American Pit Bull Terriers
Proper Training, Loving Care Bring Out Breed's Gentle Nature
Once bred to be fighters then championed as one of the most popular family dogs during the early 20th century, American pit bull terriers have fallen under scrutiny during the past several decades due to numerous pit bull-type-breed attacks on people, launching a heated debate about the breed: Is it inherently aggressive or the result of irresponsible owners?
Supporters of the breed emphasize the positive attributes of a properly socialized American pit bull terrier—as a loving, affectionate and gentle family companion—and say that the breed overall is getting a bad rap.
American Pit Bull Terrier History
The American pit bull terrier (APBT) can trace its roots back to 19th century England, Ireland and Scotland, when a variety of dogs, including the bull dog and various terriers, were cross bred to develop the muscular and combative Staffordshire bull terrier, raised to bait bulls and bears.
At the time, ratting—when rats were placed in a pit with a dog as a sport—and dog fighting were popular events. Over time, the word “pit” was added to the breed’s name due to the amount of time it spent participating in pit sporting events. Two strains of these dogs were ultimately developed: a show strain and a non-show strain. The show strain was labeled the American Staffordshire, while the non-show dog strain was labeled the American pit bull terrier. The two became recognized as separate breeds.
Despite the blood sports in which the breed was raised, it became clear as the dogs became more domesticated that the American pit bull terrier made a better companion to people, exhibiting a loyal, loving and gentle nature.
During World War I, the American pit bull terrier was featured on a war time poster in a heroic nature, having served time on the battlefield delivering messages from one area to another. The breed was also utilized in World War II as a messenger.
In recent years, the APBT breed has been cast in an unflattering way as an aggressive dog after several attacks by "pit bull type" dogs against people and other dogs, leading some countries—and some cities in the United States—to ban ownership of American pit bull terriers.
It's important to note that pit bull type breeds are generally unregistered mixes of the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire bull terrier, the American bulldog and the American pit bull dog.
Pit Bull Aggression
In 2012, 34 fatal dog attacks were reported in the United States, 20 of which involved a pit bull type or a pit bull mixed breed. In 2013, 13 of the 14 fatal attacks thus far reported were caused by a pit bull type or pit bull mixed breed. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that pit bull type breeds were responsible for the 42% of dog bite-related fatalities during 1879 and 1998.
These isolated attacks have led to a hotly debated topic: is it the dog breed or the owner that fuels the aggressive behavior? The ASPCA notes that pit bulls often attract the worst kind of dog owners—people who are only interested in these breed for fighting or protection. “While pit bulls were once considered especially non-aggressive to people, their reputation has changed, thanks to unscrupulous breeders and irresponsible owners.”
Reports indicate that the majority of pit bulls involved in these attacks had been encouraged to be aggressive by their owners, either by aggressive-specific training (groomed for dog fighting events), lack of training or lack of socialization. Several studies have determined that the majority of pit bull owners with dogs involved in attacks are more likely to have criminal convictions and are more likely to display antisocial behaviors.†
According to the United Kennel Club, aggression in the breed toward people is uncharacteristic. It is none the less strongly recommended that your American pit bull terrier undergo routine socialization and obedience training to reduce any aggressive tendencies from a young age. The breed is highly intelligent and due to its inherent eagerness to please its owner, responds well to training.
American Pit Bull Terrier Personality
Due to its typical, exuberant friendliness toward strangers, the American pit bull terrier has actually earned a reputation as a bad guard dog. The breed displays an extreme willingness to please, perform and work, making it both a good family companion and performer in agility and dog show events.
The American pit bull terrier has shown a strong affection toward children, displaying a loving devotion and enthusiasm for play time.
Dr. Dave Reinhard, a consulting veterinarian for Veterinary Pet Insurance, has cared for many American pit bull terriers during his lengthy career and encourages APBT owners—and potential owners—not to be intimidated by reports of aggression in the breed, but to plan for a long-term commitment.
"I believe that early socialization with humans and other dogs is extremely important," says Reinhard. "I had many pit bulls in my practice and would be the first to say that properly socialized pets were a joy to their family."
Experts do strongly encourage dog owners to instill routine obedience training and socialization for their American pit bull terriers to ensure that a hierarchy of dominance is established. According to the American Temperament Test Society, recent temperament evaluations of American pit bull terriers taken in February 2013 show that this breed has a high passing rate of 86.8%. The ATTS tested 870 American pit bull terriers in their study. To compare, 805 Labrador retrievers were tested, passing at 92%; the average passing rate for the other 121 breeds of dogs in the tests was 77%.
With proper socialization at an early age, routine training and a loving environment, the breed has proven to be an affectionate, gentle family companion.
American Pit Bull Terrier Appearance
The American pit bull terrier is a muscular, medium-sized dog weighing, on average, between 30 and 65 pounds.
The breed has a short, smooth, glossy coat that can be any color and pattern. Its ears are small to medium sized and are either slightly floppy or cropped. Known for its thick, muscular neck and deep chest, a general description of the American pit bull terrier is “stocky.”
American Pit Bull Terrier Health Conditions
While these medical conditions are known to occur in the breed your pit bull will not necessarily develop any of the conditions listed below. Choosing a reputable breeder from which to purchase your pet will help minimize the risks.
- Canine hip dysplasia is a hereditary malformation of the hip joint that is more commonly associated with large breed dogs. It can cause discomfort and lameness and result in arthritis. X-rays of the hips when dogs are young (under 2 years) can help identify if this problem is present will allow owners to identify a proper exercise, diet and treatment regimen if their dog is affected.
- Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle becomes weakened over time and can result in complete heart failure.
- Cataracts are an opacity of the lens of the eye and may cause blindness if not treated surgically. American pit bull terriers are affected by hereditary cataracts. Symptoms can include discoloring of the pupil, and treatment may include surgery to remove the cataract.
- Color dilution skin allergies may occur more often in American pit bull terriers with light coat colors.
- Congenital patellar luxation is caused by anatomical defects of the bones that make up the knee joint. It is manifested by the kneecap (patella) slipping in and out of its normal location in the knee. Mildly affected dogs may carry the leg for 2 or 3 steps while walking. Severely affected dogs may become severely lame and refuse to use their rear legs. Surgical correction of this condition is very rewarding.
- Demodectic mange, also called Demodex, is caused by a mite (Demodex canis) that is a normal resident of the skin. Mange is transmitted from the mother to puppies during suckling. Genetic factors and immunologic response play a role in the development of the disease. The disease is treatable and not considered contagious.
- Hypothyroidism is a decrease in production of thyroid hormone by the thyroid glands that profoundly affects metabolism. Lack of this hormone causes weight gain, lethargy, poor hair coat, infertility and susceptibility to chronic infections. Thyroid hormone levels should be checked annually in adult dogs or if the dog appears to have any of the symptoms listed.
As with any pet, be sure to regularly consult a veterinarian for routine care and medical advice for your four-legged friend.
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† Barnes, Jaclyn E.; Boats, Barbara W.; Putnam, Frank W.; Mahlman, Andrew R. (2006). "Ownership of High-Risk ("Vicious") Dogs as a Marker for Deviant Behaviors: Implications for Risk Assessment". Journal of Interpersonal Violence (Sage Publications)
† Ragatz, Laurie; Fremouw, William; Thomas, Tracy; Katrina, McCoy (2009). "Vicious Dogs: The Antisocial Behaviors and Psychological Characteristics of Owners". Journal of Forensic Sciences (American Academy of Forensic Sciences)
† Schenk, Allison M.; Ragatz, Laurie L.; Fremouw, William J. (2012). "Vicious Dogs Part 2: Criminal Thinking, Callousness, and Personality Styles of Their Owners". Journal of Forensic Sciences (American Academy of Forensic Sciences)
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