By Susan Gainey, Executive Director
Over a decade ago, I was at a community adoption event with homeless animals, including a litter of puppies. Puppies usually attract a lot of attention, so getting them out into the community is a great way to get them into homes. I was holding one of the puppies when a young boy approached me, his grandmother in tow. I could see the boy coming from a distance and he had clearly laid eyes on the puppy I was holding and was making a beeline for us.
As he was almost close enough to start petting the puppy, his grandmother asked, “What kind of dog is that?” I responded, “She is a mixed breed puppy, maybe a pitbull-type dog.” The grandmother immediately pulled the child away. Over the child’s protests, they turned and walked away. It was as if I was holding an alligator, bear or wild animal. I wasn’t. I was holding a 4-month-old puppy. But, I had said a word that makes many respond the same way the grandmother did: “pitbull.” As they walked away, I thought about how much fear and hate the woman had for a puppy and how she would likely teach that to the child. It was then that I knew that I needed to not only advocate for all animals, but to specifically help all the ones who looked like the puppy I was holding.
Pitbull-type dogs are one of the most villianized and misunderstood dogs. They fill our shelters, not because they are bad dogs, but because our society has done that to them. Let me get something out of the way. Do pitbull-type dogs injure people? Yes, of course, all dogs do. Do their bites cause more damage than when a Chihuahua bites? Yes, of course, as do most of the bites of all larger dogs. But, in many cases, it is fear and not facts which cause them to fill the shelters across the nation.
Firstly, “pitbull” is not a breed, but a catchall classification for any dog with a big, block head. Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers, American bullies, American Staffordshire terriers, and sometimes American bulldogs and bull terriers, are generally included in the classification. Studies have shown that even dog experts can’t accurately guess whether there’s pitbull in a mixed-breed dog just by looking at it. I will be the first to admit that when we call a dog a “pitbull,” we are just guessing without a DNA test. Lots of different breeds can mix up to produce the short-coated, big-headed dog that we call “pitbull.”
Secondly, pitbulls did not always face the discrimination that they currently do. There are numerous vintage photographs from the 1900s depicting pitbulls with children that show us they were popular family pets and trusted around kids. During the two world wars, pitbull-type dogs were even used as a national mascot as “America’s dog.” They were some of the first dogs used in war because of their loyalty and intelligence. Sergeant Stubby is one of the most well-known war dogs. And who could forget one of the most famous dogs of all time – Petey from The Little Rascals!
So what changed? In the 1960s and 1980s dog fighting began to see a resurgence. As people saw more of these dogs used in conjunction with fighting, fear of the dogs increased. In 1987, the cover of Sport Illustrated even demonized any dog who looked like a pitbull-type dog. The media became far more likely to feature a bite if the dog was identified as a pitbull (even though breed identifications were probably wrong anyway). The 1980s were also when breed specific legislation started to be passed by governments, most notably large cities such as Denver and Miami.
The trend is changing, however. Stories are now featuring the great benefits of adopting a pitbull-type dog. For example, a recent news story stated that according to the American Temperament Test Society, pitbulls pass their temperament test 87% of the time. This means that they rank the fourth best of 122 breeds tested, meaning they are one of the most affectionate and least aggressive breeds of dog.
The advocacy of rescuers is also supported by recent studies not only in temperament testing, but in breed behavior. An April 2022 extensive study of over 18,000 dogs published by Science confirmed what many in the rescue community already knew – breed means very little in predicting the behavior and personality of an individual dog. “What the dog looks like is not really going to tell you what the dog acts like,” said Marjie Alonso, a co-author of the study. In fact, according to the study, pitbull-type dogs scored high on human sociability – a measure of how receptive a dog is to unfamiliar people.
Even Sports Illustrated, whose 1987 article stoked the fear, did another cover story reporting the rehabilitation of the Michael Vick dogs and reporting a much more favorable light for pitbull-type dogs. Pitbull type dogs are now being used as service animals, therapy dogs, search and rescue dogs and police dogs. October is National Pit Bull Awareness Month. Celebrities such as Jon Stewart, Jessica Biel, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Aniston, Rachel Ray, Kevin Bacon, Tom Brady, Cesar Milan and many others, are advocating for rescued pitbull-type dogs.
Not only are perceptions changing, but company practices and laws are changing. Insurance companies once banned families from owning “dangerous breeds,” including pitbull-type dogs. This practice meant many more pitbull-type dogs ended up in shelters due to housing issues associated with owning them. State Farm now allows pitbull-type dogs (as do many others). State Farm’s website states, “Just like humans, dogs are individuals. Every dog has a unique personality. While a dogs’ breed may dictate what the dog looks like, how a dog reacts to people or situations isn’t guaranteed by breed or type.” Further, Denver voters recently overrode a veto by the mayor to continue a pitbull ban. A bill was introduced in the Florida legislature earlier this year to remove BSL in Miami.
Pitbull-type dogs are unfortunate victims of a lot of difficult circumstances.
Pitbull-type dogs are feared and hated by many, and this article is not going to change those minds. The point of this article is to encourage people to not automatically discriminate against a dog because of fear and how the dog looks. There are many myths about pitbull-type dogs, including that they have locking jaws (false), they are more dangerous (false), they are not good family pets (false), as well as many other false and negative perceptions. Do your research and talk to shelter staff about the dog’s personality, not the breed. If you are considering adopting a dog, give pitbull-type shelter dogs a chance.
You may decide that a pitbull-type dog is not a good fit for your family, and that is fine. Adopt one of the many other shelter dogs who do not look like a pitbull-type dog. I just ask, however, if you are ever at a community event, please do not stereotype a dog based on how a dog looks – let your child pet the puppy. Give the goofy dogs with the big blocky heads a chance. They may just surprise you.