By Laura Mueller
At Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC), executive director Susan Russell doesn’t believe in labeling dogs by their breed. Instead, she calls all the canines in CACC’s care “Chicago dogs,” a term she hopes removes stigmas around the specific animals and reminds people that all dogs are individuals, regardless of their DNA.
As it goes, however, most of the dogs who end up at CACC share similar physical characteristics that designate them with another label. They’ve got those medium-sized, muscular bodies, blocky heads, and big smiles that tend to get a dog labeled as a Pit Bull.
What exactly does it mean to be a Pit Bull? As Russell explains, it’s a term with a whole lot of implication… and no meaning at all.
“Look where you will, there’s no breed called a ‘Pit Bull,’” Russell explains. “Rather, there are multiple breeds with these physical characteristics, including, but certainly not limited to, American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers, American Bull Dogs, and English Bull Dogs, to name but a few.”
The majority of the dogs at CACC have “Pit Bull” characteristics, Russell notes, and as a result, they’re quickly affixed with the title. But with that designation comes the perception of what a Pit Bull is, and that, unfortunately, is not always positive.
A study out of Arizona State University found that people consider dogs labeled as Pit Bulls to be more aggressive, less approachable, less friendly, less trainable, less intelligent, and less adoptable than breeds like Labrador Retrievers or Border Collies. These unfair, unwarranted prejudices are not backed by actual facts or statistics and have real consequences for the dogs to whom this label affixes. Every year, 1.2 million dogs are euthanized due to space limitations in open-admission shelters. Of this number, 40 percent—nearly half a million dogs—are labeled as Pit Bulls.
“Science tells us that looks do not equal behavior,” Russell says. “Science also tells us that visual breed identification is notoriously inaccurate. We want all our local dogs to be embraced by Chicago residents not for how they look, but rather for who they are.”
So what does life look like for a Pit Bull-type dog in the shelter system? And more importantly, how can we do better by them?
First, the facts.
There’s a saying in the rescue community that there’s no such thing as a bad dog, only a bad caregiver. Like humans, a dog’s personality and behavior is a result of both nature and nurture. A Pit Bull-type dog may be born strong and loyal, but that doesn’t equal aggression and violence. Rather, their strength and loyalty are often exploited for evil gains.
“The most common misperception is that dogs with these physical characteristics are to be feared,” Russell says. This misguided notion has led to harm and heartbreak for thousands of dogs and humans across the country whose cities have enacted bans on Pit Bull-type dogs.
A major problem fueling Pit Bull prejudice is media perception. Because Pit-Bull type dogs are so difficult to properly identify (the “bully breed” category being composed of more than 40 different types of individual breeds), they often get lumped together under this umbrella term. Time and time again, if a bully breed dog harms a person, news stories refer to the dog as a Pit Bull. When another breed of dog harms a person, there’s often no breed specification mentioned, at least not called out in bold headlines.
This unbalanced media approach means that people incorrectly conceive of Pit Bull-type dogs as being more harmful than other types of dogs. This has led to breed-specific legislation, where citizens of a municipality are banned from living with Pit Bull-type dogs, or where there are stricter legislative consequences for Pit Bull-type dogs who do get in trouble.
But the problem isn’t the dogs—it’s the people. Aggressive dogs, regardless of breed, have typically experienced trauma in their lifetimes. Whether it’s neglect, abuse, or outright training to be violent, these are animal whose lives have been shaped negatively by humans, and who most likely would have made wonderful pets if raised in different, kinder circumstances. Breed-specific legislation is ineffective because it places the blame on the entirely wrong end of the leash.
When it comes to the rescue world, Pit Bull-type dogs face unique challenges. “They [are] the most passed-up dogs in the shelter,” Russell says. The reasons are personal (judgements based on looks, not on character) as well as institutional (leases that designate dogs of a certain weight, or directly restrict Pit Bull-type dogs).
Russell estimates that about 70% of the dogs that enter CACC—either as strays, surrenders, or those who are confiscated due to abuse or neglect—have the Pit Bull label. And it can be challenging to get these dogs pulled into limited-admission rescues.
“Rescues have the same sticky dog problem we do,” Russell says. “Shelters transfer these dogs, and then the dogs stay in their rescues for long periods of time. Even dogs who exhibit wonderful behaviors and get along with everything and everybody. If they have these physical characteristics, they can be difficult to get adopted.”
However, many of Chicago’s rescue organizations remain committed to helping Pit Bull-type dogs, regardless of the length of time it takes to place them in good homes. In fact, some local rescues devote themselves entirely to bully breeds, using all of their resources on caring for and adopting out dogs with the Pit Bull label.
Fortunately for Pit Bull-type dogs, they do have millions of fans all over the country. Few groups of dog lovers are as energized and devoted as those who preach the truth about Pit Bull-type dogs. Changing the narrative around these dogs is a huge undertaking, but one that many people have taken on—one dog at a time. At the Bickell Foundation, Pit Bull-type dogs who have experienced trauma go into schools to help teach children about bullying. Safe Humane Chicago brings them into juvenile facilities to show at-risk youth that a hard beginning in life doesn’t have to define who you are forever. Across the city, organizations are doing everything they can to teach the world that not only are Pit Bull-type dogs just as sweet and loving as other dogs, but those who have experienced harm can almost always learn to trust again.
The work is challenging, but locally, the tides continue to turn. Russell notes that fewer Pit Bull-type dogs were euthanized last year at the city’s shelter than any other year prior. Neighborhoods where Golden Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels have long reigned supreme are starting to see significantly more happy, smiling, Pit Bull-type dogs walking nicely with their caregivers.
Russell has it right. Dogs labeled as Pit Bulls are just one of our many types of “Chicago dogs,” and the large majority of our city’s homeless animals are capable of making wonderful family pets. Hopefully this notion spreads outside of our city’s limits, and Pit Bull-type dogs everywhere will be recognized for who they are—dogs as worthy of love as anyone else.
Pit Bull-type dogs face a barrage of prejudices, most of them based on misinformation that falls apart under any sort of scrutiny. In order to change the narrative around these dogs, we must begin by separating fact from fiction.
Myth: Pit-type dogs are the most aggressive dogs.
Fact: Like all other dogs, Pit Bull-type dogs have a range of personality traits across the spectrum. They are no more likely to be mean or aggressive than any other breed. In fact, in temperament testing performed by the American Temperament Test Society, American Pit Bull Terriers had a passing rate of just over 87% and American Staffordshire Terriers had a passing rate of just over 85%. These passing rates surpassed those of many other common breeds, including Australian Shepherds (82.3%), Basenjis (68.8%), and Chihuahuas (69.6%).
Myth: Pit-type dogs have locking jaws.
Fact: The jaw of a Pit Bull-type dog is not anatomically different than those of other dogs. Nor do they have any sort of unique enzymes or abilities that allow them to lock their jaws. As Dr. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia told the American Pit Bull Foundation: “The few studies which have been conducted on the structure of the skulls, mandibles, and teeth of ‘Pit Bulls’ show that, in proportion to their size, their jaw structure and thus its inferred functional morphology is no different than that of any breed of dog.” The lock-jaw stereotype was created and is perpetuated by anti-Pit Bull-type dog groups and the media.
Myth: It’s unsafe to get a Pit Bull-type dog from a shelter because you don’t know his or her background.
Fact: By this logic, it would be unsafe to get any dog from a shelter, and we know this isn’t at all true. Every single responsible and reputable shelter puts their dogs through temperament testing prior to making them available for adoption. Dogs of all breeds are evaluated for aggression, undesirable behaviors and/or habits, as well as their interactions with humans and other dogs. History shows that even those Pit Bull-type dogs who have come from traumatic backgrounds can often be rehabilitated with plenty of love and care.
Myth: Pit Bull-type dogs who exhibit dog aggression are also aggressive toward humans.
Fact: Many of us have had a dog who didn’t care for other dogs (or cats) but was fine around humans. The same is true for Pit Bull-type dogs. Dog aggression and people aggression are two very separate, unique behaviors, and should not be incorrectly correlated with one another.
Removing incorrect stereotypes around Pit Bull-type dogs starts with recognizing them as individuals, each with their own traits and personalities. Millions of pet lovers already know this to be true, which is why Pit Bull-type dogs are fabulous members of so many families. The more we can dispel prejudice against these dogs, the more we can relieve and ultimately eliminate the burdens they face.