Are Pit Bulls Aggressive?

Rarely does a day go by at the Brockton Animal Hospital that this question doesn’t get asked. The reports of bite wounds, fearsome attacks and serious injury are frequently attributed to a breed that is commonly known as the Pit Bull. Often however, this breed is blamed even when there is no evidence. While the American Staffordshire Terrier (one of the most common of the breeds known as Pit Bulls) can be trained to be aggressive the majority that we see in our practice are easily handled and trustworthy. So what is the truth? Should we fear Pit Bulls? Should they be outlawed? Do we have to worry if there is one in the house? Caution needs to be observed around any pet in the household be it dog, cat, parrot or guinea pig.

There are characteristics of certain breeds that do, however, raise the bar when it comes to wounds. For example some of the most serious dog bites of children are often from larger breeds, in particular the St. Bernard. Though not known as a particularly aggressive breed, St Bernards have a very large and strong mouth, useful as mountain rescue dogs but capable of inflicting a very large wound when startled or hurt. The sheer size of their jaw dictates that when motivated to bite, the damage can be maximal. Though many of the smaller breeds have much shorter mouths, injuries they inflict are more commonly to the face and eye as they are often picked up to be held. Hence even though the damage caused by the smaller breeds may not have the sheer size of that of a St Bernard or German Shepherd, the location can cause a much greater disfigurement. Although Pit Bulls do have very strong jaws (they do not lock as legend would have us believe) their grasp on what they bite can be tenacious. Here is where the “lock jaw” legend arises.

So what is the truth about Pit Bulls or for that matter Rottweilers , German Shepherds, Saint Bernards, Labradors and any other large or giant breed one could name. As a veterinarian for many years I have learned that a healthy respect for any pet is essential. They may look peaceful and friendly while waiting to be examined but fear can affect any animal’s (even human’s) response. Of course the way a pet is reared and trained has a very strong effect on their personality. A pet that is abused is much more likely to bite out of fear of further abuse. A pet that is raised with love, caring and positive reinforcement is less inclined to attack out of self preservation. However our pets were not always domesticated. They are still hard wired to protect themselves against any threat, real or perceived. Though the threshold may be higher for a pet that has been brought up in a loving environment we should never take good behavior for granted. Illness, fear, pain and surprise can all motivate an animal to do whatever they feel is necessary to protect themselves.

I have visited several schools over the years to speak about dog bite prevention. I still find it surprising that even as recently as last week at a middle school, many students and teachers still believe that when approaching an unknown dog you should reach your hand out to allow them to smell you. Some dogs will see this as an aggressive move and react accordingly to protect themselves. There is still lots of work to be done educating the public regarding injury from animals. So, should we fear Pit Bulls? Certainly not any more than we should fear any pet. It is important, however, that we recognize that given the right set of circumstances any pet may lash out.