Myths and facts

When it comes to pit bulls, there’s no shortage of myths and misinformation. You can hear those myths spouted by the media, legislators, the general public, and even so-called “experts” on the breed. Here are some of the more common ones.

Locking jaws | Unique bite style | Genetic killers | Fighters | Aggressive | Untrainable | Unpredictable | Cannot feel pain | Taste of blood | Super-strong jaws | Rare pit bulls | Only bad owners | Pit bull population | Brains swell

Myth: Pit bulls have locking jaws. Once they bite, they can’t let go, even if they want to.

FACT: No dog of any breed has ever been found to possess a mechanism in their jaw which would allow them to “lock” their top and bottom jaw together. There is no such thing as a locking jaw!

Myth: Pit bulls have a unique bite style consisting of biting down, holding, and shaking.

FACT: Biting, holding, and shaking are not unique behaviors for pit bulls. All dogs will perform these behaviors. A dog may “bite and hold” when it is playing or when it has been taught to do this. You have probably seen police K-9 dogs, which are commonly German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois, doing bite work. These dogs are specially trained to bite hard and to not let go even when someone is hitting them. You have also seen many kinds of dogs playing with toys. Tug toys and rope toys are popular because many dogs enjoy grabbing, pulling, and shaking them. This is a natural behavior that all dogs engage in.

Myth: Pit bulls are genetically driven to kill people.

FACT: Dogs are not machines; they are living organisms. Like all living organisms, a dog’s behavior is influenced by both genetics and environment. How a dog owner manages his or her dog will determine whether the dog becomes a danger to humans. No dog is driven entirely by genetics to attack people, and no dog breed has been created or bred into such a state that all dogs of that breed are compelled to attack people. Dogs that are raised as beloved family pets do not kill people.

While some irresponsible breeders and owners may try to create “killer” dogs, these people are not the norm, and their activities are unethical and, in many cases, illegal. Responsible dog breeders understand that dogs are meant for companionship and love, not for fighting and killing. Responsible breeders understand the wonderful qualities that pit bulls have. They are interested in breeding quality dogs with excellent temperaments.

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Myth: Pit bulls are not good for anything except dogfighting.

FACT: Pit bulls have excelled in many working-dog sports such as agility, search-and-rescue, tracking, weight pulling, carting, Shutzhund, hunting, obedience, therapy, and more. Millions of pit bulls serve society today as faithful family members and beloved companions.

Myth: Pit bulls are very aggressive.

FACT: Pit bulls are no more or less aggressive than any other type of dog. Many of the behaviors we expect from and encourage in dogs, including hunting, tracking, guarding, and even playing, are actually modified forms of aggression.

Although pit bulls have a reputation for aggression toward other dogs, in fact, many other breeds and types of dogs are also known for such aggression. Interdog aggression is actually a very common behavior and is not limited to pit bull type dogs.

Pit bulls may be aggressive toward small animals, but again, this is common with all breeds and types of dogs. Dogs are essentially domesticated predators. Many dogs will exhibit predatory behavior toward small animals that they consider prey.

A few pit bulls may be aggressive toward people, but again, this is not unique to pit bulls. All breeds and types of dogs may be aggressive toward people.

Aggression is an individual trait that varies from dog to dog, and has a lot to do with a dog’s environment and owners. Aggressive behaviors are common and normal in dogs of all breeds and types. Pit bulls do not exhibit any aggressive behaviors that are unique or extreme when compared to other breeds or types of dogs.

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Myth: Pit bulls can not be trained or controlled.

FACT: Dogs are, generally speaking, trainable and controllable because they are intelligent domesticated animals. Pit bulls, likewise, are intelligent and domesticated, and like all dogs, they are obedient, friendly, and handle-able. Pit bulls have excelled in areas such as agility, tracking, Shutzhund, search-and-rescue, therapy, and many other canine activities. LawDogs USA, for example, opted to use pit bulls exclusively as drug detection dogs because the organization found pit bulls to be so trainable and eager to please.

Of course, individual dogs land on the spectrum of trainability and obedience at different points. While not every dog may be particularly trainable, it is extremely rare for a dog to be unmanageable. The overwhelming majority of dogs are quite trainable and manageable, and any behavior problems that a dog displays is more likely attributable to owner error than to something inherent or genetic.

Myth: Pit bulls are unpredictable; they can turn on anyone, even their owner, at any time.

FACT: Pit bulls are no more or less unpredictable than any other type of dog. Often, a person who claims that a dog is “unpredictable” simply doesn’t understand dog behavior. In the overwhelming majority of dog bite cases, the humans involved don’t understand or have missed canine warning signs preceding the bite. For more information on dog behavior and aggression, check out “The Culture Clash” by Jean Donaldson.

The way our legal system handles dog bites only strengthens the myth that dogs are unpredictable. In the case of a dog bite, a dog owner that admits prior knowledge of their dog’s dangerous behavior will be more severely punished than a dog owner who claims to be ignorant of the danger. For this reason, after a dog bite happens, you will hear the dog owner say “My dog was nice before this! I didn’t expect this to happen.” It sounds like the dog unexpectedly snapped, but in reality, the dog owner is trying to reduce their punishment by claiming ignorance.

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Myth: Pit bulls do not feel pain.

FACT: This is an urban legend started by dog fighters to justify the cruel activity of dog fighting. After all, if fighting doesn’t hurt the dogs, how can it be cruel? The myth is further perpetuated by fearful individuals who buy into the Hollywood monster myth of the unstoppable pit bull beast. There is no scientific evidence to support this idea. Pit bulls do indeed feel pain, just as any other dog does.

Myth: If a pit bull bites down and tastes blood, it will become aggressive and unstoppable.

FACT: Dogs bite because they are scared, in pain, or defensive. They bite so that the offending person/animal/object will go away—and it usually works. As a result, a dog learns that biting is a very successful tactic for getting what the dog desires. Subsequent bites have nothing to do with the “taste of blood.” In reality, the dog is repeating a behavior that has gotten a desired result in the past.

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Myth: Pit bulls have jaw muscles that can clamp down with (insert high number here) PSI of pressure.

FACT: Many numbers are floating around that claim to be the PSI (pounds per square inch) of pit bulls’ jaw strength. The numbers range wildly, from 800 PSI to 2000 PSI. These numbers are completely unfounded; there are no scientific studies to back any of these numbers up. In fact, bite force cannot even be accurately measured in PSI; the proper term is “pounds of force” or “Newtons” (metric system).

One study conducted by Dr. Brady Barr of National Geographic showed that the average domestic canine has an average bite of 320 pounds of force.  In one portion of the documented study, Dr. Barr tested three dog breeds: a German Shepherd, a Rottweiler, and an American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT).  The Rottweiler bit with 328 pounds of force—the highest ever recorded from a domestic dog.  The German Shepherd bit with 238 pounds of force, and the APBT bit with 235 pounds of force.

It is important to understand that bite strength differs depending on the size of the dog, the situation that led to the bite, the dog’s training, and the state of mind the dog is currently in. The damage that a dog does when it bites depends on the location of the bite, the victim’s behavior while being bitten, and the size ratio between dog and victim, among other factors. Breed has very little to do with bite strength or level of damage. You cannot guess the breed of dog that bit a person by looking at the dog bite.

See also:
National Canine Research Council: Do Pit Bulls Inflict Injuries Unlike Other Breeds of Dogs?
Delise, Karen. The Pit Bull Placebo. Anubis Publishing, 2007.
Dog Bites: Information and Statistics–Canine Bite Force
Measurement of bite force in dogs: a pilot study (note: measurements are given in metric/SI)

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Myth: Pit bulls with certain nose or coat colors are “rare.”

FACT: There are no “rare” nose or coat colors. Historically, pit bulls have been bred for performance and temperament, not appearance. This means pit bulls come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. “Blue” coats (diluted black, or grey, coats) are a fad color right now, and greedy breeders are churning out “blue” dogs to make money off the fad, without concern for temperament or health. Similarly, “red nose” and “blue nose” pit bulls are very common. White pit bulls are also common—and may be deaf and prone to skin problems.

Potential pit bull owners who are looking to obtain a pit bull would be wise to steer clear of breeders who are breeding specifically for certain colors. Such breeders are in it for the money and could care less about the health or temperament of their dogs. Why not adopt a pit bull rather than support backyard breeders and puppy mills? You can find pit bulls of all colors waiting desperately for a home in shelters and rescue groups across the country.

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Myth: Pit bulls are only owned by drug dealers and gang members.

FACT: This is a stereotype. The vast majority of pit bull owners are normal, law-abiding citizens, no different from you and me.

Myth: Pit bulls make up only 1 percent of the U.S. dog population.

FACT: No scientific studies have determined the actual pit bull population in the United States.

Random percentages seem to come out of thin air and are frequently bounced around in media reports without any legitimate source to back up such an assertion. I have heard population estimates ranging from 1 percent to 8 percent or more.

Still more problematic is the disagreement as to what a “pit bull” really is—and whether “pit mixes” should be included.

Pit bulls are undeniably a very popular and prolific breed-type. Some places, such as Oakland, CA, report that more “pit bulls” are registered with the city than any other breed. A few studies estimate that U.S. shelter “pit bull” populations reach 33% on average, and up to 50% or more in larger cities.

Unfortunately, however, without a very thorough and careful demographic study of “pit bulls” and their owners—something which has yet to be accomplished on a nationwide scale and may very well prove impossible—any pit bull population estimate is little more than a vague guessing game.

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Myth: Pit bulls’ brains swell and become too large for their skull, ultimately causing the dogs to “snap” and attack people.

FACT: This particular falsehood stems from myths surrounding the Doberman in the 1960’s. It has also been applied to German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Chows, among others. Yet there is no truth to this myth.

There is in fact a rare genetic disease in which a dog’s brain is too large for its skull: syringomyelia. It is most common in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. This disease damages neurological functions and causes severe pain, weakness, and even partial paralysis. The disease does not cause random biting, and the weakness and paralysis makes it nearly impossible for a dog to attack.

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Next Page: Frequently Asked Questions
Previous Page: What Is a “Pit Bull”?

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