• Dr. Jennifer Green

Don’t Bully the Breed

Updated: Apr 21

What’s in a name, or more so what’s in a breed? When you hear the term “pit bull”, what

comes to mind?

With so many myths that exist around pit bulls, people have a myriad of reactions to that name. Some people may think that they are more aggressive than other dogs, that they bite with locking jaws, or that they are not good family dogs. Other people may associate pit bulls as victims of dog fights or sad commercials of animals being rescued. For some, pit bulls are large goofy dogs with big lolling tongues and a fondness for their families. Let’s take a closer look at these dogs and see who they really are.

First things first, from where did the term pit bull come? Pit bull is synonymous with American Pit Bull Terrier and Bull Terrier. However, the pit bull is not a recognized breed of the American Kennel Club, and the label has been used on Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and American bullies. For ease of reading, the term pit bull will be used throughout the article to identify what is commonly termed as a pit bull.

Pit bulls were fighting dogs that were developed originally in the 19th century in England, Scotland, and Ireland by mixing hunting bulldogs and terriers. Their original purpose was to capture and restrain fractious livestock (ex. bulls). Because of the intended purpose, these dogs did display aggression towards animals; however, aggression to humans was not encouraged. The American pit bull terrier was also bred for dogfighting in New England in the late 1800s. These fights were tame by modern experiences in that the dogs did not die often in the fighting pit.

Despite their rougher origins, during the first part of the 1900s, pit bulls were often seen as stunt dogs or as sidekicks in comedic performances. They could even be seen in comic strips or as the “spokes-dog” for a brand of shoes. As time progressed, pit bull type dogs were bred as pets and could be seen in the home of all socio-economic classes but were especially found in working class homes and were affectionately named “nanny dogs” for children. Starting in the 1950s, pedigree breeds like Labrador or Golden Retrievers and Irish Setters became more common to fit with the current definition of the American dream, so the pit bull status as a companion pet waivered slightly.

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, the brutality of dog fighting increased as humans began using drugs and devices in or against the dogs. Due to the new cruelty of this sport, awareness of the horror that is dogfighting became more mainstream. The movement to outlaw dogfighting began to attract media to garner support for their efforts. With the terrible increase in dogfighting, irresponsible breeding and poor treatment resulted in the occasional bad-tempered dog. These dogs were then involved in very publicized attacks on people, which incited fear of pit bulls. The public also began to read accounts of these dogs with alleged terrible characteristics. Sadly, public opinion turned against the dog and not the people perpetrating the heinous act of dogfighting.

Unfortunately, mistaken public perception of the dogs involved in dogfighting was not the only thing working against pit bulls. The 1970s also saw a change in American culture where people worried about being victims of crime. The solution was to get a guard dog, which lead to a large number of guard dog selling businesses. This then led to many unsocialized, poorly trained dogs intermixing more with people. For example, in 1973 in New York City, over 38,300 dog bites were reported as contrasted with last year’s estimated 5,000 bites. Then during the racial tensions of the 1980s, pit bulls became proxies for prejudice as they became associated with the urban poor. This hate led to movements to ban and eradicate pit bulls.

Times became even more bleak for pit bulls. As they entered shelters, they were often euthanized without a chance for adoption. Bias against pit bulls, overpopulation, and breed bans resulted in the death of many friendly, happy-go-lucky, innocent dogs. Some studies estimate that up to 1 million pit bulls are euthanized a year.

Lastly, public perception began to change again in 2007, but this time it was for the better. The exposure of Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation caught national attention; and finally, in 2008, dogfighting was made illegal in all fifty states. Forty-nine dogs were rescued from the case with the majority eventually being adopted out to homes!

So, the myths about pit bulls? They are all wrong. Pit bulls pass temperament tests at higher rates than most dogs. Pit bulls do not have locking jaws nor are they more aggressive than other breeds - they are like all other dogs in that they need responsible owners and training. Pit bull type dogs make great pets if you are looking for a dog that is friendly, goofy, playful, and sweet.

How do we continue to move the narrative further and keep up the positive progress for those dogs labeled as pit bulls?

First, cast away prejudice about breeds in general. Each dog is an individual. If you are looking to adopt, go with an open mind and get to know different dogs’ personalities and behaviors. Find a dog that fits your lifestyle. Do not try to force a dog to fit your lifestyle. (For example, if you work 12 hours a day and live in a studio apartment then a high-energy dog is probably not the best fit for you.)

Secondly, let’s celebrate the dog! October 24, 2020 will be the 13th celebration of National Pit Bull Awareness Day. The goal of this day is to bring about appreciation and education about pit bulls in the hopes of dispelling prejudice and stereotypes. It is a day to celebrate the dogs and their responsible owners.

Thirdly, fight against breed specific bans and legislation. Become an advocate for these dogs in your community every day. Teach a friend, family member, or a stranger about how awesome pit bulls are. Discuss with apartment complexes or housing communities about their misconceptions around the breed. Engage politicians to stand against breed specific legislation.

Next, spay and neuter dogs in general but especially pit bulls. There are not enough homes in the US for all of the pit bulls, and the best way to combat this is by reducing the population humanely through spay and neuter. At Halifax Humane Society (HHS), we know this is especially important. Therefore, we often request grant funding to subsidize pit bull sterilization surgery. Please consider donating to these charities that assist with the targeted spay and neuter of these dogs.

Lastly, adopt a pit bull! Looking for the perfect partner, the one that will love to take walks with you or play fetch, hang out on the couch to snuggle, and only ask for the occasional belly rub? Then you may be looking for a pit bull to complete your family and home! Come visit us at the shelter to meet the great dogs (and cats and critters) we have for adoption. To further educate on the bias against these amazing pups, HHS is a proud recipient of the Dolly’s Dream grant.

The Dolly’s Dream Dog program encourages the adoption of bully breeds and works to counter the stereotypes and myths of these dogs. HHS features two dogs a month in great depth, so prospective families can learn how amazing they are. The Dolly’s Dream project covers the adoption fee of the dog, the sterilization surgery, the vaccines, the microchip, basic supplies (like harness, food/water bowls, ID tag, leash, toys, training crates, treats, food, grooming supplies), as well as services like training, grooming, and boarding with HHS Behavior Services and HHS’s Culler Center (boarding, grooming, and travel center).

So, let’s make positive change for these dogs- by sterilizing, training, advocating, educating, adopting, fostering, volunteering, and donating. We can truly make a difference and stop the bullying of these amazing pups!

Further Reading:

Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey




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