There are a disproportionately high number of pit bulls and pit bull mixed breeds which spend a lot of time in animal shelters, passed over repeatedly by potential adoptive families. Pit bull dogs are euthanized within animal shelters at a higher rate than any other breed of dog. The research question I have selected is “Is the pit bulls average stay in an animal shelter longer than other breeds of dogs and what factors impact this discrepancy?”
Pit bulls have a bad reputation but it was not always this way. The pit bull breed originated when English bull-baiting dogs were bred with smaller terriers to yield the “pit bull terrier” also known as the pit bull. According to the American Society for Prevention and Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) webpage, these dogs were bred for dog fighting in the 1800’s when large animal baiting was no longer permitted. Pit bulls have enjoyed a long relationship with humans and are known by some as loyal and affectionate family pets. In fact, Petey from the Lil’ Rascal’s gang was none other than a pit bull and the breed was once known as “the all-American dog”. So what changed?
Back in the 80’s when I was just a kid, I remember driving through downtown Sacremento with my parents one summer evening and I noticed a bunch of thugs walking down the street. One of them had a big, muscular dog he was leading around on the end of a chain. Yes, a chain. I remember the dog had on a thick, spiked collar and was very big with well-defined muscles and a big block head. Everything about that group of thugs and the dog looked tough and seemed to scream “get out of my way and don’t mess with me.” I can’t say for certain what type of dog it was because we all sped past quickly and didn’t take the time to look very closely but my belief is that the dog was a pit bull. My point is, at some point in the recent past, thugs and gang-bangers who wanted to look tough decided that the blocky, muscular pit bull terrier was the perfect breed to bolster their “tough guy” image. As demand for the breed increased, backyard breeders were only too happy to comply. Neglect and outright abuse of any breed of dog will lead to bad behaviors and the pit bull is certainly no exception so when ignorant owners provoked their “tough dogs” into aggression, incidence of dog-inflicted injuries on humans increased and the media was only too happy to report and sensationalize and label the pit bull as a demon.
The negative media portrayal of pit bulls has contributed to widespread bad stigma that surrounds these dogs. About half of the dogs in the shelter where I volunteer are pit bulls and the ones that aren’t recent admissions have been there a while. I have personally overheard potential adoptive families say “pit bulls are bad dogs, we won’t consider adopting a pit bull”. These fears are fueled by a media that delights in one-sided, sensationalized reports of aggressive dog attacks and the blame is often placed on the pit bulls. Rebecca Pickens summarized it best in her journal article “Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls & Dogfighting: Ramifications of Media Coverage” when she stated “a conclusion can be drawn that pit bull-type dogs and the many issues surrounding them, are often only deemed newsworthy if they bite or suffer at the hands of someone famous. This has contributed to a tragically negative, one-dimensional portrayal of a major demographic of dogs in the United States” (34). The simple fact is that if people would put aside their media-fueled preconceived notions of shelter pit bulls and simply spend a few minutes with the dog they would discover not a blood-thirsty biting monster but a loyal, loving and slobber-infused licking fanatic who really just wants to be accepted and welcomed into a forever home with a loving family…just like every other dog at the animal shelter.
Tullis, Paul. “The Softer Side of Pit Bulls. A Reviled Breed gets a Makeover.” Time (2013):54. Web. 5 August 2014.
This article describes a brief history of the pit bull and discusses the aggressive reputation of pit bulls and their association with dogfighting. Pit bulls are the least adopted shelter animal and have the highest euthanasia rate in the United States (Tullis, 55). The bad reputation of the breed has caused some cities to ban them. Advocacy groups for pit bulls are trying to change this and improve the overall image and reputation of the pit bull breed. The pit bull breed has developed a bad reputation which is largely unfounded and because of their bad reputation, pit bulls are often passed over in the animal shelter setting and are euthanized at a higher rate than other breeds of dogs. It is thought that the negative stigma attached to pit bulls began in the late 70’s when the breed was best known as a vicious dog fighting machine (Tullis, 56). However, pit bulls were originally bred to be working dogs and had an earlier reputation of being a great family dog. One-sided and negative media portrayal have contributed to a societal “black listing” of pit bulls that is largely undeserved.
The tide seems to be turning for pit bull dogs and this is thanks to an increasing number of vocal pit bull advocates. Adoptions at one animal shelter in Chicago are up 600% and a shelter in Los Angeles maintains a waiting list for families that specifically want a pit bull breed (Tullis, 56).
Enos, Sara K. “The Problem with People, Not Pit Bulls.” Time (2014). Web. 5 August 2014.
Sara Enos is the founder of the American Pit Bull Foundation and is a long time pit bull enthusiast and owner. She writes this article for Time magazine as a response to an article which ran 6/20/14 titled “The Problem with Pit Bulls”. Sara states that the pit bull breed is no different than any other dog breed and that problems with dogs can usually be traced back to problems with the humans who raised them. Sara believes in responsible breed ownership and education and states that “canine aggression is triggered by human behavior.” She also points out that pit bulls are frequently misidentified and may actually be blamed for bites that are caused by other similar breeds of dogs and this contributes to the disproportionately high number of dog bites that are blamed on pit bulls.
I was surprised to read that the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS) actually rates pit bulls as very friendly. I didn’t know what the ATTS was so I looked it up and found their webpage. The test measures a dogs’ ability to interact with humans, human situations, and the environment. Frankly, I was shocked and pleased to discover that the pit bull ranked 91.1% which is very good. To compare, I looked up the Labrador retriever and discovered it was ranked at 92%. Sara Enos essentially summarized what I, and most other pit bull advocates, already knew: a good dog in the hands of bad people will do bad things and this is true of pit bull dogs and any other breed.
Pickens, Rebecca C. “Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls & Dogfighting: Ramifications of Media Coverage.” Journal of Student Research (2013): 29-35. Web. 5 August 2014
Rebecca Pickens article addresses the profound impact the Michael Vick dogfighting case had on the image and reputation of the pit bull breed. Media can play an important role in enforcing or debunking stereotypes and influencing public opinion on a subject. Negative media portrayal of pit bulls has played a large part in fueling fear and stereotypes related to this breed of dog. This sensationalism has a direct impact on the lives and well-being of shelter animals, particularly pit bull breeds, because they are often passed over and left in the shelter for longer periods and are euthanized at a higher rate than other shelter dogs.
The widespread media coverage of the Michael Vick case and pit bull horror had a profound effect on pit bull advocates. Pickens is quoted as stating “for the first time in decades America rallied for the pit bull. Animal rights advocates saw an opportunity to increase public demand for tougher sentencing on dogfighting and decrease public fear of these misunderstood dogs” (29). Pickens also reiterates the fact that the term “pit bull” is not an official dog breed and can in fact reflect many very unique and genetically diverse dog breeds such as the American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and American Pit Bull Terrier (30). Furthermore, the media is credited with utilizing the term “pit bull” to describe any number of dogs that happen to have certain physical characteristics (Pickens, 30). Over time it could be accurately stated that the pit bull terrier has been the unfortunate victim of dog profiling and has had a disproportionately high number of incidents pinned on it simply because of the way it happens to look. All of this negative media publicity and blame has certainly tainted the reputation of a breed that was once known as “the all-American” dog (Pickens, 29).