Pit bull is the common name for a type of dog. Formal breeds often considered in North America to be of the pit bull type include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The American Bulldog is also sometimes included. Many of these breeds were originally developed as fighting dogs from cross breeding bull-baiting dogs (used to hold the faces and heads of larger animals such as bulls) and terriers. After the use of dogs in blood sports was banned, such dogs were used as catch dogs in the United States for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt and drive livestock, and as family companions. Despite dog fighting now being illegal in the United States, it still exists as an underground activity, and pit bulls are a common breed of choice.
The term pit bull is often used loosely to describe dogs with similar physical characteristics, and the morphological (physical) variation amongst "bully breed" dogs makes it difficult for anyone, even experts, to visually identify them as distinct from "non-pit bulls". While mixed breed dogs are often labeled as "pit bulls" if they have certain physical characteristics such as a square shaped head or bulky body type, visual identification of mixed breed dogs is not recommended by the scholarly community.
Pit bulls were created by breeding bulldogs and terriers together to produce a dog that combined the gameness and agility of the terrier with the strength of the bulldog. In the United Kingdom, these dogs were used in blood sports such as bull-baiting and bear-baiting. These blood sports were officially eliminated in 1835 as Britain began to introduce animal welfare laws. Since dogfights were cheaper to organize and far easier to conceal from the law than bull or bear baits, blood sport proponents turned to pitting their dogs against each other instead. Dog fighting was used as both a blood sport (often involving gambling) and a way to continue to test the quality of their stock. For decades afterwards, dog fighting clandestinely took place in small areas of Britain and America. In the early 20th century pit bulls were used as catch dogs in America for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt, and drive livestock, and as family companions. Some have been selectively bred for their fighting prowess.
Pit bulls also constitute the majority of dogs used for illegal dog fighting in America. In addition, law enforcement organisations report these dogs are used for other nefarious purposes, such as guarding illegal narcotics operations, use against police, and as attack dogs. On the other side of the law, pit bulls have been used as police dogs.
In an effort to counter the fighting reputation of pit bull-type dogs, in 1996 the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals renamed pit bull terriers to "St. Francis Terriers", so that people might be more likely to adopt them. 60 temperament-screened dogs were adopted until the program was halted, after several of the newly adopted pit bulls killed cats. The New York City Center for Animal Care and Control tried a similar approach in 2004, relabeling their pit bulls as "New Yorkies", but dropped the idea in the face of overwhelming public opposition.
Violent interactions between humans and canines have been studied by the US government, notably the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as academic veterinary researchers. The interpretation of these studies, breed identification and relevance issues, and variable circumstances have given rise to intense controversy.
In a 2014 literature review of dog bite studies, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states that breed is a poor sole predictor of dog bites. Controlled studies do not show pit bulls to be disproportionately dangerous. While pit bull-type dogs are more frequently identified with cases involving very severe injuries or fatalities than other breeds, the review suggests this may relate to the popularity of the breed, noting that sled dogs and Siberian Huskies compose a majority of fatal dog attacks in some areas of Canada.
In a 2000 review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which examines data from both media reports and from The Humane Society of the United States, pit bull-type dogs were identified in approximately one-third of dog bite-related fatalities in the United States between 1981 and 1992. However, the review notes that studies on dog bite-related fatalities which collect information by surveying news reports are subject to potential errors, as some fatal attacks may not have been reported, a study might not find all relevant news reports, and the dog breed might be misidentified. The AVMA has also noted fundamental problems with tracking breed in dog bite-related fatalities. In a 2013 study of 256 fatalities in the United States from 2000–2009, the AVMA determined that valid breed determination was possible for only 17.6% of cases.
Contrary to popular myth, pit bulls do not have "locking jaws". There is no physiological "locking mechanism" in the jaw muscle and bone structure of pit bulls or other dogs. Pit bull-type dogs, like other terriers, hunting and bull-baiting breeds, can exhibit a bite, hold, and shake behavior and at times refuse to release. Pit bulls also have wide skulls, well-developed facial muscles, and strong jaws, and some research suggests that pit bull bites are particularly serious because they tend to bite deeply and grind their molars into tissue. Breaking an ammonia ampule and holding it up to the dog's nose can cause the dog to release its hold.
Widely reported pit bull attacks in popular media have resulted in the enactment of breed-specific legislation in several jurisdictions. In some cases breed specific bans have been reversed or prohibited by state legislation. These perceptions have also led to increased premiums for liability insurance.
Breed-specific legislation has been largely found to be ineffective at reducing the number of dog attacks. Research has indicated that there is resistance by those who work in the adoption industry, applying a sharper distinction before allowing a dog to be labelled as a pit bull, as well as objections from veterinarians.
Many of the jurisdictions that restrict pit bulls apply their restriction to the modern American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and any other dog that has the substantial physical characteristics and appearance of those breeds. Such jurisdictions include the Canadian province of Ontario, and the U.S. cities of Miami and Denver. However a few jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Franklin County, Ohio, also classify the modern American Bulldog as a "pit bull-type dog". In the United Kingdom, a pit bull is an American Pit Bull Terrier.
Courts in the United States and Canada have ruled that expert identification, when using published breed standards, is sufficient for the enforcement of breed-specific legislation.
Approximately 550 jurisdictions have enacted breed-specific legislation (BSL) in response to a number of well-publicized incidents involving pit bull-type dogs, and some government organizations such as the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have taken administrative action as well. These actions range from outright bans on the possession of pit bull-type dogs, to restrictions and conditions on pit bull ownership. They often establish a legal presumption that a pit bull-type dog is prima facie a legally "dangerous" or "vicious" dog. In response, 16 states in the U.S. prohibited or restricted the ability of municipal governments within those states to enact BSL, though these restrictions do not affect military installations located within the states.
It is now generally settled in caselaw that jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada have the right to enact breed-specific legislation. Despite these holdings by the courts, there is some public skepticism over whether the laws are effective. One point of view is that pit bulls are a public safety issue that merits actions such as banning ownership, mandatory spay/neuter for all pit bulls, mandatory microchip implants and liability insurance, or prohibiting people convicted of a felony from owning pit bulls. Another point of view is that comprehensive "dog bite" legislation, coupled with better consumer education and legally mandating responsible pet-keeping practices, is a better solution to the problem of dangerous pit bulls than BSL.
A third point of view is that breed-specific legislation should not ban breeds entirely, but should instead strictly regulate the conditions under which specific breeds could be owned, for example, forbidding certain classes of individuals from owning them, specifying public areas from which they would be prohibited, and establishing conditions, such as requiring a dog to wear a muzzle, for taking specific breeds of dogs into public places. Finally, some governments, such as in Australia, have forbidden the import of specific breeds, and are requiring the spay/neuter of all existing dogs of these breeds in an attempt to eliminate the breed's population slowly through natural attrition.
The ASPCA said that along with putative over-reporting, false reporting was a major contributor to public perceptions about the breed.
In England and Wales the Dangerous Dogs Act prohibits the ownership of American Pit Bull Terriers, along with three other breeds. The Act also bans the breeding, sale and exchange of these dogs. Similar legislation in Australia has been criticized by veterinary professionals.
Dog owners in the United States can be held legally liable for injuries inflicted or caused by their dogs. In general, owners are considered liable if they were unreasonably careless in handling or restraining the dog, or if they knew beforehand that the dog had a tendency to cause injury (e.g., bite); however, dog owners are automatically considered liable if local laws hold an owner strictly liable for all damage caused by their dog, regardless of carelessness or foreknowledge of a dog's tendencies. Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically provide liability coverage from US$100,000–300,000 for injuries inflicted by dogs; however, some insurance companies limit their exposure to dog bite liability claims by putting restrictions on dog owners that they insure. These restrictions include refusing to cover dog bites under the insurance policy, increasing insurance rates for homeowners with specific breeds, requiring owners of specific breeds to take special training or have their dogs pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test, requiring owners to restrict their dogs with muzzles, chains, or enclosures, and refusing to write policies for homeowners or renters who have specific breeds of dogs.
Owners of rental properties may also be held liable if they knew an aggressive dog was living on their property and they did nothing to ensure the safety of other tenants at the property; as a result, many rental properties forbid pit bull-type dogs and any other breeds if the rental property's insurance will not cover damage inflicted by that type of dog. The dog breeds most often targeted by insurance companies include pit bull-type dogs, Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Akitas (Akita Inu and American Akita), and Chows.
In 2013, Farmers Insurance notified policy holders in California that "it will no longer cover bites by pit bulls, rottweilers and wolf hybrids. A spokeswoman for Farmers said those breeds account for more than a quarter of the agency's dog bite claims."
Pit bull breeds have become famous for their roles as soldiers, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, actors, television personalities, seeing eye dogs, and celebrity pets. The Bull Terrier mix Nipper, the model for the painting His Master's Voice, and the American Staffordshire Terrier, Pete the Pup from the movie Little Rascals are two historically well known pit bulls. Lesser known, but still historically notable pit bulls include Billie Holiday's companion "Mister", Helen Keller's dog "Sir Thomas", Buster Brown's dog "Tige", Horatio Jackson's dog "Bud", President Theodore Roosevelt's Pit Bull terrier "Pete", "Jack Brutus" who served for Company K, the First Connecticut Volunteer Infantry during the civil war, Sergeant Stubby who served for the 102nd Infantry, 26th (Yankee) Division during World War I, and Sir Walter Scott's "Wasp".
Contemporary significant pit bulls are: Weela, who helped save 32 people, 29 dogs, 3 horses, and 1 cat during southern California's widespread flooding in 1993; Popsicle, a five-month-old puppy originally found nearly dead in a freezer, who grew to become one of the nation's most important police dogs; Norton, who was placed in the Purina Animal Hall of Fame after he rescued his owner from a severe reaction to a spider bite; Titan, who rescued his owner's wife, who would have died from an aneurysm, D-Boy, who took three bullets to save his family from an intruder with a gun, and Lilly, who lost a leg after being struck by a freight train while pulling her unconscious owner from the train tracks. Daddy, Cesar Millan's right-hand dog was famous for his mellow temperament and his ability to interact calmly with ill-mannered dogs.
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