Pit Bull Aggression: Three Facts that Punched Me in the Face

pit bull aggression

There’s been no shortage of news coverage about how Bethany Lynn Stephens was mauled to death Dec. 14, 2017 by her two pit bulls in Goochland County, a rural area near Richmond, Virginia.

I won’t rehash the story, but if you want to learn more I encourage you to read this article from The Washington Post. It explains what might’ve happened between Bethany and her pit bulls, and sheds some factual light on dogs and aggression in general.

Tragedy doesn’t even begin to describe such a horrifying event. Having said that, it’s this kind of event that opens the door to sensationalism and fear-mongering about a breed that has already been slung through the mud.

So I got to thinking. How much do I really know about pit bull aggression?

It turns out, not as much as I thought.

After researching dozens of studies, three facts punched me in the face. I’ve distilled them below for an essential read on pit bull aggression.


Fact #1: Dog-on-dog aggression does not generalize to people

Pit bulls are descendants of the English bull-baiting dog, which was bred to bite and hold large animals. In 1835 baiting large animals was banned so people started fighting them against other dogs.

To be clear, pit bulls were bred to fight dogs not people. Moreover, with the constant need to handle pit bulls in a fighting environment, owners had zero tolerance for aggression toward humans. As these dogs were removed from the breeding pool, so too was any predisposition of pit bull aggression toward people.

More important, however, are the multitude of studies that show there is no correlation between dog-on-dog aggression and dog-on-human aggression. Interestingly, one such study showed that Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers exhibited the highest rate of aggression toward humans.

Having said this, please remember: All dogs are individuals and many factors shape behavior so don’t hold this statistic against these little guys! See below for more on breed and aggression.


Fact #2: Dog-bite statistics are flawed

To evaluate the validity of dog-bite statistics we first have to define the breed itself. The problem is, pit bull isn’t a breed. It typically refers to American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers and American Bullies. It can also refer to American Bulldogs, Bull Terriers and dozens of other dogs with large blocky heads and short coats.

The ramification of this misdiagnosis is obvious: Many non-pit bull types are included in pit bull bite reports, which skews statistics.

In a study comparing pit bull identification conducted by shelter staff with actual DNA breed analysis, 60 percent of staff misidentified pit bulls.

Further twisting the statistics are what researchers call “co-occurrent factors,” or factors that operate at the same time. In the context of dog bites, these can include un-neutered dogs, abused dogs, punitive training methods, isolation, lack of socialization, etc. Research shows that breed is not among the major co-occurring factors in dog bite-related fatalities. One such study concluded its findings with this:

“Most dog bite-related fatalities were characterized by coincident, preventable factors; breed was not one of these. Study results supported previous recommendations for multifactorial approaches, instead of single-factor solutions such as breed-specific legislation, for dog bite prevention.”

As I dug further into reports explaining the details behind pit bull-related fatalities I was surprised to discover something else. Some of the reported incidents involved a dog accidentally knocking over an often elderly owner or, in one case, a heart attack suffered by an owner after trying to break up a dog fight. These critically different causal factors, however, aren’t reflected in the statistics.

Finally, results of trials conducted by The American Temperament Testing Society run counter to the idea of inherent pit bull aggression. ATTS results show that among purebred dogs, only the Lab ranked higher than Bully breeds as having the best temperament.


Fact #3: Cultural factors skew public perception

When the pit bull spread to the U.S. some were bred for fighting, but many more were bred as working dogs and family companions. Positive images of the dog proliferated up until the 1950s. Remember the pit bull who starred in Little Rascals or the one featured in the Buster Brown comic strips?

Strangely, I forgot about all those positive images. After researching the history of the breed, however, it turns out my memory loss isn’t so strange.

By 1950 a cultural shift had occurred favoring conformity and a more refined, traditional lifestyle over the previous generation known for its scrappiness and tough work ethic. This shift was directly reflected in a changing of the guard dog (sorry, couldn’t help the pun), from pit bulls and similar types, to pedigreed dogs such as Labs, Golden Retrievers and Irish Setters.

Then the social and racial upheaval of the 60s and 70s hit, which spawned unprecedented levels of crime, violence and fear. Not surprisingly, poor urban communities were hit hardest by these brutal conditions.

The scramble was on to purchase dogs for protective purposes, and pit bulls were a favorite given their affordability, reputation for easy handling, and fighting ancestry. Many of those purchasing pit bulls were African Americans who largely populated the poor urban communities.

As racial tensions rose throughout the 70s, the media became laser-focused on inner city violence, often sensationalizing events and sometimes fabricating them. It was during this media frenzy that pit bulls became synonymous with violence, and specifically violence perpetrated by African Americans. As the war on drugs hit full swing in the 80s, this frenzy reached new heights.

The damage was done. In 1987 Sports Illustrated featured a cover story of a pit bull viciously baring his teeth with the headline in all caps, “BEWARE OF THIS DOG.” Pit bulls were also referred to as superpredators, a term used to describe youth who repeatedly committed violent crimes. In the 90s this term was specifically used to stereotype black youth.

While this series of cultural shifts led to a magnification and distortion of pit bulls as inherently violent, the facts are clear. With historical context, people, not pit bulls, are to blame for their dangerous reputation.



Of all the things I learned from writing this, my key takeaway is best summed up by an excerpt from this study: “…it is inappropriate to make predictions about a given dog’s propensity for aggressive behavior based solely on its breed.”

Put simply: Pit bull discrimination is a people problem.

Circling back to Bethany and in remembrance of her and the dogs she dearly loved, may we all strive to treat animals and their circumstances individually and with an open mind and honest heart.

For more reading on the topic, check out Bronwen Dickey’s book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. For the CliffsNotes version, read this transcript of NPR’s interview with Dickey about the book.

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