Everything Bully Breeds
Debunking Common Myths
So.....We Need to Talk About Pit Bulls AGAIN
(featuring some of Strawberry Fields ' very own bully breed rescues)
Did you know that Pit Bulls make up the largest percentage of dogs in shelters across the United States with a half a MILLION being euthanized every year?
Pit Bull type dogs are more likely to be euthanized in shelters than any other dog and only the third most likely to be adopted.
The reason you ask? Overpopulation of Pit Bull types has been created by excessive and unregulated breeding.
Never be afraid to advocate for the rescue of Pit Bulls/Mixes instead of breeding and buying.
It may be common sense to you and I but many people are truly unaware of the pet overpopulation epidemic, and especially what pit bulls/mixes are facing in our shelters.
Bully breeds are dying in our shelters, period. They need us to see them, talk about them, advocate for them.
They need us to render them visible. As animal welfare advocates we should be putting breed discrimination at the front and center of all conversations.
The term pit bull, of course, refers not to any specific breed of dog, but to dogs who belong to several breeds or who merely share some physical traits, and not even specific traits at that; it’s a highly subjective guessing game of what does and doesn’t qualify as a pit bull, with no correct answer since visual breed identification of this sort comes down to a matter of personal opinion, and not objective standards. Some dogs identified as pit bulls are 25 pounds and slender. Others are 90 pounds and chunky. At its essence, the term pit bull is a visual label based on arbitrary and fluid criteria and varies widely regionally, and shelter to shelter, and in the eye of the beholder.
As we have consistently reinforced to the public, over the last decade, the physical characteristics do not translate to any shared behaviors or personality traits. Two pit bulls may be as similar or dissimilar as any two other dogs. They are, as the tagline goes, individuals.
But we ran into a conundrum: How could animal welfare professionals, on the one hand, ask the public to believe us when we said that the term pit bull is essentially meaningless—and on the other keep advocating for dogs lumped together under that supposedly meaningless label?
In 2016, this conversation was beautifully detailed in Bronwen Dickey’s book “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.” This book provided us a thorough understanding of the role people have played in constructing what we imagine today to be the pit bull and the ways in which this name has come to be so heavily imbued with socially constructed meaning—most of which doesn’t have much at all to do with the dogs themselves, but rather, the people who are associated with them.
shelter dogs, since to the extent we understand there is a type of dog called the pit bull, they are unquestionably the dogs most at risk of coming into, and losing their lives in, U.S. animal shelters.
Since these exciting, provocative days, we’ve reached an uncomfortable point where instead of provocative conversations about how we should talk about pit bulls, we now find ourselves without new resources and information, at a time when advancing this discussion is still so critical to lifesaving and keeping families together.
They are the dogs who are in our shelters, but now they are being stereotyped or ignored to their and our peril.
You can see this front and center in two complementary, equally problematic narratives that have taken hold:
There are not enough dogs for all the people who want them, and that animal shelters no longer have enough “desirable” pets to meet the market demand.
The second is that the animals left in shelters just aren’t the ones who people want. Keep in mind, as you think that one through, that 6.5 million animals are still entering U.S. shelters every year, and an estimated 1.5 million are still dying in them.
Behind this second narrative is the underlying assertions that dogs left in shelters are damaged, broken, undesirable, unworthy, unhealthy, or otherwise “unadoptable” for any number of reasons, including because they are the “wrong” breed or type.
Meanwhile the pets left in shelters who are still dying, are being rendered almost entirely invisible in these conversations.
If these conversations continue unchecked, dogs—disproportionately, inarguably, the dogs we used to call pit bulls—are likely to continue to die. And we’re likely to justify those deaths because “no one wants those dogs.”
We need to take a sharp U-turn and return to the hard conversations about pit bull dogs. For the sake of dogs and the people who love them, we must not allow ourselves to move on from the critical questions about why pit bull dogs still fill our shelters, languish in our shelters, and die in our shelters.
Here are just a few starting points for the conversations we need to be having on behalf of the dogs we know as pit bulls.
1. Housing discrimination: Shelters are still full of dogs people want to adopt, but cannot, due to discriminatory housing policies that ban certain sizes and breeds of dogs, with sweeping bans of dogs labeled as pit bull dogs.
The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) calculates that 8.75 million pets could find homes if housing restrictions were lifted. They find 10.5 million pets would be positively impacted, either by being adopted or by NOT being surrendered to an animal shelter. That is every single pet now dying in U.S. animal shelters, many times over.
If you’ve worked in animal welfare for any amount of time, you’ve likely encountered countless adopters who cannot even consider a pit bull dog because their apartment complex or homeowners association has a discriminatory policy.
In addition, pit bull dogs disproportionately end up in shelters because their human family members, despite their best efforts, simply cannot find a place for them and their pets to live.
There is work being done on this point, that we can join. The nonprofit My Pit Bull is Family, led by Executive Director Shannon Glenn, keeps a database of pet-friendly rentals across the country with no restrictions on breed or weight. The organization is also focused on keeping families together by expanding pet-inclusive housing, and has been working on this issue for a decade. In 2021 MPBIF, launched their Rental Research Dashboard where advocates around the country can see pet policy data collected in real time.
2. Discrimination against dogs is discrimination against people.
(read that over a few more times)
As Animal Farm Foundation writes, “Public and private policies that ban or restrict dog ownership based on a dog’s known breed or appearance have a deep impact on individuals and on society at large. What is often misguidingly called ‘canine discrimination’ is not about dogs at all. "All breed-specific policies and laws can be traced to racism, classism, and ableism.”
As we work to fight inequity and barriers to create more diverse and inclusive animal welfare organizations, we must consider how our narratives about pit bulls have enabled thinly-veiled racist and classist discourse and practice in animal welfare to continue mostly unchecked.
3. The system itself is causing behavior issues that can make pit bulls unwanted.
The animal sheltering system, in our case, is the problem. In our conversations about dogs, we must put the transformation of animal sheltering at the very top of the list.
Long-term, institutional, isolation confinement of pit bull dogs must be replaced by a new system that gives dogs freedom to exercise, interact with people and other dogs, and live in a home environment while we work to find them a new home.
Foster care must replace cages as the primary means of housing dogs and we should even be considering subsidizing in-home care.
Months-long, solitary confinement cage housing in a loud, high-stress environment is making otherwise good dogs have mental breakdowns. This is true to some extent for all shelter pets, but for pit bull dogs, who fall into a category of big dogs, the stakes of life and death are higher.
4. Animal shelters are still full of good pit bull dogs and those dogs are still dying
We must not turn our backs on pit bull dogs, while we plan for a different future.
If animal welfare is to continue to serve as the supply source for pets, it is reasonable for us to consider creating humane breeding standards and working with “responsible” breeders (including “backyard” breeders).
It is also reasonable for us to consider how supplying particular types, ages, or breeds of animals can subsidize our work to save the lives of pit bull dogs.
However, we cannot ethically have these conversations about the future of animal welfare without always also talking about what is still happening to pit bull dogs in shelters in every state, every day.
5. Animal welfare has to recognize and correct how we might be reinforcing discrimination against pit bulls.
Historically, we have often been the source of information that leaves community members thinking that pit bulls are different, other, or less than.
In many organizations, decades-long bans on adoptions of pit bulls or highly-restrictive adoption policies limited the adoption and rescue pool for these dogs. And sadly, in some communities these “special requirements” still exist.
These policies not only pertain to the dogs, but tend to reveal our biases against adopters as well.
The good news is that we have the power to change this, but it necessitates facing down some of the deeply prejudiced thinking we’ve had around both pit bulls and people.
In a way, we may have convinced ourselves that pit bulls no longer need our advocacy because of some advances in the conversation around them, but perhaps more than ever this group of dogs needs us to redouble our efforts.
Today, as we sit at a critical juncture in our movement, so much is at stake for the dogs still left behind, who face invisible deaths at the hands of broken-hearted shelter workers while the animal welfare industry and the media reinforce the narrative that these are not dogs who anyone wants.
These are pit bulls. We need to see them, and talk about them, and render them visible.
Here is what I hope: I hope we’ll have many more diverse voices leading these conversations around pit bull dogs, and that there will be sufficient funding available to do so with the seriousness and commitment the issue demands.
I hope we won’t forsake pit bulls because the constructs of power that have built these dogs are just too big and complicated for us to fix.
I hope we’ll stop en masse the institutionalization of all companion animals in favor of a new Human Animal Support Services model.
I hope young people will take on this fight and lead us in new and radically different directions.
I hope the story of every dog will begin to be told, because it is in those stories, and only in them, that we can see the truth of what we’ve done to create this mess and how we may realize something better.
What You Should Know About Pit Bulls
"Pit bull" Is Not A Breed
Pit vs. Bull
Pit Bull is not a breed, but has become something of a catchall term for any short-haired dog with a blocky head and stocky appearance.
Did you know that when genetic test results are compared with breed labels put on dogs by experts (like veterinarians and shelter workers), the labels turn out to be wrong over 85% of the time? In fact, the difference of opinion between experts all looking at the same dog is huge, not even counting the DNA.
At this point, the term pit bull, along with identification of mutts in general, (who make up 44% of the dog population) has become so confusing and meaningless that even veterinarians are questioning how useful breed identification is.
But can’t you do genetic testing?
Not for ‘pit bulls’. The company who created the Wisdom Panel states, “Due to the genetic diversity of this group, we cannot build a DNA profile for the Pit-bull.” They go on to add, “When these types of dogs are tested with Wisdom Panel, we routinely detect various quantities of the component purebred dogs including the American Staffordshire Terrier, Boston Terrier, Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Mastiff, Bullmastiff, Boxer, Bulldog, and various other Terriers.”
We are guessing that if a dog(s) showed up in your local shelter/rescue, someone would slap a pittie/pittie mix label on them. Wouldn’t you be tempted to?
So if two dogs from known breeds are this wildly different on the outside, imagine how different they might be on the inside! And for rescue dogs…we simply will never know with certainty what kind of dog mix we are looking at.
That study was published in 1965, so basically we know that humans have a hard time giving up their beliefs that we can believe our eyes and that our ideas about what we see are right. Not busting chops. We are human just like you and we might fall in the same trap when we see a shih tzu, or a golden retriever. We all carry stereotypes. It’s just what humans do.
So, most ‘pit bulls’ you see are basically mutts of a certain body type. Here is the bottom line:
All dogs are individuals.
That being said, we will share what we know about bully breed dogs, including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, because human beings still like to name things and then they get opinions about them and we get that you might have some questions about things that you have heard.
The first thing we know is that NO breed is uniform and no trait will be expressed by every dog within a breed, even if the dogs are similar in appearance. In fact, when two dogs from different breeds are crossed, the variations in the puppies are amazing. Seriously, look at this and tell us it doesn’t blow your mind.
So, let’s try to separate the bull from the pit?
Not all ‘pit bulls’ were bred to fight. While some American Pit Bull Terriers were bred for this purpose, due to their athleticism and strength, they also found their way into other roles. They were bred to be ‘game’ which means they are determined. That determination was exploited in dog fighting circles where dogs were encouraged to be aggressive with other dogs. It is important to understand that gameness is not the same thing as aggressiveness. It is best considered a trait of a working dog.
Meanwhile, American Staffordshire Terriers, which are also grouped under the general term ‘pit bull’ never was a fighting dog, and gameness was not necessarily a concern, either, as they were primarily show dogs, bred for conformation and appearance. Today’s pit bull is many generations removed from both these original breeding lines and has been mixed with so many breeds that it is impossible to make generalizations about temperament.
Not All Pit Bulls Hate Other Dogs
Not all ‘pit bulls’ love other dogs, either. Dogs should always be supervised, especially when new or high value treats and toys are around. Learning canine body language, understanding dog training basics, and being an educated owner are as important with pitties as with any other dog.
Bully breed dogs do not have a higher pain tolerance.
Pain management is a relatively new area of study in veterinary medicine. Did you know that there was a time that it was thought that all dogs were relatively immune to pain? That is now changing as it is increasingly believed all animals, even robust looking ones like the bully breeds, do feel pain much as humans do, even though they express it differently.
Bully breed dogs do not have locking jaws.
They do not. There is nothing physiologically different about pit bull jaws than any other canine.
No dog, including pit bulls, are aggressive to humans by nature.
‘Pit bulls’ are generally smart, friendly, affectionate and eager to learn. Most recent statistics from the American Temperament Test Society, rank AmStaffs right up there with golden retrievers, with ABPTs ranking even higher with 87.4% of 913 American Pit Bull Terriers passing. And they all did better than collies (80.6 % of 888 collies passed). Take that, Lassie! (We kid, Lassie, we kid). But this warmness toward humans is not surprising as human aggression was actually bred out of pit bulls, not in! Even in fighting lines, dogs that can’t be handled, or who might be aggressive toward spectators were considered bad for business and undesirable. This does not mean that dogs who are under-socialized, poorly trained, abused or neglected have never caused harm but this risk is present in ALL breeds who are mistreated. differently.
They were never known as Nanny Dogs.
‘We love that people want to help dogs that have had damaging myths spread about them for way too long, but the solution is not to spread good myths. The term is a recent invention, starting to show up in the 1980’s. Never, ever, ever leave a young child unattended with ANY dog. All. Dogs. Bite. And kids are notoriously hard on pups. For an excellent video on canine bite prevention, please view this short video: Stop the 77.
Not everyone should own a pit bull.
And not everyone can drive a stick. Some dogs need owners devoted to daily grooming of their dogs. Some need to be devoted to providing high levels of exercise. Because pit bull type dogs are very athletic and some, though not all, have high energy (there are definitely some couch potatoes in the mix), keeping up with training and keeping your dog engaged will be important to set your dog up for success. Training is an always thing, not a puppy thing. Canine teenagers also need guidance.
Additional Resources for
Bully Breed Pet Owners
Check out all the resources below for information about bully breeeds and BSL!
Breed Identification- Surprising results of a research project developed to compare the best guess visual identification of dogs versus the actual DNA breed make up.
The Case against Dog Breed Discrimination by Homeowners' Insurance Companies, by Larry Cunningham, Esq.
Many homeowners' insurance companies make underwriting and rate-setting decisions by restricting breeds rather than relying on fact and rationality. Read about why this is wrong and why legislatures have the right and duty to correct this unfair practice.
Companion Animal Renters Program
Compiled by The Foundation for Interdisciplinary Research and Education Promoting Animal Welfare (FIREPAW), this program offers information for both tenants and landlords about pet-friendly housing.
The Fiscal Impact of Breed Discriminatory Laws at the Dawn of Doggy DNA by Katie Barnett, Ledy VanKavage, Esq. and Lauren Gallagher (PDF 1.7 MB)
A discussion on how DNA impacts breed-specific legislation
Aggression and Dogs (PDF 197 KB)
Is there a difference among breeds and aggression levels that could be a valid rationale for concern?
An Exploratory Analysis of the Emergence and Implication of Breed Specific Legislation: Knee Jerk Reaction or Warranted Response by Niki Huitson 2005
A thesis on whether breed-specific legislation is warranted
Justice for the Vick-tims by Ledy VanKavage, Esq. (PDF 677 KB)
Breed restrictions and canine profiling is on the rise. Pit bulls and other targeted dogs need our compassion and dedication to challenge such practices, demand justice for the real victims, and make pet owners responsible, rather than the dogs.
National Canine Research Council
The National Canine Research Council is committed to preserving the human-canine bond. The organization publishes, underwrites and reprints accurate, documented, reliable research to promote a better understanding of our relationship with dogs. Check out their informative publications and FAQs about breed-specific legislation on their website.
Vist Best Friends pit bull resources and websites for more important documents and information.