Myths & Facts

by Jackie Fitzgerald and J. Thomas

There are several myths surrounding so-called “dangerous” breeds.  The media, legislators, and the public often declare these myths as true, when in fact they have no basis in reality.

Myth: “Pit bulls” are naturally aggressive.

What is aggression?

Generally speaking, all dogs are, by definition, territorial predators. All dogs are “naturally aggressive” to some extent, as it is through “aggressive” behaviors like fighting, defending, hunting, guarding, barking, biting, and posturing that dogs’ predecessors survived. These behaviors are also the reason why humans domesticated dogs in the first place. Dogs have long been bred and used for hunting, protection, fighting, and guarding. Thus, aggression is a natural component of all dogs’ behavior.

However, it is important to stress that aggression is not a state of being or a temperament (which would be solely affected by genetics). Aggression is a behavior. Behavior is the product of both genetics and environment (the way a dog is or is not raised and trained, and the circumstances a dog is put in by its owner). Therefore, a dog’s breed alone does not and can not shape behavior.  Socialization, training, management, and proper care–or lack thereof–can have a strong influence on a dog’s behavior. Because a dog’s owner determines the situations a dog faces, the dog’s owner has total control over whether a dog has the opportunity or the inclination to exhibit aggression.

It is also important to differentiate between different types of aggression. Aggression is a complex behavior that has many different causes and manifests in a variety of ways. Aggression does not necessarily equal danger to the public. Dogs are predators, and many will kill “prey” such as birds, cats, and rodents. This type of aggression does not automatically translate to aggression toward humans (including babies and children), though the media is filled with quotes from fearful citizens saying “It was a cat this time, but it could have been my grandbaby!” Many dogs are protective of their food or toys; this does not mean they are also prey-aggressive or human-aggressive.

See also: The Nature Versus Nurture Debate

Aggression in “pit bulls”

Having established that aggression is not solely dictated by genetics, and that aggression does not equate with danger to the public, we can now address the myth that pit bulls are more likely than other types of dogs to attack people because of their genetic makeup.

The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS) conducts temperament tests to evaluate temperament in both purebred and mixed breed dogs. Unlike various tests like the Canine Good Citizen test, the ATTS Temperament Test hopes to mitigate the influence of a dog’s training by focusing on a dog’s untrained, natural reactions to various threatening and nonthreatening stimuli.

The ATTS reports that in 2007, the three “pit bull” breeds (the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier) had a combined passing rate of 85.5%.  This is a higher passing percentage than the Golden Retriever (84.2%), the Beagle (80.3%), the Cardigan Corgi (75.4%), the Cocker Spaniel (81.7%), and the average of all tested dogs of all breeds (81.6%).

Some people argue that the ATTS test is skewed because different breeds are permitted to exhibit different behaviors during the test. It is the case that the ATTS evaluators take a dog’s breed (and, to some extent, training) into consideration when performing the test. Per the ATTS: “The ATTS test focuses on and measures different aspects of temperament such as stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness as well as the dog’s instinct for protectiveness towards its handler and/or self-preservation in the face of a threat. The test is designed for the betterment of all breeds of dogs and takes into consideration each breed’s inherent tendencies.”

However, the ATTS also says this about a dog’s reaction to the “threatening stranger” subtest (the subtest in which a threat is presented to the dog): “Aggression here is checked against the breed standard and the dog’s training. A schutzhund trained dog lunging at the stranger is allowed, but if an untrained Siberian husky does the same, it may fail.” [Ed. note: I personally took two “pit bull”-type dogs through the ATTS test. I was informed at the beginning of the test that, in order for my dogs to pass, they would be permitted–but not required–to react with slight aggression toward the threatening stranger. However, they would fail if they either 1) fled without recovery, or 2) did not “switch off” their aggressive response as soon as the threatening stranger disappeared. The threatening stranger, who was a guy in a crazy hat, raincoat, and a big stick, was truly loud and menacing; he even scared me a little. One of my dogs fled from the stranger but recovered her wits and decided to stand tall in the end. The other dog growled and jumped forward, but he was more than happy to see the evaluator immediately after that scary experience. Both passed the test.]

Some persons assert that the ATTS test cannot be used as an accurate impression of a dog’s temperament since it does not test a dog’s reaction to another dog.  However, the Canine Good Citizenship test (CGC) does test a dog’s reaction to another dog.  The CGC is also much more involved than the ATTS. It requires that the owner has trained the dog, and the dog must perform obedience commands during the test. BADRAP, the largest pit bull rescue group in California, has documented over 75 pit bulls in the Bay area alone obtaining CGCs.  Many of the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick have obtained CGCs, and these are dogs raised, bred and trained for the sole purpose of killing each other!

Both the ATTS and the CGC require effort and expense that often goes above and beyond what the average (or below-average) dog owner is willing to undertake. The ATTS and CGC are both titles that responsible dog owners strive for; thus, it is most likely that the dogs who are put through these tests are owned by loving, caring, responsible people. Through these voluntary tests, we can see how a particular dog of a particular breed performs when it is owned by people who care about their responsibilities and take pride in their ownership. As evidenced by these tests, pit bulls and other so-called “dangerous” breeds are not, in fact, any more aggressive or unsafe than any other breed when they are given the opportunity to live with a responsible owner.

Myth: A dog that shows aggression towards an animal will go after people next.

Animal aggression and human aggression are distinctly different and should not be confused.   Many dogs display aggression towards other animals, such as squirrels or cats, and many breeds have been selectively bred for high prey drive.  Prey drive is what encourages dogs to run, bite, chase, and shake.  Many breeds, including Greyhounds, Coonhounds, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Border Collies, and Pointers, have intense prey drive.  But no one thinks a Beagle will go after someone the first time it kills a squirrel.

Myth: “Pit bulls” have locking jaws.

This is a completely unsubstantiated myth.  There is no evidence to validate the idea that there is a unique jaw structure that would allow dogs’ jaws to lock.  Even if such a feature existed, it would be completely useless.  The dogs wouldn’t be able to eat, play, or engage in any normal dog behavior.  Even in dog fighting, such a mechanism would be worthless.  If the dog’s jaws locked, it would always die in the fighting ring, unable to release its grip.

This myth was enhanced by the story told by ex-dog warden Tom Skeldon, Lucas County (Ohio), who claimed that when a pit bull started going wild in his kennel at animal control, he shot it with a tranquilizer, only to come back to find the dog passed out with his jaws clamped on a cable attached to the door.  However, stories like this are not exclusive to pit bulls.  A Belgian Malinois attacked an Albuquerque police officer in 2005, at which point the officer shot the dog.  The dead dog’s jaws were still firmly attached to the officer’s arm, and several other officers had to pry the dog off of her.

“The few studies which have been conducted of the structure of the skulls, mandibles and teeth of Pit Bulls show that, in proportion to their size, their jaw structure and thus its inferred functional morphology, is no different from that of any breed of dog.  There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of ‘locking mechanism’ unique to the structure of the jaw and/or teeth of the American Pit Bull Terrier.”  – Dr. I. Brisbin, University of South Carolina

Myth: Certain breeds of dogs “turn” on their victims suddenly and without warning.

Such a myth indicates the average person’s complete lack of knowledge about dog behavior and body language. There is always a reason for a dog’s behavior.  The lead-up to overt aggressive behavior usually proceeds in a very structured way, starting with low-level signals like flattened ears or tucked tail, proceeding through “whale eyes” or quiet growls, and if these signs are not acknowledged, the dog will resort to snapping, barking, or biting. When a person misses the early warning signs, it may appear that the dog is suddenly biting for no apparent reason.  This is true for all dogs.

See also:
Donaldson, Jean. Culture Clash. James and Kenneth Publishers, 1996.
Bradley, Janis. Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous. James and Kenneth Publishers, 2005.

Myth: Pit bull brains swell and become too large for their skull, ultimately causing the dogs to “snap” and attack people.

This particular falsehood stems from myths surrounding the Doberman in the 1960’s.

There is in fact an extremely rare disease that causes a dog’s brain to swell–syringomyelia. It is most common in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.  This disease damages neurological functions and causes severe pain and partial paralysis.  Dogs with syringomyelia often scratch and whimper in pain.  The disease does not cause random biting, and the paralysis makes it nearly impossible for a dog to attack.

Myth: Pit bulls have more bite force/do more damage when they bite than any other breed.

Many numbers are floating around that claim to be the PSI (pounds per square inch) of pit bulls’ jaw strength. The numbers range wildly, from 800 PSI to 2000 PSI. These numbers are completely unfounded; there are no scientific studies to back any of these numbers up. In fact, bite force cannot even be accurately measured in PSI; the proper term is “pounds of force” or “Newtons” (metric system).

One study conducted by Dr. Brady Barr of National Geographic showed that the average domestic canine has an average bite of 320 pounds of force.  In one portion of the documented study, Dr. Barr tested three dog breeds, a German Shepherd Dog (GSD), a Rottweiler and an American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT).  The Rottweiler bit with 328 pounds of force, the highest pounds of force ever recorded from a domestic dog.  The GSD bit with 238 pounds of force, and the APBT bit with 235 pounds of force.

It is important to understand that bite strength differs depending on the size of the dog, the situation that led to the bite, the dog’s training, and the state of mind the dog is currently in. The damage that a dog does when it bites depends on the location of the bite, the victim’s behavior while being bitten (twisting away will cause more damage than holding still), and the size ratio between dog and victim, among other factors. Breed has very little to do with bite strength or level of damage. You can look at a dog bite and guess the dog’s size, the victim’s behavior, and perhaps even the motivation of the dog, but you cannot guess the breed of dog that bit a person by looking at the dog bite.

See also:
National Canine Research Council: Do Pit Bulls Inflict Injuries Unlike Other Breeds of Dogs?
Delise, Karen. The Pit Bull Placebo. Anubis Publishing, 2007.
Dog Bites: Information and Statistics–Canine Bite Force
Measurement of bite force in dogs: a pilot study (note: measurements are given in metric/SI)

Myth: “Pit bulls” attack more people than any other breed.

As shown in the article A Closer Look At The Popular Studies, statistical data relating to dog bites are inaccurate and full of fallacies.  “Pit bull” is not a breed, but rather a category in which over 20 breeds are lumped.  You cannot compare that many breeds grouped under one label to the rest of the dog population.  In 2004, in Tellings v. City of Toledo, the court found that there is no statistical evidence that indicates that pit bulls bite more frequently than some other breeds of dogs.

See also: Scientific Studies

Myth: There is an epidemic of severe and fatal dog attacks in the United States.

Karen Delise, author of Fatal Dog Attacks, founder of the National Canine Research Council, and dog bite expert, states that there has been no significant increase in the number of fatalities during this decade as compared to previous decades.

From as far back as the late 1800s, every generation has perceived themselves in the midst of a “dog bite epidemic”. For well over a century, newspapers have printed editorials from both the public and authorities on how to address the “increasing” number of dog attacks…

Severe dog attacks have always been unusual occurrences – and fatal dog attacks have always been exceedingly rare occurrences, (especially when considering the human population, the dog population, the frequency of exposure and myriad of situations in which the two species interact).

While any case of a fatal dog attack is a tragic occurrence, the number of fatal attacks (past or present) does not support the claim of an epidemic. The small number of fatal dog attacks has increased only proportionate to the increase in the human and dog populations.

From National Canine Research Council: An “Epidemic” of Dog Bites?

Myth: It’s easy to identify a “pit bull.” People do it all the time.

The vagueness of the term pit bull contributes to the difficulty in accurately identifying one. The definition of “pit bull” varies significantly from one person to the next. What I consider a “pit bull” is not likely to be the same as what you consider to be a “pit bull.” Any short-haired dog may be considered a “pit bull” by somebody, somewhere.

BSL proponents argue that breed identification is easy, because even pit bull owners know when their dog is a “pit bull.” In fact, this is not true. Most dog owners really don’t know what type of dog they own, especially if they have adopted the dog.

Our society expects and demands that all dogs be given some sort of breed label. If the owner refuses to do it, someone else will inevitably do it for them.

Dog owners who do not know their dog’s ancestry will usually pick the breed mix or designation that seems most suitable to them. Sometimes this is based on what the owner him or herself decides the dog will be. Sometimes this is based on the designation selected by an animal shelter or veterinarian. Sometimes this is based on judgements passed by society (such as when two passersby say “nice Lab” and one says “nice Rottweiler”–the owner might decide the dog is a Lab/Rottie mix).

Such tenuous labels can change depending on who does subsequent assessment. An owner might have been told by the animal shelter that their dog is an English Mastiff mix, only to be informed by their vet that the dog is actually a Cane Corso. Someone may have paid for a purebred Dogo Argentino only to have a dog warden declare it a “pit bull.”

None of these methods of breed identification are scientific or objective; they rely solely on visual assessment of the dog.

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