"Pit Bull" terriers: Demon or Angel?

The title above accurately summarizes the polarity involved, whenever the topic of American Pitbull Terriers comes up.
Some concerned citizens see a soulless killing machine; bully-breed supporters see a loving family pet.
Which group is right?
BOTH of them have valid points. And that's the problem.

The situation in America regarding "pit bulls" has grown into a very complicated mess. The average person has a short attention span and a busy schedule, and wants to read only a simple sentence or two that sums up all of the complexities of this issue. Unfortunately, such a thing is not possible.
If you truly care about working towards a resolution--regardless of which side you currently stand on--read on...and consider the following food for thought.

First and foremost, an APBT is—at its most basic level—a dog. This means that the wealth of knowledge we have available to us on this species is applicable, and very relevant. We know how to train dogs, how to safely contain dogs, even how to prevent dogs from biting. We know how they think, and how they communicate. There are variances from breed to breed and from individual to individual, of course, but overall we have a pretty solid grasp of what dogs are up to and why they do the things they do. Since this is the case, why are there so many attacks by "pitbull type" dogs??
This is a very complex issue...and one worth looking into for anyone serious about dogs in general, since it provides so many insights into canine behaviour, politics, and the duties of pet ownership.

*Note: American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire Bull terriers are generally included with APBTs whenever a ban on "pitbull type dogs" in introduced. From here on, all such dogs will simply be referred to as "pitbulls" for simplicity's sake.

If someone were to ask me, "Would you own a pitbull?" my current answer would be "No, not in my current situation".
I have other dogs, cats, and am away from home for long stretches. In contrast, a pitbull wants to live indoors and be around people extensively, usually does not get on well unsupervised with other dogs, and has a high prey drive. This makes such a dog totally inappropriate for my lifestyle. That is the way decisions about which dog to choose should be made.
The breed would also be very inappropriate for someone who lets their dog run loose or escape, knows very little about dog behaviour, or is not a strong enough personality to provide leadership to the dog. (Most dog related problems are caused by people who are not a good fit for the dog they are about to bring home, and either are not aware of this, or just don't care.)

On the flip side, if you asked "Can a dog-savvy person keep a pitbull (or two) successfully, without any reason to think anyone would ever be hurt?" I would answer unequivocally, "YES". There are very few dogs who should ever be a bite risk, as long as the owner is educated and does a decent job with them. (Those dogs can be determined as such a risk long before someone is bitten.)
Here is a protocol for raising safe dogs—of any breed. This is not by any means the only way to do it (!), but merely some basic guidelines to ensure a nice pet.

Update: Here is a suggested formula for creating a nice companion bully breed!

The thing that any decent person really wants the most, when it comes to dogs with a fearsome reputation, is a solution where good owners aren't persecuted AND no one—human or dog--ever gets harmed. The one thing I would like people to come away with is that SUCH A SOLUTION IS ENTIRELY POSSIBLE.
THIS is NOT the solution. Most of these dogs never did a thing 'wrong', yet they paid with their lives.
Before all the pro-pitbull folks wave their flags, though, bear in mind that it was *pitbull owners*, pitbull lovers, who actually allowed this to happen—by not caring properly for the dogs who DID hurt people, therefore prompting lawmakers to call for the deaths of ALL their kind in retaliation.
There is no one single "bad guy" in this sad story...and there won't be one person, or one side, that singlehandedly brings about the solution.

All dogs are some blend of admirable traits plus
"high maintenance" ones. Pitbulls have several basic needs that must be met to keep them safely, and failure to do so will usually result in a ruined dog and/or someone (or their pet) being bitten.

Pitbull maulings are frequent and often severe. Rabid supporters try to deny this by every means possible—"maybe it wasn't a pitbull or not 100% pitbull, maybe someone was teasing the dog, maybe he was abused, maybe someone was just making the story up for attention, MY pitbull would never do that, hey look at this news article where a dog who WASN'T a pitbull bit someone".
None of these things are going to solve the "pitbull problem"! Let's face it, some pitbulls do attack humans—now what are you, the pitbull supporters, going to do to fix it? If you want these dogs to be around for your grandchildren to love, this is a question that needs to be not only answered, but *acted on*--and quickly.

Let me get you started. When a pitbull bites someone, it's usually easy enough to figure out why, and how it could have been prevented.
-If he was left roaming free, he should immediately be removed from the home and given to a responsible person (or, due to lack of adoptive homes, euthanised).
-If he escaped the fence, the
fence needs to be made pitbull-proof. Immediately.
-If he dragged someone over to the neighbor's yorkie and killed it, there was no excuse for this. This breed should be trained to be a responsive companion, and should never be walked by someone unable to control it.
-If it's your own dog who bit you: signs of aggression and dominance problems are always apparent before the bite, and the dog should be receiving behavioural rehab at the first signs of dangerous behaviour. Dominance confusion can be eliminated through a rank reduction program. Other causes of aggression can be similarly determined, and removed. No one should even consider allowing a pitbull with serious behavior problems to progressively get worse and worse, without intervention.

All of these things are preventable. They hold true for any dog, but are much more critical when it comes to a dog as powerful, intense, and active as a pitbull. In general, pitbull terriers are…well, terriers. It means (amongst more pleasant things) that they have a tendency to be dog-aggressive, prey-driven, and very determined—that makes them great at getting out of an insufficient fence, and hard to distract if things get out of hand.

Less experienced pitbull owners need to recognize the fact that NO dog is "just like any other dog". Breeds are breeds for a reason: selective breeding has instilled specific traits into each kind of dog. While there are still more similarities than differences, a pitbull is not a lab, is not a chihuahua, is not a husky. All have different skills and tendencies. On this note, it is worth mentioning the Semyonova study--which is the most likely explanation for the "impulsive aggression" occasionally found in some members of this breed type...a condition that pitbull owners should keep a sharp eye out for, and one with no fair solution aside from euthanasia.

Well meaning (but ignorant) people can get an ugly surprise when they adopt APBTs, without realising they were originally selected to:
-ignore submission and calming signals from other dogs
-be tenacious and dominant
-follow through with a kill when in a fight
-have a strong prey drive, resulting in an urge to chase and bite small pets (and nowadays, sometimes squealing children, if the dog is poorly bred &/or doesn't recognize them as humans)
-be an incredible athlete, with amazing jaw strength and physical abilities
...be rock solid in temperament, and bulletproof when it comes to ever laying teeth on a person.
(Yes, that is also the truth--though sadly, not everyone breeds to this standard anymore. Think about it—what other dog can be in the heat of a battle to the death, yet break off without any redirected aggression when his human grabs his collar or reaches into his mouth? This was done routinely when dogs were fought.)

A pitbull who shows human aggression is WAY outside of the breed standard, and in most cases should be euthanised promptly. This is NOT a guardian breed, and should never attempt to bite a human. The animal was originally designed to be indiscriminately friendly towards all people, and excellent with children.
However, today's pitbull is not necessarily the dog of old. Back then, dogs who offered aggression towards humans were culled (usually shot on the spot)…harsh, yes, but today many young punks have no clue of the difference between "gameness" and "just plain nastiness", so these defective dogs are not only kept around, but praised, and BRED!
Even if they don't go after people intentionally, *many have lost their inhibition against redirecting onto a person, once they've gone after another dog*.
There is simply no room in the world for a dog this powerful who is willing to attack a human being.

*In their favor, though--since dog fighting has become illegal, many modern pitbulls are much less dog-aggressive than they used to be. You may have a slightly different animal now...but there is still a huge variance from dog to dog, and even the "easy" lines can throw animal-aggressive or even human-aggressive pups.

Take a dog with this sort of potential, and give it to someone who is in denial about their breed (or who likes to fantasize that "it's all in how you raise them", and since Muffin was never abused or fought, she would NEVER bite someone!) and you have a recipe for disaster.

APBT’s also have another social problem–their "tough" image. Some breeds (most especially pitbulls) draw a disproportionate amount of unsavory owners. One need only to look at all of the breeders’ websites–with tough-looking characters and rap music, dogs living on chains, spiked collars and “badass” catch phrases and graphics. Think about the message this is sending…where are the pictures of dogs lying in their owners’ laps, watching TV? On anti-BSL pages, sures, but not usually on the breeders’ sites. These folks are an exception, when they should be the norm. Check out their family members, dogs who can actually enjoy activities with other [opposite sex] dogs, instead of having to be mounted in "rape racks" or muzzled just in order to be bred! Think I'm kidding?

Pitbulls are now promoted and sold to undesirables as the ultimate mean dog–these people have no idea (or interest) how to create a loving family pet, and the breeders sure aren’t going to screen them, or educate them. (Sometimes even pitbulls aren't nasty enough for these types anymore, so they switch over to Presas or another "inferiority complex" breed.

People who do not understand pitbulls are aquiring pitbulls.
People who do not bother to keep their dog behind a secure fence, are acquiring pitbulls.
This is what I mean, when I say that pitbulls, first and foremost, have a "people problem".

There are also wonderful people adopting pitbulls!
People who train, people who socialise, people who learn about the breed and take responsible ownership seriously. These folks contain their dog, and raise it lovingly as a family member...and they never have a problem.
The breed has lots of positive attributes. They are exceptionally loyal and affectionate. They are intelligent and highly trainable. They excel at dog sports, search and rescue, therapy dog work, and other activities. The well bred ones LOVE people, more deeply and more enthusiastically than perhaps any other dog on the planet! They are tolerant of pain and insensitive to rough handling, so children won't provoke a bite by hurting the dog. Unless seriously off-standard, they are super solid in temperament, and extremely hard to rattle. This dog will give you all he's got, and smile while he does it...and I have never seen so many dogs of one breed who could be so hideously abused at the hands of humans--yet be gentle and affectionate to those who doctor their physical and emotional wounds.
There are *millions* of sweet, good natured, well behaved pitbulls in this country who are their family's treasure.
You never hear about these dogs—because they cause no trouble for anyone. Do they deserve to die? It's hard to argue that they do...but people argue it every day, regardless, because they feel that the "bad" pitbulls do so much damage they outweigh the (vastly greater numbers of) good ones.

Some pitbull advocates work tirelessly to solve the problems. They educate and they network and they get out there and try to change people's perception of how the dogs should be cared for.
Other people create great pitbulls! The most important factor is temperament...look here for an idea of what the APBT temperament is supposed to be like. This is an excellent description of what is inherent in the breed's history, and what breed fanciers don't want to lose forever (through inappropriate breeding OR breed bans).

That said, what the dog is physically built like is not totally irrelevant. THIS is a photo gallery of real, working class pit bull terriers, per standard and tradition.
Here are some more.
Look at this gorgeous girl...

These are true working dogs, capable of doing both the unfortunate job they were traditionally bred for (old tyme dogfighters may not have been "nice people", but they weren't stupid when it came to what makes a good working dog and a safe, reliable animal!) as well as modern 'dog sports' and jobs.

Now compare them to some of the "blue hippos" being bred today.

Those are not "working dogs", not bred to standard, and not even bred with the dog's health and hardiness in mind.
(Arguably, it is uncomfortable for a dog like the one below to even exist.)

Some more food for thought...pitbull "lovers", please be sure to read these and give them some long, hard consideration. Terrierman has hit the nail on the head.

Denying the current breed tendencies of any breed is not doing them a favor.
People who tell the truth about a dog's potential –good, bad, and ugly—are not "anti-pitbull people", by any means. By warning new or potential adopters that dog-aggression, prey drive, and so on are prevalent in the breed, they are HELPING the dog to best succeed in his new home. Those who try to educate about temperament as a whole, without covering up the parts they would prefer don't exist, are the ones who care most about the breed...and the *future* of the breed.

Telling the balanced story (from a breed-neutral site): APBT review

Sage advice from highly experienced APBT organisations:

-Pitbull Rescue Central says...

Never trust a pit bull not to fight...
It is not a hate of other dogs that causes pit bulls to fight, but rather an "urge" to do so that has been bred into the dogs for many generations. Pit bulls may fight over hierarchic status, but external stimulus or excitement can also trigger a fight. Remember that any canine can fight, but pit bulls were bred specifically for their drive, intensity, and determination to win.
Pit bull owners must be aware of the remarkable fighting abilities these dogs posses and always keep in mind that pit bulls have the potential to inflict serious injury to other animals. A pit bull may not even be the one starting a conflict, but he has the genetics to finish it. Remember that pit bulls are almost always blamed no matter who initiated the hostilities, and often end up paying the price...as does the owner!
That said, some pit bulls get along great with other pets and may live happily with other dogs without incident. We just can't assume that this is true for all of them, or take for granted that pit bulls getting along with other pets today will do so tomorrow. Pit bull owners must have common sense and make sure they don't set their dogs up for failure by putting them in inappropriate situations.
How to prevent a fight
The very best situation to prevent a fight in your home is to have a pit bull as the only pet. Pit bulls are people-dogs anyway and if they receive enough attention from their family, they don't need a canine companion to be happy. However if you prefer having two dogs, and many people do, the next best situation is to have a compatible neutered male and a spayed female, whose interactions are always supervised. If you have multiple pit bulls or a pit bull in a multi-pet home, you might find our Crate and Rotate page helpful.
Responsible Pit Bull Ownership Guidelines
Take note that a fight can strike suddenly and for no apparent reason. Warning signs can be very subtle with Pit Bulls and even completely absent in certain cases. Two dogs may be best friends for years, sleeping together, cuddling, playing, even eating from the same bowl, and one day something triggers one of them and boom! Often, the dogs act like best friends as soon as the fight is over. They might even lick each other's wounds. You have been warned, though. If they fight once, chances are they will fight again and will get better at it each time.
NEVER leave Pit Bulls unsupervised with other animals. We can't emphasize this enough. When no one is around to keep an eye on them, the dogs should be safely crated or in separate rooms even if they are best friends. You never know what might trigger a fight in your absence. All canines can fight, but Pit Bulls were bred to never quit. If no one is home to break the fight, the dogs could inflict serious injuries to each other, or worse.
Do not bring an adult Pit Bull to an off-leash dog park or any other area where it may come into contact with other dogs running loose.
Early socialization MAY help, but is not a guarantee that your Pit Bull won't become dog-aggressive at some point. ALWAYS be prepared for it!

-From Bad Rap, the famous pitbull advocate site:

Easy answer: The pit bulls that do well with larger groups of unknown dogs are typically youngsters. The parks can be great places for easy going PUPS to blow off steam and socialize, but as dogs begin to feel their adult bravado, they lose patience with other dogs' rude behavior.
No matter how much good socializing and training you've done, your dog's dog-tolerance will disappear if he's triggered into conflict by another dog's challenge, a tussle over a toy, a tug-o-war game or even a friendly wrestling match that gets a little "too exciting."
Because we dog people love to be optimists, many of us let ourselves get lulled into a false sense of confidence after months or even years of success in the parks. We've ALL hoped: "Maybe MY dog is different" or "Socializing will keep him dog friendly" or "I can call him out of trouble; He listens to me" or (our least favorite excuse) "The place I got him from told me he's great with dogs." The first day your pit bull gets into a fight is usually a big shocker. Sadly, we hear it again and again: "But, he's never done anything like this before!"

Dog Aggression Happens!
A large part of a dog's success with other dogs depends on the individual bag of genetics he inherits and how well he is managed, not "How he was raised".

3. Separate Dogs Before Leaving the House.
This is one of the hardest things for new multi-pit owners to accept: Our dogs can be the best of friends BUT they still may find something, someday, that will cause an argument. When you’re home, a small spat can often be stopped fast with a loud shout. But if you're not home, this same argument can escalate, drag on and cause injury or wurse. Avoid this terrible possibility by getting your dogs used to being separated during 'down time' in a crate or on a tie-down, first while you're home and then while you're away.

-From Diane Jessup's site, therealpitbull.com...probably the most comprehensive and accurate one online:

"Although never aggressive towards people without real need, the Pit Bull is dog-aggressive, to varying degrees. The properly socialized and trained Pit Bull should not be an instigator, yet neither should he shy away from a challenge. "


If you've done even a minimal amount of research on the Pit Bull breed, you have most likely read or been told somewhere along the line that Pit Bulls love to fight; that duking it out in the pit for an hour or more is a fun and enjoyable activity for these dogs. And if you are like most people, at the very least you probably cocked your eyebrow in skepticism in response, if you didn't outright reject such "information". "How could dogs like getting torn to shreds", you may have asked. "Surely they are goaded and tormented and trained to kill before they would ever engage in such behavior." Your assumptions would be understandable, but not entirely correct.
Pit Bulls can and do willingly fight - without training, and even when raised well. That is the fact of the matter. It is what they have been bred to do for close to two hundred years. Even today, where pit fighting is a felony in all states in America and the majority of Pit Bulls here have been bred as companions and show/working dogs, the blood of the breed's gladiator ancestors runs strong. Selective breeding is an extremely potent tool. Not just physical traits, but tendencies towards certain behaviors can be selected for and purpetuated in future generations. Aggression towards other animals and a willingness to engage in - and then finish - a battle were traits that were selected for in Pit Bulls.

More sites:

Tips for Responsible Pit Bull Owners
Never leave pit bulls alone with other dogs (or any animal). Even if you're dog gets along great 99.9% of the time with other animals the Pit Bull is known for animal aggression and it is possible something will happen. A good piece of advice I received a long time ago was, Never trust your Pit Bull not to fight.


Pit Bulls with other dogs- From Pit Bulls for Dummies
Aggression toward strange dogs is a normal trait of canines. It's in their blood. This trait was acccentuated in the early breeding of fighting Pit Bulls. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult trait to have in today's world. Pit Bulls were bred for generations to be fighting dogs. This doesn't mean that they're vicious. It does mean that many are naturally inclined to behave confidently and sometimes aggressively toward other dogs, and most are naturally inclined to try to win a fight should another dog start it. Pit Bulls from lines that have not been selected for fighting in recent generations. No matter how long it's been since your dog's ancestors were used for fighting, the ability to fight another dog is one of the Pit Bull's original reasons for existence. Remember, also, that Pit Bulls were bred for gameness. The mellowest Pit Bull, who would never even dream of starting a fight, may also never dream of backing down from one that another dog's started.


To Summarize the Proper Pit Bull Temperament
1. Pit Bulls are often dog-aggressive to one extent or another (this often shows up at or near sexual maturity). A dog that was previously non-dog aggressive may "turn-on" and suddenly doesn't like other dogs of the same sex, or, for that matter, any dogs at all, even housemates they have been raised with. Adult Pit Bulls should NEVER be left alone with other dogs and require proper supervision.

Ten Commandments of Pit Bull Ownership
1. Thou shalt NEVER trust thy Pit Bull not to fight
2. Thou shalt contain thy Pit Bull securely when not supervised by an adult
3. Thou shalt NEVER leave thy adult Pit Bull alone and unsupervised with another dog

Note that these are the "Pro-Pitbull" sites, the people who *love* the dogs, fight against BSL...and have tons of experience. They want to prevent incidents, so they stress how dog-aggression was originally bred into the dogs, and how you can avoid your PB killing another dog.
They know how to keep this breed enjoyable for everyone...if only novices would stop arguing, and start listening.

There's absolutely no reason why *every pit bull terrier* could not be maintained as a nice, safe family pet who never has an incident.
Some are even great with other dogs, and/or fine with smaller pets. This takes time and effort, and excellent socialisation...and when it comes to other animals, not every dog will be everything you want him to be. If his parents are very dog-aggressive, chances are he will be too...so in the end, it's a blend of what is in the dog's lines combined with the amount of training you put into him. Not everyone will achieve this:

but it's a great goal...and if you *don't* reach it, then you need to manage your dog accordingly, and never give him the opportunity to cause harm.

While a dog's genetic heritage is always relevant and it isn't "all in how you raise him" (no matter what well-meaning but inexperienced folks like to think) it truly IS "all in how you manage them"! A dog kept behind a secure fence will never hurt anyone but the owner...and if the owner does a few other simple things right, he'll have an excellent and trustworthy companion.

The caveat to all of this is that living successfully with an APBT requires a higher degree of responsibility than is necessary for the average owner of a Golden or Pomeranian. If you want to have a high-end dog, you have to be willing to go the extra mile, in terms of being a conscientious owner and "doing everything right". It's not hard, but some people just won't be bothered...or may actually enjoy having nasty dogs. :-/ Therefore, some sort of screening process will likely need to be in place, to weed out the "bad apples". This is the job of the breeders—who, if they love their breed, will also go the extra mile to keep every pup in a safe and appropriate home.

~An excellent article from the New Yorker on the complexity of this issue resides here: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/02/06/060206fa_fact
Worth checking out, for anyone truly interested in a fair and effective resolution of what we have done, and continue to do, to these dogs.

Is the situation completely hopeless? No...but it sure is is bad shape.
Do people who claim to love pitbulls care enough about their breed to step up to the plate and do right by it...THAT is the real question. And, will they do so before the rest of the country decides--fair or not--to destroy the breed entirely?

Sometimes, there are no easy answers—but there ARE answers, and the best things in life are rarely 'easy'.