Pit Bulls: Vicious or Poorly Bred and Socialized

Posted by  on August 9, 2010

There have been a number of stories in the news about Pit Bull attacks lately, which begs the question:  are Pit Bulls truly the vicious dogs the media portrays them to be or are the specific dogs in the news simply dogs who have been poorly socialized and bred to be aggressive?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have never personally lived with a Pit Bull, and that the few Pits I have met have been very nice dogs.

Are Pit Bulls really that vicious?

Limitations of statistics

Statistics which report dog bites by breed must be evaluated by severity.  Most studies admit that only about 50% of dog bites are reported, presumably those which are the most serious.  And of the reported dog bites, some were fatal while some required only a few stitches.

The nature of the attack is important to consider, as well.  For example, when five fatal attacks from the Centers for Disease Control’s statistics were reviewed, a wide variety of causative factors were found.  One was a case where a man received a relatively minor dog bite, but died from an infection soon after.  One was a newborn infant who had been abandoned by her teenage mother in a junk-strewn yard where the baby was killed by Pit Bulls.  Another was a German Shepherd who reached into a crib, pulled out a newborn, and killed the baby.  The fourth was a Pit Bull who attacked and killed a woman who was being held down by her boyfriend while the boyfriend ordered the dog to attack.  The last was a German Shepherd who was fighting through a fence and turned on his owner when the elderly man tried to stop the fight.  Clearly some of these deaths were not the dogs’ fault, but they are still recorded as fatal dog attacks.

Peer-Reviewed Studies

A study on dog bites was published in 2006 in The Veterinary Journal. The authors collected data on the characteristics of dog bites over a period of 8.5 months in six different hospital emergency departments.  In 67% of the documented incidents, the bites appeared to be triggered by an interaction with a child, and so-called “dangerous dogs” were not responsible for the majority of the incidents.[i]

Another study published in the journal Pediatrics in 1994 identified German Shepherds and Chow Chows as the dogs most likely to bite.[ii] In this study, cases were selected from dogs reported to Denver Animal Control in 1991 for biting.

A study published in 2008 in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science came to a totally different conclusion after studying 30 dog breeds using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire:

Breeds with the greatest percentage of dogs exhibiting serious aggression (bites or bite attempts) toward humans included Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers (toward strangers and owners); Australian Cattle Dogs (toward strangers); and American Cocker Spaniels and Beagles (toward owners). More than 20% of Akitas, Jack Russell Terriers and Pit Bull Terriers were reported as displaying serious aggression toward unfamiliar dogs. Golden Retrievers, Labradors Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Brittany Spaniels, Greyhounds and Whippets were the least aggressive toward both humans and dogs.[iii]

The Centers for Disease Control offers the following statistics for fatal dog bites in the United States:[iv]




















Pit Bull 2 5 10 9 12 8 6 5 3 60
Rottweiler 0 0 1 1 3 1 3 10 10 29
German Shepherd 2 1 5 1 1 5 2 0 2 19
Husky 2 1 2 2 0 2 2 1 2 14
Alaskan Malamute 2 0 3 1 0 2 3 1 0 12
Doberman Pinscher 0 1 0 2 2 2 1 0 0 8
Chow Chow 0 1 0 0 0 2 3 0 2 8
Great Dane 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 6
St Bernard 1 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 4
Akita 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 2 0 4

As you can see, the number of fatal Pit Bull attacks declined over the years of the study, while the number of fatal Rottweiler attacks rose.  The change in Pit Bull fatal attack rates in this study is not likely attributable to breed-specific legislation, as this data was collected before breed-specific legislation was introduced in most locations.  (Yakima, Washington enacted their Pit Bull ban in 1987; South Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Florida’s Miami-Dade County enacted their Pit Bull ban in 1989, but breed-specific legislation didn’t really take off until the early 21st century.)

Drawing Conclusions:  Dog Bite Law

The site has a broad variety of statistics related to dog bites and how breed-specific legislation has impacted the severity and incidence of bites.  The site is authored by Attorney Kenneth Phillips, who does not appear to have any bias or agenda against any particular breed. According to his review of the currently available research:

  • There are 74.8 million dogs in the United States.
  • Dogs bite nearly 2% of the United States population, more than 4.7 million people annually.
  • One out of every six bites is bad enough to require medical attention.
  • Dog bites send nearly 368,000 victims to emergency departments each year.
  • Dog attacks resulted in 33 fatalities in 2007 and 23 in 2008.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the yearly average was 17.

Phillips points out the important difference between fatalities caused by dogs and non-fatal dog bites.

…the focus on death cases may leave the public with the false impression that pit bulls and Rottweilers are responsible for the dog bite epidemic. It is a much broader problem than that, involving all dogs and all dog owners. While pit bulls and Rottweilers inflict a disproportionate number of serious and even fatal injuries, the dog bite epidemic involves many different breeds, and results from many different causes. A clear distinction needs to be made between canine homicides (i.e., incidents in which dogs kill people) and the dog bite epidemic.

Girl and her Pit Bull

Drawing Conclusions:  Animal People

Another site that is widely considered very detailed and reliable is written by Merritt Clifton.  Clifton is the editor of Animal People, an independent online newspaper which investigates issues involving animals worldwide.  It does not appear to have any affiliation with any other entities.

It is Clifton’s belief that certain breeds must be regulated.  Clifton’s study (based on data collected from news reports between September, 1982 and November, 2006) showed that Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Presa Canarios, and their mixes were responsible for 74% of the total attacks studied, 68% of the attacks on children, 82% of the attacks on adults, 65% of the deaths, and 68% of the maimings.

His conclusion is that “Pit Bulls and Rottweilers are …dogs who not only must be handled with special precautions, but also must be regulated with special requirements appropriate to the risk they may pose to the public and other animals, if they are to be kept at all.”  He bases this on his belief that “if almost any other dog has a bad moment, someone may get bitten, but will not be maimed for life or killed, and the actuarial risk is accordingly reasonable.  If a pit bull terrier or a Rottweiler has a bad moment, often someone is maimed or killed – and that has now created off-the-chart actuarial risk, for which the dogs as well as their victims are paying the price.[v]

Drawing Conclusions:  The Dog Lady

After doing the research for this article, I ended up with the following conclusions:

1.  Any dog can bite, given the proper circumstances.  A review of anecdotal news reports shows that even a Pomeranian has been guilty of killing an infant.

2.  Certain breeds tend to do more harm than others when they do bite.

3.  Pit Bulls are one of a short list of breeds most often associated with fatal attacks.

4.  Other breeds, including German Shepherds and Chow Chows are far more likely to bite than Pit Bulls, but bites from these breeds tend to cause less damage than bites from Pit Bulls.

5.  People who live with any dog have a responsibility to train their dogs and properly socialize them to reduce the number of dog bites and fatalities.

6.  Breed-specific legislation doesn’t work.  Banning breeds tends to push them to the black market, which results in poor breeding practices and ultimately leads to an increase in the number of dogs that are abandoned when they don’t meet the guardian’s expectations.  In addition, legislation is expensive and difficult to enforce.

7.  The best strategies to prevent dog bites from any breed of dog are:

  • Buy from a reputable breeder.
  • Socialize your dog from an early age.
  • Neuter your dog.
  • Restrain your dog in a fence rather than on a chain.
  • Teach your children how to behave around dogs.

[i] De Keuster, Tiny, Lamoureux, Jean, and kahn, Andre.  Epidemiology of Dog Bites:  A Belgian Experience of Canine Behaviour and Public Health Concerns.  The Veterinary Journal 172(3):  482-487.  November, 2006.

[ii] Gershman, Kenneth A., Sacks, Jeffrey Jl, and Wright, John C.  Which Dogs Bite?  A Case-Control Study of Risk Factors.  Pediatrics 93(6): 913 – 917.  June, 1994.

[iii] Duffya, Deborah L., Hsub, Yuying, Serpell, James A.  Breed Differences in Canine Aggression.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science 114(3):  441 – 460.  December 1, 2008.

[iv] Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 46(21): 463-467 .  May 30, 1997.

[v] Clifton, Merritt.  Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada September 1982 to November 13, 2006.  Retrieved July 5, 2010 from