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Why Do Pitbulls Have a Bad Reputation?

Written by Jay
BsC (Hons) Animal Behaviour & Welfare graduate with a passion for advocating for misunderstood animals.
Published on
Sunday 10 January 2021
Last updated on
Tuesday 9 May 2023
why do pitbulls have a bad reputation
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Across the world, many Pitbull owners find themselves asking, “why do Pitbulls have a bad reputation?” For the vast majority of owners, Pitbull-type dogs make loyal and loving companions to the family. So, is it true that they are as dangerous as some people claim? Or are these claims sensationalist?

To find out why Pitbulls have a bad reputation it is important to start from the very beginning. As fighting dogs, Pitbull-type dogs were bred specifically for dog aggression. Over the years this fierce reputation has stuck with all Pitbull-type dogs.

Pitbull History: The Basis of this Breed’s Bad Reputation

Modern Pitbull-type breeds originate from the historical sport of bull-baiting. Beginning around 1209 in England, bull baiting was a blood sport that involved pitting dogs against bulls for entertainment. Later on, the Old English Bulldog came to engage in this blood sport. However, by 1835, the Cruelty to Animals Act called for a decline in bull-baiting and bear-baiting, leading to the decline of the Old English Bulldog.

In retaliation to this Act, breeders crossed the Old English Bulldog with the Old English Terrier, creating the Bull-And-Terrier. This breed was the ancestor of modern-day Pitbull breeds and specifically bred for dogfighting. This was a blood sport that was much easier to conceal than bull-baiting and bear-baiting. This fighting reputation persists today. With the Pitbull’s fighting history, modern breeds under the Pitbull-type umbrella may demonstrate an increased propensity for inter-dog aggression and aggression towards other animals.

Intimidating Appearance of a Pitbull

Pitbulls are strong, stocky, and light on their feet. These dogs have wide skulls with well-developed facial muscles, as well as strong jaws. These traits are the result of selective breeding. For dogfights, it was best to produce a dog that is light and agile but has a strong bite. When asked to picture a Pitbull, many people will imagine a dog with cropped ears, which can create a more intimidating appearance. Unfortunately, ear cropping was a common practice for the dogfighting that persists today. This is because the ears are an easy target for an opposing dog to grab on to.

Unfortunately, it is not just the looks of a Pitbull that intimidates people. In a 2016 study, it was found that the “Pitbull” label significantly lowers the attractiveness of dogs in a shelter. The Animal Care Centers of NYC once attempted to re-name the Pitbull to the “New Yorkie.” Similarly, the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals attempted to coin the name “St. Francis Terrier” for these dogs. These were attempts to improve public perception of Pitbull-type dogs, hoping that more people would adopt them from shelters with a change of name.

Pitbull Ownership and its Association With the Breed’s Reputation

Some 33,000 gangs are criminally active in the USA today, many of which utilize dogs. Certain breeds convey a sense of control and status for their owners due to their “intimidating” appearance and aggressive reputation. This led to gang members breeding and training dogs to attack rival gang members over turf invasions and threats. Gangs will also use these dogs as a weapon to facilitate robbery, kidnapping, and other serious crimes. In addition, many states consider dogs as a “deadly weapon” if used to harm or threaten someone.

Over-breeding due to irresponsible ownership is a problem for the Pitbull. It is likely that Pitbull-type dogs are often the result of random breedings without regard for temperament. The result of these random breedings is a population of dogs with a wider range of behavioral predispositions and experiences. It is important to consider each dog as an individual for this reason.

Pitbull Attack Stats

The vast majority of dog bites are minor. Of the estimated 4.5 to 4.7 million dog bites, 0.01 percent result in serious injury and hospitalization. However, between the years 2005 and 2017, Pitbulls accounted for 284 bite-related deaths. This makes up 65 percent of the overall dog bite-related deaths. Similarly, in 2019, 69 percent of dog bite deaths were from Pitbulls, according to Dogs Bite. Pitbulls inflicted 56 percent of fatal attacks on owners.

Why do Pitbull Bites Result in More Deaths?

Despite having a relatively low bite force, Pitbull bites appear to cause more deaths and more severe injuries in comparison with other breeds. The bite force of the American Pit Bull Terrier is a mere 235 psi. In comparison, the bite force of the Siberian Husky is 320 psi, and the strongest is the Kangal, with a bite force of 743 psi. So why do Pitbull bites cause so much damage when they occur if their bite force is weaker than that of other breeds?

It is a common misconception that Pitbulls have “locking jaws” that cannot let go. However, Pitbulls use a “hold and shake” biting style. This behavior originates from selective breeding for dogfighting. As a result of this behavior, bites can result in more tearing of the muscle.

How Does this Bad Reputation Affect Pitbulls?

Pitbull-type dogs are the most euthanized breeds in animal shelters. While 33 to 65 percent of municipal shelter dogs are Pitbull-types, up to 75 percent of these dogs are put to sleep immediately upon entry, reports Save-A-Bull Rescue. Studies show that 1 million Pitbulls are put down every year. To put this into perspective, 2,800 Pitbulls are put down every day. Some studies double this number. Animal People reports that Pitbulls have a mere 1 in 600 chance of finding a forever home.

The Pitbull’s poor reputation spreads to other breeds too. Within the USA, the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and sometimes the American Bulldog, are all classed as Pitbull-type dogs. This leads to confusion about what a “Pitbull-type dog” might look like. A 2015 study suggests that one in three dogs without Pitbull heritage are incorrectly seen as “Pitbulls” by at least one member of staff. One in five dogs with actual Pitbull heritage were missed by all staff.

pitbull bites
Pitbull bites cause more death despite its low bite force.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still wondering, “why do Pitbulls have a bad reputation?” Feel free to refer to our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details!

Are Pitbulls naturally aggressive?

While the degree of inter-dog aggression varies between individuals, Pitbulls can be inherently intolerant of other dogs, not humans. In one 2008 study, it was found that 22 percent of Pitbulls had bitten other dogs. However, 7 percent of Pitbull owners reported bites or attempted bites to unfamiliar people. In contrast, 20 percent of Dachshund owners reported bites towards unfamiliar humans. While these statistics do not speak for all dogs of these breeds, there is a clear pattern showing that Pitbulls are not naturally aggressive towards people.

While any dog’s genetics will predispose it to a certain behavior, genetics is not the only factor in behavior. Behavior develops through interactions between genetics and environmental factors. Such factors might include early nutrition, housing conditions, social interactions, and experiences during critical periods. Because experience is so important, we may see vast differences from breed to breed. While you may find a Pitbull bred to fight that never fights with dogs, you may also find a Labrador Retriever bred to be a service animal that displays aggression.

Do Pitbulls snap for no reason?

Pitbulls do not snap for no reason. In some cases, owners and strangers do not recognize the appeasing gestures of a threatened dog. Without recognizing these gestures, many people unknowingly push dogs into taking further action. So what signs can we look for?

The ladder of aggression is a summary of the gestures a dog uses before biting. As your dog shows more signs that are on this ladder, their aggression escalates. At the bottom of the ladder, your dog might yawn, blink, or lick their nose. If the threat does not leave, your dog will turn away, walk away, and creep with their ears back. As the threat continues, a dog may stand crouched with their tail beneath themselves. Past this point, most dogs stiffen up and stare at the threat. This escalates to growling, then snapping, then biting. By the time a dog bites, it has usually given several warning signs that have gone unnoticed or ignored.

Do Pitbulls turn on their owners?

Pitbull aggression towards humans is uncharacteristic of the breed type. Rather than human aggression, Pitbull-type dogs inherently harbor more dog aggression. According to Dogs Bite, 19 percent of dog bites in 2019 involved a family pet killing their owner. Pitbulls were accountable for 56 percent of these fatal attacks.

There are three main reasons why a dog might harm its owner. In the case of fear aggression, an anxious or mistreated dog may become defensive in the face of a perceived threat. Dogs showing fear aggression will often show signs that correspond with the ladder of aggression before harming a person. Your dog might also show fear aggression if they are in pain or discomfort, and being pushed into something that they do not wish to do. In more extreme cases, your dog might become aggressive if suffering from liver disease or rabies. Food aggression is another common reason for bites. Finally, perhaps the most dangerous of causes is redirected aggression. This form of aggression occurs when a dog is aroused or already displaying aggression towards something else, but a person interferes.

Do Pitbulls get aggressive with age?

While a dog’s behavior changes with age, Pitbulls do not become more aggressive towards humans as they grow. However, according to Rescue Every Dog, Pitbulls commonly start showing dog aggression between 8 months and 2 years old. Between the ages of 8 months to 2 years, your dog is in their adolescent stage.

With the hormonal changes of adolescence, some dogs begin to show more dog-to-dog aggression, territorial behavior, and selective responses to training. As with any breed, the failure to continue training during this time can result in long-lasting behavioral problems. Sadly, it is at these ages that dogs most often end up in shelters, as many owners find themselves unable or unwilling to cope with their pup’s unruly and challenging behavior.

Why did my Pitbull attack me?

There are several reasons why your dog might physically injure you. These range from food aggression to a serious underlying illness. If your dog suddenly becomes aggressive towards you, it is important that you seek the help of a professional. A qualified veterinary behaviorist will need to identify the underlying cause of this behavior. Just be sure to do your homework first, and choose a reputable behaviorist who is board-certified.

When asking why Pitbulls have a bad reputation, there are several things to consider. These include the Pitbull’s origins, over-breeding, and inter-dog aggression. Pitbull-type dogs were originally fighters, but our modernday dogs would much prefer to be companions.

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