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Pitbulls Used to Be Considered the Perfect "Nanny Dogs" for Children -- Until the Media Turned Them Into Monsters

Despite their reputation, the United Kennel Club doesn't recommended using pitbulls as guard dogs because they're too friendly with strangers.
 
 
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For most of the 114 years since the American pitbull terrier was first recognized by the United Kennel Club, the breed was rightly seen as the perfect “nanny dog” for children because of its friendly nature, loyalty and stability. As the ASPCA notes, the pitbulls were “once considered especially non-aggressive to people.”

Today, as any owner of a “pitbull-type” dog* can attest, parents often recoil in horror when they spot one of these animals, pulling their children close as if to protect them from a marauding werewolf. Fanciful myths about the breed abound, and some public officials have compared their bites to those of sharks and tigers.

Since the 1980s, the media have falsely portrayed the pitbull as a bloodthirsty monster, inherently more dangerous than other strong breeds of dog. There is absolutely no factual basis for that narrative, but it's led to a vicious cycle in which people who want a badass dog to fight, or to guard property, or to intimidate rival gangs tend to choose pitbulls (or Rottweilers, another much-maligned breed). Pitbulls are the dog of choice for irresponsible breeders, dog-fighters, people who want a tough-looking dog to tie up in their yard and those who refuse to have their male dogs fixed because they think those big, swinging balls makes them look tough by proxy ( 86 percent of fatal canine attacks involve an unneutered male, according to the American Humane Society).

A 2009 study in the Journal of Forensic Science ($$), found that the owners of vicious dogs, regardless of the breed, had “significantly more criminal behaviors than other dog owners.” The researchers added that “vicious dog owners were higher in sensation seeking and primary psychopathy,” and concluded that “vicious dog ownership may be a simple marker of broader social deviance.” And according to the ASPCA, “Pit Bulls often attract the worst kind of dog owners.”

All of those human failings lead to poorly socialized and potentially aggressive dogs. It is because pitbulls are disproportionately favored by these kinds of owners that they're responsible for a statistically outsized share of serious attacks on humans. These incidents are then reported – and very often misreported – with breathless sensationalism by the media, and the cycle continues.

Meanwhile, advocates say that pitbulls are the most frequently abused, tortured, abandoned and euthanized breed of dog in the United States. Shelters across the country are overflowing with pitbull mixes. Because of their stigma, they're often difficult to adopt out; a ride to the shelter is almost always a one-way trip for pitties.

Image courtesy of Karen Delise

We have tragically betrayed our children's beloved nanny-dogs, raising them irresponsibly, training them to be aggressive and then turning them into pariahs when they behave as any dog would in similar circumstances.

The Facts

According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, “controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.” The American Temperance Testing Society (ATTS) puts thousands of dogs – purebreds and spayed and neutered mixed-breeds – through their paces each year. The dogs are tested for skittishness, aggression and their ability to differentiate between threatening and non-threatening humans. Among all of the breeds ATTS tested – over 30,000 dogs through May 2011 -- 83 percent passed the test. How did pitbulls do? They showed an above average temperament, with 86 percent making the grade. Pitbulls are the second most tolerant breed tested by ATTS, after only golden retreivers.

Pitbulls do not have special “locking jaws” – that's pure mythology. They don't demonstrate some sort of special shaking action when they bite – all dogs display similar biting behavior. Pitbulls do not exert an unusual amount of bite-force for their size. Multiple studies have found that bite force correlates to body-weight, and tests of three breeds conducted by National Geographic found that the American pitbull terrier exerted  less bite-force than German shepherds or Rottweilers.

 
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