Are pitbulls dangerous?
Are pitbulls actually dangerous?
If yes, why?
If not, where does this myth come from?
We’re here to set the record straight on this historically controversial (and, in our opinion, totally sweet) type of dog.
What is a pitbull?
Here’s the first myth to bust: pitbulls aren’t a breed.
Yes, you heard that right. A pitbull in North America is actually defined as a type of dog descended from terriers and bulldogs (breeds like the American Pitbull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Terrier, and American Bulldog). Essentially, the term “pitbull” is a description of a blocky-headed dog with a bulky body type.
Based on this description, mixed breeds and even some breeds that don’t fit the definition for a pitbull—like Cane Corsos, Boxers, and Bullmastiffs—may still meet the criteria based on their build and misidentification.
A word about (mis)identification
Identifying a dog’s breed is harder than it looks, and the fact that the term pitbull doesn’t actually refer to a breed makes it especially tricky.
Visual identification of a dog’s breed is a guess (even by veterinary professionals) and a dog’s heritage can be—and often is—quite complex. Because of this, we really shouldn’t rely on visual identification of breeds (a “don’t judge a book by its cover” situation, if you will).
Researchers in the United States published a study confirming that following DNA, one- to two-thirds of dogs identified as a “pitbull” or “pitbull mix” don’t, in fact, have DNA linking them to associated breeds. Dogs with pitbull heritage of 25% or less, or that are associated with breeds with blocky heads unrelated to pitbulls are often misidentified.
There have been several formal recommendations against labelling rescue dogs with breeds in a shelter environment. Mislabeling can negatively impact adoption rates and increase length of shelter stay for our blocky-headed friends. In some cases, dogs labelled as “pitbulls” are victims of prejudice and can take up to twice as long as other dogs to find a forever home.
Why do people think pitbulls are dangerous?
There are a few main reasons why pitbulls have been flagged as dangerous. Let’s investigate the truth behind these claims.
Once a fighter, always a fighter. Because pitbulls have traditionally been used for dog fighting, they’ve developed a bad rep. From this spread the assumption that dogs used in dog fighting mustn’t be a fit for a regular family home… right?
Not so. You may be surprised to learn just how many other breeds are also on the ‘fighter’ list. These include:
- Akita Inu
- Boston Terrier
- English Bulldog
- Neopolitian Mastiff
- Spanish Mastiff
- American Pitbull Terrier
- American Staffordshire Terrier
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Most folks wouldn’t consider goofy Bostons or quiet Akitas to be fighters, which goes to show that appearances can be deceiving.
Nowadays, most purebred dogs are nothing more than companions, bred for traits like personability and getting on with other dogs.
Nature, not nurture. Pitbulls aren’t purebreds, though, so what gives? This is where another assumption steps in: pitbulls are, by their very nature, aggressive.
Let’s unpack that for a minute. There are two different genetic components to aggression: aggressions towards people and aggression towards dogs. A dog that displays aggression towards other dogs may turn out to be a perfectly gentle soul when in the company of humans.
EXPERT TIP: If you really want to understand your dog’s (or your potential future dog’s) behaviour, don’t assume—ask your vet about scheduling your pup in for a behavioural assessment.
Several behavioural assessments have shown pitbull-type dogs often rank higher in dog-directed aggression, along with breeds like the Jack Russell Terrier and Akita. But when it comes to stranger- and owner-directed aggressions, most of these dogs rank below that of a Chihuahua, Havanese, and even an innocent-looking Whippet.
When we think about a dog-fighting arena, the focus isn’t (and will never be) on aggression towards humans. Instead, these dogs are encouraged to go to battle against each other.
To assume a characteristic can be blindly applied to an entire population of dogs fails to consider the true complexity of breeding. Behaviour isn’t straightforward, nor is it the sole product of nature. Nurture plays a huge role, too.
So… are pitbulls dangerous?
The short answer? It depends.
Keep in mind that any dog can be dangerous. Unfortunately for pitbulls, because reports of attacks and other issues support a bigger narrative that pitbulls are “statistically more dangerous,” they tend to be accepted as fact.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that dogs with wide, short heads between 66 and 100lbs (which, as we’ve learned, can include far more than what is typically considered a “bully breed’) cause the most damage. This is a complicated, however, because many dog bites go unreported unless the person who was bit was seen by a physician—and this tends to occur in altercations with big dogs. Add to that the fact that the total number of each breed or type of dog in a population is largely unknown, and the data becomes pretty murky.
When you take into account breed misidentification and their prevalence in the community, pitbulls are just as safe as any larger breed of dog.
EXPERT TIP: If your good girl isn’t spayed and is in the middle of a heat cycle, avoiding taking her to off-leash parks or high doggy-density areas like daycares to keep her out of trouble.
There are, however, some generally-accepted factors to keep in mind that may increase the risk of a dog bite:
- Larger breeds (although this one is still up for debate)
- Not spayed or neutered
- Inadequate socialization or training
- Lack of supervision
- Free-roaming dogs
Why we love “bully breeds”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we love dogs of all shapes and sizes, but there are many reasons why we especially love and advocate for dogs painted as “bullies.”
- They’re loyal, fun-loving, and affectionate.
- They don’t believe in personal space. The closer, the better!
- Some prefer to be your dutiful couch potato, while others will hit the jogging trails with you every morning.
- Comfort is everything. Beds, blankets, and all things cozy, please!
- They’re tenacious—a quality that, for as frustrating as it may be, is actually pretty admirable.
- They have big, meaty, sweetie noggins and want a home and people to love!
If you’re considering fostering a dog in this family of breeds, or giving one a forever home, we say go for it! Responsible pet parenting means loving them through the risks and rewards, and from where we stand the latter far outweighs the former when it comes to these tenacious teddy bears.
Did you know our Waggle Mail dog subscription boxes are curated by our resident veterinarian, Dr. Beck, specifically for your dog’s age, need, and breed? You tell us about your dog and we’ll source safe, fun toys, chews, and eco-friendly accessories to keep your pitbull’s strong jaw busy.
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Dr. C. Beck
Registered Veterinarian, Founder & CEO