One Expert Stands Alone Against Pit Bulls


November, 2004
“Pit bulls are different; they’re like wild animals,” says Alan Beck, director for the Center for the Human Animal Bond School of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN.

Those who condemn pit bulls and call for breed bans targeting these dogs tend to be members of the general population, or most often, it seems, politicians.

Beck isn’t calling for breed bans – he stops just short. It’s exceedingly rare for an animal expert to vilify pit bulls, and few would doubt Beck’s credentials. He’s renowned for his decades of groundbreaking research on using animals in therapeutic settings, such as nursing homes. He’s the co-author of “Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship” (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN, 1996; $29.95).

Controversy about dangerous dogs seems crop up daily in the media. It seems, mostly it’s pit bull-bull-type dogs who are making the headlines. Many communities around the world have responded with breed specific bans, but most experts contend that’s not the right answer.

In 2000, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) teamed to investigate whether or not breed specific legislation (banning individual breeds, such as pit bulls, from communities) is effective. The results of their studies were published in several scientific journals.

“We learned breed specific legislation is not the way to tackle the issue of dog bites,” says Dr. Julie Gilchrist of the CDC Injury Center in Atlanta, GA. “Instead, we should look at the people with those dogs responsible for the bites.”

Animal Behaviorist Randy Lockwood, vice president research and education at the HSUS in Washington D.C. says about 100 per cent of dogs involved in fatal attacks were unaltered males, also in the overwhelming majority of instances the dogs were previously complained about but animal control or law enforcement failed to take action. Other risk factors include dogs who roamed the neighborhood or dogs who were tethered.

“I believe the answer is to strengthen and then enforce laws that encourage responsible dog ownership for all dogs of all breeds,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinary behaviorist in College Station, TX who has worked on breed specific issues, and is now the president of the AVMA. The thinking is if dogs of all breeds are spayed or neutered, officials enforce dangerous dog laws already in place, and people are discouraged from tethering, the number of dog attacks will significantly decrease.

Beck isn’t swayed by these arguments. Instead, he says it’s in the veterinary and animal welfare community’s best interest to protect pit bulls, and other pets from all restrictive legislation. “It’s just not politically correct in the animal world to favor breed restrictions,” he says.

Lockwood says Beck’s argument has no merit; indeed, it’s a matter of looking at the data.

Beck agrees, but his interpretation of that data differs from that of the HSUS/AVMA/CDC panel. Yet, Beck looked mostly the same data – the fatal dog bite statistics from the CDC, 1979 to 1998, (Post ’98, the CDC stopped trekking which breeds are involved in fatal attacks because according to a CDC spokesperson, that information isn’t of discernable value).

Pit bulls are not a breed registered with the AKC (In fact, Beaver and others argue pit bulls are not actually a breed in the first place, but rather a loose mix of various breeds). However, the United Kennel Club (the second largest registry of pure bred dogs next to the AKC) does maintain pit bull registrations. Beck estimated pit bulls numbers using UKC registrations, and then added to it based on several sources. He figures the number of pit bulls to be about one per cent of the 61.6 million dogs in America. Yet, his arithmetic indicates pit bulls are responsible for 19 per cent of all fatal dog attacks in America.

“That’s where pit bulls are out of whack,” he says. “Something is going on with pit bulls because the number of their fatal dog bites is so over-represented.”

Except, Beck’s data is fatally flawed, counters Catherine Hedges founder of Furry Friends Foundation in Chicago, a no-kill shelter that successfully adopts pit bulls in family settings without issues. In Chicago alone, it’s estimated there are 60,000 pit bulls. It’s conceivable there are two times as many or more the number of pit bulls Beck estimated nationwide.

If Hedges is correct, and there more pit bulls than Beck suggests, he’s even more concerned. Because Beck feels pit bulls are different than other dogs, and some are inherently dangerous to people.

“It turns out that pit bulls are, in fact, absolutely the same as all dogs,” argues Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist and researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine – Philadelphia. She bases her views on her own genetic research. What’s more, this summer the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled there is no genetic evidence identifying pit bulls as inherently any more dangerous than other dogs.

According to recent testing of 122 dog breeds by the American Temperament Testing Society, pit bulls achieved a passing rate 83.9 per cent of the time. Golden retrievers ranked 83.2 per cent, beagles at 78.2 per cent, and standard schnauzers, a surprisingly low 63.5 per cent.

The truth is that pit bulls were indeed bred (using mostly various bull terrier breeds) to fight other dogs. “It’s true that some pit bulls are genetically hard wired to be dog aggressive, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with being aggressive to people,” Beaver says.

The related Staffordshire bull terrier and American Staffordshire terrier are legendary family dogs, the former dubbed the nanny dog for their devotion to children. Hedges says pit bulls were developed for dog fighting, but that also requires them not to turn on their people. She says, “I’m constantly surprised that even pit bulls abused by people have an amazing threshold for unconditional forgiveness.”

Lockwood adds, “Let’s look at the real source of the problem, irresponsible dog owners, or worse. So many pit bulls are now used for dog fighting by gangs or as a dangerous weapon. This is a social issue, it’s a law enforcement issue, but it’s not a dog breed issue.”

(In part 2: Details of Ontario Canada’s recent ban on pit bull-type dogs, and whether or not the breed restrictions put into place this summer in Boston, MA have succeeded.).