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Pit bull

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Pit bull
Pit bull sampler.jpg
A selection of pit bull-type dogs. Clockwise from top left: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bulldog, Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
Common nicknamesBully
OriginBritain (England / Scotland)
United States
Domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris)

Pit bull is the common name for a type of dog descended from bulldogs and terriers. The pit bull-type is particularly ambiguous, as it encompasses a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified.[1] Formal breeds often considered to be of the pit bull-type include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.[2][3][4] The American Bulldog is also sometimes included.[5] Mixed-breed dogs which physically resemble these breeds often get labelled as "pit bulls" by shelters. Many of these breeds were originally developed as fighting dogs from crossbreeding bull-baiting dogs (used to hold the faces and heads of larger animals such as bulls) and terriers.[5] After the use of dogs in blood sports was banned, such dogs were used as catch dogs in the United States for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt and drive livestock, and as family companions.[6] Despite dog fighting now being illegal in the United States, it still exists as an underground activity, and pit bulls are a common type used.[7][8][9]

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, "owners of pit bull-type dogs deal with a strong breed stigma; however, controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous."[1] Because owners of stigmatized breeds are more likely to have involvement in criminal or violent acts, breed correlations may have the owner's behavior as the underlying causal factor.[1] Some jurisdictions have enacted legislation banning the group of breeds, and some insurance companies do not cover liability from pit bull bites. Among other roles, pit bulls have served as police dogs, search and rescue dogs, and several have appeared on film.


Bull- and bear-baiting arenas shown on the "Woodcut" map of London of c.1561 (the dogs are shown coming out of pens on each side)
An American Pit Bull Terrier puppy

Pit bulls were created by crossbreeding bulldogs and terriers to produce a dog that combined the strength of the bulldog with the gameness and agility of the terrier.[6] In the United Kingdom, these dogs were used in blood sports such as bull-baiting and bear-baiting. These blood sports were officially eliminated in 1835, as Britain began to introduce animal welfare laws. Since dogfights were cheaper to organize and far easier to conceal from the law than bull- or bear-baits, blood sport proponents turned to pitting their dogs against each other instead.[5] Dog fighting was used as both a blood sport (often involving gambling) and a way to continue to test the quality of their stock. For decades afterwards, dog fighting took place clandestinely in small areas of Britain and America. In the early 20th century, pit bulls were used as catch dogs in America for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt and drive livestock, and as family companions.[6] Some have been selectively bred for their fighting prowess.[8][9]

Pit bulls also constitute the majority of dogs used for illegal dog fighting in America.[10] In addition, law enforcement organisations report these dogs are used for other nefarious purposes, such as guarding illegal narcotics operations,[11][12] use against police,[13] and as attack dogs.[14] On the other side of the law, pit bulls have been used as police dogs.[15][16]

In an effort to counter the fighting reputation of pit bull-type dogs, in 1996 the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals renamed pit bull terriers "St. Francis Terriers", so that people might be more likely to adopt them.[17] 60 temperament-screened dogs were adopted until the program was halted, after several of the newly adopted pit bulls killed cats.[18] The New York City Center for Animal Care and Control tried a similar approach in 2004, relabeling their pit bulls as "New Yorkies", but dropped the idea in the face of overwhelming public opposition.[19][20]

A blue-nosed pit bull puppy

Currently, there are a number of breeds that are recognized by different associations which fall under the term "pit bull". The Federation Cynologique Internationale currently only recognizes three breeds: the Bull Terrier, the Miniature Bull Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.[21] The Canadian Kennel Club also recognizes these breeds, as well as the American Staffordshire Terrier.[22] The American Kennel Club recognizes the Bull Terrier, the Miniature Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier as breeds also.[23]


Dogs termed pit bulls share similar physical characteristics, but the morphological variation among bully breed dogs makes it difficult for even experts to visually identify them as distinct.[24][25][26] While mixed-breed dogs are often labeled as pit bulls if they have certain physical characteristics, such as a square-shaped head or bulky body type,[27] visual identification of mixed-breed dogs is not recommended by the scholarly community.[24] Some of the breeds which often get mistaken for pit bulls (but which are not genetically pit bulls) include the Cane Corso, Dogo Argentino, Dogue de Bordeaux, and others, but because these breeds did not originate with the crossbreeding of bulldogs and terriers, they do not fall under the term "pit bull".[28][29]

Dog attack risk

A male pit bull, muzzled

Violent interactions between humans and canines have been studied by the U.S. government,[30] notably the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),[31] as well as academic veterinary researchers.[1] The interpretation of these studies, breed identification and relevance[32] issues, and variable circumstances have given rise to intense controversy.[33][34][35]

In a 2014 literature review of dog bite studies, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states that breed is a poor sole predictor of dog bites.[36] Controlled studies have not identified pit bulls as disproportionately dangerous. Pit bull-type dogs are more frequently identified with cases involving very severe injuries or fatalities than other breeds, but the review suggests this may relate to the popularity of the breed, noting that sled dogs, such as Siberian Huskies, were involved in a majority of fatal dog attacks in some areas of Canada.[1] Bite statistics by breed are not tracked by the CDC[37], AVMA[38] or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).[39] State Farm Insurance spokeswoman Heather Paul stated "Pit bulls in particular are often misidentified when a bite incident occurs, so reliable bite statistics related to the dogs’ breed are unreliable and serve no purpose."[40] The White House stated that "the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at twenty years of data about dog bites and human fatalities in the United States. They found that fatal attacks represent a very small proportion of dog bite injuries to people and that it’s virtually impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds". [41]

In a 2000 review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which examines data from both media reports and from the Humane Society of the United States, pit bull-type dogs were identified in approximately one-third of dog bite-related fatalities in the United States between 1981 and 1992. However, the review notes that studies on dog bite-related fatalities which collect information by surveying news reports are subject to potential errors, as some fatal attacks may not have been reported, a study might not find all relevant news reports, and the dog breed might be misidentified.[42] The AVMA has also noted fundamental problems with tracking breed in dog bite-related fatalities.[38] In a 2013 study of 256 fatalities in the United States from 2000 to 2009, the AVMA determined that valid breed determination was possible for only 17.6% of cases.[43]

Contrary to popular myth, pit bulls do not have "locking jaws".[44] There is no physiological "locking mechanism" in the jaw muscle and bone structure of pit bulls or other dogs.[45] Pit bull-type dogs, like other terriers, hunting and bull-baiting breeds,[46] can exhibit a bite, hold, and shake behavior and at times refuse to release.[12][47][48] Pit bulls also have wide skulls, well-developed facial muscles, and strong jaws,[44] and some research suggests that pit bull bites are particularly serious because they tend to bite deeply and grind their molars into tissue.[49] Breaking an ammonia ampule and holding it up to the dog's nose can cause the dog to release its hold.[47]

Breed-specific legislation

Widely reported pit bull attacks in popular media have resulted in the enactment of breed-specific legislation (BSL) in several jurisdictions. In some cases, breed-specific bans have been reversed or prohibited by state legislation.[50][51] These perceptions have also led to increased premiums for liability insurance.

Breed-specific legislation has been largely found to be ineffective at reducing the number of dog attacks.[52] Research has indicated that there is resistance by those who work in the adoption industry, applying a sharper distinction before allowing a dog to be labelled as a pit bull, as well as objections from veterinarians.[53][54][55]

Many of the jurisdictions that restrict pit bulls apply their restriction to the modern American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and any other dog that has the substantial physical characteristics and appearance of those breeds. Such jurisdictions include the Canadian province of Ontario,[56] and the U.S. cities of Miami[57] and Denver.[58] However, a few jurisdictions, such as Singapore,[59] also classify the modern American Bulldog as a "pit bull-type dog". In the United Kingdom, a pit bull is an American Pit Bull Terrier.[60]

Courts in the United States[61][62] and Canada[63][64] have ruled that expert identification, when using published breed standards, is sufficient for the enforcement of breed-specific legislation.

Approximately 550 jurisdictions have enacted breed-specific legislation in response to a number of well-publicized incidents involving pit bull-type dogs, and some government organizations such as the U.S. Army[65] and Marine Corps[66] have taken administrative action as well. These actions range from outright bans on the possession of pit bull-type dogs, to restrictions and conditions on pit bull ownership. They often establish a legal presumption that a pit bull-type dog is prima facie a legally "dangerous" or "vicious" dog.[67] In response, 16 states in the U.S. prohibited or restricted the ability of municipal governments within those states to enact BSL, though these restrictions do not affect military installations located within the states.[68]

It is now generally settled in case law that jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada have the right to enact breed-specific legislation.[69] Despite these holdings by the courts, there is some public skepticism over whether the laws are effective.[70] One point of view is that pit bulls are a public safety issue that merits actions such as banning ownership, mandatory spay/neuter for all pit bulls, mandatory microchip implants and liability insurance, or prohibiting people convicted of a felony from owning pit bulls.[71] Another point of view is that comprehensive "dog bite" legislation, coupled with better consumer education and legally mandating responsible pet-keeping practices, is a better solution to the problem of dangerous pit bulls than BSL.[38][72]

A third point of view is that breed-specific legislation should not ban breeds entirely, but should instead strictly regulate the conditions under which specific breeds could be owned, for example, forbidding certain classes of individuals from owning them, specifying public areas from which they would be prohibited, and establishing conditions, such as requiring a dog to wear a muzzle, for taking specific breeds of dogs into public places.[73] Finally, some governments, such as in Australia, have forbidden the import of specific breeds, and are requiring the spay/neuter of all existing dogs of these breeds in an attempt to eliminate the breed's population slowly through natural attrition.[74][75] In Germany importation or transfer of the Pit Bull Terrier among other breeds has been banned under German law since 2001, however there are exceptions under certain circumstances. [76]

The ASPCA said that, along with putative over-reporting, false reporting was a major contributor to public perceptions about the breed.[77]

In England and Wales, the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 prohibits the ownership of American Pit Bull Terriers, along with three other breeds. The Act also bans the breeding, sale and exchange of these dogs.[60] Similar legislation exists in Australia.[53]

Commercial restrictions

Liability insurance

Dog owners in the United States can be held legally liable for injuries inflicted or caused by their dogs. In general, owners are considered liable if they were unreasonably careless in handling or restraining the dog, or if they knew beforehand that the dog had a tendency to cause injury (e.g., bite); however, dog owners are automatically considered liable if local laws hold an owner strictly liable for all damage caused by their dog, regardless of carelessness or foreknowledge of a dog's tendencies. Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically provide liability coverage from US$100,000–300,000 for injuries inflicted by dogs;[78] however, some insurance companies limit their exposure to dog bite liability claims by putting restrictions on dog owners that they insure. These restrictions include refusing to cover dog bites under the insurance policy, increasing insurance rates for homeowners with specific breeds, requiring owners of specific breeds to take special training or have their dogs pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test,[79] requiring owners to restrict their dogs with muzzles, chains, or enclosures, and refusing to write policies for homeowners or renters who have specific breeds of dogs.[78]

Owners of rental properties may also be held liable if they knew an aggressive dog was living on their property and they did nothing to ensure the safety of other tenants at the property; as a result, many rental properties forbid pit bull-type dogs and any other breeds if the rental property's insurance will not cover damage inflicted by that type of dog. The dog breeds most often targeted by insurance companies include pit bull-type dogs, Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Akitas (Akita Inu and American Akitas), and Chow Chows.[80]

In 2013, Farmers Insurance notified policy holders in California that it will no longer cover bites by pit bulls, Rottweilers and wolf-dog hybrids. A spokeswoman for Farmers said that those breeds account for more than a quarter of the agency's dog bite claims.[81]

Air carrier restrictions

Several air carriers embargo certain brachycephalic dog breeds. The following table has a sampling of air carrier embargoes on dogs.

Airline Reason Details
Air France Safety Category 1 dogs, as defined by the French Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, are not permitted for transport in the cabin, or as baggage or cargo. These so-called "attack dogs" do not belong to a particular breed, but are similar in morphology to the following: Staffordshire Bull Terriers or American Staffordshire Terriers (pit bulls), Mastiffs and Tosas.[82]
Alaska Airlines Health Dog breeds, including Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and American Pit Bull Terriers, fly at their owner's risk, with no additional compensation if the dog suffers injury or dies during transit. The airline may refuse to accept the dog if it feels that outside temperatures are too extreme for the animal's safety.[83]
American Airlines Health American Airlines will not accept brachycephalic or snub-nosed dogs as checked luggage.[84]
Delta Air Lines Safety "We have determined that untrained, pit bull-type dogs posing as both service and support animals are a potential safety risk", the airline said.[85]
United Airlines Health Will not accept reservations for the following brachycephalic (or short- or snub-nosed) dogs and cats and strong-jawed dog breeds*, out of concern for higher adverse health risks.[86]

Notable pit bulls

Pit bull breeds have become famous for their roles as soldiers, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, actors, television personalities, seeing eye dogs, and celebrity pets. Pete the Pup from the movie series The Little Rascals, an American Staffordshire Terrier, is a historically well-known pit bull. Lesser known, but still historically notable pit bulls include Billie Holiday's companion "Mister",[87] Helen Keller's dog "Sir Thomas",[88] Buster Brown's dog "Tige",[89] Horatio Jackson's dog "Bud",[90][91] President Theodore Roosevelt's pit bull terrier "Pete", "Jack Brutus", who served for Company K, the First Connecticut Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War,[92] Sergeant Stubby, who served for the 102nd Infantry, 26th (Yankee) Division during World War I, and Sir Walter Scott's "Wasp".[93]

Contemporary significant pit bulls are: Weela, who helped save 32 people, 29 dogs, three horses, and one cat during Southern California's widespread flooding in 1993;[94] Popsicle, a five-month-old puppy originally found nearly dead in a freezer, who grew up to become one of the nation's most important police dogs;[95] Norton, who was placed in the Purina Animal Hall of Fame after he rescued his owner from a severe reaction to a spider bite;[96] Titan, who rescued his owner's wife, who would have died from an aneurysm; D-Boy, who took three bullets to save his family from an intruder with a gun;[97] Star, who, while protecting her owner, was shot by police in a video that went viral;[98] and Lilly, who lost a leg after being struck by a freight train while pulling her unconscious owner from the train tracks.[99] Daddy, Cesar Millan's right-hand dog, was famous for his mellow temperament and his ability to interact calmly with ill-mannered dogs.


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Further reading