12 Pit Bull “Facts” That Are Totally Wrong
Veterinarians and canine behaviorists set the record straight, once and for all, on this much-maligned dog.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to love and be loved by a pit bull, then you know they’re a special breed. Recognized by their square faces, broad chests, and muscular builds, these dogs may look intimidating, but behind that facade, you’ll find they’re lovable, charming, and playful goofballs—and some of the most loyal and affectionate dogs around. However, as you’re probably well aware, pit bulls aren’t always recognized for their family-friendly qualities. They’re often thought of as aggressive, vicious, and untrainable, and chances are, you’ve heard more than a few concerning pit bull “facts.” Some cities have even banned the breed in an attempt to decrease the number of dog attacks.
While it is true that pit bulls have a violent past—their ancestors were bred to fight bears in British blood sports, and some of them are still used in illegal dog fights—that doesn’t define them today. As any trainer will tell you, a dog’s upbringing will determine its temperament far better than its breed, and many experts have gone to bat to protect these pups. Because of that, some cities have even reversed their pit bull bans. Denver, for example, repealed its ban in June 2021.
Here, we’ve parsed fact from fiction to highlight the pit bull facts that are actually false. Read on, and you’ll discover why bully breeds rank among the smartest dog breeds and even the best dog breeds for kids. Want to learn more about specific types of dogs? We’ve also rounded up the cutest big dog breeds, medium dog breeds, and quiet dog breeds.
Myth #1: Pit bulls are purebreds
Truth: A dog with a blocky head, almond eyes, broad chest, muscular build, and short hair must be a pit bull, right? Nope. There is no definitive answer when it comes to what constitutes a pit bull, but they are descendants of the English bull-baiting dog. The American Kennel Club (AKC) doesn’t even recognize pit bulls as a specific breed. “Breeds often labeled as pit bulls are actually individual and distinct breeds, such as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Bully, American Staffordshire Terrier, and the American Bulldog,” says Colleen Demling-Riley, a canine behaviorist with Dogtopia. Riley points to one study that revealed even veterinarians, breeders, and trainers often guess the wrong breed or mix when looking at a dog.
Myth #2: Pit bulls are a fighting breed
Truth: Pit bulls are distant relatives of English bull-baiting dogs, which were “bred to bite and hold bulls, bears, and other large animals around the face and head,” per the ASPCA’s Position Statement on Pit Bulls. When baiting large animals was outlawed in the 1800s, the English bull-baiting dogs were bred with smaller terriers to produce a fighting breed. In the ASPCA’s statement, they point out that while some pit bulls may have been bred to fight against other dogs, “it doesn’t mean that they can’t be around other dogs or that they’re unpredictably aggressive.”
The statement goes on to explain that many pit bulls who attacked their owners or other people were put down, ending their bloodline, and also notes that just because they were bred to fight, it doesn’t mean they are unpredictably aggressive or more likely to fight another dog. On the other hand, many pit bulls were bred for companionship and are known to be gentle, affectionate, and loyal. Today’s pit bulls are likely a mix of the two, and “the result of random breeding is a population of dogs with a wide range of behavioral predispositions,” the statement says.
Myth #3: Pit bulls are inherently vicious
Truth: “There are no dogs that are inherently vicious,” says Melissa Pezzuto, behavior consultant team lead at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. “Viciousness and aggression are not breed characteristics or personality traits, and they are not specific to any one breed of dog.” A dog’s life experiences, such as abuse and lack of socialization, are factors that can lead to viciousness, not a specific breed of dog.
Pezzuto points to the results of a national program of temperament testing for dogs. In the American Temperament Test Society rankings on dog temperament, which looks at signs of panic, avoidance, and aggression, the two breeds often associated with pit bulls, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier earned high marks for affability, with scores of 90.9 percent and 87.4 percent, respectively. That means they were less likely to show aggression than many traditional “family dogs,” including the Beagle (79.7 percent), Golden Retriever (85.6 percent), and St. Bernard (84.9 percent). Goldens and St. Bernards, interestingly enough, are known as two of the calmest dog breeds.
Myth #4: Pit bulls have a powerful lockjaw and bite
Truth: It is not anatomically possible to have a lockjaw, explains Lesa Staubus, DVM, a veterinarian with American Humane Rescue. Research done by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers showed pit bulls don’t have the most powerful bite when compared to other larger dogs. “[Pit bulls] can be out-chomped by Rottweilers, Siberian Huskies, Dobermans, German Shepherds, and Great Danes,” says Dr. Staubus.
Myth #5: The majority of dog bites are from pit bulls
Truth: There is no nationwide reporting system for tracking dog bites today, meaning this is a non-verified pit bull fact. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stopped collecting breed data on dog bite-related fatalities in 1998. It is worth noting that a review of data published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in 2000 found that “pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half [of the dog-bite deaths between 1979 and 1988],” and a recent study published in International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology that looked at dog-bite data from the University of Virginia Health System and Nationwide Children’s Hospital from 240 patients over the last 15 years found that “injuries from pit bulls and mixed-breed dogs were both more frequent and more severe.”
At an AVMA convention in 2001, Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician and epidemiologist with the CDC, explained the challenges of accurate reporting. “There are enormous difficulties in collecting dog-bite data,” she noted. “No centralized reporting system for dog bites exists, and incidents are typically relayed to a number of entities, such as the police, veterinarians, animal control, and emergency rooms, making meaningful analysis nearly impossible. Moreover, a pet dog that bites an owner or family member might go unreported if the injury isn’t serious.” Plus, studies show that victims of dog bites are more likely to only report dog bites from breeds they deem “dangerous.”
Myth #6: Pit bulls don’t get along with other pets
Truth: Just like humans, dogs can have people they are more comfortable and social with—and it’s not breed-specific. “Each dog is an individual, and their response to other animals will be dependent on their development and things such as their individual disposition, socialization, and previous experiences,” says Megan Stanley, owner of Dogma training and pet services. Her own pit bull, Duke, helps at her training facility to socialize puppies and dogs with limited social skills. “He is a wonderful mentor dog at helping fearful dogs gain confidence, exposing puppies to large dogs, and helping dogs gain social skills so they can integrate back with their human companions,” she explains. And at home, Duke lives in harmony with two dogs and a cat. Some species, however, don’t make good roommates, like these pairs that probably shouldn’t live together.
Myth #7: Pit bulls are ruthless killers
Truth: Dr. Staubus refers to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2013 to dispel this pit bull “fact.” The study revealed there are many factors involved when researching the causes associated with dogs killing people. For example, the absence of an able-bodied person to intervene, unneutered dogs, and dogs who were isolated with little human positive interaction. “Owner history of mismanagement, abuse, and/or neglect were also identified as major factors,” says Dr. Staubus. Not a factor? The breed of dog.
Myth #8: Pit bulls turn on you in an instant
Truth: According to Pezzuto, dogs of any breed rarely turn on people without warning signs. “Dogs give us many subtle signals that they are uncomfortable such as lowered bodies, tucked tails, snarling, or growling,” she explains. “Instead of listening to this communication, we often ignore or even reprimand our dogs for doing so. This results in the dog suppressing the warning signals and possibly jumping to snapping or biting the next time they are uncomfortable.” Here’s how to decipher the subtle signals your dog’s tail is trying to tell you.
Myth #9: Pit bulls are dangerous because they are on a BSL list
Truth: Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is a term for laws that regulate or ban certain dog breeds to decrease dog attacks on humans and other animals. The ASPCA actually calls this breed discriminatory; the AKC, Humane Society, the American Bar Association, and many other organizations oppose BSL; and 18 states have legislation that prohibits it. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior says, “BSL is ineffective and can lead to a false sense of community safety as well as welfare concerns for dogs identified (often incorrectly) as belonging to specific breeds.” The false sense of security relates to people thinking a specific breed is safer over another breed, when all dogs are capable of biting. “BSL is the result of misunderstanding and prejudice against these blocky-headed dogs.” You might not be aware of these other weird dog laws in your state.
Myth #10: BSL laws decrease dog attacks
Truth: Unfortunately, while more than 700 U.S. cities have enacted BSL, there’s no evidence these laws work, according to the ASPCA. “In eight of the countries that have breed bans, they’ve studied whether or not they actually reduce dog bites and serious bite injuries, and they’ve found that they do not,” Bronwen Dickey, author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, told The Cut. “Leash laws, containment laws, and holding reckless owners responsible are far more effective measures.”
Myth #11: There are so many pit bulls in shelters because they can’t be trusted
Truth: “The reasons why pit bull types end up in shelters are no different than the reasons why every other breed winds up in shelters,” says Stephen DeBono, pet behavior manager at Bideawee. Dogs end up in shelters for a variety of reasons—they caused trouble with another pet, bit someone, were too aggressive, or had too much energy. In other cases, the owners didn’t have time to care for the dog, passed away, or moved. “These reasons are true of pit bull types, Chihuahuas, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and every other breed,” says DeBono. Stanley adds that BSL is a huge factor, too, as pet parents may have to surrender their pit bull if they move to a city, county, or specific apartment, condo, or HOA that bans them.
Myth #12: Pit bulls are impossible to train
Truth: Because of pit bulls’ sheer size and strength, you’ll want to enroll them in dog obedience training school ASAP. And when you do, you can expect them to excel. “The breed’s intelligence and desire to please make training a fun, easy process,” writes the AKC of the American Staffordshire Terrier specifically. The experts note that the dogs are especially talented at canine sports such as obedience, agility, and dock diving.
There are also several pit bulls who have risen to fame due to their obedience and skill, meaning this “pit bull fact” is a verifiable myth. Sergeant Stubby, for example, a dog who served on the Western Front in World War I with the 102nd Infantry Regiment, is America’s most decorated war dog. He participated in four offensives and 17 battles, making him one of the bravest dogs in history.
Additional reporting by Juliana LaBianca.
- Colleen Demling-Riley, a canine behaviorist with Dogtopia
- The Veterinary Journal: “Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff”
- ASPCA: “Position Statement on Pit Bulls”
- Melissa Pezzuto, behavior consultant team lead at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah
- American Temperament Test Society: “ATTS Breed Statistics”
- Lesa Staubus, DVM, a veterinarian with the American Humane Rescue
- Association of Professional Dog Trainers: “Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale”
- Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association: “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998”
- International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology: “Dog bite injuries to the face: Is there risk with breed ownership? A systematic review with meta-analysis”
- Megan Stanley, owner of Dogma
- Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association: “Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in the United States (2000–2009)”
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: “Position Statement on Breed-Specific Legislation”
- Stephen DeBono, pet behavior manager at Bideawee