Should We Fear the Pit Bull?

Should we fear the American Pit Bull Terrier? At the heart of this question is the contention that the pit bull used to be the most popular dog in America, and that media hype rather than reality is the true reason for our fear. One frequently-posted article (the origin of which I’ve been unable to track down) states that the first pit bulls were brought to America by English and Irish immigrants before the Civil War as prized family possessions. General purpose herding and working dogs, they earned their keep as herders, hunters, guardians and household pets.

According to this article, by the 1900s, the pit bull had risen to fame. It was embraced as a family dog. Because of their loyalty and temperament, the pit bull even earned the nickname “nanny dogs,” entrusted to watch over and protect children while parents worked on the farm. In addition, the breed was embraced by popular culture, with highly-respected companies using the pit bull in advertising and as mascots. The beloved dog with the ring around his eye from The Little Rascals was a pit bull. It is also the only breed to have appeared on the cover of Life Magazine three times. Finally, the breed became a symbol of American pride. Pit bulls were used in posters to recruit soldiers and sell war bonds, and a Pit Bull mix named Sgt. Stubby was the first dog to be awarded Army medals.

One opponent of the pit bull, the Dog Bites web site, claims that no sources are ever cited to legitimize the pit bulls’ right to the title of America’s sweetheart dog. Dog Bites states that in 2006 the publication Animal People tested this claim. By searching the classified dogs-for-sale ads between 1900 to 1950 on NewspaperArchive.com, despite “generously” searching for pit bulls under three different breed names, Animal People discovered that the husky and the St. Bernard were the most popular dog breeds during that period; pit bulls ranked 25th out of 34.

Whether Dog Bites is right or wrong, I do find some flaws in its logic. For example, proponents only contend that the pit bull was popular in the 1800’s, noting that the pit bull’s popularity began to decline after World War II as other breeds came into favor. Thus, it seems unfair to say that no evidence can be found of its popularity between 1900 and 1950. In addition, I don’t necessarily accept that the study was skewed. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus of the origins of the pit bull, with the ASPCA even describing today’s pit bull as being a descendant of the original English bull-baiting dog, and so using multiple names seems natural not generous.

Proponents recognize that only a century ago the pit bull breed had a mixed history in Europe. Pit bulls were being misused for savage sports (an act that was outlawed in the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835) just as they sometimes are today. However, proponents also contend that pit bulls were being used as working dogs to protect the family and field. This falls in line with the opinion of the ASPCA that behavioral variation exists among individuals in all dog breeds. Thus, while I understand how individual pit bulls (just like many other types of dogs) could become dangerous in the wrong hands, I still remain puzzled why the entire breed receives such terrible press.

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