What Puts Pit Bulls in Peril

Monday, July 28, 2014 - 1:30pm
Close up of cute red puppy

By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker

In my job, I see a lot of pit bulls, whether at an Austin shelter, a rescue in Los Angeles, or here in our New York City offices, where we occasionally foster dogs from the ASPCA Adoption Center.

I look forward to each visit, not just because I'm typically greeted with a clownish grin, big open paws, and a wildly flapping tail, but because each pit bull I meet is also an individual, distinct character.

This is why prejudice against the pit bull breed, which is really a combination of many breeds,makes no practical sense.

This isn't just a rhetorical debate; the lives of millions of animals are at stake. So it's important to identify what we actually know about this maligned and often misidentified breed, as well as what we don't know.

We know, for example, that every dog—even dogs within the same breed—is different. That's what makes each unique, special and beloved by its human family.

We also know that dogs' personalities aren't based on just a single influence any more than our own personalities are. A dog's behavior is a function of breeding, yes, but also just as strongly affected by socialization, training, environment, and how it's treated by its owners.

Historically, some pit bulls were bred to fight other dogs. Early bulldogs, forbearers of the modern pit bull, were pitted against bulls, bears and other large animals. When these fights were banned in the 1800s, people turned instead to fighting their dogs against each other. But even these dogs, bred to be aggressive to other dogs, were not bred to be aggressive toward people, since fighting dogs must tolerate frequent handling by the humans who train and fight them. Meanwhile, other pit bulls were bred expressly for work and companionship.

Pit bulls have long been popular family pets, noted for their affection and loyalty, but you don't hear much about gentle, loving pit bulls in the media because a well-behaved dog doesn't make headlines.

In American shelters, you'll find lots of pit bulls—with lots of different personalities. What they share in common is a sad fate. Because shelters and animal control facilities take in more pit bulls than any other breed, innocent pit bulls are euthanized more often than any other kind of dog.

At the ASPCA, we've seen and we study many factors that contribute to behavior development in dogs, resulting in sharp behavioral variations—even between dogs of the same breed. A pit bull bred for generations to fight may not fight, just as a Golden Retriever bred for generations as a service dog may bite.

But there are consistent measures owners can take to prevent or curb aggressive dog behavior. For example, if you chain or tether your dog outside, and isolate it from humans, you increase the risk that it will develop aggressive behavior. We also know that early, positive behavioral conditioning, including socialization, is probably the best way to reduce the likelihood of aggressive tendencies in dogs.

Puppies that learn to interact and play with people and other dogs are less likely to show aggression as adult animals. Finally, we know that no matter its breed or background, every dog needs to be raised responsibly, including early socialization, proper training and supervision.

States across the country largely agree that targeting breeds serves no useful purpose. Currently, no statewide policies discriminate against certain dog breeds, and 18 states have taken the extra step to ban breed-specific legislation, or BSL, most recently South Dakota and Utah. Even the White House has weighed in against laws that target specific breeds. Last year, the Obama Administration put out a clear statement saying, "We don't support breed-specific legislation -- research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources... the simple fact is that dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they're intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive."

The statement also noted that the Centers for Disease Control concluded "the types of people who look to exploit dogs aren't deterred by breed regulations" and "it's virtually impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds."

The ASPCA supports breed-neutral dangerous dog laws that focus not on breed but on individual dog behavior, as well as laws that prohibit prolonged chaining and tethering, and legislation that holds dog owners accountable for the behavior of their pets.

Ask pit bull owners about their pets, and you'll hear the same things you'd expect from proud owners of beagles, retrievers, pugs, Labradors, or any blend among them. I encourage you to read about Domingo, Blue, and Spike through the words of loving owners who recently adopted those pit bulls from the ASPCA.

I've fostered a number of pit bulls over the years, many of whom were rescued from horrific cruelty. I'm reminded of Dawson, the white pit who was kept in a closet and beaten with weights; Taz, a brindle pit who was found in a dumpster in 2003; and Champ, a caramel-and-white pit who was being trained to fight. Each of them was loving, playful, loyal, and affectionate. And each was, at one time, on a short and certain path to sadistic abuse or euthanasia, but is now in a loving home.

Not every dog is a good match for every prospective owner, so educate yourself before adopting. Compare a dog's need for exercise with your availability to take it on frequent walks and runs. Compare its medical requirements to your ability to provide that care. And compare its behavior, as documented and explained by shelter staff, with your family's ability to maintain and manage that behavior. When taking in a new pet, ask questions, consider potential challenges, and remember that small children should never be left unsupervised around animals.

Understanding dog behavior, providing dogs with the care they need and the supervision expected by family and neighbors—these are the best ways to keep pets and people safe, to celebrate the joy pets bring to our lives, and to end the myths that unfairly and tragically cost so many their lives.

Not all families will open their homes to a pit bull, but I hope many will open their minds.

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Kimberley Schmidt

Sadly the Pit Bull remains a status dog and unfortunately those wanting to tout this status do nothing to promote the breed but rather neglect, abuse and throw away these dogs. My concern as a dog owner regarding pit bulls raised even the right way, exists because my dog is seen as prey to larger dogs and while a Labrador can bite; it can not lock it's jaw like a pit bull. The jaw on a pit bull can crush bones. So while I certainly understand your blog regarding the pit bull as so misunderstood and so mistreated breed, the bottom line is all dogs can be unpredictable and I would much rather chance my dog getting bit by any other dog other than a pit bull.

I love my Pittie

You are right that some people abuse and use this breed as a status dog. You are wrong about a Pit bull being able to "lock" it's jaws...this is simply fear propaganda put out there from people who have no understanding of the breed. I have worked with all types of breeds and under all kinds of sad circumstances and I will say that MOST Pits, even those that come from horrible situations, are loving, gentle, goofy, and very loyal. They are strong dogs, but not any more dangerous than any large dog. Just because a dog is larger than your dog does not automatically trigger a prey drive. My 55 lb. staffordshire is terrified of lizards! I do understand caution with any dog but I feel the media has done this breed a huge injustice.


True that they can't literally lock their jaws, the problem is that their jaws are so strong and that they refuse to let go. So much so that people have to use crowbars and screw drivers and "break sticks" in order to get a pit bull to release it's victim. There's no conspiracy, look at the facts, these are dangerous, unpredictable dogs that shouldn't be anywhere near small children. There's a reason they're banned in so many cities and countries and it's not because they've been mislead, it's because they care about public safety.

Ronda Laventure

I respectfully disagree with your characterization -Pit bulls are not all dangerous dogs-to use your words -look at the facts-a Pit bull is not any more dangerous if raised properly and treat kindly than any other breed.


I laughed at the "terrified of lizards"! I have a 90 lb Pit mix that is afraid of Cats and Squirrels. I joke that he's the worst watch dog in the world :) Luckily he has a Westie that scares the 'dangerous intruders' away.

bryanna lucas

what is pittie if its pit bull you should not call it that thats a rachit name


The persistent myth that pit bulls can lock their jaws is just that: a myth. A quick Google will show it is not true.

vet student

Hi, I am a 2nd year veterinary student with an interest in shelter medicine and a particularly soft spot for pit bulls. It is a common myth that pit bull jaws lock. In fact, their jaws are anatomically no different than any other dog and do not lock. Further, studies have shown that their bite strength is comparable to similarly sized dogs, and that German Shepherds and Rottweilers (two more breeds often discriminated against with BSL but not as incendiary as pits) have stronger bites ( In addition, if you want to discuss likelihood to bite, small dogs, including Dachshunds, are more likely to bite (most likely because their owners do not properly train or socialize them because they are small and not seen as a danger, even though any bite has the potential to cause damage and is a public health risk). It is not enough for someone to say they empathize with the plight of the pit bull and then continue to remain misinformed and try to tout this misinformation as knowledge supporting their prejudice.

Kimberley Schmidt

However, I have never read anything anywhere discussing a dachshund attacking a child, an adult or killing a dog by shaking it in it's mouth-on the other hand I have read countless accounts of this occurring with pit bulls and other large dogs with the pack mentality. I stand by my reply.


And you are who this article is written for. People like you have made up their minds contrary to scientific fact and will stand by your statements regardless. That's fine, you don't need to adopt a pit bull but don't use your ignorance by choice to hurt pit bulls by spreading lies.