Why Are People Afraid of Pit Bulls?

Many people base their fear of pit bulls on misconceptions.
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Whether they deserve it or not, pit bulls have bad reputations, inspiring fear in many people. It's unfortunate for pits and their owners, as the perceptions don't align precisely with the facts. Pit bulls do cause more fatal attacks than any other breed, but this is not the entire story. While tendencies do permeate the breed, many fear pit bulls based on myths, their fighting history and questionable statistics.

Fighting History

Pit bulls and their close relatives the American Staffordshire terriers trace their roots to the British Isles. In the 19th century, breeders combined a terrier and a bulldog to produce the pit bull’s original ancestors. Soon after, many breeders attempted to create fighting dogs from this founding stock. Dogs forced to engage in grotesque and inhumane blood matches did so in a ring called a pit -- this is where the pit bull name originates. While aggression toward humans would have been counterproductive to the breeders and handlers, and therefore removed from breeding projects, aggression toward other dogs was encouraged. Despite this history, Pit Bull Rescue Central, a pit bull advocacy agency, claims online that many modern pit bulls are “genetically far removed” from their fighting ancestors.

Malevolent Myths

Partly because of their fighting history, many pit bulls are the subject of numerous myths and tall tales. One popular myth purports that pit bulls have "locking" jaws, which prevent them from releasing their bite. Additionally, many mistakenly believe that pit bulls can bite with unthinkably strong force. In both cases, the truth is less extreme: Tests carried out in 2005 by "National Geographic" magazine have shown that pit bulls have less jaw strength than either Rottweilers or German shepherds do, and that they do not lock.

Fear-Inducing Facts

DogsBite.org, an organization that advocates a complete ban on pit bulls and whose founder was attacked by a pit bull, states online that 72 percent of all fatal dog attacks are caused by pit bulls. A document cited by the organization, a 2013 report by Merritt Clifton, editor of “Animal People,” lists legitimate pit bull attacks, as well as incidents that included multiple dogs -- not all of which were pit bulls. Additionally, the document references incidents in which the breeds of the attacking dogs were uncertain; incidents in which people were struck in traffic when they ran to avoid a pit bull; and one case in which a horse, frightened by a pit bull, fatally kicked a person. While pit bulls do cause more serious attacks than any other breed, and each is a tragic occurrence, it is important to examine the documented facts carefully.

The Facts of the Matter

In 2008, Debora L. Duffy, Yuying Hsu and James A. Serpell carried out a statistical analysis of aggression among many different breeds. Duffy and her colleagues found that while pit bulls do demonstrate higher aggression toward other dogs, they display relatively low aggression toward humans. Fewer than 10 percent of the dogs in the survey had exhibited human-directed aggression; meanwhile, more than 15 percent of Beagles, and 20 percent of Dachshunds and Chihuahuas, had exhibited human-directed aggression. Data from the American Temperament Test Society Inc. -- an organization that tests dogs’ abilities to interact appropriately with humans and the environment -- shows that 86.8 percent of all American pit bulls tested have passed. The advocacy agency Pit Bull Rescue Center, in fact, does not recommend selecting pit bulls to be guard dogs because they are usually too friendly to strangers.