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Pit Bulls: What's Hype, What's Not

Do pit bulls get a bad rap? Experts weigh in.
By Pamela Babcock
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Doberman pinschers, rottweilers, and German shepherds topped lists of dogs some considered dangerous in the not-too-distant past.

These days, pit bulls often make headlines and it’s rarely good news. If it isn’t about an attack on a child or a shooting by police, it’s a tale of neglect or abuse. The heat of such reports has forged a frightening image of the pit bull as having a hair-trigger temper and a lock-jawed bite.

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But pit bull advocates and some experts say the dogs get a bad rap. They say the dogs are not inherently aggressive, but in many cases suffer at the hands of irresponsible owners drawn to the dog's macho image who encourage aggression for fighting and protection.

Indeed, the ASPCA web site gives the breed an endorsement that could fit a golden retriever. It says, “A well-socialized and well-trained pit bull is one of the most delightful, intelligent, and gentle dogs imaginable.”

In general, pit bulls aren’t aggressive with people but are “less tolerant” of other dogs than many other breeds, says Pamela Reid, PhD, vice president of the ASPCA’s Animal Behavior Center in New York. They also have “great tenacity. They put their mind to something, and they do it. That’s what makes them great dogs for sports like weight pulling. They are very strong, athletic animals," Reid says.

Owning a pit bull should not be taken lightly. Some cities and towns have banned the breed. You also may face rising insurance rates or cancellation of your policy, difficulty renting, and the watchful eye of neighbors and passersby.

Origins and Nature

The American Pit Bull Terrier is technically the only true pit bull, although the American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier are often referred to as pit bulls. So are a handful of other breeds and mixed breeds.

Pit bulls were originally used for bull- and bear-baiting, and later were bred to fight dogs in an arena. They had “a fabulous reputation early on and were considered the ideal family pet because they were so good with people,” Reid says.

“Petey” from The Little Rascals was a pit bull. Helen Keller, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Fred Astaire all had the breed as family pets.

But the tide turned in the late 1990s, when pit bulls became popular among people who "weren’t focused on the positive attributes of the breed - they were looking for a strong, scary-looking dog," Reid says.

National Attention

The abuse of pit bulls drew national attention in 2007, when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to running a dog-fighting operation. He spent nearly two years in federal prison.

Jim Gorant, a Sports Illustrated senior editor and author of The Lost Dogs, a book that documents Vick’s dogs and their path to redemption, says pit bulls are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of incrimination and bad ownership.

“Every dog is an individual,” Gorant says. “Pit bulls are just dogs and if they are not raised properly and socialized and treated right, they can have behavior problems. But they aren’t any more problematic than any other breed by nature.”

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