“Troublemakers,” by Malcolm Gladwell. The New Yorker, 2/6/2006.
“Breeding Contempt,” by Pat Shipman. (A review of the book “Pit Bull,” by Bronwen Dickey.) The Wall Street Journal, 5/28/2016.
Reach down to pet a pit bull, and he is liable to rip your lungs out and pee on them. Everyone knows that. Any gesture could set them off, so you are best to avoid them altogether. They are just mean, unpredictable dogs with hair-trigger tempers, and anyone who would keep one is endangering his own family and every person in the neighborhood.
Except—it is not clear just what a pit bull is. They are not a defined breed, and the term is loosely applied to almost any medium-sized, smooth haired, stocky, muscular dog with a large head and short muzzle. He is probably a mutt, but the term is often applied to an American Staffordshire terrier, a Staffordshire bull terrier, or an American bully. WSJ author Shipman had DNA testing done on a “pit bull mix” she had adopted from a shelter, and the pup turned out to be 25% American Staffordshire terrier, 25% Staffordshire bull terrier, 25% unknown terrier mix, and 25% Australian shepherd. In other words, “pit bull” refers to a specific appearance of a dog, not a breed. Since most people think they are a breed, I will continue with that fiction, but it is fiction.
Pit bulls were not always feared. Helen Keller had one, as did Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt. All spoke of their generous, gentle nature. Today, they are generally reviled, outlawed in 850 communities and banned from many housing projects, and from private housing on all military bases, even though they cannot be strictly identified.
“A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog,” says Randall Lockwood, vice-president of the ASPCA and one of the country’s leading dog bite experts (in 2006). “It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions—the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. I’ve been involved in many legal cases involving fatal dog attacks, and, certainly, it’s my impression that these are generally cases where everyone is to blame. You’ve got the unsupervised three-year-old child wandering in the neighborhood killed by a starved, abused dog owned by the dog-fighting boyfriend of some woman who doesn’t know where her child is. It’s not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of warning signs.”
The recent research by Dickey matches the findings reported in the 2006 New Yorker—that pit bulls are no more aggressive than any other breed, and no more likely to bite humans.
There is, however, a very close correlation of aggression of a dog with aggression of their owner as shown by arrest records.
That’s what you should be wary of—a dog of any breed owned by someone with a rap sheet of violent behavior. Be wary of them both, I kid you not.