Defending the Misunderstood: Pit Bulls

Photo caption: Pitbull “Mr. Worldwide” with a pit bull. Pit bulls are one of the most misunderstood dog breeds and must be released from negative stigmas. Illustration by Ayanna Villanueva.

Being terrified of big dogs is understandable. Before I moved to America, I grew up in the Philippines and was terrified of dogs—especially big ones such as pit bulls and German shepherds. In fact, the only big dogs I liked were Scooby-Doo and Clifford the Big Red Dog. But it’s 2022, the world is progressing, and so should our mindsets. We must eradicate the stigma surrounding dog breeds of any type and avoid generalizing them.

When the majority of people think of the most threatening dog breeds, more often than not, pit bulls are at the top of their list. Pit bull is a general term used to refer to different breeds that include the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, American bully, and the American bulldog. People’s perceptions of pit bulls are primarily influenced by how they are portrayed in the media, as well as throughout history. Due to their bulky appearance, strong jaws, and sharp teeth, pit bulls are portrayed as dangerous, awful, beasts who mercilessly kill the weak. A popular myth asserts that pit bulls can lock their jaws which prevents them from releasing their bites. They are also seen as dangerous canines with poor temperaments compared to other dog breeds. On top of that, some consider them as a breed that isn’t family nor kid friendly due to their dog-fighting and bull-baiting history. 

In an interview with Oregon Humane Society’s (OHS) Training and Behavior Department Manager, Tanya Roberts, she asserts that some people are afraid of dogs in general due to personal experiences. “There have been media stories of pit bulls or pit bull-like dogs being dangerous and some people may have had personal experience.” 

The pit bull stigma is believed to have begun with their bull-baiting history, which dates back to England, where crossbred terriers and bulldogs were forced to attack bulls or bears. Bull-baiting was later on outlawed because of the magnitude of its violence, however dog-fighting eventually took its place. Pitbulls were pitted against each other for the purpose of entertaining humans—who later on feared them. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be cautious, but the fact that humans trained these dogs to be dangerous makes the human even more monstrous in contrast to the dog who’s just obeying their owners commands.

Pit bulls should not be blamed for their alleged “strong locking jaws.” They also shouldn’t be blamed for their inherent instinct to defend themselves. It is not the pit bull’s physical attributes that should be blamed. Some pit bulls are susceptible to aggressive behaviors because of the poor mistreatment and lousy training they receive from their owners. 

It is proven that pit bulls’ jaws are functionally identical to other dog breeds and lack any locking mechanism whatsoever. In fact, the jaw strength of Rottweilers and German shepherds are more intense compared to that of a pit bull. Moreover, the breed and physical attributes of a dog do not determine the magnitude of their aggression. Any dog, no matter the breed, can be aggressive if provoked. The American Veterinary Medical Association states that “the breed of a dog is not a reliable marker of destructive behavior in dogs.” A study on canine aggression also indicated that there is little difference in aggression between pit bulls and golden retrievers—which are known for their good temperaments. Aside from the misconception that pit bulls are unfriendly and hence unadoptable, any dog, regardless of appearance, is adoptable. Pit bulls were even considered as “nanny dogs” in the 1900s due to their faithful, friendly, and adorable characteristics.

These controversial misconceptions have stirred a lot of animosity for pit bulls and caused a lot of missed opportunities to find a loving home for them. Due to the misleading stories and stereotypes found in the media that tend to focus on negativity and refuse to talk about the success stories of pit bulls, the breed has been loathed, abused, and even abandoned. 

Fortunately, despite the negativity surrounding pit bull terriers, they have a big fan club and are a family-favorite here in Oregon. “[When it comes to adoption], I would say that they are no different in our shelter to any of the other breeds or mixes,” Roberts stated. She then goes on to explain the only limitation and difficulty in terms of adopting a pit bull is when it comes to housing, “they can be listed as a breed that rentals won’t accept, so moving with a pit bull or finding a home might be more difficult. Size plays a part too, as some apartments have a weight limit, not a breed restriction, that excludes them.”

Taking everything into account, it is not the pit bull who should be condemned and bear all the pain. The people who trained these dogs to be ‘dangerous’ are the ones to be condemned and the people who perpetuate the stereotypes about pit bulls. The owners are the ones to blame. They are responsible and play a huge role in their dogs’ behavior. 

Roberts emphasizes the importance of the use of positive reinforcement training methods and the appropriate socialization of dogs. “Recognizing that some people are wary of the breed is very important and the owner should never approach someone with their dog, no matter how friendly.” Every dog is an individual and reacts differently to certain situations; therefore owners must take it into consideration that proper training involves learning about and acknowledging their dogs’ flaws.

Dogs, regardless of breed, are individuals with distinct personalities, behaviors, temperaments, and skills that shouldn’t be stereotyped. If you’re looking at adopting: go into the dog adoption process with an open mind and remember that every dog, regardless of background or breed, deserves a loving home. Approach all dogs with caution because they all react differently. Don’t be fooled by the media’s perception of these furry friends; pit bulls are the most adorable canines, with the waggiest of tails and endearing personalities, who enjoy cuddling all day.

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