When I walk a Pitbull from my local shelter downtown, I get strong reactions. Some people squeal and grab the dog’s big head, usually while pulling out their phone to show me pictures of their pibbles like a proud grandparent.

On the other hand, I’ve gone so far as to pick up a friendly pitbull so a terrified pedestrian felt safe enough to walk by. It’s hard to just go for a walk with a Pitbull. Positive or negative, people have opinions about pibbles.

If you tour your local shelter, you’re likely to notice something pretty quickly: The shelters are full of Pitbulls. These dogs are beloved by their fan base and becoming ever more popular, despite being banned from cities and housing throughout the country, but they are also by far the most common dogs in shelters and the breed that most often dies there.

Why? The answer is complicated and controversial, but I’ll try to unpack some of the answers here.

The Pit Bull Label

Since genetic testing is not practical for most shelter dogs, breed is determined by a dog’s appearance in the absence of any kind of history about the dog. Self-identified dog experts like shelter staff and veterinarians are extremely poor at correctly identifying dogs’ breeds.

Breed identification for a given dog was labeled correct if a breed containing at least 25% of a dog’s genetic makeup was selected. 5,922 respondents representing all US states and territories completed the survey.

Breeds were correctly identified, on average, only 27% of the time.

6% of the dogs weren’t correctly identified at all, and 22% only had their breed identified 1% of the time. Only 15% of the dogs were correctly identified more than 70% of the time.

This means that the listed breed for any given dog at an animal shelter is very unlikely to be accurate. For pit mixes, the misidentification can be deadly.

Is this dog a pit bull? Chances are you can’t tell, and neither can experts

Many dogs are identified as Pitbulls, even if they aren’t. On the other hand, many dogs with pit bull genetics are misidentified as other breeds.

You probably wouldn’t guess that this dog is mostly a Pitbull. (The American Pitbull Terrier is not recognized by the AKC, so the breed that is closest to it, the American Staffordshire Terrier, is what shows up on genetic tests.)

Despite being 62% pit, this dog would be one of the first adopted from shelters by people who, “don’t want a Pitbull.” On the other hand, another dog with the same percentage of pitbull could easily be passed over for, “looking like a Pitbull,” especially if it was mixed with a large breed like a Labrador.

The Pit Bull’s Fate

Regardless of whether a dog really is a Pitbull or not, being labeled one can have disastrous consequences for the dog. Many more Pitbulls come into shelters than are adopted. Pitbulls come into the shelter more than any other breed, and they are euthanized in the greatest numbers as well.

Around 33% of dogs coming into shelters are labeled Pitbulls. In large cities, as many as 40%-65% of dogs entering sheltes are pits. Around 75% of municipal shelters euthanize Pitbulls immediately upon intake.

It is estimated that 1 million pits are euthanized every year. That’s nearly 3000 pitbulls every day. Some estimates are even higher. Nationally, it is estimated that there is a 93% euthanasia rate for pit bulls. Only one in 600 Pitbulls will win the lottery and find a forever home.

Why are so many pitbulls euthanized?

The answer is complicated and controversial. After watching pibble after pibble die in my local shelter despite the best efforts of staff and volunteers, aware that the same thing is happening throughout the country and that many shelters don’t try nearly so hard to save them, I don’t mind delving into some controversy in hopes of finding a solution.

Whether you love this breed or fear them, no good will be done for the dogs or the community by turning a blind eye to the reality of the situation. Here is the problem, as I see it.

1. The Breed

According to the United Kennel Club, the American Pit bull Terrier displays the following characteristics:

The essential characteristics of the American Pit Bull Terrier are strength, confidence, and zest for life. This breed is eager to please and brimming over with enthusiasm. APBTs make excellent family companions and have always been noted for their love of children.

Because most APBTs exhibit some level of dog aggression and because of its powerful physique, the APBT requires an owner who will carefully socialize and obedience train the dog. The breed’s natural agility makes it one of the most capable canine climbers so good fencing is a must for this breed…

Aggressive behavior toward humans is uncharacteristic of the breed and highly undesirable. This breed does very well in performance events because of its high level of intelligence and its willingness to work.

United Kennel Club

The AKC does recognize the American Staffordshire Terrier, which is very similar in appearance and history to the American Pitbull Terrier, and generally grouped under the same label of Pitbull. This is what the AKC says to new American Staffordshire owners:

Another imperative step to raising a well-adjusted Am Staf is to heavily socialize puppies and young adults with lots of other dogs. This should always be done in controlled environments with dogs of known temperaments. In general, an Am Staf should not be left alone with other dogs. Dog aggression is something that can develop in even well-socialized dogs. Aggression towards humans in this breed in non-threatening situations should never be seen.

AKC American Staffordshire Terrier Flyer

It is important to note that many breeds have it in their breed standard to show potential dog-aggression, as well as other predictable breed traits. This is what the AKC says about the Japanese breed, the Akita:

Wary of strangers and often intolerant of other animals, Akitas will gladly share their silly, affectionate side with family and friends. They thrive on human companionship. The large, independent-thinking Akita is hardwired for protecting those they love. 

AKC Akita Breed Standard

Play groups help shelter staff identify what kinds of dogs a particular dog gets along with, but having played well before is never a guarantee that a fight won’t occur

The ASPCA has the following stance on pit bulls:

Dog breeds are characterized by certain physical and behavioral traits. Each breed was developed to perform a specific job, whether that job is hunting rabbits, retrieving downed birds, herding livestock or sitting on people’s laps…

…It’s not surprising that individuals of a specific breed tend to look and behave somewhat similarly. Pointers are more likely than Poodles to point, and sheepdogs are more likely than lapdogs to herd…

Today’s pit bull is a descendant of the original English bull-baiting dog—a dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears and other large animals around the face and head.  When baiting large animals was outlawed in the 1800s, people turned instead to fighting their dogs against each other. These larger, slower bull-baiting dogs were crossed with smaller, quicker terriers to produce a more agile and athletic dog for fighting other dogs.

Some pit bulls were selected and bred for their fighting ability. That means that they may be more likely than other breeds to fight with dogs. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be around other dogs or that they’re unpredictably aggressive.  Other pit bulls were specifically bred for work and companionship. These dogs have long been popular family pets, noted for their gentleness, affection and loyalty. And even those pit bulls bred to fight other animals were not prone to aggressiveness toward people. Dogs used for fighting needed to be routinely handled by people; therefore aggression toward people was not tolerated. Any dog that behaved aggressively toward a person was culled, or killed, to avoid passing on such an undesirable trait. Research on pet dogs confirms that dog aggressive dogs are no more likely to direct aggression toward people than dogs that aren’t aggressive to other dogs.

“Position Statement on Pit Bulls” -ASPCA

Does this mean that a given dog in a shelter that is labeled a pit bull will display dog aggression? No. But it does mean that dogs that are actually Pitbulls may be more likely than other breeds to display dog aggression, especially if their near ancestors were bred for fighting.

2. Dog Fighting

The further a dog’s ancestry is from dogfighting, the less likely they will be to show dog aggression. Unfortunately, dog fighting is terribly common.

As with any other illegal underground activity, it is impossible to determine how many people may be involved in dogfighting. Estimates based on fight reports in underground dogfighting publications, and on animals entering shelters with evidence of fighting, suggest that the number of people involved in dogfighting in the U.S. is in the tens of thousands.

While organized dogfighting activity seemed to decline in the 1990’s, many law enforcement and animal control officials feel that it has rebounded in recent years. Street fighting has reportedly continued to grow as a significant component of urban crime. The Internet has also made it easier for dogfighters to rapidly exchange information about animals and fights.

ASPCA Dog Fighting FAQ

The dog-fighting world produces a lot of homeless dogs. An industry that doesn’t respect or value animal life has no problem tossing out dogs as soon as they are no longer useful. Breeding dogs are often housed outside on chains, where females in heat are mated by any passing dog, resulting in countless accidental mixed breed litters.

This means that a dog in a shelter may have come from fighting parents or at least one fighting parent, even if they have never been fought. Some pit bulls in shelters are fightings dogs that were injured, refused to fight, or otherwise lost their usefulness to their owners.

Some of these dogs will show dog aggression and some won’t.

3. Public Fear and Misinformation

Public opinion is rarely a wealth of accurate information, but when it comes to Pitbulls, people really get it wrong. Here are some misconceptions about pit bulls that lead to reduced adoption rates.

Myth: Pitbulls are vicious. According to the American Temperment Test Society, Pitbulls passed 82% of the time, as opposed to only 77% of the general population of dogs. These results prove what most Pitbull owners already know: that pibbles are generally very human-friendly and have steady temperaments.

Myth: Dog aggression = people aggression. APBTs may be more likely to show dog aggression, but they are actually very unlikely to show human aggression. Not only does human aggression go against the breed standard, but dogs who show human aggression are dangerous in the fighting ring and are culled.

Myth: Pitbulls can be trusted alone with other dogs if properly socialized. While it may be possible for Pitbulls to be safe with other dogs, and many Pitbulls live happily all their lives being left alone periodically with other dogs, the Pitbull breed was developed to attack other dogs and large animals, and this instinct is still in the breed.

A Pit Bull that will fight another dog if unattended is a normal Pit Bull. Even if a Pit Bull does not start the fight, it has the potential to seriously injure or kill a dog once in the fight.

American Pit Bull Foundation

Many pitbulls are turned into shelters and euthanized every year because they display normal behavior for the breed and are handled incorrectly by being left alone with another dog.

Myth: If my young pit bull is good with dogs now, he’ll be good later. All dogs show some changes in personality as they mature, and for many dogs, maturity is when breed-related instincts and behaviors become strongest.

Pit Bulls have a late maturity, and a Pit Bull that was dog friendly at 7 months old may suddenly show signs of intolerance of unfamiliar dogs around two years old. Spaying and neutering the dog may help to prevent “turning on” the genetic urge to fight another dog.

American Pit Bull Foundation

Stories of maturing pit bulls showing sudden and devastating aggression towards other dogs or pets are all too common, and are likely at the base of the misconception that Pitbulls are unpredictable. Sudden aggression at maturity is, in fact, perfectly predictable for the APBT.

Myth: APBTs have much stronger bite pressure than other breeds and have “locking jaws”. A pit bull’s bite strength corresponds to jaw size, just like every other breed. Pit bulls can’t lock their jaws, although holding a bite is a breed characteristic.

Myth: It is best to get a pit bull as a puppy because, “It’s the upbringing, not the breed,”. It’s the breed. Great socialization with other dogs and animals may result in a well-socialized Pitbull, but it won’t guarantee a dog that won’t fight. Many people get pitbull puppies thinking they can curtail any breed-related problems, then surrender the dog at two or three when breed characteristics come out. It is actually much better to choose a mature dog with desirable traits since those traits are likely to persist. A three or four-year-old pit bull who is friendly with people and other dogs is likely to remain that way.

What can we do about it?

In the end, a given dog in a shelter that is labeled “Pitbull” may not be a pit bull at all, may be a genetic APBT that shows no aggression towards dogs or anything else, may show dog-aggression, or may be just about any other mix of characteristics. What can we do to save the dogs labeled “Pitbull” in American shelters?

Treat every shelter dog as an individual

The “Pitbulls” in shelters are dogs. Just dogs. They show all the range of things that a dog can be. If you love a dog, you have an idea of how much there is to them. Every shelter dog must be assessed as an individual.

If a Pitbull is mixed with another breed, the resulting puppies may have Pitbull personality traits but a non-Pitbull appearance, or a Pitbull appearance with non-Pitbull traits. This is why it is so essential that EVERY dog in the shelter is assessed as an individual.

Stop breeding APBTs until the shelters aren’t overrun with them

Given the difficulty of placing homeless pit bulls, serious consideration needs to be given to breeding these dogs. Many pit bulls must have single pet homes or owners who can safely supervise and keep dogs separated as needed.

These powerful dogs need plenty of exercise and housing which can resist their athletic escape attempts. Breed legislation eliminates entire cities and countless housing options for pit bulls.

I often joke, if the shelters were full of lapdogs, we’d have no trouble finding homes for them all. It’s easy to fill a home with chihuahuas and malti-poos.

With a powerful breed like the APBT, a dog who requires an experienced and involved owner, with disastrous consequences when mismanaged, it is very, very hard to safely rehome in many cases.

We’d have the same problem if the shelters were full of Akitas and Akita mixes, but they’re not. They’re full of Pitbulls. So Pitbulls need our help.

Speak out. Adopt. Foster. Donate.

Speak out against breeding and buying Pitbulls. If you are considering this breed, please adopt. If you can’t adopt or foster one of these dogs, please donate to organizations dedicated to saving them and organizations that educate the public and advocate spaying and neutering.

If you have an APBT, appreciate the responsibility that ownership of this unique breed represents. You can’t walk a Pitbull down the street without accepting the role of a breed ambassador. This isn’t just about the positive. Help to spread the word that this special dog needs an owner who understands the breed. Most Pitbulls that die in shelters don’t come from fighting rings. They come from homes with owners who didn’t properly educate themselves on the breed before purchasing a puppy.

What do you think?

That’s my stance on the pibble problem in America. What’s your’s? What do you think about Pitbulls? What ideas do you have to help? Please don’t hesitate to comment below or email me.

3 thoughts on “The Pibble Problem: Pitbulls in American Shelters

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