Mean Pitbulls

The Problem of Mean Pitbulls

Stories of mean pitbulls abound.  When a pitbull makes the news, the story is most likely about an attack or some other kind of pitbull aggression.  Even when the story involves pitbulls as victims of abuse, the underlying trend reaffirms the pitbull as an aggressive animal.  For example, in the notorious Michael Vick case, where the football star had tortured and killed pitbulls, the pitbulls were fighting dogs.  This reminder of the aggressive purpose their owners were putting them to, emphasized their worst stereotypes even as it portrayed them as objects of pity.

The Facts about Pitbull Aggression

There is little doubt that pitbulls can be aggressive.  A look at CDC statistics on dog-related fatalities brings this point home.  On average, one out of every three dog-related fatalities involves a pitbull.  Dog-related fatalities have hung steady at about thirty per year for the last thirty years.  Given the rise in population in that same time, it actually represents a slight drop in the per capita number of fatalities. 

Although pitbulls are certainly involved in more than their share of such fatalities, we might want to consider certain mitigating factors when it comes to pitbull aggression.  First, pitbulls are physically more capable of dong injury than other kinds of smaller dogs.  This is not just because of their size (although, this certainly plays a role).  Pitbulls also have other characteristics, such as compact muscular builds that makes their attacks more damaging than attacks by other similarly sized dogs.  Thus, the same attack by a Labrador may do far less damage, simply because of the Labrador’s build.

The question has always been however, whether pitbulls are “naturally” prone to aggression.  Are mean pitbulls “mean” by nature?  Many cities have banned pitbulls in large part because of this perception of the species.  Moreover, part of this perception has come from the history of pitbulls.

A Short History of Pitbulls

Pitbulls are a relatively young species.  They have only been around for about one hundred and fifty years.  From the very beginning, people used them as fighting dogs.  As bear baiting went out of fashion and Parliament banned dog fighting as inhumane in England during the proper Victorian period, dog fighting went underground.  Even as it did so, unscrupulous dog breeders developed a new breed just for the secret pit fights.  These new mean “pitbulls,” as the fight promoters called them, were especially well suited to this new venue.  For the rest of the Victorian period, dog fighters used them for these clandestine activities.

It was only early in the Twentieth century that the pitbull had its reputation somewhat reformed.  For a while during the Great Depression and shortly thereafter they were considered the ideal family dog.  Some of this reputation remains today in Britain where the pitbull is still known as the “nanny dog” because of its over-protectiveness of their small human wards.

Pitbull Aggression

The problem with coming to a full understanding of pitbull aggression is that it is inevitably interwoven with and inextricable from human interactions.  All dogs have aggressive tendencies as a genetic residue from their former wild pasts.  However, their human caretakers can either direct these in positive directions or in negative directions.  Whether a dog is prone to aggression is difficult to disentangle from the behaviors the dog has learned from his human caretakers.

Therefore, if you raise pitbulls to be mean, you will get mean pitbulls.  If you raise them to be well mannered and loved, their natural aggressive tendencies are less likely to manifest themselves in negative ways.  However, because of the way people perceive them, they are more likely to be raised to be aggressive.  However, studies have not shown that pitbulls are particularly aggressive in themselves.