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

Do pit bulls get a bad rap? Experts weigh in.
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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.”

Bites, Bans, and More

Opponents argue that pit bulls are more likely to attack. But the ASPCA, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and some other groups have recommend against breed-specific laws. They cite a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association on Sept. 15, 2000. 

The study, which focused on fatal dog attacks, notes difficulties identifying various breeds (particularly mixed breeds) and in calculating a bite rate. The researchers noted that there isn’t consistent data on breed populations and bites, especially when the injury isn’t serious enough to require an ER visit.

Reid says many things can lead to a tendency toward aggression. That includes breeding dogs for protection, dog  fighting, social status, or financial gain. Abuse, neglect, chaining, tethering, and inadequate obedience training and supervision also make the list.

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