Face to Face with PIT BULLS: The Real Deal

I saw this recently and I heard subsequently that it had been cited in a radio program:

Ten Commandments of Pit Bull Ownership

  1. Thou shalt NEVER trust thy Pit Bull not to fight
  2. Thou shalt contain thy Pit Bull securely when not supervised by an adult
  3. Thou shalt NEVER leave thy adult Pit Bull alone and unsupervised with another dog
  4. Thou SHALT attend obedience classes most faithfully with thy Pit Bull
  5. Thou SHALT keep thy Pit Bull socialized with ALL KINDS of people
  6. Thy Pit Bull wilt NEVER be allowed off-leash in a public place
  7. Thy Pit Bull wilt NEVER be allowed to roam free in thy neighborhood, EVER!
  8. Thou SHALT take thy well trained Pit Bull out in public and show him/her off – on leash for good breed PR!
  9. Thy Pit Bull shalt go forth into the world as an ambassador of the pit bull breed

I thought I would use these ‘commandments’ as a framework for an analysis of the breed from a real-world perspective rather than a sensationalist one, since a list like the one above reinforces all the preconceptions about the breed and causes people to fear them.
1. ‘NEVER trust thy Pit Bull not to fight.’ What is the first thing someone who knows nothing about dogs thinks when reading this? Someone could not be blamed if they inferred from this that Pit Bulls are untrustworthy and are constantly looking for a fight, which hardly does anything to recommend the breed to someone else, but it does not stand up to scrutiny:

“The constant assertion that this ‘breed’ is innately aggressive implies an inherited trait. This is untenable, and misunderstands the evolution of behaviour and more specifically of aggression. Aggression is not a unitary ‘thing’, or a biological trait. It is a description of a variety of responses to various stimuli, is most often perfectly adaptive and necessary for species and individual survival. But that doesn’t mean for one minute it can’t be problematic as well. But in evolutionary terms, selective forces predetermine structure, not the other way around: “Behaviour is the functional component of evolutionary change. How well an animal runs is the selective force, not its legs.3”” ~ Mike Wood, Animal Rehabilitation Initiative (http://www.animalbehaviour.co.za/dogs/pit-bulls-part-2-history-and-genetics/)

2. ‘Contain thy Pit Bull securely when not supervised by an adult.’ I’m not exactly sure what this means – should Pit Bulls be caged or chained? What is the Pit Bull expected to do? Attack anything, including dogs and humans, on impulse? I have seen it stated that Pit Bulls attack ‘for no reason’ which suggests that the person saying this knows what is going on inside the dog’s head. Surely I don’t have to explain why this is nonsensical? Besides, it is not supported by everything else we know about animal behaviour – animals are directed by stimuli in the same way as we are, perhaps closer to instinctual, but to suggest that they will respond in a certain manner without a stimulus is just silly. No animal behaviourist would make such an irrational statement. Perhaps the stimulus was not evident to the human, but there must have been a stimulus. People who don’t know anything about animals miss a whole bunch of other cues; it would not be surprising for them to miss some in a conflict situation.

3. ‘NEVER leave thy adult Pit Bull alone and unsupervised with another dog,’ This suggests that Pit Bulls cannot be socialised with other breeds or even with their own kind, which is clearly nonsensical given the number of people who have successfully achieved this. See the statistic below on the number of Pit Bulls and the number of bites…

4. ‘Attend obedience classes most faithfully with thy Pit Bull.’ How is this different, always supposing you think obedience classes are necessary, to any other potentially aggressive dog? This is isolation of the Pit Bull as if it is the only breed where this is necessary. I personally don’t like ‘obedience classes’, preferring dogs to be dogs rather than cloned extensions of the human dynamic, but I am also conscious that I need to take a firmer hand with my Boerboel and my Sharpei cross. This is just common sense, and no more significant with Pit Bulls than other potentially aggressive breeds.

5. ‘Keep thy Pit Bull socialized with ALL KINDS of people’. Again, how is this different from any other dog? It does suggest, however, that Pit Bulls are prone to attacking certain types of people, Where is the supporting evidence for this, since I have never seen a study that even suggests such a notion? Dogs are colour, race, sex and religion-blind; what precisely is meant by ‘KINDS’ here? Should DA supporters be worried? How about certain careers – perhaps bartenders or hairdressers, or better still delivery drivers or postmen should be wary of certain breeds? It’s just silly. In the American Temperament Test (http://atts.org/), the APBT has been tested more often than most breeds, and yet still achieves pass rates higher than Beagles, Bassets, Border Collies and Chihuahuas. Dog most likely to bite a human? Of breeds tested more than 50 times, the lowest pass rate is the Standard Schnauzer, followed closely by the Saluki, which most people have not even heard of. The argument I have heard presented often is that “Pit Bulls will cause more damage because of their powerful jaws”, which is more uninformed prejudice: In the National Geographic research conducted by Brady Barr, Rottweilers were measured at 328 psi of force. German Shepherds came in at 238, and a pit bull’s bite was measured at 235 psi of force. So a Pit Bulls’ bit is no more powerful than a GSD.

6. ‘Thy Pit Bull wilt NEVER be allowed off-leash in a public place.’ Strictly speaking, it is the law in SA that NO dog should not be allowed off-leash in a public place. But where there is a social gathering of dog lovers, any dog of any breed with aggressive tendencies should not be allowed off-leash. I had a Bull Mastiff once, and if there were other male dogs around excepting for the ones he knew, he would attack without seemingly a second thought.  I have also known Pit Bulls that were so well socialised that the possibility of them getting into a fight was negligible. I currently have a Boerboel cross female and she is one of the gentlest, sweetest dogs I have known, and I have had many Labradors. I would let her off leash anytime anywhere. I also have a Sharpei cross who I would not…

7. ‘Thy Pit Bull wilt NEVER be allowed to roam free in thy neighbourhood, EVER!’ There are laws against this that apply equally to ANY dog – you simply may NOT allow your dog to wander freely in the neighbourhood. Why this should be special in the case of a Pit Bull is beyond me. It makes simple common sense not to expose any companion animal to such risks.

8. ‘Thou SHALT take thy well trained Pit Bull out in public and show him/her off – on leash for good breed PR!’

9. ‘Pit Bull shalt go forth into the world as an ambassador of the pit bull breed’

In respect of 8 and 9, same applies to GSD’s, Boerboels, Rotties and Dobermans or any breed whatsoever.
10. THOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY WRONG DONE BY THY DOGS! Well obviously – my Bull Mastiff cost me in vets bills twice when he got out and attacked neighbour’s dogs. It wasn’t his fault, he had been neglected as a puppy because I was travelling a lot and he was looked after by my housekeeper, and at the time I was ignorant. Now, I am conscious of the fact that with a Boerboel and a Sharpei male in the same household, I need to be extra careful, and I warn people not to run or do anything threatening towards me. As one of my colleagues said, that would be suicide, and I must take responsibility for that. Interestingly, my Boeboel female does not even come into reckoning, unless getting licked can be construed as life-threatening.

Pit Bull Myths Busted


1. Bite Rate

“There are several reasons why it is not possible to calculate a bite rate for a breed or to compare rates between breeds. First, the breed of the biting dog may not be accurately recorded, and mixed-breed dogs are commonly described as if they were purebreds. Second, the actual number of bites that occur in a community is not known, especially if they did not result in serious injury. Third, the number of dogs of a particular breed or combination of breeds in a community is not known, because it is rare for all dogs in a community to be licensed, and existing licensing data is then incomplete. [Source: AVMA Task Force on Canine Aggression]

How anyone draws any conclusions at all from an incomplete data set is beyond me. Yet there are websites, such as http://www.dogsbite.org, totally devoted to portraying the Pit Bull as a dangerous breed, that rely on a logical fallacy, i.e. drawing general conclusions based on one data entity, i.e. the breed. Given that we know nothing about any of the other circumstances of the dog bites, it should be obvious that this is a self-reinforcing myth. Were we to filter this database and exclude all those who were owned by insecure people who were using the dog to prop up their egos, and those who were ignorant about how to treat dogs and reinforce their aggressive potential, and those who keep dogs in confined environments, and there is no doubt that the breed’s reputation attracts such people, we might draw completely different conclusions.

The reason why Pit Bulls are used in dogfighting are two-fold: they have a high pain threshold, and they are determined creatures that do not give up easily, this trait being observable in their ability to bite and hold on. This second trait is also common to many other dogs, however – my Sharpei, once he has hold of another dog, (he and my Boerboel had several fights before the Sharpei finally got the message) will simply not let go.

2. Fatalities

‘At least 25 breeds of dogs have been involved in 238 human dog bite-related fatalities during the past 20 years. Pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half of these deaths.’~ PubMed research result

The first thing that struck me about this statistic is the tiny (infinitesimal?) percentage of the population of humans this represents – only 238 fatalities in a population that was 281 421 906 in 2000? The percentage you arrive at is not worth considering as a risk factor, and it leads me to conclude that the event occurs so seldom that it must be termed an anomaly. And it is quite normal, when considering anomalies, to seek understanding as to what caused the anomaly. In addition, given an estimated population of 400 000 pit bulls during the same period, to what do we attribute the remarkable lack of reports of attacks in respect of the rest?

Time for some statistics and logic 101. Correlation is not cause. This is a principle of logic. Merely because there is a correlation between a certain breed and a certain event does not mean that the breed’s nature ‘caused’ the event. In addition, statements like the one above isolate the element of the ‘breed’ from all the other elements of the scenario – how the dog was treated, where he was kept, and a whole host of other factors are merely excluded, and those who are ignorant of this principle infer that it is the breed that is to blame. It is simply irrational to draw such a conclusion. It makes the breed guilty by association. Given the preference of ego-defensive aggressive human types for these breeds, I am not surprised at the correlation. The Pit Bull as aggressive dog is more of a social phenomenon than it is a breed-related issue.

“That doesn’t mean that I think every dog “is the same under the skin” either, or that it’s all a matter of love and how they’re raised. Good husbandry, proper care and non-coercive handling, as well as extensive and appropriate socialization during the Critical Period for Social Development (between 2-3 weeks and the offset of this developmental period at about 16 weeks, with very slight variations), is certainly non-negotiable. And whilst genes don’t cause behaviour, they certainly provide the genetic potential that can influence any number of behavioural traits. No-one can assert that all dogs are essentially the same but just look different – form potentiates function. There are a number of really good reasons why Dachshunds aren’t used for sledding.” ~ Mike Wood, Animal Rehabilitation Initiative (http://www.animalbehaviour.co.za/dogs/dog-behaviour/pit-bulls-part-1/)

I’m going to finish with this from Mike Wood:

If we want to change the Pit Bull Terrier, or even eliminate the tendency of Staffies to constantly fight with other dogs, then we should change the phenotypes by selecting against these tendencies. Of course this endeavour will be made a great deal easier if dog people stopped being so precious about this spurious notion of the inherent superiority of ‘purebreeds’, engaged in some breed hybridization themselves to eliminate much of the horrible congenital diseases and genetic abnormalities that afflict so many breeds today due to systematic inbreeding, and concentrate on selecting for the kinds of behaviour and temperament that best suits their intended function for all dogs they breed. That’s the actual history of dogs in human care. – Mike Wood, Animal Rehabilitation Initiative (http://www.animalbehaviour.co.za/dogs/pit-bulls-part-2-history-and-genetics/)

As for me, I will continue to treat every dog as an individual, and resist the social temptation, as I do with humans, of stereotyping. It’s a form of racism as applied to animals. I will also continue to adore Pitties ; I have yet to meet one I didn’t like.


Some more reading on Pit Bulls: