fence about them, pit bull terriers are extremely popular and part of just about every community in the U.S. And while the dogs enjoy increasing popularity, many people who still aren’t sure about them buy the many myths and hysteria that surrounds them, and Best Friends wants to help folks learn the truth about pit bull terriers. Here you can learn all about pit bulls, including why millions of people choose to share their homes with the dogs everyone seems to be talking about.

Pitbull rescue and advocacy

Why does Best Friends care so much about pit bulls? Because if we didn’t, thousands of much-loved family pets would never have their chance at a happy life. Every dog, no matter the breed, is an individual with unique and valuable qualities. Right now, thousands of families have one or more pit bull–type dogs as pets. Some are mellow couch potatoes, some are lightning-fast agility dogs, some are service or therapy dogs, and many more are simply someone’s best friend. We believe that’s worth caring about.

Roxy the pit bull terrier changed an autistic boy’s life

For every pit bull terrier we place in a home, there’s the potential for him or her to be as special as Roxy, who, with no special training, changed an autistic boy’s life.

Best Friends believes we must fight breed discrimination to Save Them All. We care because wonderful pit bull terrier–like puppies and dogs are languishing in shelters across the country, where they often end up being killed instead of getting adopted. Because pit bull terriers have become so popular, some people are overbreeding them. Others neglect to have their dogs spayed or neutered, resulting in unwanted litters. These two factors have led to an influx of pit bull terrier–like dogs in shelters. When there are a lot of the same types of pets available for adoption, people can easily get overwhelmed when trying to choose one to bring home, and they often end up leaving the shelter without a pet.

Those dogs never get to realize their full potential as companions, therapy dogs, service animals and even drug- or bomb-sniffing dogs. Best Friends’ no-kill mission means righting the misconceptions these dogs face, because it means the difference between good dogs going on to good homes, or quietly dying alone in a shelter somewhere.

Over the years, Best Friends has cared for and found homes for thousands of pit bull terriers, including 22 dogs seized from NFL star Michael Vick when he was convicted for dog fighting.

We have pit bulls available for adoption from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in southern Utah and Best Friends adoption centers in Los Angeles, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and through Best Friends’ program in New York City.

And through Best Friends’ pit bull terrier initiatives, staff work tirelessly to ensure that any responsible person who wants to have a pit bull terrier as a family pet is free to do so.

“Pitbull breeds: Is there such a thing?”

Georgia is one of 22 dogs seized from NFL star Michael Vick when he was convicted for dog fighting

One of the most challenging aspects in the conversation about pit bulls is that not only are they one of the most misidentified types of dogs, there’s a lack of agreement about exactly what breed or breeds of dogs are pit bulls, and what are not.

The term “pit bull” or “pitbull” refers to a type of dog, rather than one breed everyone is in agreement on. “Pit bulls” are not recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), though some recognized AKC breeds, like the American Staffordshire terrier, are often called pit bulls by the general public. The United Kennel Club (UKC) does recognize the American pit bull terrier as a breed. Meanwhile, the term has come to be used interchangeably to refer to a number of breeds, or even mixed breeds with unknown parentage.

Breed enthusiasts and detractors alike can have strong opinions about what a pit bull is — and isn’t. But when people refer to “pit bulls” it could mean any of the following breeds or combination of breeds:

  • American bulldog
  • American Staffordshire terrier
  • American pit bull terrier
  • Staffordshire bull terrier
  • English bull terrier

While dog breeders and other enthusiasts may debate the pitbull label ad nauseam in their circles, the issue becomes important to the public when antiquated laws, ordinances, insurance policies, military housing and rental leases exclude “pit bulls.”  

Pitbull dog history

Though there’s little consensus today about what a “pitbull” (or pit bull terrier) actually is, most dogs encompassed by the label originate from bulldogs. Bulldogs were bred in England starting in the 1600s, for use in the brutal sport of bull baiting.

Before more modern ideas about animal cruelty took hold, people would attend weekly bull baiting for entertainment. A bull was held in a pit, and the dogs’ job was to immobilize the bull, biting it about the head.

Thankfully, the sport has been banned for over a hundred years, and in that time, the dogs went from being prized fighters to family pets.

Identifying pitbulls today

You might as well use a Ouija board. While there’s little consensus as to what a pit bull is, it’s also true that many combinations of mixed breed dogs have characteristics similar to the several breeds commonly called “pit bulls.” That’s how many mixed breed dogs, or dogs with unknown parentage, end up being labeled pit bulls.

Today, any dog with a short coat, wide head and muscular build might be labeled a pit bull. The thing is, infinite combinations of breed mixes can look like that. It may be a boxer and Dalmatian mix, or a beagle, mastiff and retriever mix, or a dog that’s several generations of mixed breeds. For some dogs labeled as pit bulls, when their DNA is tested it’s nearly impossible to assign even one main breed.

In fact, many dogs who do have pit bull–like breeds in their DNA don’t fit the physical description at all. Try taking this test to see if you can identify which dogs are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. The fact is, breed doesn’t matter as much as some people think it does. Dogs, like people, are individuals and should be judged by their behavior, not their appearance.

The only way to truly determine a dog’s breed or mix of breeds is through DNA testing, which is becoming more widely used. DNA testing has shown that dogs some people would quickly identify as pit bulls often contain no DNA from any purebred dog that might fall under the label “pitbull.”

Pit bulls and perception

Pit bull terrier snuggling with a kittyPit bulls were America’s darling dogs for many years. Famous and influential people had them, and due to their loving and loyal nature, pit bulls were featured in ad campaigns. But in the 1980s, after pit bull terrier–type dogs became popular with irresponsible dog owners, the dogs fell prey to sensationalized stories in the media, which led to panic policy making. That media bias still clouds how some misinformed Americans view the dogs today.

Throughout history, dog breed trends have changed, with different breeds topping the charts for popularity, as well as perceived danger. Breeds tend to fall in and out of favor, and either end of the spectrum can be bad news for the dogs themselves.

In the post–Civil War era, bloodhounds were the dogs who struck fear in Americans’ hearts. Interestingly, this coincided with the rise of newspapers. Then Nordic breeds became the dogs everyone was afraid of, after newspapers ran stories about people being attacked by roving packs of huskies or malamutes in Canada. Around World War II, the most feared dogs were German shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans, as these breeds were favored by the German army, and were often used as guard dogs.

Several factors contribute to a particular breed of dog becoming pegged as dangerous. The media plays a key role by labeling (and often even mis-labeling) dogs involved in bites or attacks as a certain breed. Any breed that becomes popular with people who keep “guard dogs” is in danger of being feared by the public. These cases are detrimental to the image of all dogs of that breed, even if the vast majority are sweet, loving family pets.

Today, the breed most maligned by the media is the pit bull terrier. Unfortunately, they’ve joined the ranks of bloodhounds, Newfoundlands, huskies, German shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans, sharing the negative limelight for the past couple decades. The good news, though, is that through tireless efforts to right the dogs’ reputation, advocates who love the dogs are beginning to shift the public’s misperceptions about pit bulls.

Famous pit bull fans

Over the years, pit bull–like dogs have endeared themselves to some well-known people, from presidents to television stars. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson lived with pit bull terrier companions. Other notable people in history who loved and had pit bulls include Helen Keller, John Steinbeck, Billie Holiday, Thomas Edison, Dr. Seuss, Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire.

In recent years, famous pit bull fans include Jon Stewart, Ira Glass, Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Rachael Ray, Serena Williams, and many more.

Famous pit bulls in history and advertising

One of the earliest and most famous pit bull terrier–like dogs was Stubby. The scrappy little stray became a war dog in World War I, eventually earning the rank of sergeant for his acts of bravery. He saved his regiment from mustard gas attacks, serving alongside human soldiers in battle trenches in France for 18 months, surviving a dozen battles.

He returned home to America with a special coat, on which were pinned his many medals. He got a hero’s welcome, marching in parades across the country, and when he died in 1926, his obituary in the New York Times was half a page long.

Petey, the faithful canine friend to kids on Our Gang (also known as the Little Rascals), was a pit bull, and through the years, dogs like him have been used in advertising for everything from shoes to the U.S. military. Pit bulls have been featured on the cover of Life magazine three times — more than any other dog.

Pit bull terrier myths and truths

Myths may mean the difference between life and death. Best Friends legislative attorney Lee Greenwood says, “When people believe myths about any dog breed, it leads to all sorts of problems. They don’t get adopted from shelters, and lawmakers pass bad laws that discriminate against dogs who even look like them.” But there’s good news, too.

Truth be told, no breed of dog is bad or dangerous, and pit bull terriers are just like every other dog. All dogs are individuals. Here, Lee addresses some of the most common myths about America’s dog, the pit bull terrier. Consider it a crash course that can have a real impact on these often-misunderstood pets.

Are pitbulls dangerous?

Myth: Pit bull terriers are more aggressive than other dogs.

The truth: The American Temperament Test Society, which provides a uniform national program of temperament testing for dogs, has found that pit-bull-terrier-like dogs passed the test at a higher rate than many other dog breeds, such as golden retrievers and border collies. Some people think these dogs are somehow physiologically and genetically different from other dogs, but they aren’t.

Myth: It’s easy to identify a dog’s breed by looking at him or her.

The truth: It’s been shown that almost 90 percent of shelter dogs visually identified as a particular breed are not identified accurately. When we look at dogs of unknown parentage, the best we can do is guess at their breed, and it turns out that even dog experts are usually wrong. We label them with breeds that aren't actually in their genetic makeup, and we often aren't able to identify breeds that are in their genetic makeup.  

This misidentification becomes a huge problem when municipalities pass laws and ordinances that contain provisions discriminating against dogs of certain breeds, such as pit bull terriers. The laws end up adversely affecting not only dogs of the targeted breeds, but many other dogs who simply look like them.

Myth: Some dog breeds are more dangerous than others.

The truth: A peer-reviewed study found that nearly 85 percent of dog bite fatalities were from unneutered dogs, and the co-occurring factors that led to bites were things like lack of socialization and positive interactions with people and animals, abuse or neglect, and tethering for long periods of time. Breed had nothing to do with it.

Myth: Pit bull terriers have locking jaws that make their bites more dangerous.

The truth: Pit bull terriers are physiologically no different from any other dog out there. There are no locking jaws; it just doesn’t exist.

Myth: Pit bull terriers are not family dogs. Only bad people have them.

The truth: According to Vetstreet.com, the American pit bull terrier is one of the top three favorite breeds in 28 states. So, the idea that they’re reserved for certain types of people is false. There are millions of these dogs in our country, and they’re family pets, therapy dogs and service animals, just like other dogs. Any kind of dog can make a great pet.

Breed-specific legislation (BSL) / Breed-discriminatory legislation

All dogs are individuals and deserve a chance for a happy life, including pit bull terriersBest Friends Animal Society believes all dogs are individuals and deserve a chance for a happy life.

In fact, one of Best Friends' main initiatives involves working to eliminate breed discrimination. Currently, the dogs and puppies that are the most frequently and unjustly targeted are pit bull terriers. The simple truth is that all pit bull terriers are individuals and just as safe and gentle as any other dog. Scientific studies have proven it.

Best Friends is committed to ending breed discrimination and to changing public perception with facts, statistics and stories that illustrate the true nature of these loving canines. Documentary films like The Champions, which chronicles life after the fighting ring for the dogs rescued from the property of football star Michael Vick, are key to telling that story.

As of the end of 2015, 19 states have passed provisions against breed-discriminatory legislation, and we’re working every day to increase that number.

It’s time that the public knows the truth, too. The prejudice against pit-bull-terrier-like dogs has led to breed bans and other forms of breed-discriminatory legislation or breed-specific legislation, forcing many people to give up their beloved pets. In America, responsible people should be allowed to love and care for any breed of dog they choose. It’s that simple. Working together, we can ensure that every loving pet — no matter the breed — receives a loving home.

Learn more about pitbulls and get involved

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