Are pit bulls really deserving of their bad reputation?

Most agree that pit bulls are often surrounded by negative stereotypes. But is it deserved?

Deanne Schmidt, Director of Lifesaving at the PSPCA, plays with Kaya, a pit mix available for adoption at the SPCA location on Erie Avenue in North Philly.

Early last month, five pit bulls mauled a 2-year-old to death in Port Richmond. The tragedy set off a firestorm of media coverage, earning national headlines from Newsweek and the Daily Caller, the latter of which had a particularly implicatory headline: “Pit Bulls Strike Again, This Time Mauling 2-Year-Old Boy To Death in Philadelphia,” it reads. Most agree that pit bulls are often surrounded by negative stereotypes. But is it deserved? The Star decided to take a deeper look into the evidence.

The first thing you should know about pit bulls is that they’re not a breed of dog. It’s more like a category of dog. According to Nicole Wilson, Director of Humane Law Enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA), there is a breed called the American Pit Bull Terrier, which is what most consider to be a pit bull. However, Wilson said, there are three additional breeds — American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and American Bulls — that often get lumped into the pit bull breed when they’re not really the same breed. These dogs do have many genetic similarities, so it’s not completely unreasonable to lump them together. But they’re not genetically similar enough to all be considered the same breed.

According to Sean O’Donnell, a biology professor at Drexel University with an expertise in animal behavior, pit bulls can often be difficult to categorize.

“Pit bulls are often like that little joke about art,” O’Donnell said.”I can’t tell you what art is, but I know it when I see it.”

Basically, O’Donnell said, muscular medium to large dogs with short hair and large heads generally are referred to as pit bulls, “when in fact there’s a complex array of different lines of dogs being mixed in in different complicated ways to produce what people informally refer to as a pit bull.”

It’s better to refer to pit bulls as a category or dogs, not a breed — similar to hound dogs, O’Donnell said.

“We can use the term informally to refer to like a group of different breeds or even mixed breeds that have certain characteristics,” he said.

In an effort to keep from sounding alarmist, it should be made clear that fatal dog bites in general are “extremely rare,” according to a study conducted from the Animals and Society Institute from 2006 to 2009. According to the study, only one person dies from a dog bite every year per 11 million people living in the United States.

But now to the point: Are pit bulls any more dangerous than other types/breeds of dogs?

According to statistics from dogsbite.org, 66 percent (about two thirds) of all fatal dog bites from 2005 to 2017 came from pit bulls. That’s way ahead of rottweilers, which are second in that category, accounting for 10 percent of all attacks. The next-closest breed, according to the study, was German shepherds, which accounted for 4.6 percent of all fatal dog bites. This was followed by a slew of other breeds who all received less than 4 percent of the share. At a quick glance, the numbers seem pretty convincing; pit bulls are indeed significantly more dangerous than other types of dogs. But not so fast, Wilson warns.

According to a 1998 study Wilson brought attention to that uses dog bite-related fatality (DBRF) data sourced from a peer-reviewed study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that analyzed 20 years of dog bite incident data, there are at least three dog breeds that have a higher rate (total population of dogs within a breed divided by number of DBRFs from dogs within that breed) of DBRFs per capita. Those three breeds are malamutes (6.79 DBRFs per 100,000 dogs), chow chows (2.32) and St. Bernards (2.05). The reason we say “at least” three dog breeds is because the study utilizes two different measurements of pit bull-type dogs. One population estimate is about 3.9 million total pit bull dogs. Because there are 76 total pit bull-related DBRFs, that would bring its rate to 1.95. The study also includes an alternative way to calculate the total population of pit bull-type dogs, which brings the total to 7.8 million. By this measurement, pit bull-type dogs account for a rate of 0.97 DBRFs per dog, which would place it ninth on the list. In addition to malamutes, chow chows and St. Bernards, husky-type dogs, Great Danes, rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers and mastiffs all also come ahead of pit bulls if you use the second measurement. But again — in an effort to avoid sounding alarmist — these incidents, while slightly more common with pit bull-type dogs compared to your average dog, are still extremely rare. If you go by the higher rate, only 1.95 pit bull-type dogs have contributed to DBRFs out of 100,000. Which means that out of that same 100,000 pit bulls, more than 99,998 have not contributed to human fatalities. Still, at the very least, pit bulls are likely in the top 10 (and possibly top five) dog breeds/types with the highest rate of DBRFs.

For this reason, O’Donnell recommended against adopting pit bulls for families with small children or for families who don’t have the time or work ethic to put into raising a pit bull properly.

“My feeling about that is that I personally think it’s kind of crazy to bring a large-bodied dog from a breed or a line or whatever that has a tendency towards anxiety, nervousness or aggression,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s a good kind of dog to bring into a household with kids. That’s my opinion. You’re kind of playing with fire. So I would not recommend people having that kind of a dog as a household pet just as kind of a starting position.”

The Star asked O’Donnell: if a particular breed is bred over generations to behave a certain way (for instance, pit bulls, many of whom are unfortunately believed to be bred for dog fighting and other aggressive traits), its offspring are going to develop a tendency to behave that way. True or false?

“I would say that is definitely true,” he said. “I think it’s probably not too far off the mark to say that just about any behavior that people have selected on they’ve gotten a response. In other words, they’ve seen a change in average behavior across generations with strong artificial selection being applied — [it’s] selective breeding basically.”

It should be noted that Wilson has a slightly different opinion of how pit bulls were bred and what they were bred for. She said that pit bull-type dogs were bred to “act as vermin control” and be aggressive toward rodents. “But they weren’t meant to be human aggressive,” she said.

The Star asked Wilson if she found that pit bull-type dogs were a tougher sell to families looking to adopt a dog compared to other breeds, given their reputation.

“It’s really hard to say,” she said. “The fact is that we get in more pit bulls and we adopt out more pit bulls.”

She also said that all dogs handed over to the PSPCA will necessarily be taken by the organization. Every dog is subject to a behavioral assessment. If a particular dog fails the assessment, “We advise the owner that we can’t accept the animal,” Wilson said.

Many pit bull defenders will repeat the mantra of, “Blame the owner, not the breed.”

Wilson repeats a version of this to the Star, where she underscores the owner’s responsibility to utilize “safe handling techniques.” She highlights the dog’s training and socialization as key factors as well.

“Any time dog bites occur, whether it results in a fatality or not, it’s usually related to an animal having very specific issues,” Wilson said. “Most bites are not of an unpredictable nature. So the best way to prevent a bite is by one, practicing appropriate, safe handling techniques both in the home and out of the home. And two, training an animal and socializing an animal at as early an age as possible because bite prevention is the key.”

According to O’Donnell, both the owner and the breed are to blame.

While there are a lot owners can do for their dogs with careful attention and proper training, O’Donnell said, that won’t always work for every dog, especially older dogs.

“We actually just had an experience this weekend visiting some friends who have a tiny dog — a very, very small-bodied dog, so he’s not intimidating or threatening because there’s not that much he could actually do to you — but he really had some behavioral issues and [the owner] put a huge amount of effort into training and caring for the dog,” O’Donnell explained, noting that the dog was acquired when he was an adult and was probably in an abusive situation prior to being acquired. “They’re very much aware of the dog’s issues and what needs to be done about it, but it just seems like that dog is really ever going to get over his personal issues.”

O’Donnell warned that “problem dogs” do exist, in which it can be “extremely difficult or maybe impossible” to try to turn them away from certain behavioral traits.

“If a dog is really a problem dog, are you really able and willing to put in the effort that it’s going to take and may not even work in every case to turn that animal around and shape its behavior appropriately?” O’Donnell asked. “I think it’s a really serious question that should be examined in a critical way.”