Pitbull and the likes: off or on-leash?

A discussion on whether to have your Pit Bull off-leash
By Laure-Anne Visele, March 2012

Allowing your pit-bull offleash?

A reader recently asked me how I felt about the opinion of some that she should never allow her Am Staff (aka Pit Bull, aka American Staffordshire Terrier) off-leash.


This was my response:

A balancing act

On the one hand, I think that every dog needs his offleash exercise and that if anything is going to cause a problem, it’s lack of freedom/exercise.

On the other hand, I know that people can react emotionally to bully-types, so she has to be extra well-trained.

It can help for you to see yourself as an ambassadress to the breed. It will hopefully stop you from getting frustrated at being held to higher standards.

What makes Pit Bulls so feared?

I think the danger with dogs of this type, is if they ‘go into the red zone’ – i.e. if they get over-aroused by another dog. This could be triggered by play-fighting gone wrong, or by another dog that is boisterous or aggressive.

The risk is four-fold:

  • Some bull-types, particularly the ones from recent fighting lines, have a low threshold to go ‘into the red-zone’ (as in get hyperfocused);
  • Once it’s triggered, they can ignore appeasement signals from the other dog;
  • Their pain threshold, when under the influence of adrenaline, is also very high, so it it goes really wrong, in some incidents, it can be hard to even forcibly let your dog let go; and
  • Their jaw pressure is extra-ordinarily strong.

So you’ve got a real problem if the dog ever gets into the red zone (or ‘goes into hind-brain’ if you’re a techie) with another dog. In other words, he’s not thinking any more, and not able to moderate himself or to listen to you.

The risk equation and some questions to ask yourself

All you can do as a responsible owner, is to play it safe.

So you have to have solid grounds to know that your dog is safe for other dogs. Wishful thinking won’t cut it. I suggest you gradually expose the dog to other dogs, always keeping the encounters controlled, reasonably calm, and positive.

You can make the chance even tinier by training for a rock-solid recall and ensure she gets positive experiences with other dogs.

So, in a nutshell, here’s the risk equation as far as I am concerned:

  • A very very very tiny chance of something very very very awful, or
  • The guarantee of a frustrated, hence badly behaved dog.

If your dog is giving you any indication that they might hyperfocus to other dogs, then please consult a qualified professional so they can help you with this issue. Often, the only help available for hyperfocus is management tips.


I love to read your comments, so leave me your thoughts any time. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Own a powerful dog;
  • Have had a positive, or negative experience, with an off-leash pitbull.

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  1. Posted 23 April 2012 at 03:16 | Permalink

    Of course, if there’s the slightest show of aggression in the presence of another dog, please contact a professional so we can do some risk assessment.

    Also, what I mean with ‘get the dog gradually used to other dog’ is in a series of controlled situations (e.g. long line, first familiar dogs, calling them back before play gets rowdy, etc.).

  2. Carol
    Posted 2 May 2012 at 17:06 | Permalink

    This is by far the most balanced and sound article I have found on this issue. I own a rescue pit-type dog and reading a lot of emotional articles about the issue hasn’t helped at all. I am still in the process of training her really well under professional advice and from what I can already see I am confident the results will be amazing.
    Besides this article, my inspiration also comes from the neighbor’s pit-type bitch, who is super friendly and incredibly obedient. She is off-leash all the time, extra focused on her fetch games and only plays with other dogs if allowed after a command by her master. So beautiful to watch! During my walks at various parks in Amsterdam I have also seen other staffies giving a show of obedience, flawless recall and admirable behavior 🙂

    • Posted 7 May 2012 at 10:26 | Permalink

      Aw, Carol. I am always heartened to hear of pit-types being obedient and respectful and friendly. Too often they are purchased for intimidation/matcho-ness, and given very very very bad habits, giving a name to the gazillion good ones around. Great stuff!

  3. Posted 19 October 2012 at 23:56 | Permalink

    Hi there,

    I just wanted to say thank you for such a sensible and positive article regarding pits / staffies being off-lead for walks.

    I live in the UK where pitbulls are unfortunately a banned breed, but staffies are the ‘status dog’ of the moment with the majority of dogs in rescues being staffies and the media always portraying them as being violent, dangerous and unpredictable. I have volunteered in three rescue centres and have worked with many staffers, I adore the breed and my next dog will definitely be a rescue staffy/staffy cross.

    My dog has been attacked many times by badly trained and aggressive off-lead dogs – never has he been attacked by a staffy, American Bulldog or similar. Just today he was attacked by a Collie and, when I was checking he was okay, a Golden Retriever ran over and began barking and growling at us very aggressively. I had to put myself in front of the Retriever until the owner could get it on-lead and drag it away!

    • Posted 23 October 2012 at 21:03 | Permalink

      Hi Scarlet

      Thanks for dropping by.

      Double standards, hey? Pitbulls and other ‘bully breeds’ vs. rest of the world. But the only way to shift the balance is to have perfectly behave ‘bullies’.

      How frustrating to have your own dog attacked a few times by off-leash, out of control, dogs, thus risking to make your dog reactive now, with the world of disapproval that’ll bring on you and the dog, fairly or not…

      Keep posting!

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