Prof: Pit bulls went from America’s best friend to public enemy – now they’re slowly coming full circle

By Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University, via The Conversation

As recently as 50 years ago, the pit bull was America’s favorite dog. Pit bulls were everywhere. They were popular in advertising and used to promote the joys of pet-and-human friendship. Nipper on the RCA Victor label, Pete the Pup in the “Our Gang” comedy short films, and the flag-wrapped dog on a classic World War I poster all were pit bulls.

With National Pit Bull Awareness Day celebrated on Oct. 26, it’s a fitting time to ask how these dogs came to be seen as a dangerous threat.

Starting around 1990, multiple features of American life converged to inspire widespread bans that made pit bulls outlaws, called “four-legged guns” or “lethal weapons.” The drivers included some dog attacks, excessive parental caution, fearful insurance companies and a tie to the sport of dog fighting.

As a professor of humanities and law, I have studied the legal history of slaves, vagrants, criminals, terror suspects and others deemed threats to civilized society. For my books “The Law is a White Dog” and “With Dogs at the Edge of Life,” I explored human-dog relationships and how laws and regulations can deny equal protection to entire classes of beings.

In my experience with these dogs – including nearly 12 years living with Stella, the daughter of champion fighting dogs – I have learned that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous. Like other dogs, they can become dangerous in certain situations, and at the hands of certain owners. But in my view, there is no defensible rationale for condemning not only all pit bulls, but any dog with a single pit bull gene, as some laws do.

I see such action as canine profiling, which recalls another legal fiction: the taint or stain of blood that ordained human degradation and race hatred in the United States.

Bred to fight

The pit bull is strong. Its jaw grip is almost impossible to break. Bred over centuries to bite and hold large animals like bears and bulls around the face and head, it’s known as a “game dog.” Its bravery and strength won’t allow it to give up, no matter how long the struggle. It loves with the same strength; its loyalty remains the stuff of legend.

For decades pit bulls’ tenacity encouraged the sport of dogfighting, with the dogs “pitted” against each other. Fights often went to the death, and winning animals earned huge sums for those who bet on them.

But betting on dogs is not a high-class sport. Dogs are not horses; they cost little to acquire and maintain. Pit bulls easily and quickly became associated with the poor, and especially with Black men, in a narrative that connected pit bulls with gang violence and crime.

READ: Best Dog Food Brands, According To The Experts

That’s how prejudice works: The one-on-one lamination of the pit bull onto the African American male reduced people to their accessories.

Dogfighting was outlawed in all 50 states by 1976, although illegal businesses persisted. Coverage of the practice spawned broad assertions about the dogs that did the fighting. As breed bans proliferated, legal rulings proclaimed these dogs “dangerous to the safety or health of the community” and judged that “public interests demand that the worthless shall be exterminated.”

In 1987 Sports Illustrated put a pit bull, teeth bared, on its cover, with the headline “Beware of this Dog,” which it characterized as born with “a will to kill.” Time magazine published “Time Bombs on Legs” featuring this “vicious hound of the Baskervilles” that “seized small children like rag dolls and mauled them to death in a frenzy of bloodletting.”

Presumed vicious

If a dog has “vicious propensities,” the owner is assumed to share in this projected violence, both legally and generally in public perception. And once deemed “contraband,” both property and people are at risk.

This was evident in the much-publicized 2007 indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for running a dogfighting business called Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia. Even the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – two of the nation’s leading animal welfare advocacy groups – argued that the 47 pit bulls recovered from the facility should be killed because they posed a threat to people and other animals.

If not for the intervention of Best Friends Animal Society, Vick’s dogs would have been euthanized. As the film “Champions” recounts, a court-appointed special master determined each dog’s fate. Ultimately, nearly all of the dogs were successfully placed in sanctuaries or adoptive homes.

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This 2010 report describes the successful rehabilitation of dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz dogfighting operation.

Debating breed bans

Pit bulls still suffer more than any other dogs from the fact that they are a type of dog, not a distinct breed. Once recognized by the American Kennel Club as an American Staffordshire terrier, popularly known as an Amstaff, and registered with the United Kennel Club and the American Dog Breeders Association as an American pit bull terrier, now any dog characterized as a “pit bull type” can be considered an outlaw in many communities.

For example, in its 2012 Tracey v. Solesky ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals modified the state’s common law in cases involving dog injuries. Any dog containing pit bull genes was “inherently dangerous” as a matter of law.

This subjected owners and landlords to what the courts call “strict liability.” As the court declared: “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.”

Dissenting from the ruling, Judge Clayton Greene recognized the absurdity of the majority opinion’s “unworkable rule”: “How much ‘pit bull,’” he asked, “must there be in a dog to bring it within the strict liability edict?”

It’s equally unanswerable how to tell when a dog is a pit bull mix. From the shape of its head? Its stance? The way it looks at you?

Conundrums like these call into question statistics that show pit bulls to be more dangerous than other breeds. These figures vary a great deal depending on their sources.

Any statistics about pit bull attacks depend on the definition of a pit bull – yet it’s really hard to get good dog bite data that accurately IDs the breed.

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Prince George’s County, Md., is negotiating with advocates suing to revoke the county’s pit bull ban.

Over the past decade, awareness has grown that breed-specific legislation does not make the public safer but does penalize responsible owners and their dogs. Currently 21 states prohibit local government from enforcing breed-specific legislation or naming specific breeds in dangerous dog laws. Maryland passed a law reversing the Tracey ruling in 2014. Yet 15 states still allow local communities to enact breed-specific bans.

Pit bulls demand a great deal more from humans than some dogs, but alongside their bracing way of being in the world, we humans learn another way of thinking and loving. Compared with many other breeds, they offer a more demanding but always affecting communion.The Conversation

Colin Dayan is a Professor of English, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, and a Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. Some say it’s the owners. Look at what they do and how fast they turn on kids, adults and especially other dogs. Its definitely the breed. I will never own one because no matter how long people have them, some turn and i don’t see the rate from other breeds. I have seen people who say, a Chihuahua can be vicious. They don’t maul people to death like a pit bull can. Get rid of them, end of story.

  2. “Canine Profiling”. Once I read that I quit reading. What a moron. If ya love your dog, great! If it attacks me or one of my loved ones, I’ll do whatever I deem appropriate to stop the attack. I’m sure that I can convince at least 1 juror that my actions would be justified. Pit Bulls ARE dangerous dogs. they bite harder and WERE, for a long time bred to fight and be aggressive. I’ve met many dogs and I’m a dog lover. but when it comes to unconditional trust of an animal when it concerns my family, a “Pittie” won’t be in the mix. Have whatever dog you desire, but control it. And hopefully, you won’t have a dog capable of doing extreme damage, go wrong around your family or neighbors. Do some research – what percentage of fatal or serious injuries were committed by what breed of dog in the last 20 years? I don’t know. But I DO know that I see lots more of severe “Pittie” attacks in relation to other breeds.

  3. People are so delusional. I work in a hospital and kids come in with bites from more then just pitbulls.
    Any dog can attack or bite. Unprovoked! I have 2 pitbulls and one was shot in the face and left for dead. I have nursed him back to health and he is the most gentle kind dog. I dare someone to say anything bad or negative about my dog!
    And all you bougee people with your designer dogs need to shut up. What do you care what kind of dog I have? As long as I take care of it.
    No dog is inherently bad, but some people are, and clearly they are responding to this article!
    Don’t bully the breed!!!

    1. I’ve been a paramedic for over twenty years and have worked in the worst parts of L.A. County. About 90% of dog attacks I’ve responded to in the past several years have been pit bulls. Your hospital experience is no more valid than anyone else’s.

    2. “I dare someone to say anything bad or negative about my dog!”

      Or what? Are you going to sic you pitbull on us? Delusional pitbull owners always say the same thing. “He was the best dog ever. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.” This is usually said after the pitbull rips a toddler apart.

      1. Goodness, where to begin? I guess with this: I’ve lived with pit bulls myself so I know from experience how sweet and affectionate they can be …. but also how even well-loved and well-trained pits can attack out of nowhere.

        Moving on…

        1) “Nipper” was actually a fox terrier from Bristol, England, per RCA.

        2) Pitbulls are indeed an element of Black Hip-Hop culture. But they’re part of White Nationalist culture, too. The pit bull has long been used as a skinhead (neo-Nazi) symbol, including in graphics and logos, for decades, per the ADL. And FWIW, since the Michael Vick debacle, the pit has also been favored by white liberals, in a trend some have considered “virtue signaling.”

        3) Concern about pit bulls is a global phenomenon. At present, pitbulls are banned in 39 countries, from Argentina to Venezuela. Do all these countries ban pits because of American-style racism…?

        4) True, pit bulls are a type of dog, not a single breed; in the U.S., most sources define American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and American Bullies as “pitbulls.” And a meta-analysis over a decade revealed that in the U.S., these breeds accounted for 254, or 65%, of fatal dog attacks despite accounting for only 6.5% of the dog population … more than all other breeds combined. A total of about 35 breeds were involved in all these fatalities, most of them for one or two. This means that the vast majority of HUNDREDS of dog breeds have been involved in ZERO deaths (even though there are “bad owners” for EVERY breed of dog).

        5) Luckily, most dog attacks aren’t fatal. The CDC and HSUS say about 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, 80% of whom require no medical treatment. But 12,480 citizens do wind up hospitalized, most of them children bitten by the family dog — and a total of 14 peer-reviewed medical studies from Level 1 trauma centers all over the U.S. found that pit bulls inflicted a significantly higher prevalence of injuries, more severe injuries, and injuries requiring plastic surgery (usually to the face) from 2011 to 2019. It’s common sense that “any breed can bite” — and several breeds ARE more likely to bite than pits; but Chihuahuas and Cocker Spaniels don’t maim or kill when they do.

        6) Among hundreds of dog breeds, there’s great physical variety. Most breeds look NOTHING like any of the “pit bull” breeds. Are people being attacked by poodles, Old English Sheepdogs, Yorkies and whippets, and just ASSUMING they’re pit bulls? (BTW, anyone who actually believes that the media would ignore a severe mauling by a Boston Terrier or a Lhasa Apso has no idea how journalism works.)

        7) Dog breeds are NOT analogous to human races. Race is almost entirely a social construct, while every dog breed exists because humans deliberately bred and culled for certain physical AND behavioral traits, and there’s significant genetic difference between them (which isn’t the case with human races). While training and treatment obviously influences a dog’s personality, temperament and instinctive abilities are present at birth. That’s why pointers point, retrievers retrieve, and shepherd dogs herd things, automatically. Pit bulls were NOT bred as “nanny dogs,” but to bait bulls and later to fight. Yet almost every severe or fatal attack by a pit bull comes as a total shock to its owner — especially when infants or toddlers are killed, as happened recently in Memphis.

        ⊱⋅ ────────── ⋅⊰

        This isn’t about “hating” or “blaming” any dogs. Dogs are not morally culpable for what they do. Nor does it deny any particular pit isn’t a sweet dog. The problem is the statistically disproportionate risk acknowledged by the 39 countries that ban pit bull breeds.

        Just as most smokers won’t get cancer and most drunk drivers won’t crash, most pit bulls won’t maim or kill anyone. But they do pose more risk than HUNDREDS of other breeds of dogs (who, incidentally, deserve forever homes too).

        1. Your information is incorrect. The Am Staff is not a Pit Bull . That’s the main reason why it’s called the American Staffordshire Terrier. When the English Staff ( England) and the Irish Dog ( Ireland) known as the Old Family) were imported to America . Those dogs were bred together to create the Pit Bull and Chauncey Bennett ( Ukc) register them as the American Pit Bull Terrier in 1898 . The American Staff started out as an American Pit Bull Terrier under the AkC . The AKC placed American Pit Bull Terrier under the name Staffordshire Terrier because they didn’t want to have anything to do with Dogfighting nor the name Pit Bull. Because the word “Pit “ associated with Dogfighting. The name Staffordshire Terrier was changed to the American Staffordshire Terrier so there will be no confusion with the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The Am Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier became two separate breeds. The Dogs in TN are not Pit Bulls.

        2. The American Staff terrier is not a Pit Bull. That’s main reason why it’s called the American Staffordshire Terrier. The only and real Pit Bull is the APBT. The English Staff ( England) and the Irish Dog ( Ireland) made the Pit Bull. Once those dogs were imported to America. Those dogs were bred together to create the Pit Bull and Chauncey Bennett ( Ukc) register them as the American Pit Bull Terrier in 1898

  4. Our pitt/dane mis is the most loving dog i have ever had…a gentle creature who loves his family, especially his boy. Pit hate is unfounded. What about rottweilers? German shepards? Sheps are vicious killers. Same with belgian malinois.

  5. EVERY week, the media reports a Pit Bull has attacked or killed someone and/or their owners!
    These are extremely UNPREDICTABLE and dangerous dogs! Anything or nothing will provoke them. Why not adopt s purchase a useful breed…..German Shepard, Lab, Collie, NOT some, ,dime-a-dozen” throw-away garbage bag dog, that is so easy to obtain and expensive to maintain?
    Thesc “dogs” are not meant to be pets, should hunted/banned, exterminated, and NOT allowed to be bred, again!

  6. EVERY week, the media reports a Pit Bull has attacked or killed someone and/or their owners!
    These are extremely UNPREDICTABLE and dangerous dogs! Anything or nothing will provoke them. Why not adopt s purchase a useful breed…..German Shepard, Lab, Collie, NOT some, ,dime-a-dozen” throw-away garbage bag dog, that is so easy to obtain and expensive to maintain?
    Thesc “dogs” are not meant to be pets, should hunted/banned, exterminated, and NOT allowed to be bred, again!

  7. I have owned a number of dogs over the years. It is true that German Shepherds (my family’s favorite breed) can be violent if not properly trained and controlled. But pit bulls, and, to a lesser extent, Rottweilers, are another matter entirely. It is instructive that they are involved to a disproportionate degree in killings and maimings in America. Some animals are simply too dangerous for people to own them as pets. They should be rounded up and made extinct. There has already been way too much carnage. Their continued existence is indefensible.

  8. When I was growing up the family down the street had a pitbull and said the same crap this article does. Then one day when they were all sitting around the dog charged their kid and ripped up his face for no reason and without warning. They changed their tune. All the people on here say the same stuff.. “my dog is gentle and sweet and loves his family”. “what about rotts or german shepherds”. blah blah blah. delusional twits…

  9. Why is the default narrative of the pit-lover always the same, “I’ve got a pit and it’s never been any trouble”? Is that all you got?

    Any casual perusal of online statistical studies support the conclusion that the pit is, by a large margin, the most dangerous breed there is and by a much larger margin, the breed most likely to kill.

  10. I think the people that like pitbulls are compensating for something or the type that fall in love with incarcerated criminals. It is amazing that out of so many dog breeds they lose their minds and want this one and defend them like they can’t have a dog if they can’t have a pit.

    A friend of mine is a lawyer that specializes in dog bites. He lives three blocks from the beach in miami and has a boat called “but the dog never” because that is almost always what the person getting sued starts with. He has done very well for himself and pitbulls paid for over 50% of his wealth.

  11. Propensity for attacks is not the issue. Many pit bulls are great pets. The issue to my mind is that the damage done by the breed during an attack puts it in a different category from other breeds. Other breeds may have higher statistics for attacks, but fatalities are almost exclusively from this one breed.

    1. What stands out is that a.) there have been those who saved lives b.) it’s pathetically easy to misidentify a pit even if you’re an expert (meaning that media reports are utterly worthless) c.) even if Colleen Lynn and dogsbite weren’t lying or using bad methodology it would still mean more than 99% of all pit bulls never attack d.) Colleen Lynn and Merrit Clifton HAVE lied or misused info (Colleen has claimed people who shot themselves were mauled, disregarded dna tests which proved certain dogs weren’t pitbulls and claimed that dogs who were beaten were raised in loving homes) d.) pretty much every expert not named Alan beck has found that environment and socialization is more important e.) pitbulls we’re bred for other purposes besides fighting f.) even pot bulls that were bred for fighting were bred not to attack people and were culled if they did g.) Pretty much every attempt to institute bsl caused an INCREASE in maulings while legislation that targeted bad owners has consistently gotten good results h.) pit haters either attack dog bite victims who don’t share their views or call people using data “science whores” and I.) of the fatal dog bite attacks that have occurred 75% or so involve poor socialization, negligence or not bothering to learn or teach how to comport themselves around dogs and no they really aren’t.

      People advocating breed bans are literally killing children and either seeking a simple solution, looking for reason to vent or don’t want to admit that it was their incompetence that got themselves or others hurt.

      I’ll take real experts over the equivalent of qanon

  12. Pit bulls kill an American every 15 days. As terriers, they are bred to kill. This instinct cannot be removed. Their victims are usually children. No child should die like this. The breed should be exterminated.

  13. Very interesting conversation. I own two pit bull/lab mix dogs. They are sisters and have been spayed. They both attended obedience classes as well. They are now 2 yrs old and have totally different personalities. I am very strict with them and I have socialized them since getting them at 8 was old. I will say this about the pit bull – they are bully dogs and will take charge if you allow them to. One of them is fear reactive – she is afraid of strangers and has “nipped” them before but never drawn blood. However, if the person gives her a milk bone she is her best friend. I NEVER fully trust any dog with children – I also have a chihuahua and don’t allow small children with him unsupervised as well. Children should ALWAYS be supervised closely around any dog! My pits have been going to the dog park since they were 4 mo old and I have never had a problem with them there either. If raised with love and affection they are great dogs, but if you let them be the boss they can be dangerous like any other dog.

    1. Karen, “Statistical data from a 15-year period shows that pit bulls are over 11 times more likely to kill their owner than any other dog breed.”

    2. They never attack until they do. Then your life will be over or ruined. Even if it is only a three percent chance, is a pit so much better than other dogs that it is worth it?

  14. I do not understand why some people are putting dogs before their children’s safety! Dogs are not ” fur babies ” they are dogs. If my Greyhound looked at one of my children cross eyed, off to the vet she would go to get the needle. I love my dog, but I love my children more.

  15. They are good dogs it’s the way you raised them you talk bout dogs look at all the people killing there families or other drive by shootings road rage omg!!!!our family has 5 they protect the kids as well look at the people around you they could kill you too stupid is what I say for those bad comments

  16. When the author gets a material fact wrong in the very first paragraph, why should the reader rely on anything else he says? Nipper was a fox terrier. If you go to the RCA site, THEY identify they dog as a fox terrier, possible a Jack Russell. The rest of the article is just babble with carefully inserted words like can/possibly/maybe. Articles from pit bull apologists splitting hairs about what is or isn’t a pit bull always reminds me of that that Supreme Court article about porn- hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Glad to see that the majority of the comments are people who have woken up to the menace that pit bulls present to our communities. Not wanting them around is not a form of dog racism and even if it is, who cares?

  17. Due to the jaw strength and extreme bite pressure of some breeds, they are capable of easily killing people. Children and elderly are especially vulnerable. Jaw strength and bite pressure are not based on opinion, they are measurable, demonstrable facts. No matter how well the dog is trained and treated these characteristics remain.

  18. First, 21 and 15 equals 36. Not 50. You can’t even do math right. (The number of states)

    Next, the RCA dog was not a pit bull. And even if it was, it wouldn’t change anything about pit bulls. And look at Sergeant stubby, it was tiny. That was not a pit bull either.

    Next, pit bulls bulls were never, ever America’s dog.

    Next, you totally contradict yourself, you say that put bulls can’t be identified, they’re not a breed, they’re not different than other dogs and then say this “Compared with many other breeds, they offer a more demanding but always affecting communion.” and WTF does that even mean?!?! Lol that made me laugh out loud literally!!

    And trying to compare a rational fear or distrust of the dogs that maim and kill more people than every other dog breed combined to racism is actually racist!! The vast majority of pit bulls out there or even attacking are not owned by any specific race or buy any kind of hugs. Most are owned by “fur mamas” Who are totally clueless, and put their dogs in sweaters and tutus. And then are shocked when it tears their children’s faces apart.

    Finally, ask the Bernard family in TN why they would raise their two pit bulls for eight years to kill their two year olds and five month old child!!

    Just because you owned a pit bull that hasn’t killed anyone yet, does not make you an expert. AT ALL. Please do your homework. This is literally some of the worst propaganda and lies about pit bulls than I’ve seen, and that says a lot! You should really ask your university for your money back!!!

    1. The Dogs in TN are not Pit Bulls . The only and real Pit Bulls are the APBT . Tudor’s Gr Ch Blackjack, Colby’s Pincher , Walling Bullyson 2xw 1xLoser, Wood’s Snooty 2xw2xLoser. Dogs that fought in the Pit. These are old pit fighting dogs and real pit bulls . All real Pit Bulls are Game Bred and have Bloodlines . No Bloodlines No Pit Bulls

  19. Sigh. In Canada, the most popular large breed dogs are Husky/Husky types. In Canada, the breed most associated with fatal and serious dog attacks are Husky and Husky types. In the US, the most popular large breed dog is the ‘pit bull type’ (the general population has virtually no ability to correctly identify almost any mixed breed dogs correctly, or most ‘bully’ type breeds with any accuracy). At one time, the Doberman was the most popular large breed dog in the US. At that time, the Doberman was the dog breed most associated with serious and fatal attacks. Large breed dogs (all large breed dogs), are capable of causing serious and fatal wounds to humans. One of the issues is that dogs like Dobermans, German shepherds, mastiffs (which all get lumped into one category, despite there being multiple different types of mastiff) are almost never misidentified in dog attacks cases, however, many times a dog has been labeled a ‘pit bull’ in news coverage of an attack (often without the reporter ever even seeing the actual dog, but based on a neighbor or witnesses opinion of the dog) has been later determined to have no pit or bully breed in them at all. Kids get bit by dogs because parents are stupid and don’t teach their kids how to behave properly around dogs. Dog attacks and bites have increased dramatically because dog ownership had increased dramatically. And society is rethinking the way we include dogs in our lives and we don’t think of them as patio furniture that lives outside all the time. There are more indoors and involved in our everyday existence. They are more common than every in our lives, so people have gotten significantly less respectful of them fact that they are still dogs. The popularity of dogs has created a massive parasitic market of breeders and resellers that, either because of pure greed or complete idiocy, breed dogs with absolutely no clue that there is a large component of human aggression that is genetic in dogs, have no idea about proper socialization of puppies, and sell puppies too young which is associated with behavioral and socialization issues later in life.
    The idea that any one breed of dog is the devil incarnate is a fucking joke. All dogs are dangerous. Every single one has teeth that can pierce human skin and cause serious and fatal damage (a pack of corgi and corgi mixes killed a man not too long ago). We are the danger, really, because we continue to exploit animals for money and personal satisfaction, without regard to the effects on their health or well being. A study that went back 20 years looking at fatal attacks and serious bites (focusing on bites to the face) found that in every case they were able to find that every single one the dog presented signs that a bite was coming prior to biting. But the humans didn’t recognize them for what they were. We need to learn more about the dogs so we can more safely coexist and respect that they are animals.

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