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Pit bulls are among the most lovable dogs in the world. Of course, I’m also aware of their troubled reputation. Thanks to years of misinformation and bad press, they’re among the most misunderstood dog breeds. I’m a pit bull person myself, and I know firsthand what a joy it is to share my life with these goofballs.
The truth about pit bulls is simple: They’re sweet, smart, hilarious, loyal companions. And we’re not the only ones who think so. Ken Foster’s beautiful book “I’m a Good Dog” continues to climb the charts, and National Pit Bull Day has been established in their honor. To mark the occasion, we’ve gathered some of the most interesting, impressive, and surprising facts about pit bulls (plus a few unfortunate myths).
The truth about pit bulls is simple: They’re sweet, smart, hilarious, loyal companions.
A “pit bull” might not be a pit bull (we can explain)
Shelters are full of cute bully dogs labeled as pit bulls, but in fact, there are far fewer actual pit bulls than you may think. The American Pit Bull Terrier is the only recognized pit bull breed, but the term “pit bull” is often used as a catch-all to describe a wide array of dogs with common characteristics.
Due to diverse, unregulated breed standards across dog registries, as well as the unfortunate excess in “backyard breeding,” it’s very difficult to claim one true standard for a pit bull (though you can read about APBT standards here).
As noted by respected pit bull rescue organization BADRAP, “dogs commonly identified as pit bulls are quite often a mix of multiple breeds.” This results in shelters being full of bully dogs who may or may not be “pit bulls,” but can have a harder time finding homes due to the name and bad press. While it’s tempting to look at any short, muscular dog with a lightbulb-shaped head and label it a pit bull, it’s likely that dog has a lot more going on genetically. For this reason, it’s essential to evaluate the individual dog rather than the breed.
Pit bulls come from England
Pit bulls, as we know them, probably descended from the Olde English Bull Dog, which was used for sport (“bull baiting“) in 19th century England. After bull baiting was deemed inhumane, Olde English Bull Dogs were cross-bred with terriers to create smaller, more scrappy dogs for fighting.
But once these sporting dogs made the crossing from England to the United States, they took on far more responsibilities and became true American icons.
Pit bulls are American heroes
In the early 20th century, pit bulls were revered as family dogs, mascots, and military heroes. During World War I, pit bull-type dogs represented American forces on posters and in the field. Their loyalty and bravery made them the perfect “spokesdog.”
Take Sergeant Stubby, for example, the most decorated dog to have served in the U.S. military (source: FIGHT4THEM). This brave boy, a likely pit bull predecessor, served alongside human soldiers in the trenches in France during World War I. He received the purple heart, was promoted to sergeant, and lived to a ripe old age in retirement alongside his handler.
These days, pit bull heroes come in all shapes, sizes, and responsibilities, from explosive-sniffing search dogs to therapy dogs. You can read about more pit bull heroes here.
They mean business (which makes them all the more lovable)
Pit bull dogs are tenacious: When they put their mind to something, they often achieve it. For that reason, they make great sporting dogs. Pitties tend to excel on agility or flyball courses where they can show off their strength and speed.
The flip-side of all that energy and determination is that pitties can be willful, even stubborn. But because of their people-pleasing nature, pit bulls are imminently trainable. They make excellent therapy dog candidates. Obedience training is a great way for dog owners to bond with their best friends while laying the groundwork for good manners. As with any breed of dog, exercise and engagement are key for pit bulls, too.
To learn more about pit bull puppies (and how to train them), see this piece. And if you’re curious about the best harness for an exuberant pit bull who likes to pull, take a look at my recommendations for the best pit bull harnesses.
Because of their people-pleasing nature, pit bulls are imminently trainable.
They have amazing smiles (not locking jaws)
Let’s be honest: The pit bull mouth has gotten some bad press. One of the most insidious and outrageous myths about pibbles is that they have “locking jaws.” Not true: there is nothing anatomically unique about pit bull jaws compared to any other dog.
As terriers, it’s true that some pitties may be more tenacious about holding and shaking toys. Others may have a higher prey drive, which paired with their tenacity, makes them a bad match for cats. As with any dog, it’s important to know how to read your pit bull’s signals in any situation.
As for bite statistics, a peer-reviewed report from the American Veterinary Medical Association confirms that “controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.” Dog bite reports do sometimes show a higher incidence of bites from pit bull-type dogs than many other breeds, but the experts at the AVMA agree that these statistics should be taken with a grain of salt for a few reasons:
- The breed of the biting dog may not be accurately reported (and remember: “pit bulls” are often misidentified).
- The actual number of dog bites in a community is rarely known because bites that don’t result in serious injury are not reported.
- Dog licensing and breed data are under-reported, so it’s impossible to know how many of a certain breed are in a community.
- The more popular a type of dog is, the more likely it will be reported for biting, which can skew the accuracy of attempts to “rank” bite statistics by breed.
In recent years, as support for pit bulls has grown, veterinary and animal rescue professionals overwhelmingly agree: It’s not the breed that matters, but how a dog is raised and handled.
Pibbles love people
I mean, they really, really love people. They love to snuggle, cuddle, roll over for belly rubs, crawl in your lap if you’ll allow it, and stay as close to you as possible all day long. Pibbles are the original “velcro dog.”
The most common misconception about pit bulls is that they all have the capacity for aggression towards people, but temperament studies show that pitties rank high among the most affectionate, least aggressive dogs. In annual testing conducted by the American Temperament Test Society, pit bulls passed at a rating of 86.4%, higher than popular breeds such as golden retrievers, corgis, and beagles. As I like to say about my dog Radar, “He looks tough, but he’s only aggressive about snuggling.”
Learn more about the incredible bond between pibbles and their people at Pit Bull Rescue Central.
Pibbles are the original “velcro dog.”
They don’t always love other dogs
Like most terrier-type dogs, different pitties have different tolerance levels for other animals. When bulldog breeds were developed in England, they were trained to spar with one another, and unfortunately, dog fighting persists as a dark (not to mention illegal) pastime in America.
That doesn’t mean every pit bull-type dog is aggressive towards other animals, but it does mean that your pit bull needs socialization, training, and monitoring to assess their tolerance levels. Some pitties absolutely love to play with other dogs, and some would prefer to be the only pet in your life.
This handy guide from BADRAP covers the basics of dog-dog tolerance, and what to look for when assessing whether your pit bull can hang with other dogs.
Pit bulls are a positive force in the world
Thanks to their high energy, vivacity, love of life, and intense devotion to people, pit bulls are some of the most entertaining dogs in the world. Nothing makes me laugh more than my dog Ralph throwing herself to the ground to roll around ecstatically in the grass, or my dog Radar hurling himself into a visitor’s lap demanding to be loved. Pit bulls have an incredible capacity for joy.
For inspiration, look no further than the “Vicktory dogs,” a group of pit bulls rescued from a dog fighting operation run by NFL player Michael Vick. These dogs were bred and raised to be fighters and were horribly mistreated throughout their lives until fate (and the law) stepped in. Their recovery demonstrates the incredible spirit and resiliency of pit bulls. According to Best Friends Animal Society, in the years since their rescue, “many have earned their Canine Good Citizen certificate and are now adored family members in loving homes. Some went on to become service dogs or therapy dogs.”
Despite their troubled reputation, pit bulls are some of the most amazing companions around. Whether you’re a pit bull owner or just a dog enthusiast, you can learn a lot from our pittie pals.
Ready for a pit bull?
For some inspiration, check out this list of popular pit bull names for your puppy or rescue. And if you’d like to take your pit bull obsession to the next level, see our guide to pit bull-themed gifts for the pibble lover in your life (even if it’s you).
Top image courtesy of author