Pit Bulls: what’s the controversy about?

A rational look at the Pit Bull controversy. Article by Canis bonus. July 2017
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

He’s a Pit Bull, you can’t trust him

The High Risk Dog debates are raging in the Netherlands with the media reporting incident after incident, and the latest piece of Breed Specific Legislation due to come into effect in January 2018 (discussed here).

This article critically examines the extreme claims of both ‘camps’: the Nanny-dog and the ‘ban them all’ crowds.


For the purpose of this article, I will be talking of ‘Bully’-types in general (powerful Bull, Mastiff and/or Terrier breeds and their crosses). This has a good overlap with the Dutch government’s list of what they consider high-risk dogs. I will zoom in on specific Pit Bulls claims at times.

Can we trust press reports of dog attacks?

Yes and no.

Is over-reporting a thing? Yes to a certain extent, but there’s no smoke without a fire and there are many Shepherd ‘attacks’ reported too. I use quotes because minor incidents with shepherds (Belgian, German, mostly) also spill ink. At least here in the Netherlands. That, and I hope no one is using the number of reported incidents in the press as a reliable statistic.

The big question: How many severe incidents involving other breeds do not make it to the news? We don’t know. Maybe tons, maybe little. What we know? There is definitely a problem of severe dog aggression out there, that the problem doesn’t seem all that common or frequent, and that Bullies are often involved. Whether it’s a lot more often or just about the same as other breeds is still out there.

Are the Bullies involved ‘normal’ Bullies?

For each press report, I dig deeper and in 99% of the cases, the dogs were either recent rescues with an unknown history or severely abused. So not typical representatives of a breed.

The big question: Can I conclude from the press clippings alone that something in the Bullies pre-disposes them to severe aggression? No.

Is the dog involved even a Bully?

Dog professionals, veterinarians included, aren’t all that perfect at identifying an individual breed. Never mind police or hospital staff, and even less so the victim. Do I trust journalists to do their homework and double-check the breed was correctly identified? Not for a second. And don’t rely on the picture used to illustrate the incident either.

In discussing Breed Specific Legislation, the exact breed wouldn’t matter if we establish whether the dog is on the official Dutch list of high-risk breeds. That is also not a given, it turns out. There are accounts of Labradors being mislabeled as Bullies when incidents are being reported.

Having said that, as famous Pitbull detractor Alexandra Semyonova says, they’re not shape-shifters. It is relatively easy to distinguish a bully-type dog (a dog from bull-fighting ancestry) from most other breeds (except for some Labradors, who are often confused with them, as mentioned above).

The big question: Can we trust the breed stated in press clippings? Not so much.

So are the breeds on the list higher-risk?

Let’s split it into different questions:

  • Are they more likely to be involved in a severe aggression incident? Yes, from hospital and police records (assuming identification was correct), it would seem they are. Subquestion:
    • Why are they more involved in aggression incidents? Is it purely breed-specific? The answer is complicated. It’s neither 100% ‘how they’re raised’, nor 100% ‘in their blood’. The post discusses some of these influences below.
  • Could they have a genetic predisposition for uninhibited aggression? Yes, potentially partly (see below) but…
    • … What proportion of, say, Staffies, carry and express these traits to a problematic level? We don’t know. It could be 1% or 99%. Towards humans, they have a tendency for extreme friendliness. Towards other dogs, some studies report 20% of (even responsibly raised) Staffies to have a serious dog-dog aggression problem.
  • Is it due to being raised in terrible conditions? Yes, that certainly raises the risk. Hugely. Particularly when it comes to attacks on humans. An ‘out of the box’ bully tends to be extremely human-friendly. Of course, there are exceptions, but they tend to make unbelievably friendly family pets for guests and family alike.
    • What is the proportion of severe incidents where the dog was abused or severely neglected? We don’t know. But from the press clippings I’ve been collecting, a lot.
  • Are dogs on the list more likely to be owned by irresponsible owners? Yes, criminals are attracted by the breed’s bad rep and sociology stats out there show a much higher proportion of criminal records and tendencies in owners of bully breeds, particularly bully dogs who got seized for incidents.

Where’s the data?

Recently I was involved in a couple of inter-disciplinary events involving specialists from all disciplines to look at the problem of severe bite incidents. What came out? We don’t have the data, it was claimed. Sure we depend on messy multi-factorial, non-standardized, subjective data and information from criminal underground activities and from hospital records, but actually the data is out there if you know where to look. Drop me a line if you’d like a list of the research articles I’ve read.

A bunch of socio-economic factors played a huge role, but some genetic vulnerabilities did transpire.

So the summary of all that data is: top of the list in serious incidents requiring hospitalisations = rottweilers, german shepherds, ‘pit bulls’ (whatever that is, this is a conglomeration of bully breeds) and chow chows make some of the lists too. Temperament studies (take these with a pinch of salt) and my own observations (not big data) show bullies to be extremely sociable to humans (in general). As a behaviour therapist, I consider a human-aggressive bully to be abnormal and breed atypical.

Size matters

Let’s go back to something we can all agree on: there’s a difference between a Chihuahua attack and a Bully one. Sure Chihuahuas can cause severe injuries but, all things being equal, I’d much rather be attacked by a furious Chihuahua than a furious Pit Bull.

I went to a seminar hosted by the Hondenbescherming and she illustrated the point nicely: “Would you rather be hit by an SUV or by a bicycle?”

Would you rather be hit by this?


Or this?

Even putting genetic predisposition aside, with great breeds comes great responsibility. The more powerful the dog, the higher the standards society holds you to. On “the list” or not, I expect you to not allow your large dog to get over-excited or to run up to people and dogs who don’t know him.

Sort out that basic bit of etiquette and you’ll be rid of so many problems already.

Pit Bull legends

Here’s another bunch of things we can easily agree on: some claims about Pit Bulls are ridiculous:

  • Their jaws ‘lock’: Patently untrue. No debate.
  • They have a gazillion-pound bite pressure: Yes and no. The numbers reported are ridiculous but yes, a broad-skulled, muscular dog, can bite strongly (remember the truck vs. mini Cooper thing?). Some protection and fight-Bullies (NOT your average pet dog) are even trained for extreme bite pressure. So yeah, they potentially pack a punch.

Highly trained protection or fight dogs aren’t exactly your typical Bullies, are they? That’s like presenting Michael Phelps’ lap times as averages

So it’s all about how they’re raised?

Not so fast.

Think of the Border Collies’ eyes-stalk-chase routine (admittedly a lot less multi-factorial). I give you that extreme to remind you: no one can seriously argue that genetics have nothing to do with behaviour.

What about the typical aggression incidents Bullies are involved in? Here’s a couple of potential genetic factors:

  • They ‘turn on you in the flick of a eye’: Typical scenario: 1.5 year old dog, always been super sociable, suddenly and severely attacks another dog with no warning. What could be going on?
    • Terrier ancestry may predispose some dogs to being trigger happy on the adrenaline rush.  This adrenaline system would reach maturity at adulthood, explaining why they were fine as younger dogs.
    • The hyperfocus response, activates the dog’s predatory sequence.
    • The common theme is excitement: The dog is easily and extremely excited from various stimuli like feeling annoyed over a dog toy, over-excited play or just hyper-sensitive e high-pitched sounds or fast movement in the environment.
  • It’s like he feels no pain: That same adrenaline response may explain how hard it can be to interrupt aggression once it’s kicked in. I’ve seen enough Staffies who will let go, but I have documented many cases where the dog seemed impervious to pain. During a recent case, for example, the dog had destroyed several hedgehogs.
  • He won’t let go: A dog whose ancestors were bred to keep holding onto a bull’s nose may have higher-than-average ‘staying power.’ Then again, you could argue the same about English Bulldogs who are not on the primary list. But my point is this feature is (partly) under genetic control.

Let’s look at extreme breeding in Bullies: check this sad video of very young pups with so-called ‘gameness’. Given their age, you cannot argue that this is purely how they’re raised. They are extremely excited, do not let go despite the pain, and display extreme aggression for their age.

I am sharing the video to address idealistic claims that ‘it’s all how they’re raised’. Of course such extreme dog-dog aggression is rare in practice, and are the product of carefully selected aggressive lines.

Check this video of typical Bully pups to see the difference.

So it’s all genetics? It’s more complicated than that

There are POTENTIAL genetic influences that may explain some of the Bully attacks reported.

But, just like not every Labs love water, not every Staffy is an adrenaline junky. I know enough (even older) Staffies who are absolute angels with other dogs, no matter the provocation.

So, to what extent are these aggression predispositions represented in the average Staffie family dog? Having read my ‘He’s a Labrador. Of course he’s good with kids‘ article, you know that behaviour traits are rarely 100% heritable.

Also, genetics tend to be probabilistic, not deterministic. It only indicates that a member of a certain breed may have a higher than average chance of carrying – and and even smaller chance of expressing – the trait. The worst-case scenario is a dog who is predisposed to all-out aggression and who is under-socialised and who is abused.

So no, not all Staffies are dog-aggressive. But, growing up in a similar environment, the potential for severe dog-aggression is more present than for a Lab. How much more present? That’s the million dollar question.

There is a difference between person-aggressive and dog-aggressive

Most of the press clippings I read concern aggression to a person. These pretty much all involved a severely abused dog, a recently adopted dog of unknown origins, or a dog raised for aggression to humans. pit_bull_restrained

I would go as far as arguing that it is harder to get a Bully to become human-aggressive, from my experience with them on the field (and most temperament studies that compared breeds). They tend to be incredibly tolerant of human clumsiness – to the point where I worry about irresponsible (pet) parenting, but that’s another story. Even fight-dogs have to have excellent bite inhibition to humans.

Having said that, beat up your dog and there is a good chance he won’t be people-friendly, like for any breed.

Rehabilitating their image

The worst thing is: the more scared society is, the more criminals want them.

Back when they were America’s sweethearts (check these posters), the baddies-du-jour were bloodhounds – who are now considered goofy. Their bad rep is pushing them to the seedier parts of society, and thus putting them at higher risk of being abused or trained for aggression.


A Pitty being goofy

I welcome the movement to rehabilitate Pitties’ image. Take Your Pitbull and You, for example. They do excellent work. It is unfortunate that these efforts fall into blank-slate claims, but they will be beneficial nonetheless.

Taken to an extreme, the Pit Bull PR heroes could be doing more harm than good. They promote Bullies as easy family breeds, as Nanny dogs. Pushing inexperienced dog owners to buy one and trust them blindly with their kids, putting the dogs under severe stress in the process. Every dog has their breaking point, even the most tolerant family dog (as I would argue that Bullies are). The Nanny dog movement is needlessly endangering dogs and children in their attempt to rehabilitate the breed’s image.


Pit Bull PR: The more we rehabilitate their image, the less attractive they’ll be to criminals

So all Bully owners are criminals?

Wow there. Let’s slow this right down.

Professionally, the Bully owners we see at the dog training school tend to be among the most well-informed, responsible, kind and dedicated owners. Granted, my social circle is made up of dog behaviour academics and my clients seek me out for my evidence-based approach (so not exactly your average irresponsible owner either).

But still, we don’t know what the proportion of irresponsible vs. responsible Bully owners is – if you could even define it narrowly.

One thing is for sure, the dog’s bad rep makes them more attractive among shady circles, as I’ve said many times in this post.

Responsible dog ownership

Responsible ownership is a central point of the equation, precisely because genetics play a role. I would not favour inexperienced dog owners getting a Bully as there are certain common-sense precautions to take. Many of them I would take with large dogs:

  1. Avoid situations that trigger high excitement,
  2. Socialise them religiously, particularly to dogs
  3. Give them enough mental stimulation and physical exercise
  4. Teach them to calm themselves down and
  5. Do not use violence to raise them.


If you feel worried about Pit Bulls, the best I have for you is look at the dog’s body language, look at the human’s body language. If your own dog is low-key and calm, imagine their dog is a Labrador and go chat with them about their breed. You’ll be amazed at how becoming more familiar with a few of them can help with your fear.

I used to have prejudices against Bully breeds and couldn’t fathom why my friends could want them, from the reputation problem alone. Then I got to know one, two, three, and countless of them and fell in love with the type. Nowadays, when I see ‘Pit Bull’ in my form, I can’t wait to hop in the car to meet the beast.

Further reading

Delise - Pit Bull

If you’re interested in the detailed history and risks of the Pit Bull, I highly recommend you read ‘the Pit Bull Placebo‘.

Bradley - Dogs bite

If you want to dig a little deeper on dog bite epidemiology, try Dog bites, but balloons and slippers are more dangerous.

This article by HugABull (perhaps biased considering the name of the website) has also done an interesting survey of the relevant literature.

Illustration credits

No modification were made to any of the illustrations.

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