Editor’s note: A recent story of a young Virginia woman’s alleged pit bull mauling death has horrified — and divided — the nation. PEOPLE is rerunning this 2016 article about pit bulls to address and clear up some myths about this group of dogs.
All dogs are special, but living with a pit bull really is different. While they’re incredibly popular, they also have a reputation that makes many fear them.
Pit bull owners know how loyal and lovable their dogs are, but they can be affected by unfair laws and policies. In The Pit Bull Life you’ll learn the history of this category of dog and what you can do to help secure its present and future. You’ll also get information about how to find a good match and read inspiring stories of people who’ve devoted their lives to this special dog.
In an effort to clear the pit bull name, the authors of The Pit Bull Life debunked 10 popular pit bull myths for PEOPLE.
Myth 1: Pit Bulls Aren't Classic American Dogs
Pit bulls were once the iconic American canine. When artists in the early twentieth century wanted to represent the classic boy and his dog, that pup looked like a pit bull: Buster Brown and his Tige and The Little Rascals and their Pete are still recognizable. Well-known for loyalty and bravery, the pit bull was also used as a symbol of the nation in art during the two world wars. And some real dogs were actual war heroes, like Sgt. Stubby, who served in World War I and earned an obituary in the New York Times.
Myth 2: Pit Bulls Have a Specific, Easy-to-Recognize Look
Most of the dogs we call “pit bulls” aren’t purebred. Many of them aren’t even pit bull mixes. Studies have shown that even dog experts can’t accurately guess whether there’s pit bull in a mixed-breed dog just by looking at it. Lots of different breeds can mix up to produce the short-coated, big-headed dog that we call “pit bull,” though our grandparents would probably have just called this pup a “mutt” or “mongrel.”
Myth 3: Pit Bulls Are a Breed of Dog
“Pit bull” is more a type of dog — like a retriever or terrier — than a breed, and more than one recognized breed falls into this category, including the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The pure breeds are all energetic dogs that need a job or a hobby, and they might not be the best dog park dog, since they may not get along with every other dog they meet. But because so many “pit bulls” are mixed breeds, if you like the look, you can find all kinds of temperaments at your local shelter. The best approach is to treat each dog as an individual.
Myth 4: Pit Bulls Are Scary
There’s no reason to be afraid of pit bulls. There’s no data that shows they’re more likely to bite people or another animal, and published studies point to other breeds as more likely to be aggressive towards humans. In fact, their history predicts the opposite: When pit bulls were bred for fighting, the last thing dogfighters wanted was a dog that would turn on their human handler. But bites are far more likely to be widely featured in the news if the dog is identified as a pit bull, and this feeds the misconceptions about their behavior even though many of those breed identifications are probably wrong anyway.
Myth 5: Pit Bulls Earned Their Bad Reputation
The popularity of dog breeds change like fashions, and so do their reputations: Different breeds have been the scariest in different eras throughout history. When bloodhounds were used to hunt criminals and escaped slaves in the nineteenth century, many saw them as monstrous. In the mid-twentieth century, the German Shepherd’s popularity led to bad breeding and irresponsible owners, and some considered the breed so dangerous that it should be banned. Then the Rottweiler had its turn, and now it’s the pit bull — the changing fashions show that it’s always more about bad owners than bad dogs.
Myth 6: Pit Bulls Are the Only Banned Breed
Breed-specific legislation (BSL), are laws set up to regulate dogs based on their look rather than by their actions or behavior. The pit bull–type dog was not the first dog in the United States to face such a ban. Long Branch, New Jersey, residents banned the Spitz in 1878. Just a few years after that, Bloodhounds were banned in Massachusetts. In 2012, Massachusetts removed breed specific language from its animal regulations and now treats all dogs as individuals.
Logan Ryan, cornerback for the New England Patriots, and his girlfriend adopted a pit bull mix named Leo who came from the streets of Massachusetts. Ryan has become a voice for these underdogs and uses his celebrity status to help champion dogs in need. He even launched a campaign called “Ryan’s Monthly Rescue” that highlights a dog in need at the end of each month.
Myth 7: Dog Bites Are the Dog's Fault Alone
We can reduce bites by enforcing existing leash laws; by raising fines on dog-related incidents; by holding reckless dog owners accountable; enforcing tethering laws (i.e. do not allow dogs to be tethered for long periods or unsupervised); encourage spay/neuter, and training our canine family members using force-free options by not choking, shocking or abusing our dogs in any way.
Myth 8: Young People Shouldn't Handle Pit Bulls
Reaching young people and helping them to learn how to interact with dogs is one of the best ways to prevent dog bites while also encouraging a strong human-canine bond. The city of Calgary found that its bite statistics went down by 80 percent when it provided just an hour of dog safety training to second and third grade students.
Many of us lurk on Liam Hemsworth‘s Instagram feed to enjoy his sweet relationship with his pit bull dog, Tami. Instagram and other social media sites have become a great way to connect young people to animal welfare causes.
Myth 9: Breed Legislation Is Increasing
Many countries are doing away with breed specific language after realizing that bite statistics were staying roughly the same or even increasing after breed bans were in place.
Italy now focuses on owner culpability rather than singling out dogs based on how they look. They expect dog owners to manage and train their dogs to help keep their communities safer.
The Netherlands lifted their 15-year ban once they realized they too were not dealing with the root cause of dog bites, usually stemming from owner negligence in some form.
Myth 10: Pit Bulls Are Not Popular Pets
There are many great television shows that have highlighted animal welfare and adoption. One show was featured on Animal Planet for several years: Pit Boss. The star of the show was a little person with a big personality named Shorty Rossi. He and his multiple adopted dogs served the community by helping people see that dog rescue and adoption is not only rewarding, but also a way of life. Other television shows like Pit Bulls and Parolees enlighten the audience to the many ways to get involved in rescue work.
Many celebrities are finding that pit bull dogs make excellent companion animals and are finding ways to integrate their dogs into their public lives.
Actress Lake Bell had her two dogs as “dogs of honor” in her wedding, one of which is a pit bull mix named Margaret. Jessica Biel started the hashtag, #TuesdayswithTina to celebrate her beloved pit bull mix. Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux adopted their pit bull named Sophie from an animal shelter in Utah. And former host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart (and wife Tracey), have three rescued pit bull dogs. They even opened an animal sanctuary in New Jersey recently to help abused animals in need.