Is the Pit Bull one of the most Aggressive Breeds?

Is the American Pit Bull Terrier one of the most aggressive breeds? At the heart of this question is the contention that the certain dogs are more likely than others to bite and that pit bulls are considered the most guilty. As with the debate over whether pit bulls are to be feared or not, my online research found arguments on both sides.

Dog Bite Law Center states there are approximately 800,000 dog bites per year in the United States that require medical treatment.  Most of the victims are children, and they are most often bitten on the face. Dog bites cause an average of 18 deaths a year. Almost $165 million is spent treating dog bites each year and 70% of dog bites occur on the owner’s property. Regarding the latter, the American Veterinary Medical Association actually puts the cost higher, saying the average price for insurer in 2013 was $28,000 and the total annual price was $483 million.

Where does the American Pit Bull Terrier fit into this picture? According to Dog Bites website, pit bulls and Rottweilers together accounted for 74% of the total recorded deaths in 2014. Moreover, this same combination also accounted for 74% of all fatal attacks during the 10-year period from 2005 to 2014. In breaking these statistics down further, Dog Bites contended that pit bulls cause one-third of dog-bite related fatalities despite accounting for less than 2% of the dog population. A release compiled by the editor of Animal People from press accounts seems to back up the argument that the American Pit Bull Terrier is responsible for more bites than any other breed. According to Dog Bites, this breed is variously cited as being responsible for nearly a third of all fatal dog attacks in the United States, in part due to its tenacity in a fight.

Naturally, these statistics are a concern. However, part of my frustration in trying to research this article was how often opinions weren’t based on reliable studies. For example, while Animal People itself might be a trustworthy organization, I question their methodology of relying simply on media reports, when there is a debate over the accuracy of pit bull identification. Also, unlike the below reports, Animal People’s research doesn’t take into account a dog’s background.

A report from the National Canine Research Council, about the results of study that seems to have had much more robust methodology, concerns standardized temperament testing in Lower Saxony, Germany. The government had placed restrictions on the owning of fourteen dog breeds thought to be “especially dangerous,” but allowed owners of these dogs to apply for an exception. Over four hundred dogs of the targeted breeds were tested in 21 situations of dog-human contact and 14 situations of dog-environment contact.  The dog’s behavior in each situation was rated from 1 to 7. At the aggressive end of the spectrum were biting with preceding threat signals, biting with no preceding threat signals, and biting with no preceding threat signals and unable to calm within 10 minutes. The dogs’ scores were compared to those of golden retrievers, a breed which is notably underrepresented in bites. The results showed there was no significant difference between the volunteered golden retrievers and the dogs from the targeted breeds that were required to  submit to the test. The report notes that, “This study contributed to the repeal of breed specific legislation in Lower Saxony,” and recommends that “rather than regiment dogs by breed, more emphasis should be put on the dog owners’ education.”

Yet another report comes in December of 2013, from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Covering all incidents that occurred during a recent ten-year period, the study identified seven factors potentially within the control of dog owners that co-occurred, in various combinations, in the overwhelming majority of dog bite-related fatalities. Four or more of those factors were found to have co-occurred in 80.5% of the incidents. Breed wasn’t among the factors identified. Instead, the researchers identified a striking co-occurrence of multiple, controllable factors including:

  • no able-bodied person being present to intervene (87.1%)
  • the victim having no familiar relationship with the dog(s) (85.2%)
  • the dog(s) owner failing to neuter/spay the dog(s)(84.4%)
  • a victim’s compromised ability, whether based on age or physical condition, to manage their interactions with the dog(s) (77.4%)
  • the owner keeping dog(s) as resident dog(s) rather than as family pet(s) (76.2%)
  • the owner’s prior mismanagement of the dog(s) (37.5%)
  • the owner’s abuse or neglect of dog(s) (21.1%)

Backing up this research, according to the National Canine Research Council, the fatal dog attacks that occurred in the United States in 2006 had these commonalities:

  • 97% of the owners did not neuter or spay their dogs.
  • 78% of the owners did not maintain their dogs as pets but instead used them as guard, breeding, or fighting dogs.
  • 84% of the attacks involved reckless owners whose dogs were abused or neglected; were interacting with unsupervised children; or were not humanely controlled or contained.

While none of these studies argue against the possibility that a pit bull might bite, the Humane Society of the United States does report the interesting data that pit bulls were involved in 25 percent of reported dog-abuse cases.  The cited studies echo the conclusion by the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention in their report published in 2000 on breeds of dogs involved in fatal attacks: “…. fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and therefore should not be the primary factor driving public policy. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific legislation exist and hold promise for the prevention of dog bites.”

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