Are Pit Bulls Really Dangerous? The Facts Contradict The Stereotypes

Montreal made massive headlines and shocked pet owners worldwide this week when the city's council voted to enact a complete ban on pit bulls. According to the ban, no one may adopt or acquire a new pit bull in Montreal, and all the ones already living within the city itself have to be licensed, sterilized (which is distinct from the process of spaying or neutering), microchipped, and muzzled while out in public. It's what's called "breed-specific legislation": a law based on the idea that a specific dog breed is more predisposed to violence against humans than other breeds because of genetic traits, and that therefore it's safer for everybody to outlaw or tightly control how the dogs are owned. But the law has attracted a flood of criticism from experts, who say that it's not nearly as simple as "pit bulls are inherently dangerous".

The Montreal law, which was passed four months after a dog thought to be a pit bull attacked and killed a Montreal woman, has been extremely controversial in Canada — but it's got much larger implications, because pit bulls have a bad reputation all across America. However, when you look at the science, it turns out that making blanket statements about the pit bull in general is very tricky. Much of a dog's temperament and behavior is mediated by factors beyond just its DNA: how its owners have treated it, what interactions it has had with humans and other dogs, how it's been trained, and how healthy it is overall. So what's the real story with pit bulls and violence? Why has the idea of their innate aggression carried so much weight, and is breed-specific legislation actually going to do anything proper to protect and help pit bulls and their owners?

"The new breed discriminatory law in Montreal, like all of these laws north and south of the border, are penalizing and criminalizing responsible dog owners and the pets they love while doing nothing to promote public safety." — Lee Greenwood, Best Friends Animal Society

Pit Bulls Aren't Actually More Likely To Bite Humans

First off, despite what many of us have been led to believe, "pit bull" is not a breed in and of itself. It's a label applied to a group of three different breeds: the American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American pit bull terrier.

Secondly, statistics about the actual rates of pit bull violence towards humans compared to other dogs are notably tricky to pin down. (One reason for this is that people, even experts, persistently misidentify dogs as pit bull types even when they're genetically something else entirely; a study of dog shelter staff published this February showed that non-pit bull dogs can be identified as pit bulls up to 48 percent of the time, and shelter staff disagreed with each other about breed constantly.) Astonishingly, the dog that sparked the Montreal law might not actually be a pit bull type at all; the Montreal police have given it DNA analysis to determine its actual origins.

The biggest overview of data currently available, published in 2014 by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, examined 256 dog bite-related fatalities between 2000 and 2009 in the US, and found that breed wasn't actually a determining factor for the likelihood of severe dog bites.

If you really want to dive into statistics, though, you'll need to check out the American Veterinary Medical Association's evaluation of the science of dog bites. It's a review of the major studies on dog violence, and it makes for very interesting reading. For one, they note that one of the big things we often don't take into account is the popularity of breeds. The AVMA found a bunch of studies that showed that, when linked to the number of households that actually had them, pit bulls aren't more violent towards humans than any other breed. They noted that "fatal dog attacks in some areas of Canada are attributed mainly to sled dogs and Siberian Huskies, presumably due to the regional prevalence of these breeds." (Montreal, presumably, isn't in one of those regions.) And in Italy, mastiff-type dogs are very popular (and also perceived as aggressive), but aren't more likely to bite than any other dog when you take their numbers into account.

The AVMA also reveals something interesting: if we're going to talk about "aggressive" dog breeds, "small to medium-sized dogs" like springer spaniels and shih tsus actually make up the majority of bites. It's just that their size means they're unlikely to do enough damage to require hospitalization.

Genetics Is Only Part Of The Story When It Comes To Dog Behavior

One of the big arguments against pit bulls is that they're "genetically inclined" to fight, be aggressive, and attack children and other dogs. But it's not as simple as all that: simply regarding the pit bull group as "fighting dogs" doesn't take into account the requirement of dog-fighting animals, the different strains of pit bull behavior, or the many other things that determine the character of dogs. The ASPCA's point about genetics in their statement on pit bulls is revealing (they recommend that you read it in full):

"Some pit bulls were selected and bred for their fighting ability. That means that they may be more likely than other breeds to fight with dogs. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be around other dogs or that they’re unpredictably aggressive. Other pit bulls were specifically bred for work and companionship. These dogs have long been popular family pets, noted for their gentleness, affection and loyalty. And even those pit bulls bred to fight other animals were not prone to aggressiveness toward people. Dogs used for fighting needed to be routinely handled by people; therefore aggression toward people was not tolerated. Any dog that behaved aggressively toward a person was culled, or killed, to avoid passing on such an undesirable trait. Research on pet dogs confirms that dog aggressive dogs are no more likely to direct aggression toward people than dogs that aren’t aggressive to other dogs."

Pit bulls, in other words, have never been bred to be aggressive towards humans; that would prevent their success in the dog-fighting ring. Breed selection for aggression against other dogs has occurred in other breeds, too (Akita Inus, for instance — a large Japanese dog I had while growing up — have been bred to be spectacularly grumpy around other dogs over centuries in Japan), but it's not viewed as a reason not to own them in general. Genetics don't code dogs or humans into unavoidable behaviors, and the behaviors that the pit bull group display don't really have to do with humans at all.

TIME, interestingly, points to the rise in pit bull ownership following Hurricane Katrina and Michael Vick's dog-fighting scandal as a possible factor in pit bull bitings. According to their hypothesis, pit bulls received a lot of public sympathy following the hurricane that left many of them stranded and the dog-fighting scandal that showed them as helpless victims of animal cruelty, raising their popularity as a shelter-adopted pet. Whether the owners were capable of handling pit bulls and training them properly, however, is another question. More dogs, plus less capable (or more deliberately aggressive) owners can lead to a bigger issue.

It's Not A Dog Problem, It's A Human Problem

The wave of argument against the pit bull ban in Montreal, and other breed-specific legislation around the country, emphasises that pit bulls can't really be discussed as a blanket mono-breed, and that the law leaves out something essential: the behavior of owners. Lee Greenwood, the legislative attorney for the giant no-kill shelter organisation the Best Friends Animal Society, told Bustle, "The new breed discriminatory law in Montreal, like all of these laws north and south of the border, are penalizing and criminalizing responsible dog owners and the pets they love while doing nothing to promote public safety. Instead of focusing on the behavior of all dogs and dog owners, which has been proven time and again, both in practice and in every peer-reviewed scientific study on the subject, to be the most effective way of protecting the public, they're going after loving family pets that haven't done anything wrong and are no more likely to cause problems than any other dog out there."

Owners are a big piece of this puzzle. And when it comes to dog fatalities and injuries, they may provide one of the missing ingredients that helps explain the behavior of vicious dogs. Three studies assembled by LiveScience found interesting discoveries: one, from 2006, examined both owners of "high-risk" dogs by breed and those with dogs that had actually been violent against humans, and found that both kinds of owner showed a tendency to have criminal convictions for aggressive, violent crimes. (The lack of separation between dogs that actually got aggressive and dogs who just happened to be from "problem" breeds is a bit of a issue for this study.)

The two others showed that the people selecting dog breeds perceived as "vicious" tended to show "significantly higher criminal thinking, entitlement, sentimentality, and superoptimism tendencies. Vicious dog owners were arrested, engaged in physical fights, and used marijuana significantly more than other dog owners." The overall picture is becoming clearer: people with aggressive tendencies are more likely to get a dog with an aggressive reputation, and train (or neglect or abuse it) to direct aggression towards humans. As the ASPCA says, "while a dog’s genetics may predispose it to behave in certain ways, genetics do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, behavior develops through a complex interaction between environment and genetics."

"It really comes down to this," Greenwood told Bustle: "all dogs are individuals and should be treated as such." If the aim is to keep pit bulls from harming others, the more effective measure is probably to make sure owners know (and are legally obliged) to treat them in ways that don't provoke or direct aggression. When it comes to keeping people safe, it seems that Montreal has missed the point entirely.

Image: Steph Skardal/Wikimedia Commons