Pitbulls Used to Be Considered the Perfect "Nanny Dogs" for Children -- Until the Media Turned Them Into Monsters
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While they have been a favorite of dog-fighters for a century, pitbulls weren't originally bred for fighting. According to the United Kennel Club, sometime in the 19th century European breeders began crossing various terriers with bulldogs in search of a breed that had the former's enthusiasm and the latter's stamina and strength. The pitbull breeds that resulted were then imported and embraced “as catch dogs for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt, to drive livestock, and as family companions.” (UKC also notes that pitbulls “have always been noted for their love of children,” but aren't “the best choice for a guard dog since they are extremely friendly, even with strangers.”)
Pitbulls are among dozens of strong, muscular breeds of canine. All are capable of doing damage to humans if they're not properly socialized and supervised. Most dogs do not, even when they've been neglected or abused. None are inherently monstrous – they are all just dogs. And we know what makes dogs of any breed more likely to be aggressive.
My study of dog bite-related fatalities occurring over the past five decades has identified the poor ownership/management practices involved in the overwhelming majority of these incidents: owners obtaining dogs, and maintaining them as resident dogs outside of regular, positive human interaction, often for negative functions (i.e. guarding/protection, fighting, intimidation/status); owners failing to humanely contain, control and maintain their dogs (chained dogs, loose roaming dogs, cases of abuse/neglect); owners failing to knowledgably supervise interaction between children and dogs; and owners failing to spay or neuter dogs not used for competition, show, or in a responsible breeding program.
There are a tiny number of attacks that simply can't be explained. Occasionally, a well-raised, beloved pet without a history of behavioral issues will hurt a human – dogs are animals, after all – but these incidents are incredibly rare.
Pitbull Takes Its Turn As Media's Monster Dog
The pitbull is not the first dog to be seen as inherently dangerous. The media seem to feed off the idea of monster dogs -- it makes great copy.
As Karen Delise details in her book, in the 19th century, bloodhounds were believed to be inherently vicious, having a taste for human blood. “Eventually,” she writes, “these bloodhounds fell from view, and we pushed other dogs into the spotlight, including the German Shepherd dog and the Doberman Pinscher.” (Dobermans were widely believed to have abnormally small brains, turning them into mindless killers, but this, like the pitbull's “locking jaws,” was simply a myth.) Other breeds that have haunted the popular imagination in the past include mastiffs and Newfoundlands. In Canada, Siberian huskies have often played the role of killer-hound.
Delise, who reviewed news accounts of fatal dog attacks going back more than 100 years, also noted a shift in the way media report these incidents. Fifty years ago, she writes, dogs were “portrayed as sentient beings that reacted to pain, discomfort, or fear. Additionally, many reports of dog attacks conveyed the understanding that aggression was a natural and expected behavior of dogs in certain circumstances. Owners and/or victims were often identified in news reports as exhibiting behaviors (intentionally or unintentionally) that caused the dog to attack.”
That kind of understanding has since been replaced by an almost-singleminded focus on the breed of dogs that turn violent, stripped of any larger context.
Breed misidentification plays a significant role in the stigma attached to pitbulls. It's difficult even for experts to properly identify a breed of dog. A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science ( $$) found that "87.5% of the dogs identified by an adoption agency as having specific breeds in their ancestry did not have all of those breeds detected by DNA analysis.”