This page discusses the most notable traits of pit-bull-type dogs, including their great love for people and their potential for dog aggression. You will learn that Pit Bulls make wonderful and loyal family companions. Like all dogs, they require intelligent, responsible, and dedicated ownership. Because of the breed’s undeserved negative media image, Pit Bull owners have to be even more careful and responsible than the average dog owner. They must also be aware of the myths (urban legends, really) surrounding their dogs.
Owners must be well educated about bully breeds, because they will likely face comments from friends, families, and neighbors. Unfortunately, some people obtain Pit Bulls for the wrong reasons—to boost their own image, for dog fighting, or for backyard breeding—which makes life difficult for responsible owners. The good news is that Pit Bulls are now more popular than ever, and each good owner has an opportunity to reshape the breed’s image in positive ways. When you adopt a Pit Bull, you adopt the most energetic, intelligent, and loyal friend you’ll ever have, but you also take up a responsibility to represent the entire breed.
It’s unfortunate that one of the original purposes of the Pit Bull was dog fighting, but it is a fact that cannot be denied or ignored. Even more unfortunate is the fact that they are still chosen for this purpose, even though it is illegal in all fifty states and, in certain instances, as the Michael Vick case illustrates, a federal crime. Adopting a Pit Bull, loving it, and training it as a breed ambassador are the most important things any of us civilians can do to combat people like Vick. Accordingly, GPBR is committed to educating current and potential Pit Bull owners so they have a better understanding of their dog and thus provide responsible and caring ownership. GPBR does not wish to overemphasize the fighting aspect of the breed’s history, a history that does not negate their various positive traits or their scientifically proven gentleness toward humans.
But we do acknowledge the importance of respecting the breed’s history. This is not to suggest that Pit Bulls are “different” or “unique” in a way that makes them dangerous. Those who claim that Pit Bulls are “different” fail to understand that all dog breeds are, in some way, different from each other. That’s what makes them dog breeds! (Besides, many breeds were historically bred to fight other animals. Pit Bulls are not unique in this sense.) To put it simply, no matter what kind of dog you have, understanding its breed is the first step toward being a good dog owner. By nature, Pit Bulls are intelligent, fun loving, and affectionate. It’s our job to help them fulfill that potential.
*”Pit Bull” is NOT a breed. It’s a generic term often used to describe all dogs with similar traits and characteristics known to the public as “Pit Bulls.” When we use the term “Pit Bull” here, it should be understood to encompass American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.
Remember: in most cases, we usually know little about the background of rescue dogs. Some may be gamebred APBTs (from fighting lines), some may be registered show dogs, some may be American Staffordshire Terriers, some may look like APBTs but might be mixed with other breeds, etc. Since there is no way to know for sure unless you have the pedigree of the dog, we recommend following the advice offered by GPBR for any pit-bull-type dog (most of our guidelines are, at any rate, simply basic rules of dog ownership).
Basic Breed Overview
Pit Bulls are wonderful, loving animals that deserve the chance to have a good life.
Pit Bulls have superior physical and mental characteristics that make them excellent partners for responsible, active, and caring owners. These same outstanding qualities can, however, make them a little difficult to handle for people who don’t have a lot of experience with dog ownership or for those who don’t understand the breed well. Luckily, Pit Bulls are intelligent, very responsive to training, and, above all, eager to please. Therefore, Pit Bulls should be enrolled in obedience classes as soon as they are up-to-date on their shots. (Pit Bulls are more susceptible to parvovirus, so it is important that they receive all their vaccinations before coming into contact with other dogs or entering areas of high canine traffic.) A well-behaved Pit Bull is the best ambassador for the breed. As we’ve already noted, this is the easiest way to fight breed prejudice and misconception.
Pit Bulls are quite resilient and can do well in an urban environment, provided they have enough exercise and other positive outlets for their energy. Many Pit Bulls are easygoing couch potatoes, but like all terriers, they can also be somewhat rambunctious until they mature. Maturity can come relatively late with this breed (two to three years old in some cases). Pit Bulls remain playful throughout their lifespan (nine to fifteen years) and have a great sense of humor. True clowns at heart, these dogs will make you laugh like no other.
Pit Bulls are energetic, agile, and strong. They are also very resourceful and driven. Determination is one of their most notable traits. They put their heart and soul into whatever they set out to do: whether it is escaping an inadequately fenced yard to explore the neighborhood, destroying your new couch when left home alone, or climbing into your lap to shower you with kisses!
As Stahlkuppe (1995) writes, “The American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), or the AmStaff, is certainly not the right pet for everyone. Being a powerful dog, it will require sufficient and adequate control. Some prospective elderly owners or children will not be able to supply that control…
An insecure person who wants only an aggressive dog to bolster some personal human inadequacy should never become an owner of one of these dogs. An uncaring or negligent person should not buy an AmStaff or an APBT (or any other dog for that matter).”
An All-American Dog: Breed History
Humans have created dog breeds by emphasizing desirable traits and eliminating unwanted ones. It is no different with pit-bull-type dogs. In the same way that Labradors were bred to retrieve birds, Pit Bulls were originally bred for dog fighting and bull and bear baiting. This does not, however, mean that fighting is the sole purpose of these breeds or that this component of the breeds’ history somehow makes them abnormal. For example, Greyhounds and Whippets were (and still are) bred for “coursing,” chasing and killing small prey like rabbits and squirrels. Like Pit Bulls, these dogs still make excellent family pets. While Pit Bulls do carry the potential for dog aggression, the vast majority of Pit Bulls are very far from “fighting lines,” and many are not dog aggressive at all. It’s not accurate to say that Pit Bulls are “fighting dogs,” because such a designation fails to describe such a diverse animal population, most of which are very far from “fighting stock” and will never be involved in fighting of any kind.
From their inception, these dogs have been bred for general human companionship, and since the 1900s, they have been bred for conformation showing as well. From the very beginning, Pit Bulls have been used as farm dogs, family dogs, military mascots, and all-purpose companions. In England, the Staffie Bull is affectionately known as “The Nanny Dog” or “The Children’s Nursemaid” because of their placid and nurturing demeanor toward children. See the FAQ for more information on these topics.
Throughout their history in America, Pit Bull dogs have been valued as beloved members of the family. Their negative media image developed only recently. (Some suggest that an absurdly sensationalistic Sports Illustrated cover started the hysteria in 1987.) In fact, Pit Bulls have fulfilled important roles throughout the last 160-plus years of American history. In the nineteenth century, Pit Bulls were family pets of settlers crossing the United States. They were trusted to watch the children while the adults worked in the fields. As the years passed, Pit Bulls achieved a position of reverence among Americans, and they appeared in advertising campaigns such as Buster Brown and Pup Brand. A classic children’s television show, The Little Rascals, featured Petey the Pit Bull. The Pit Bull is the only breed to have graced the cover of Life magazine three times.
In 1903 Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson hit the road with co-driver Sewall K. Crocker and a Pit Bull named Bud, who wore goggles, just like his master, to keep the dust from his eyes. Together, the three made the very first road trip across the US. Bud drew almost as much public attention as his fellow travelers. While it is unclear as to why Jackson and Crocker picked up Bud about halfway through their trip, one story suggests that Jackson rescued him from dog fighters.
In the early twentieth century, Pit Bulls were so respected for their loyalty, determination, and bravery that they were chosen to represent America in WWI posters. The first decorated canine war hero was a Pit Bull named Sergeant Stubby. He was, until his death, a guest of every White House administration.
Many highly respected historical figures have owned Pit Bulls: President Woodrow Wilson, President Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, and Thomas Edison, to name a few.
Today, Pit Bulls are respected and dearly loved by those who know them for what they truly are and not the monsters the media has created.
Pit Bulls still loyally serve society in many roles:
• Search and rescue (Christina Ridge and Doc appear to the left)
• Therapy dogs visiting hospitals and senior communities
• Working in law enforcement as narcotics and bomb detection dogs
• Educational dogs teaching children about canine safety
• Service dogs
Pit Bulls and People
Perhaps the most important characteristic of Pit Bulls is their amazing love of people. Many people are surprised by the loving personality of these dogs the first time they meet one. Pit Bulls are remarkably affectionate and truly enjoy human attention. They are wonderful cuddlers and love nothing more than a belly rub. In fact, most Pit Bulls think they are lap dogs!
As Dunbar (1999) writes, “Today, a properly bred Pit Bull is so exuberantly happy upon meeting her owner’s friends (or even friendly strangers) that new owners sometimes worry that their dog is too sweet and fun-loving to protect their home and family… A multi-talented companion, the well-trained Pit Bull is suited for a variety of exciting activities. He excels at obedience, agility and weight-pulling competitions, events which showcase intelligence, trainability and strength. In addition, the Pit Bull’s pleasant nature makes him an ideal candidate for therapy work with people.”
Traits like human aggression, severe shyness, and instability are not typically found in the APBT breed, nor are they acceptable. Dogs with these traits are not good representatives of the breed and should not be placed into adoptive homes.
Those who wish to label these breeds as “dangerous” are often quick to insist that the dogfighting aspect of their history somehow means that they are inclined to “fight” humans. This is simply wrong. A central fact of Pit Bulls’ history is that their lineage actually makes them less inclined to be aggressive toward humans. For over 160 years, they have been systematically bred away from human aggressiveness. As Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers) explains in an article published in The New Yorker in 2006:
Pit Bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dog fighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was “Man-eaters die.”)
So while human aggressive Pit Bulls were actively culled from bloodlines, traits such as gentleness, temperamental stability, and the desire to be handled by humans were emphasized. These qualities are the foundation of the “Pit Bull” breeds. It explains why footage of Pit Bulls being rescued from horrific circumstances usually features skinny, scarred-up dogs with wagging tails and happy tongues joyfully greeting law enforcement officers. “A Pit Bull is dangerous to people,” Gladwell concludes, “not to the extent that it expresses its essential Pit Bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it.”
What is “essential Pit Bullness”? It’s difficult to express the personality of any breed in words, but for Pit Bulls it comes down to a certain joie-de-vivre and a magnetic attraction to humans. First, Pit Bulls have a constant desire to be close to humans, even if that means lying by your feet as you use the computer; they are not overly independent dogs and want nothing more than to be active members of your “family.” Second, Pit Bulls are outgoing, eager to meet new people, and generally trusting of strangers. Finally, this innate desire for human contact and outgoing nature adds up to the ultimate “people dog”: Pit Bulls are truly in their element when snuggling on the couch, hopping in the bed on a cold morning, getting rubbed on the belly or scratched behind the ears, showing off a trick, going for a car ride with their family, or playing a fun game.
Contrary to myths propagated by the media, human aggression occurs in all dog breeds. Canines can exhibit many kinds of aggression: human-, dog-, territory-, and food-aggression, to name a few. These are independent behaviors. For example, feral dogs can be good with other dogs but highly aggressive toward humans. By the same token, a dog with dog aggression isn’t by default also human aggressive. Pit Bulls test well above average in temperament evaluations.
To date, every shred of empirical evidence we have suggests that Pit Bulls are the same as, if not better than, other breeds when it comes to human interaction. Each year, the American Temperament Testing Society holds evaluations across the country for dog breeds and gives a passing score for the entire breed based on the percentage of passed over failed within total number of the particular breed tested. As of 2008, Pit Bull breeds achieved a combined passing score of 85.5 percent. To put these figures into context, the combined passing rate of all breeds was 81.6 percent. The Collie, an icon of obedience, passed at a rate of 79.4 percent, and the beloved Golden Retriever scored at 84.2 percent. As you can see, by these measures, the Pit Bull breeds make fabulous family pets!
Pit Bull type dogs are wonderful, loving, and very loyal companions; however, it is important to understand the breed’s nature, to provide a structured environment, and to establish a positive leadership role. In order to do so, Pit Bull owners must understand the original purpose of the breed, respect its limits, and help it fulfill its tremendous potential. This is sound advice for dog owners of any breed.
Pit Bulls and Other Dogs
Never trust a dog not to fight. That means any dog! Dog aggression is not a breed-specific behavior. Dogs of any breed can exhibit intolerance toward other dogs.
Dogs may fight over hierarchic status, food, toys, or rawhides. External stimulus or excitement can also trigger a fight. Remember that any canine can fight, regardless of breed. If you frequent a dog park, you’ve surely seen a fight occur among a pack of dogs for reasons not discernible to humans. Owners should separate their dogs if they cannot closely supervise them.
Dog aggression (that is, aggression shown by dogs towards other dogs) is a complicated matter. Like most things in life, it is not a black-and-white issue. We should not think of dog aggression as a binary (dog aggressive/not dog aggressive) but as a spectrum: dogs can exhibit zero dog aggression, dog aggression only in some situations, a high level of dog aggression, or dog aggression that falls somewhere in between these points.
The graphic below provides a helpful visualization of this concept:
Given their historical circumstances, Pit-Bull-type dogs can be less tolerant of dogs than other breeds. Pit Bull owners must understand that their dogs may not get along with all other dogs. There are several levels of dog tolerance. Many dogs are great with other dogs and enjoy the company of fellow canines. Some dogs do well only with dogs of the opposite sex. Some are fine with dogs they were raised with but intolerant of new dogs.
Some dogs are tolerant of other dogs except for in limited circumstances, such as when greeting a new person. Some enjoy the company of other dogs, while others cannot accept any other dogs. All of this should suggest that dogs are individuals and should be treated as such. Owners need to understand their particular dog’s acceptance level of other dogs and manage their dog appropriately when around other animals.
A dog’s tolerance level can change during its lifetime, and owners need to be aware of these changes so they can properly manage their dogs while in the company of other dogs. Some dogs become less tolerant as they mature from puppyhood to adult, while others become more accepting as they mature into the senior years. Some can become more tolerant with socialization and training. Regardless of breed, there are many dogs that do not like other dogs, and all dog owners need to be responsible. This means following the basic rules of dog ownership: keeping your dog on leash at all times, not letting your charge unfamiliar dogs, and supervising your valued companion at all times (i.e., not leaving your dog in the backyard without supervision).
For Pit Bull owners, the stakes are always higher. While they may not instigate a fight, they won’t back down from a challenge. Inevitably, no matter who “started it,” no matter what the circumstances, the Pit Bull will always be blamed. Each incident in which a Pit Bull gets blamed jeopardizes our right to own these great dogs. Keep your dog out of trouble!
That said, many Pit Bulls get along great with other pets and may live happily with other dogs without incident. We simply cannot assume that this is true for all of them. We also cannot take for granted that Pit Bulls who get along with other pets today will do so tomorrow. The same goes for all other breeds, and none of this should suggest that, in the language of popular myth, Pit Bulls are more likely to “snap” or “turn.” It only means that their attitude toward other dogs may change as they mature. Pit Bull owners must show common sense by ensuring that they don’t set their dogs up to fail by putting them in inappropriate situations. It is every dog owner’s responsibility to ensure that they are managing their dog’s needs and looking out for their dog’s safety at all times.
Please remember that, as we note throughout the site, animal aggression and human aggression are two entirely distinct behaviors and should never be confused. Pit Bulls are, by nature, very good with people. They are, in fact, one of the most loving, loyal, friendly, and dedicated companions one can have.
GPBR hopes this article will help people understand why so many of us are deeply dedicated to these wonderful dogs. Pit Bull dogs need more help, compassion, and understanding than many other breeds, but they will pay you back with more love and loyalty than you ever thought possible.