Good dogs may get a bad rap.
-by Sunny Branson
For some, the name alone conjures up negative images of snarling, ferocious, uncontrollable dogs. But many pit bull owners know the truly sweet and devoted family pets they can be. Are pit bulls really "hard-wired" to attack? Will the animal turn on its owner, triggered by a crazed subconscious instinct? Pit bull advocates are convinced these are myths and that the big problem is not with the breed itself, but with pet owners and breeders.
It is believed that breeders developed pit bulls during the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) specially for the entertainment called the "bull pit." The dogs were placed in a pit with a bull, bear or other large animal-forced to fight or be killed. The dogs perfected the method of lunging for the jugular, sinking in their teeth, and hanging on until the larger animal bled to death. In the mid-1800s, bull pit fighting was banned, so the promoters came up with a new form of entertainment-fighting dogs against dogs in smaller rings that could be kept inconspicuous.
One requirement for winning these dog fights was to prove the dog's obedience to its master.
The dog's owner would enter the ring near the end of the fight and pick up the still-battling dog. Only if the dog didn't turn on its master was it declared the winner. The dogs were bred for strength, fearlessness, tolerance to pain, resolve and – most of all – 100% obedience.
Today dog fighting is outlawed in the United States and many other countries, but there are still underground organizers. Those breeding pit bulls for this "blood sport" focus on aggression toward other dogs in their breeding choices.
Banning the breed
Aggression toward humans is not a normal pit bull trait; however, pit bull assaults on humans have increased in the last 10 years, mostly because unscrupulous breeders have concentrated on aggression traits to appeal to people wanting a mean-looking guard dog. This has been the downfall of the pit bull breed.
Due to fatal or near-fatal attacks on humans by pit bulls or dogs looking like pitbulls, many cities have issued bans on the entire breed. Denver issued a ban in 1989, and animal services seized pets right from their homes for euthanizing. Frantic pet owners sent their dogs out of state to stay with relatives, or moved themselves, to save their pit bulls.
The problem with this type of regulation is that it's based on looks and not real issues of behavior or temperament. A pit bull, as it happens, is not a single breed. The name refers to several breeds including the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and several other breeds that have physical similarities, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of mixed breeds. The animal services agent is left to decide whether the dog looks "pit" enough, which critics call arbitrary and unreasonable.
Another city to ban the breed is Utah's own South Jordan. In 1997, the City Council declared it to be unlawful to own or harbor a pit bull, or any breed that strongly resembled the physical traits of a pit bull, within the city limits.
Critics of these ordinances say that a blanket ban on an entire breed is misguided. They hold that the law should instead target irresponsible owners and breeders, and only dogs proven dangerous.
Friends and owners speak to the friendliness of the breed. One man said he's afraid of all dogs except his roommate's pit bull because she's just so sweet. Many say their pits make wonderful family pets and claim they are very protective of small children. They praise the devotion of pit bulls, their trainability, and their eagerness to please. Another man talks about how he uses his pit bull as a pillow when they nap together. There is no doubt of the special bond between many pit bulls and their families.
A 1991 study in Denver compared dogs with a history of biting people with a random sample of dogs with no history of biting. No pit bulls were included in the study because of the ban. Among other things, the study found that biters were more likely to have a history of long-term chaining, which begs the question: Are the dogs chained because they are aggressive or aggressive because they are chained? The study concluded it's a bit of both.
Many dogs that are chained most of the time are not socialized to people. They may not realize that children are small human beings and simply see them as prey. The Denver study showed that in many cases, vicious dogs are hungry or in need of medical attention, conditions that owners of frequently chained animals may miss because the dogs aren't part of the family environment. Often, vicious dogs had a history of aggressive incidents. However, the strongest connection of all was between the trait of dog viciousness and certain kinds of dog owners. In about a quarter of fatal dog-bite cases, the dog owners were previously involved in illegal dogfighting.
Pit bull rescues
The staff of Wasatch Animal Rescue has the task of finding homes for adult pit bulls, usually with little or no history provided about the animals. Many animal rescues won't accept pit bull breeds, and some that do euthanize hastily without determining whether the dog is friendly and well-trained or vicious.
Most people don't realize that nearly all pit bulls dropped at a shelter never leave. This makes the need for no-kill pit bull rescues especially great. The Wasatch staff and a few other no-kill Utah rescues assess the temperament of each animal and then go about finding an appropriate home.
"Because of the inconsistency in pit bull breeding, we have to treat each animal individually," says Heather Franc, owner of Wasatch Animal Rescue. "If the dog proves to have a strong prey drive, we recommend a home without cats or other pets. However, the one warning we give to any potential pit bull adopter is to be vigilant on walks with the dog. If another dog starts a fight, even a well-trained, friendly pit bull has a very strong drive to succeed in a fight."
The ASPCA suggests early socialization of pit bull puppies. Puppies of all breeds need to be socialized with other dogs in order to learn how to interact, play and communicate with them. But they say pit bull puppies need more than the average amount of socializing to modify their natural play behavior, which is often rougher than that of other breeds.
A puppy is one challenge, but an adult dog trained to be aggressive is a completely different animal. If you have a pit bull showing aggression, call a dog behavior specialist. It can make a world of difference.
Heather Beck, owner of K9 Lifeline, is a dog behavior specialist who has three pit bulls of her own. She was trained in the methods of Cesar Milan, the famous dog whisperer seen on the National Geographic Channel.
"If you don't give the dog something as physically and mentally stimulating as what it was bred to do, you will end up with a frustrated dog," says Beck. "I have met a lot of troubled pit bulls with obedience issues, some with aggression issues, but I've never met one I couldn't train. It's usually about correcting the mistakes the owners are making. My job is to educate people about how dogs think and why they act the way they do."
Beck believes that dogs in leadership positions act out in aggression. They are bored, and one form of stimulating activity is to fight or attack. Consistent, disciplined training can solve this problem.
Owners can provide many stimulating activities for their pit bulls. Many turn to agility exercises or training the dogs as therapy animals. Some pit bulls find fulfillment working with law enforcement.
One benefit of Beck's training is that even older, ill-behaved pit bulls can be transformed into obedient pets. A dog-aggressive pit bull should not be taken to basic obedience classes with other dogs, for obvious reasons. But with the one-on-one behavior training, pit bulls can transform within just a couple of weeks. Beck says her clients see a difference after the initial consultation.
Because of the stigma associated with this breed, the lack of qualified responsible owners, and the lack of no-kill shelters that will take them, pit bull breeds are in great need of adoptive families. If you are considering bringing a pit bull into your family, please check your local animal rescues, or go to www.petfinder.com.
Adoptable Pit Bulls
Diego is an 18-month old male pit bull mix. He is very sweet, but needs training. He likes to jump and body slam, so should not live with children. Diego is good with most dogs and with cats that will ignore him. He is crate-trained, but still working on house training. Contact Community Animal Welfare Society: 801-328-4731.
Diego and other pit bulls can be found at
Pet Samaritan in Salt Lake:
Humane Society of Utah: (801) 261-2919
Camelot Pet Resort: 801-292-8228
Community Animal Welfare Society:
Sunny Branson is co-owner of Single Malt Media, volunteers for Wasatch Animal Rescue, and sponsors two pot-bellied pigs at Ching Farm Sanctuary.