Changing perceptions about pit bulls one dog at a time

Though unfair, the general perception of pit bulls as pets is less than stellar. Through no fault of their own, pit bulls are widely considered fighting dogs that are not fit for many households. However, such a reputation is largely unwarranted.

The term “pit bull” is used to classify multiple breeds of dogs with similar genetic makeups. These include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier, as well as any crosses between the three. The American Pit Bull Terrier was originally bred by interbreeding Old English Terriers and English Bulldogs. The dog was popular in England and came to the Americas when the British established colonies.

Although pit bulls continue to play important roles as police dogs and search and rescue animals, they are more widely considered fighting dogs rather than loyal family pets. Ambassadors of the breed have initiated many campaigns to change the public perception of pit bulls as mindless aggressors.

Since 2007, the Hillsborough County Animal Services in Florida has been tackling the challenge of decreasing euthanization and increasing adoptions through its Pit Bull Ambassador program. In 2010, representatives from Southern Maine Pit Bulls, or SOME Pit!, brought their dogs to the Bangor Humane Society to show off how lovable these dogs can be.

All dogs have teeth and are capable of inflicting a serious bite in certain circumstances. Many times, how a dog is handled and trained is more to blame for its behavior than any stereotypes associated with its breed. That is why the slogan “blame the deed, not the breed” has become quite popular among pit bull ambassadors.

In a 2011 documentary titled “Beyond the Myth,” Libby Sherill explores breed-specific legislation and what she believes is uncalled for discrimination against pit bull-type dogs. The documentary blames the media for the public’s negative perception of the pit bull. Newspaper headlines are nine times more likely to mention “pit bull” in articles about dog attacks than any other breed.

The reputation of pit bulls, fair or unfair, has preceded them in some locales, including Denver, where the dogs have been banned for years. States that have bans on certain breeds will have a higher shelter rate for those breeds. According to the organization Don’t Be a Pit Bully, 40 to 60 percent of dogs in shelters across the United States are pit bulls. While this is thanks in large part to the reputation of pit bulls, it is also because pit bulls are the most bred dog in America, where negligent owners fail to neuter their dogs. Some shelters euthanize pit bulls immediately after surrender. Others will give the dogs a mere 24 hours to be adopted. As a result, only about 7 percent of pit bulls in shelters will find a forever home.

Pit bulls get a bad rap, but the perception of these dogs is slowly changing. Here are some other facts to chew on.

  •  According to the American Temperament Test Society, pit bulls score at or below average for aggression when compared to other dogs.
  • Dogs, including pit bulls, are not naturally aggressive. They learn behaviors from their handlers.
  •  Stubby Dog, a nonprofit organization focused on changing the public perception of pit bulls, says more than 80 percent of pit bulls in shelters will die before their second birthdays.
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