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Dangerous dogs pit bull myths

In the 3-year period from 2006 to 2008, pit bull type dogs killed 52 Americans and accounted for 59% of all fatal attacks. Combined, pit bulls and rottweilers accounted for 73% of these deaths.

Pit bull myths ::

Pit bull owners, breeders and animal advocacy groups have created a slew of myths and distortions about the pit bull breed to counter breed-specific laws. Below are the top 10 myths.

Myth #1: It's the owner not the breed

The outdated debate, "It's the owner, not the breed," has caused the pit bull problem to grow into a 30-year old problem.1 Designed to protect pit bull breeders and owners, the slogan ignores the genetic history of the breed and blames these horrific maulings -- inflicted by the pit bull's genetic "hold and shake" bite style -- on environmental factors. While environment plays a role in a pit bull's behavior, it is genetics that leaves pit bull victims with permanent and disfiguring injury.

The pit bull's genetic traits are not in dispute. Many U.S. courts agree that pit bulls pose a significant danger to society and can be regulated accordingly. Some of the genetic traits courts have identified include: unpredictability of aggression, tenacity ("gameness" the refusal to give up a fight), high pain tolerance and the pit bull's "hold and shake" bite style.2 According to forensic medical studies, similar injuries have only been found elsewhere on victims of shark attacks.3

Perpetuators of this myth also cannot account for the many instances in which pit bull owners and family members are victimized by their pet dogs. From 2005 to 2011, pit bulls killed 128 Americans, about one citizen every 20 days. Of these attacks, 51% (65) involved a family member and a household pit bull.4 In the first 8 months of 2011, nearly half of those killed by a pit bull was its owner -- one was even an "avid supporter" of Bad Rap, a recipient of Michael Vick's dogs.5

Myth #2: It's impossible to identify a pit bull

Pit bull advocates frequently claim that the average person cannot correctly identify a pit bull. As discussed in the Pit Bull FAQ, the pit bull is a class of dogs made up of several close breeds. This false claim is designed to confuse the public just as the pit bull breed's history of changing names is intended to do. As recently told to us by a top U.S. animal control enforcement officer, "If it looks like a pit bull, it usually is."

Pit bull advocates have even created deceptive online tests to further confuse the media, policymakers and the public. These tests are inaccurate and intentionally crafted to show that the average person could not correctly identify a pit bull. has created a more realistic test that shows a variety of popular dog breeds. Once one begins to understand the frame, posture and distinct head and jaw size of a pit bull type dog, identification is immediate.

Can you identify the pit bull?

Given the enormous amount of press coverage of Michael Vick's pit bulls, television shows devoted to pit bulls, such as DogTown by National Geographic and Pit Bulls and Parolees by Animal Planet, and the constant production of "positive pit bull" stories by the pit bull community, it seems unlikely that the average person cannot identify a pit bull. Pro-pit bull groups cannot on one hand parade such imagery and on the other hand say the public cannot identify a pit bull.

The only two instances in which pit bulls are "misidentified" (according to pit bull advocacy logic) is after a serious or deadly attack or when a breed-specific law is being tested.

Myth #3: Human-aggressive pit bulls were "culled"

Historically, it is believed that dogfighters removed human-aggressive pit bulls from the gene pool. "Man biters," as dogmen referred them, were "culled" to prevent dog handlers from suffering vicious bites. However, dogmen themselves and pedigrees show a different story. As far back as 1909, George Armitage shares a story in, "Thirty Years with Fighting Dogs." He describes Caire's Rowdy as not a mere man-biter, but as a "man-eater," the most dangerous biter of all.6

In more modern years, a substantial number of champion (CH), grand champion (GR CH) and register of merit (ROM) fighting dogs carry the title of a man-biter or a man-eater. These pit bulls were championship-breeding stock, whose famed owners never for a moment considered culling the dogs. Some of the most well known dogs include: Adams' GR CH Zebo, Indian Bolio ROM,Garner's CH Chinaman ROM, Gambler's GR CH Virgil and West's CH Spade (man-eater).7

In 1974, after a series of high profile news articles written by Wayne King and published by the New York Times, the image of the ferocious fighting pit bull moved from the shadowy world of dogmen into the mainstream. This period, between 1975 and 1979, is known as the "leakage period" when the breeding of pit bulls drastically increased through gang members and drug dealers, who wanted the "toughest dog" on the block, as well as by pet pit bull breeders.8

While some dogmen of the past may have culled human-aggressive dogs to keep their stock free of man-biters, once the leakage period began, there is no evidence that similar selective pressures were maintained.9 As early as 1980, pit bull attacks begin headlining newspapers, "Another Pit Bull Attack Reported; Boy, 8 Slashed," as well as reports about pit bull owners trying to bolster the breed's "deteriorating" public image, 

Myth #4: Fatal attack statistics about pit bulls are false

Pro-pit bull groups argue that the 20-year fatal dog attack study (from 1979 to 1998) issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2000 is inaccurate because the study relied "in part" on newspaper articles. Pit bull advocates say that pit bull fatalities are more extensively reported by the media, therefore the authors of the study (most holding PhD credentials) must have "miscounted" or "double counted" the number of pit bull fatalities.10

As stated in the CDC report, the authors collected data from media accounts as well as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) registry of fatal attacks. Also, all five authors, Jeffrey Sacks, Leslie Sinclair, Julie Gilchrist, Gail Golab and Randall Lockwood, openly oppose breed-specific laws. This bias is clearly reflected in the CDC report as well.11 If discrepancies were made in the report, it seems more likely that fatal pit bull attacks were underreported not over reported.

Myth #5: The media conspiracy against pit bulls

Pit bulls have the highest propensity and frequency of any dog breed to be involved in a severe mauling. Members of the media understand this and are quick to report such attacks. The reason why "Child Suffers Dog Bite" does not dominate dog attack news headlines is due to the lower degree of injury inflicted. In 2008, the death of 2-month old Zane Alen Earles, who was killed by the family's Labrador puppy, captured over 1,000 news headlines and countless blog postings.12

Recently, a writer from British Columbia commented on the "media conspiracy" claim voiced by pit bull advocacy groups. In a charming, yet biting piece titled, "Belligerent Bassets?" writer Andrew Holota, points out the ridiculous nature of this claim:

"Yessir, there are oodles of poodles popped by cops all the time, and the press does not report it.

And attacks by psychotic shih tzus? Covered up. Muzzled, so to speak.

Children savaged by Scottish terriers? Quashed. Hushed puppies, if you will. Oh yes, the conspiracy runs deep indeed."13

What is true is that there is an absence of media regarding the collective damage inflicted by the pit bull breed since the early 1980s. In a recent 7-year period, from 2005 to 2011, pit bulls killed 128 Americans, about one citizen every 20 days.14 By 2013, pit bulls are projected to maul 200 Americans to death since 1998, the year the CDC stopped tracking fatal dog attacks by dog breed, and over 250 people since 1980.15 Major news agencies are AWOL on these important issues.

Myth #6: Pit bulls are not unpredictable

Despite pro-pit bull claims that pit bulls are not unpredictable, the breed frequently attackswithout provocation or warning. It is well documented by humane groups that to excel in dogfighting, pit bulls were selectively bred to conceal warning signals prior to an attack. For instance, a pit bull may not growl, bare its teeth or offer a direct stare before it strikes. Unlike all other dog breeds, pit bulls are also disrespectful of traditional signs of submission and appeasement.16

According to expert Randall Lockwood, pit bulls are also liars. In a 2004 law enforcement training video, taped when Lockwood was vice president for research and educational outreach for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), he shares the following story:

"Fighting dogs lie all the time. I experienced it first hand when I was investigating three pit bulls that killed a little boy in Georgia. When I went up to do an initial evaluation of the dog's behavior, the dog came up to the front of the fence, gave me a nice little tail wag and a "play bow" -- a little solicitation, a little greeting. As I got closer, he lunged for my face."17

If a pit bull can fool an expert such as Lockwood, how can the average citizen anticipate a pit bull's future action? In a separate example, animal behavioral expert Peter Borchelt was suedafter the pit bull he was training for a client "suddenly" attacked an ex-fireman. After encountering Gabriel Febbraio on the street and assuring him that the pit bull was friendly, the dog broke free from Borchelt and attacked Febbraio in the groin. The jury awarded Febbraio $1 million dollars.18

Myth #7: Pit bulls do not have a locking jaw

Pro-pit bull groups continuously attempt to debunk the pit bull "locking jaw" expression that is often used by the media and the public. A pit bull's jaw may not physically lock, but due to selective breeding for a specific bite style -- to hold on and to shake indefinitely -- we consistently hear in news reports that the dog "would not let go." has recorded numerous tools used to try to get a pit bull to release its grip including: shotguns, hammers, baseball bats andpipes.

Myth #8: Pit bulls used to be the most popular dog in America

Pit bull advocates often claim that by World War I, the pit bull had become the "most popular dog in America." A source is never cited with this claim. In 2006, the publication Animal People tested this claim. By searching the classified dogs-for-sale ads between 1900 to 1950 on, the group discovered that huskies and St. Bernards were the most popular dogs of that period. Of the 34 breeds searched, pit bulls ranked 25th.

Due to the different names that pit bulls are known by, Animal People ran searches on three names: pit bull terrier, Staffordshire, and American bulldog. As the group states, "The exercise was skewed toward finding more pit bulls rather than fewer, since multiple searches were run to try to find pit bulls under a variety of different names." The combined sum of these three breeds came to 34,770; 1% of the sampling of nearly 3.5 million breed-specific mentions of dogs.19

Myth #9: Pit bulls pass the American Temperament Test

In 1977, Alfons Ertel designed the American Temperament Test in hopes of creating a uniform temperament test for dogs. Of the 75 million dogs that populate the U.S. today,20 about 933 are tested per year (0.001% of all dogs). The temperament data published by the group is not based upon scientific random sampling of any dog breed. It seems it would be virtually impossible to develop such a reliable study, as the base population source group is unidentifiable.

Due to the temperament data being objectively statistically unreliable, it is also highly misleading. Pit bull advocates frequently use this misleading data to point to the breed's good temperament and to advocate against breed-specific laws ("Pit bulls pass the ATTS test more often than beagles!"). Yet anyone one who has a minimal understanding of critical statistical analysis should be able to see that the ATTS "breed statistics" temperament data21 is essentially valueless.

The 12-minute test stimulates a casual walk through a park with a range of encounters. The test focuses on stability, shyness, aggressiveness and a few other factors. According to the group, the overall pass rate (the combination of all breeds) is 81.6%.22 Unlike the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test, no part of the ATTS test is performed without the dog owner present. It also fails to evaluate the most basic scenario that leads to aggression: How a dog reacts when it sees another dog.
For more information regarding the unreliability of all temperament testing, please see:Aggressive Behavior in Adopted Dogs (Canis Familiaris) that Passed a Temperament Test, by E. Christensen, J. Scarlett, M. Campagna and K. Houpt.

Myth #10: Punish the deed not the breed

The slogan often voiced by pit bull advocates, "Punish the deed not the breed," works to the benefit of pit bull breeders and owners who accept the large collateral damage the breed inflicts upon the public and has been for the last 30-years. The slogan also accepts that a "new victim" must be created prior to punishment. The goal of breed-specific laws is to prevent the deed, as civil and criminal recourse for victims after the deed may be impossible to achieve.

Parts of a recent email sent to outlines this reality clearly:

"She nearly lost her left arm in that attack and since then has piled up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. She has brought a lawsuit against the dog's owner. He had no liability insurance and has since moved out of the neighborhood. The main witness also has moved.

This woman and her family basically have no recourse. The lawsuit is fine but who knows if they will ever get a penny out of it.

I'm assuming this is a fairly common occurrence that you folks know about all too well."

Much like the outdated myth #1, "It's the owner not the breed," this last myth lies at the heart of archaic and insufficient U.S. dog policy. The modern answer to this final myth is to develop policies that prevent future victims from being created. Waiting until after a treacherous pit bull bite is too late. As former Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon states in a WTOL-TV interview about this issue, "there is no deep pocket to put these kids back together again" after a serious mauling.23
Prevent the deed, regulate the breed!

Additional Myths

If one peers more closely into mauling threads -- a comment thread following a serious or deadly pit bull attack -- and writings dispersed by national animal organizations and the pit bull community, one sees many more myths perpetuated by both. Two excellent resources to learn the truth behind these myths, some of which are reckless in nature, include the Maul Talk Manualand The Truth About Pit Bulls websites. We've listed several key themes to help readers get started.

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