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The term pit bull refers to certain breeds of dog – namely, the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and any crosses between the three. In a few parts of the world, the American Bulldog is also classified as 'Pit Bull'-type dog, despite the fact that they have major genetic differences.
The American Pit Bull Terrier was bred for working and eagerness despite the threat of substantive injury, strength, and athleticism. American Pit Bull Terriers constitute the majority of dogs used for illegal dog fighting in the United States. Widely reported pit bull attacks have resulted in the enacting of breed-specific legislation in several jurisdictions, as well as increased premiums for liability insurance.
Although pit bulls were all created with similar cross-breeding between bulldogs and terriers, each individual breed within the type has a distinct history. The US Humane Society estimated that in 2009 there were over 79.2 million owned dogs in the United States; however, the number of pit bull-type dogs has not been reliably determined.
The American Pit Bull Terrier is the product of interbreeding between Old English Terrier and English Bulldogs to produce a dog that combined the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the bulldog. These dogs were initially bred in England, and arrived in the United States with the founders. In the U.S., these dogs were used as catch dogs for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt, to drive livestock, and as family companions. Some have been selectively bred for their fighting prowess. The United Kennel Club (UKC) was the first registry to recognize the American Pit Bull Terrier, in 1898.
American Pit Bull Terriers successfully fill the role of companion dog, police dog, and therapy dog. American Pit Bull Terriers also constitute the majority of dogs used for illegal dog fighting in the United States. In addition, law enforcement organizations report these dogs are used for other nefarious purposes, such as guarding illegal narcotics operations, use against the police, and as attack dogs.
The fighting reputation of pit bull-type dogs led the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1996 to relabel pit bull terriers as "St. Francis Terriers" (not associated with the "terrier" mascot of St. Francis College in New York) so that they might be more readily adopted; 60 temperament-screened dogs were adopted until the program was halted after several of the newly adopted dogs killed cats. The New York City Center for Animal Care and Control tried a similar approach in 2004, by relabeling their pit bull terriers as "New Yorkies", but dropped the idea in the face of overwhelming public opposition.
The American Staffordshire Terrier was the product of 19th century interbreeding between bulldogs and terriers that produced the "bull-and-terrier dog," "Half and Half," and at times "pit dog" or "pit bullterrier," the last named becoming the "Staffordshire Bull Terrier" in England. The bulldog of that time differed from the modern Bulldog, having a full muzzle and a long, tapering tail. There is some debate whether the White English Terrier, the Black and Tan Terrier, the Fox Terrier, or some combination thereof were used. These dogs began to find their way into America as early as 1870, where they became known as Pit Dog, Pit Bull Terrier, later American Bull Terrier, and still later as a Yankee terrier. They were imported primarily, but not exclusively, for pit fighting.
In 1936, they were accepted by the American Kennel Club (AKC) as "Staffordshire Terriers." Breeders started creating exemplars heavier in weight. Since January 1, 1972, it was renamed to "American Staffordshire Terrier" to make a separate breed from the lighter Staffordshire Bull Terrier of England.
Pit Bull breeds have become famous for their roles as soldiers, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, actors, television personalities, seeing eye dogs, and celebrity pets. Historically, the Bull Terrier mix Nipper and Petey from the Little Rascals are the most well known. Lesser known, but still historically notable pit bulls include Helen Keller's dog "Sir Thomas", Buster Brown's dog "Tige", Horatio Jackson's dog "Bud", President Theodore Roosevelt's Pit Bull terrier "Pete", "Jack Brutus" who served for Company K, the First Connecticut Volunteer Infantry during the civil war, and Sir Walter Scott's "Wasp".
Modernly significant pit bulls are: Weela, who helped save 32 people, 29 dogs, 3 horses, and 1 cat; Popsicle, a five-month-old puppy originally found nearly dead in a freezer, who grew to become one of the nation's most important police dogs; Norton, who was placed in the Purina Animal Hall of Fame after he rescued his owner from a severe reaction to a spider bite; Titan, who rescued his owner's wife, who would have died from an aneurysm, and D-Boy, who took three bullets to save his family from an intruder with a gun.
A 9-year (1979–88) review of fatal dog attacks in the United States determined that, of the 101 attacks in which breed was recorded, pit bulls were implicated in 42 of those attacks (41.6%). A 1991 study found that 94% of attacks on children by pit bulls were unprovoked, compared to 43% for other breeds. A 5-year (1989–94) review of fatal dog attacks in the United States determined that pit bulls and pit bull mixed breeds were implicated in 24 (28.6%) of the 84 deaths in which breed was recorded.
A 15-year (1991–2005) review of dog attack fatalities investigated by the Kentucky Medical Examiner determined that pit bulls were implicated in 5 of the 11 fatal attacks (45.4%). Another 15-year (1994–2009) review of patients admitted to a Level I Trauma Center with dog bites determined that pit bulls were most often involved in these attacks: of the 228 patients treated, the breed of dog was recorded in 82 attacks, and of these, 29 (35%) attacks were attributed to pit bulls. All other dogs combined accounted for the remaining 65% of attacks. In 44.8% of the attacks, the dog belonged to the victim's family. The authors state:
Attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs. Strict regulation of pit bulls may substantially reduce the US mortality rates related to dog bites.
However, several concerns about the reliability of this study's data, its conclusions drawn, its methodology, and its use of citations were raised in a later letter to the editor of Annals of Surgery.
One 5-year (2001–05) review of dog attack victims admitted to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia determined that pit bull terriers were implicated in more than half of bites where breed was identified. Of the 551 patients treated, breed was identified in 269 cases. Of these 269 patients, 137 (50.9%) were attacked by pit bulls. The authors write:
the overwhelming number of bites involving pit bull terriers in this study and others certainly has some degree of validity when it comes to identifying bite-prone breeds. Pit bull terriers, German shepherds, and Rottweilers were the offending breeds implicated in our study and have accounted for the majority of dog bites according to other investigators.
One review of the medical literature found that pit bulls and pit bull cross-breeds were involved in between 42 and 45% of dog attacks. Fatalities were most often reported in children, with 70% of victims being under the age of 10. Some studies that have been performed on the number of human deaths caused by dog bite trauma have surveyed news media stories for reports of dog bite-related fatalities. This methodology is subject to several potential sources of error: some fatal attacks may not have been reported; a study might not find all of the relevant news reports; and the potential for misidentification of dog breeds, although courts in the United States and Canada have ruled that expert identification, when using published breed standards, is sufficient for the enforcement of breed-specific legislation. It is possible to distinguish dogs by breed using DNA testing, but test results for any one dog can vary widely depending upon the laboratory that performs the test and the number of purebred dog breeds in the laboratory's DNA database.
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A study by Dr. Malathi Raghavan, DVM, PhD questions the bull dog reputation as a dangerous breed. An electronic search of newspaper articles by Dr. Raghavan found that pit bull terriers were responsible for 1 of 28 (3.6%) dog bite-related fatalities reported in Canada from 1990 through 2007. The study also notes that:
A higher proportion of sled dogs and, possibly, mixed-breed dogs in Canada than in the United States caused fatalities, as did multiple dogs rather than single dogs. Free-roaming dog packs, reported only from rural communities, caused most on-reserve fatalities.
The total number of fatal dog attacks from the 17-year period is equal to about one fatal attack per year, while the Clifton report, a more comprehensive study that includes the 1990–2007 period in the Canadian Veterinary Journal Study, shows an average of six fatalities attributed to pit bulls alone annually in the United States and Canada.
In a project called the "Calgary Model," legislation addressing bad owners instead of breed-specific has been the focus. After implementation, which includes fining the Owner $350–1,500 in dog bite cases has led to a 25-year low in the incidence of such cases.
Several studies have determined that pit bull owners and owners of other "vicious" or "high risk" breeds (most commonly identified as Akita, Chow Chow, Doberman Pinscher, Pit Bull, Rottweiler, and Wolf-mix) are more likely to have criminal convictions and are more likely to display antisocial behaviors. A 2006 study comparing owners of "high risk" dogs to owners of "low risk" dogs. "High risk" dogs included “vicious” dogs by breed (e.g., Pit Bulls) or “vicious” actions (e.g., any dog that had bitten, attacked or killed a person or other animal). The study determined that "high risk" dog owners had nearly 10 times as many criminal convictions then those of "low risk" dog owners. A 2009 and a followup 2012 study generally supported these conclusions.
There is some confusion over the "locked jaw" notion with pit bulls. There is no evidence for the existence of a physiological "locking mechanism" in the teeth or jaw structure of normal pit bull-type dogs, although a dog's jaws can be locked in a closed position by surgically correctable jaw abnormalities. However, pit bull-type dogs exhibit "bite, hold, and shake" behavior, which is seen in all breeds of dogs, and at times refuse to release when biting; methods to force pit bull-type dogs to release their grip include breaking an ammonia ampule and holding it up to the dog's nose, or using a "break stick" to lever the dog's jaws open if it bites a person or animal.
Many jurisdictions that restrict pit bulls, including Ontario, Canada, Miami, Florida, U.S., Denver, Colorado, U.S., and Malden, Massachusetts, U.S. apply the restriction to the modern American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any other dog that has the substantial physical characteristics and appearance of those breeds. However a few jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Franklin County, Ohio, U.S., also classify the modern American Bulldog as a "pit bull-type dog", while in the United Kingdom a pit bull is an American Pit Bull Terrier. All of the breeds share a similar history, with origins rooted from the Bulldog and a variety of Terriers, except for the Johnson line of American Bulldog (as opposed to the more pure Scott line), which come from the Bulldog and a variety of Mastiffs. The dogs called bull terriers before the development of the modern Bull Terrier in the early 20th century may also be called pit bulls.
A large number of jurisdictions have enacted breed-specific legislation (BSL) in response to a number of well-publicized incidents involving pit bull-type dogs, and some government organizations such as the United States Army and Marine Corps have taken administrative action as well. These actions range from outright bans on the possession of pit bull-type dogs to restrictions and conditions on pit bull ownership, and often establish a legal presumption that a pit bull-type dog is prima facie a legally "dangerous" or "vicious" dog. In response, some state-level governments in the United States have prohibited or restricted the ability of municipal governments within those states to enact breed-specific legislation, though these prohibitions on breed-specific legislation do not affect military installations located within these states.
It is now generally settled in case law that jurisdictions in the United States and Canada have the right to enact breed-specific legislation. Despite these findings by the courts, there remains some public skepticism over whether the laws are effective. One point of view is that pit bulls are a public safety issue that merits actions such as banning ownership, mandatory spay/neuter for all pit bulls, mandatory microchip implants and liability insurance, or prohibiting people convicted of a felony from owning pit bulls. Another point of view is that comprehensive "dog bite" legislation, coupled with better consumer education and legally mandating responsible pet keeping practices, is a better solution to the problem of dangerous dogs than breed-specific legislation.
A third point of view is that breed-specific legislation should not ban breeds entirely but should strictly regulate the conditions under which specific breeds could be owned, for example, forbidding certain classes of individuals from owning them, specifying public areas from which they would be prohibited, and establishing conditions, such as requiring a dog to wear a muzzle, for taking dogs from specific breeds into public places. Finally, some governments, such as in Australia, have forbidden the import of specific breeds and are requiring the spay/neuter of all existing dogs of these breeds in an attempt to slowly eliminate the population through natural attrition.
In a 2012 ruling involving the mauling of a child, Maryland's highest court held that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous", making pit bull owners, and landlords renting to tenants who own a pit bull, strictly liable for any injuries caused during an attack by said pit bull.
Dog owners in the United States can be held legally liable for injuries inflicted or caused by their dogs. In general, owners are considered liable if they were unreasonably careless in handling or restraining the dog, or if they knew beforehand that the dog had a tendency to cause injury (e.g., bite); however, dog owners are automatically considered liable if local laws hold an owner strictly liable for all damage caused by their dog, regardless of carelessness or foreknowledge of a dog's tendencies. Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically provide liability coverage from US$100,000–300,000 for injuries inflicted by dogs; however, some insurance companies limit their exposure to dog bite liability claims by putting restrictions on dog owners that they insure. These restrictions include refusing to cover dog bites under the insurance policy; increasing insurance rates for homeowners with specific breeds; requiring owners of specific breeds to take special training or have their dogs pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test; requiring owners to restrict their dogs with muzzles, chains, or enclosures; and refusing to write policies for homeowners or renters who have specific breeds of dogs. In Ohio, which has declared all pit bull-type dogs to be legally "vicious", the cost of special liability insurance that covers only the damage inflicted by a pit bull-type dog can exceed US$575 per year.
Owners of rental properties may also be held liable if they knew an aggressive dog was living on their property and they did nothing to ensure the safety of other tenants at the property; as a result, many rental properties forbid pit bull-type dogs and any other breeds if the rental property's insurance will not cover damage inflicted by that type of dog. The dog breeds most often targeted by insurance companies include pit bull-type dogs, Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Akitas (Akita Inu and American Akita), and Chows.
Several air carriers embargo certain dog breeds due to the effect of high temperature and humidity on brachycephalic animals, or concerns for the safety of airline property, personnel, and passengers. The following table has a sampling of air carrier embargoes on dogs.
|Air France||Safety||The Staffordshire Terrier, mastiff (boerboel), tosa, and pit bull may not be transported or shipped by air.|
|Alaska Airlines / Horizon Air||Health||Dog breeds including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, fly at their owner's risk, with no additional compensation if the dog suffers injury or dies during transit. The airline may refuse to accept the dog if it feels outside temperatures are too extreme for the animal's safety.|
|American Airlines||Health||American Airlines will not accept brachycephalic or snub-nosed dogs and cats as checked luggage.|
|United Airlines||Safety||American Pit Bull Terriers over six months old or weighing more than 20 pounds (9 kg) are embargoed.|
|Delta Air Lines||Health||"Snub-nosed dogs" are embargoed when the temperature at the departure point or any stop along the travel route is expected to exceed 75 °F (24 °C).|