Pit bull is a term used in the United States for a type of dog descended from bulldogs and terriers, while in other countries such as the United Kingdom the term is used as an abbreviation of the American Pit Bull Terrier breed. The term was first used in 1927. Within the United States the pit bull is usually considered a heterogeneous grouping that includes the breeds American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and occasionally the American Bulldog, along with any crossbred dog that shares certain physical characteristics with these breeds. In other countries including Britain the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is not considered a pit bull. Most pit bull–type dogs descend from the British Bull and terrier, a 19th century dog-fighting type developed from crosses between the Old English Bulldog and the Old English Terrier.
Pit bull–type dogs have a controversial reputation as pets both in the United States and internationally, due to their history in dog-fighting, the number of high-profile attacks documented in the media over decades, and proclivity to latching on while biting. Proponents of the breed and advocates of regulation have engaged in a nature-versus-nurture debate over whether apparent aggressive tendencies in pit bulls may be appropriately attributed to owners’ care for the dog or inherent qualities. Numerous advocacy organizations have sprung up in defense of the pit bull. A number of controlled studies have argued that the type is not disproportionately dangerous, offering competing interpretations on dog bite statistics. Independent organizations have published statistics based on hospital records showing pit bulls are responsible for more than half of dog bite incidents among all breeds despite comprising 6% of pet dogs.
Pit bull–type dogs are extensively used in the United States for dog fighting, a practice that has continued despite being outlawed. A number of nations and jurisdictions restrict the ownership of pit bull–type dogs through breed-specific legislation.
History of Pit Bulls
It is believed all dogs that are now classified as pit bulls descend from the British bull and terrier, which were first imported into North America from the 1870s. The bull-and-terrier was a type of dog developed in the United Kingdom in the early–19th century for the blood sports of dog fighting and rat baiting, it was created by crossing the ferocious, thickly muscled Old English Bulldog with the agile, lithe, feisty Black and Tan Terrier. The aggressive Old English Bulldog, which were bred for bear and bull baiting, was often also pitted against its own kind in organised dog fights, but it was found that lighter, faster dogs were better suited to dog fighting than the heavier Bulldog. To produce a lighter, faster more agile dog which retained the courage and tenacity of the Bulldog, outcrosses from local terriers were tried, and ultimately found to be successful.
As it was in the United Kingdom, dog fighting became a popular pastime in 19th century America and bull-and-terriers were imported to the New World to pursue the blood sport. In the United States organised dog fights have been progressively outlawed in various states from 1874, culminating in federal legislation criminalising animal fighting in 2007.
In the 1890s breeders of American pit bull–type dogs attempted to have their dogs recognised by the American Kennel Club, but because of the type’s association with dog fighting, the club rejected these entreaties. Following this rejection, in 1898 breeders of American Pit Bull Terriers established their own rival kennel club the United Kennel Club, in addition to being a breed registry the United Kennel Club also regulated go fights. In the 1930s the American Kennel Club was faced with a dilemma, whilst not wishing to condone dog fighting there was a desire to recognise a uniquely American dog breed for which over 30 years breed records existed. The solution was to recognise Pit Bull Terriers under a different name and prohibit these dogs from being used in organised fights and in 1935 the American Kennel Club recognised Pit Bull Terriers as Staffordshire Terriers.
The name “Staffordshire Bull Terrier” was first used in Britain in 1930 in advertisements for bull-and-terrier type dogs. Organised dog fighting had been effectively eliminated in the United Kingdom by the Protection of Animals Act 1911, but devotees of the bull-and-terrier type continued to breed these dogs, predominantly in England’s Black Country. Throughout the early 1930s attempts were made in England to gain recognition for these dogs with The Kennel Club, these efforts were successful in 1935. In order to avoid confusion with the British breed, in 1972 the American Kennel Club changed the name of their American breed to the American Staffordshire Terrier.
Despite criminalisation, illegal fights using pit bull–type dogs have continued to be widespread in the United States, in the 1990s in that country it was estimated 1,500 dogs died annually in organised fights and by the mid-2000s it was estimated over 40,000 people were involved in the illegal blood sport. Pit bull–type dogs are also used by criminal organisations to guard illegal narcotics, and to intimidate and attack civilians, other criminals and police, the type becoming a status symbol in American gang culture. On the other side of the law, pit bull–type dogs have been used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as drug detection dogs.
In efforts to counter negative perceptions about pit bull–type dogs, both the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the New York City Center for Animal Care and Control have unsuccessfully attempted to rename the type.
Studies have found that when people involved in dog rescue, adoption, and regulation identify the breed of a dog of mixed parentage, this identification did not always correlate with the DNA analysis of that dog. Mixed-breed dogs are often labeled as pit bulls if they have certain physical characteristics, such as a square-shaped head or bulky body type.
Dog attack risk
Pit bulls were originally bred for bull baiting and dog fighting, and because of this heritage, they often show a tendency to attack other animals with a remarkable ferocity that may be contributing to public stigma against the breed. In fighting with dogs of other breeds, pit bulls, German Shepherds, Great Danes and Rottweilers were often the aggressor, and more than twenty percent of studied Akitas, Jack Russell Terriers and pit bulls displayed serious aggression towards other dogs. Although there may be a connection between certain kinds of dog and aggression against people, the difficulty of classifying dog attacks to any specific breed after the fact has made this point controversial and debated. Violent interactions between humans and canines have been studied by the U.S. government, notably the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as academic veterinary researchers. The interpretation of these studies, breed identification and relevance issues, and variable circumstances have given rise to intense controversy.
In a 2014 literature review of dog bite studies, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) argues that breed is a poor sole predictor of dog bites. Controlled studies have not identified pit bulls as disproportionately dangerous. Pit bull–type dogs are more frequently identified with cases involving very severe injuries or fatalities than other breeds, but the review suggests this may relate to the popularity of the breed, noting that sled dogs, such as Siberian Huskies, were involved in a majority of fatal dog attacks in some areas of Canada. Bite statistics by breed are not tracked by the CDC, AVMA or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
In a 2000 review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which examines data from both media reports and from the Humane Society of the United States, pit bull–type dogs were identified in approximately one-third of dog bite-related fatalities in the United States between 1981 and 1992. The review notes that studies on dog bite-related fatalities which collect information by surveying news reports are subject to potential errors, as some fatal attacks may not have been reported, a study might not find all relevant news reports, and the dog breed might be misidentified.
Pit bulls are known for their tenacity and refusal to release a bite, even in the face of great pain. A popular myth mischaracterized pit bulls as having “locking jaws.” The refusal to let go is a behavioral, not physiological trait, and there is no locking mechanism in a pit bull’s jaws. Pit bull–type dogs, like other terriers, hunting and bull-baiting breeds, can exhibit a bite, hold, and shake behavior and at times refuse to release. Pit bulls also have wide skulls, well-developed facial muscles, and strong jaws, and some research suggests that pit bull bites are particularly serious because they tend to bite deeply and grind their molars into tissue. Breaking an ammonia ampule and holding it up to the dog’s nose can cause the dog to release its hold.
Widely reported pit bull attacks have resulted in the enactment of breed-specific legislation (BSL) in several jurisdictions. In two cases, breed-specific bans have been reversed by city councils.
Breed-specific legislation has been largely found to be ineffective at reducing the number of dog attacks. Research has indicated that there is resistance by those who work in the adoption industry, applying a sharper distinction before allowing a dog to be labelled as a pit bull, as well as objections from veterinarians.
Many of the jurisdictions that restrict pit bulls apply their restriction to the modern American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and any other dog that has the substantial physical characteristics and appearance of those breeds. Such jurisdictions include the Canadian province of Ontario, and the U.S. cities of Miami and Denver. However, a few jurisdictions, such as Singapore, also classify the modern American Bulldog as a “pit bull–type dog”. In the United Kingdom, a pit bull is an American Pit Bull Terrier.
Courts in the United States and Canada have ruled that expert identification, when using published breed standards, is sufficient for the enforcement of breed-specific legislation.
Debates often center on whether apparent aggressive tendencies are the result of poor dog ownership or natural behaviors of the breed.
In England and Wales, the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 prohibits the ownership of American Pit Bull Terriers, along with three other breeds; the Act also bans the breeding, sale and exchange of these dogs. Similar legislation exists in Australia. Under Irish law, American Pit Bull Terriers must be led by someone at least 16 years of age, kept on a short strong lead, be muzzled, and wear a collar bearing the name and address of their owner in public at all times. In Germany the importation of pit bulls is banned among other breeds.
Dog Liability insurance
Dog owners in the United States can be held legally liable for injuries inflicted or caused by their dogs. In general, owners are considered liable if they were unreasonably careless in handling or restraining the dog, or if they knew beforehand that the dog had a tendency to cause injury (e.g., bite); however, dog owners are automatically considered liable if local laws hold an owner strictly liable for all damage caused by their dog, regardless of carelessness or foreknowledge of a dog’s tendencies.
Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically provide liability coverage from US$100,000–300,000 for injuries inflicted by dogs; however, some insurance companies limit their exposure to dog bite liability claims by putting restrictions on dog owners that they insure. These restrictions include refusing to cover dog bites under the insurance policy, increasing insurance rates for homeowners with specific breeds, requiring owners of specific breeds to take special training or have their dogs pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test, requiring owners to restrict their dogs with muzzles, chains, or enclosures, and refusing to write policies for homeowners or renters who have specific breeds of dogs.
Owners of rental properties may also be held liable if they knew an aggressive dog was living on their property and they did nothing to ensure the safety of other tenants at the property; as a result, many rental properties forbid pit bull–type dogs and any other breeds if the rental property’s insurance will not cover damage inflicted by that type of dog. The dog breeds most often targeted by insurance companies include pit bull–type dogs, Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Akitas (Akita Inu and American Akitas), and Chow Chows.
In 2013, Farmers Insurance notified policy holders in California that it will no longer cover bites by pit bulls, Rottweilers and wolf-dog hybrids. A spokeswoman for Farmers said that those breeds account for more than a quarter of the agency’s dog bite claims.
Dog liability insurance can be a life-saver if you have an aggressive dog without the proper training. Dog health insurance may also be worth it if your breed is susceptible to health issues.