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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Bad Rap has been around for 15 years and there is a long list of pit-bull advocacy groups and a few documentaries are out. They still have not been able to restore the image for pit-type dogs in a positive light. When you have to work this hard to try to restore an image for a type of dog and are still failing, it's because the public is not buying into your bull. There are still a million pit-type dogs that get euthanized at shelters every year. I follow dangerous dogs attacks on humans and on pets as every good dog advocate should. As long a the public keeps hearing news stories of people & people's pets mauled or killed by pit-type bull dogs, the public is going to steer away from getting a pit-type dog for a family pet. This debate is over when pit-type dogs stop making the news for mauling and killing people and their pets and is not a threat to public safety. When is a pit type dog not a pit type dog as soon as it has mauled or killed a person or their beloved pet.

In 2013, 20,000 cats and dogs were killed by pit type dogs. Shelters and rescues groups are promoting pit-type dogs for adoption, many have the label: should be the only pet or not good with cats. Dog should be placed in childless home. What does that exactly mean? Are they implying that the animal is dangerous towards other animals or kids? Who would adopt an animal that could be potentially dangerous towards other animals and kids. Are we setting up the guardian and dog for failure?

I do agree most pit-type dogs have not hurt anyone but many have and it's has become a public safety issue. I watched that documentary 'Beyond the myth'. I cried like a baby and I was madder than hell when Coco was taken away from her family and destroyed because she was a pit type dog. But I have come to realize it's not the pit bull haters who are the problem (these people have been devastated by a pit attack), it's the pit advocates who are the problem, that are trying to save them all and passing out the dangerous ones out like candy. And letting the breeders get away with overproducing. Pretending that pit-type dogs has not been responsible for doing the most mauling and killing of people and pets is not helping to save them or making the problem go away. They need a new strategy, we have been in this crisis for 10 years with a million pit type dogs being killed a shelters each year. When we see pit type dogs not being surrender to shelters by the millions then we will know the are finally saved!

Two other important links for you to read, if you do really care about pit-bull type dogs:

Esmirna Latorre

one year ago i adopted a 4 years old pit bull,he is so sweet, loving dog in my home, i have 3 more dogs, he is very nice with them, we love him so much...he is nice with any person or animal that came to my home.. i am so proud of him ...

Karla Galba

Hi..I live in Denver and adopted a pure bred gsd about 18 mos ago..she loves people and is perfect except that she has a huge prey aggression(rabbits and squirrels drive her nuts!) and she seems to hate other dogs..we've had her about 18mos and just recently got her socialized with a husky and they play date at least once a week.She is perfest with him and nevert tries to attack him,even tho they play pretty rough alot of the time.cant figure out what happened to her before I got her as gal said she had no history at all on Sable.Does anyone have any clue as to what her past held?Was she being trained to fight and kill other dogs,was she just never socialized?etc.are there any tricks someone can give me to undo whatever made her like she is??would sure appreciate the help.


While the vast majority of "pit bulls" may be loving and wonderful family members, they also account for the largest proportion of deaths, maimings, and injuries by an overwhelmingly wide margin. No animal should EVERY be mistreated and every healthy dog deserves a safe, warm, welcoming, and caring environment. But, the ASPCA is being a bit disingenuous when it fails to fully warn potential adoption families of the risks surrounding pit bulls.
Sadly, another pit bull killed his pet parent this Christmas.
Please, ASPCA, be a part of the solution and start informing families of the risks posed by pit bulls. Please.