Pit Bulls: An Inherently Aggressive or Just Misunderstood Breed?

The pit bull, known for being the dog of choice in dogfighting with its muscular build and powerful jaw, has generated a stereotype of being an inherently aggressive breed over the years. Just this March, a 3-year-old boy was killed by two pit bulls. Two months later in May, a 1-month-old baby was attacked by a pit bull mix and unfortunately succumbed to his injuries. These stories of people being mauled and attacked by pit bulls in the media are prevalent and numerous. This negative depiction of pit bulls in the media along with negative reports and incidents have portrayed pit bulls as aggressive and undesirable breeds. In fact, pit bulls are banned in 12 countries around the world including Canada, France, New Zealand, Finland, and Denmark. But is it really true that pit bulls are a naturally aggressive breed?

American Staffordshire Terrier

Lots of data would suggest that pitbulls are an aggressive breed. For example, in 2009, the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia released a five-year review of dog bite injuries stating that 51% of these attacks were by pit bulls. Another study by the American Journal of Forensic Medicine, also in 2009, concluded that pit bulls, German shepherds and Rottweilers are the most common breeds causing fatal attacks in Kentucky State; however, a lot of data says otherwise, indicating that pitbulls are not aggressive at all. A study in 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the most aggressive dog breed was not the pit bull but rather smaller dog breeds. The ASPCA even went so far to describe pit bulls as “one of the most delightful, intelligent, and gentle dogs imaginable.” Pit bulls have been popular family pets for very long because of their gentleness, affection, and loyalty. Moreover, the American Pit Bull Terrier, often viewed as highly aggressive, has consistently been ranked as one of the least aggressive dogs; it has also been found that they are amongst one of the most tolerant breeds.  

Over the years, studies have further found that there is a large variation in dog aggression within each breed. For example, beagles and cocker spaniels are more aggressive than most dogs towards their own owners while Jack Russell terriers, pit bulls and Akitas tend to be more aggressive towards other dogs. Australian cattle dogs, Australian shepherds and Doberman pinschers (but not pit bulls) were rated most aggressive towards strangers, whereas tiny dogs like Dachshunds and Chihuahuas were found to be most aggressive towards almost everything

American Pit Bull Terrier

Another recent sample with more than 4000 responses revealed that out of the 35 most common breeds, Chihuahuas were reported to be the most aggressive. Chihuahuas lacking training are dangerous to control but not viewed as aggressive by the majority due to their tiny size. Another study at Helsinki University supports the fact that smaller dogs tend to be more aggressive. The study found that more than 49% of small dog breeds have aggressive tendencies compared to large dog breeds. This may be hard to believe but can be explained as aggression in smaller dogs is easy to be overlooked while aggression in larger dog breeds – especially pit bulls with their dog fighting reputation – can easily lead to somebody feeling threatened or getting hurt. 

Many people have questioned the accuracy of studies and researches carried out against pit bulls for two main reasons. Firstly, most people are unable to identify a pit bull correctly. The term pit bull is a generic term for a type of dog descended from bulldogs and terriers. Different types of pit bulls include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. A study in 2013 showed that it is common for media and official accounts of dog breeds to have varied in cases. Other recent studies have shown that workers have misidentified dog breeds from 50-87% of the time. Additionally, when hospital records are made, they rely only on the report of the victim, parents or witness to attest to the breed of the dog and no DNA tests are made. Secondly, cases of aggression from smaller dogs are not commonly reported as they are not big enough to cause many concerns. On the other hand, pit bulls are large and strong, so while they may not be as aggressive as Chihuahuas, the few that are therefore seem unquestionably more dangerous. Consequently, cases of aggressive pit bulls are far more likely to be reported. 

With conflicting data, it is hard to pinpoint the correct answer; however, there is one important factor that many people and studies have overlooked: the owner. The dog’s owner plays a large role in the dog’s behavior, as shown by a study conducted by the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2006 which found that the most aggressive dogs are owned by people with criminal records for aggressive crimes like alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and illegal possession or irresponsible use of firearms. An owner’s experience also matters: it has been proven that the first dog someone owns is usually more aggressive than the dogs they get later on. 

Dogs who kill often share the same backgrounds: they are often chained outside and away from human interaction, where they would typically develop normal social behaviors towards people. In addition, many pit bulls are abused – in 2011, PETA declared pit bulls to be the most abused dog breed in the world – such that aggressive and violent behavior is incited in the dog. Most people killed by pit bulls are small kids who wander onto the dog’s property and the dog, never having been socialized, suddenly feels threatened and does the only thing it can think of: attack. Sara Enos, founder and president of the American Pit Bull Foundation, said that blaming attacks on pit bulls is wrong as it is not the dog’s fault, but the owner’s. 

“It really boils down to being responsible owners,” she said, “Any dog from any breed can be aggressive, it matters how it’s treated.”

American Bully

In conclusion, although massive and fierce-looking, pit bulls are a largely misunderstood breed and can be just as caring and gentle as Golden Retrievers. The fact that pit bulls do cause more deaths than other dog breeds points to a larger problem: the dog’s owner. When trained and treated right, aggression can be avoided, which can be vouched for by millions of pit bull owners around the world. The real question we should be asking is, “How can we train people to be better dog owners?”

-Chriselle Tham

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by The Update. We encourage anyone who would like to send an opinion piece to sign up in the join us section of the website.

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