In my years of volunteering with my local animal services, I quickly noticed that the large dog sections tend to be full of Pitbulls, and the small dog sections have primarily Chihuahuas. Over the years, I’ve learned some surprising reasons why. 

Why are there so many Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas in shelters? There are so many Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas in shelters because more of these dogs are being bred, because of breed characteristics like a tendency towards boldness and bravery, and because of public misinformation and misconceptions.

Understanding why so many Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas live and die in shelters is essential to making positive changes. Here’s what you need to know why there are so many Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas are in shelters.

Why Are All Shelter Dogs Pit Bulls? 

Overwhelmingly, Pitbulls are the most common dogs in municipal animal shelters nationwide. If you happen to walk through an intake shelter that houses little dogs in a separate section, as many do, it may actually appear to you that every dog in the shelter is a Pit Bull.

The Dark Side of Animal Rescue

Are Shelter Dogs Rescue Dogs?

The terms “Shelter dog” and “Rescue dog” are often used interchangeably, but there are meaningful differences between a dog at a shelter and one at a rescue. Dogs at shelters, even no-kill shelters, are the property of the county and may be euthanized for space, behavior, or medical reasons.

Dogs that are “pulled” from shelters by rescues become the property of the rescue. These rescues typically have very strict zero-euthanasia policies except in the most extreme situations. 

Animal rescues are private organizations, like the Humane Society, that are funded primarily by private grants and public donations, which they use to save and adopt out homeless dogs. 

Any given area in the United States likely has several private rescue organizations.  Breed-specific rescue organizations as well as organizations that rescue dogs from particular situations sometimes transport dogs across the country or even across the world to save them and find them good homes.

Pit Bulls Who are Shelter Dogs are Less Likely to become Rescue Dogs

Unfortunately, there is a dark side of animal rescue. Animal rescues, while they strive to save as many dogs as possible, are bound by the laws of supply and demand. 

Most are dependent on foster homes to house dogs. The less adoptable and more difficult to handle the dog is, the harder it is to find a foster or adopter. Rescues must be very careful in the dogs that they take on so they don’t become over-burdened with difficult-to-adopt dogs.

The logical consequence of this reality is that private animal rescues pull not the dogs that may be most at risk of euthanasia, but the dogs that they are most likely to be able to rehome, leaving room for them to save another. 

Unfortunately for Pitbulls, this breed is not considered highly desirable either to be placed in foster homes or to be adopted by the public. Pitbull rescues are unfortunately few and far between and most are constantly bombarded with requests to save dogs, so they can make very little dent in the number of Pitbulls that end up being euthanized.

Bad Labeling 

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

Since genetic testing is not practical for most shelter dogs, a dog’s 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 dog 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
  • 22% only had their breed identified 1% of the time
  • Only 15% of the dogs were correctly identified more than 70% of the time.

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.

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 over 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.

Breed History

The American Pitbull Terrier was originally bred to fight animals and other dogs in a ring.  As the breed developed, they also became favorites of ranchers and farmers to catch feral hogs and cattle, hunt, drive livestock, and be companions to their family. Despite the diverse roles of the Pitbull, their history of dogfighting still influences the breed today.

According to the United Kennel Club, the American Pit Bull Terrier is a strong, confident dog with a great zest for life. They are enthusiastic and highly trainable. They are great family dogs and exceptionally noted for loving children.  Aggression towards humans is uncharacteristic and results in removing dogs from the breed pool.

However, the Kennel Club also notes that most American Pitbull terriers display some degree of dog aggression. This characteristic, combined with a powerful, muscular body and athleticism, means that they aren’t right for every owner. 

This is a breed that must be well socialized, trained, and handled. Because they are so athletic, they are very adept at climbing fences, so they are not typically safely contained in a fenced yard.

The AKC recognizes the American Staffordshire Terrier, not the American Pit Bull Terrier. The Am Staff is very similar in appearance and history to the American Pitbull Terrier, and generally grouped under the same label of Pit Bull. 

The AKC warns new American Staffordshire owners that puppies and young adults must be heavily socialized with other dogs in controlled environments and that the breed should never be left alone with other dogs. They warned that even in the most well-socialized American Staffordshire Terriers, dog aggression can develop.

The ASPCA draws a connection between the breed’s history and its current behavior in their position statement on Pit bulls. All dogs were developed to do different jobs, such as pointers to point and herders to herd. 

Pit Bulls were descended from dogs bred to bite and hold onto bears, bulls, and other large animals. When this practice was outlawed, the dogs were bred to fight each other instead. 

Since Pit Bulls were bred for many years for their fighting ability, it should not come as a surprise that they may be dog aggressive. The ASPCA clarifies that just because the breed shows a tendency towards dog aggression does not make them more likely to be aggressive towards people. 

In fact, Pit Bulls tend to be less aggressive towards people than many other breeds, as any level of human aggression would be very dangerous to handlers of fighting dogs. 

Does this breed history 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.

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. 

While it is hard to know just how much dogfighting is going on since it is illegal, estimates place the number of people participating in dogfighting in the United States as being in the tens of thousands. It seemed to decline in the 1990s, but law enforcement and Animal Control believes that it is rebounding. 

Fighting dogs on the streets is a common component of urban crime. Online communication makes it easy for dogfighters to organize fights, maintain genetic records, and get equipment.

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.

Public Fear and Misinformation

When I walk a Pitbull from my local shelter downtown, I get strong reactions. Some people happily squeal and kiss 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.

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 and unpredictable 

According to the American Temperament 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 Pitbull 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. Both Rottweilers and German Shepherds have stronger bite strengths than Pitbulls. Pit bulls can’t lock their jaws, although holding a bite is a breed characteristic.

Myth: It is best to get a Pitbull 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 a Pitbull puppy thinking they can curtail any breed-related problems, then surrender the dog in a few years 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  five-year-old Pitbull who is friendly with other dogs is likely to remain that way.

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.

Only one in 600 Pitbulls in shelters will win the lottery and find a forever home.

Around 33% of dogs coming into shelters are labeled Pitbulls. In large cities, as many as 40%-65% of dogs entering shelters 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. 

Chihuahuas in Shelters

When you consider the imposing stature, powerful physique, and breed history of the Pitbull, it may not be surprising that they have a hard time finding new homes. However, many people are very surprised to learn just how many Chihuahuas are in shelters. 

Chihuahuas are common in most shelters throughout the US, especially in the south. In some places, such as California, they may even exceed the number of Pit Bulls in some areas. 

Chihuahuas are over-represented in shelters for some surprisingly similar reasons to why Pitbulls are the most common breed in shelters nationwide. More connections can be drawn between these two apparently dissimilar breeds than you might expect. 

Breed Characteristics

Chihuahuas may have been popularized as the purse accessories of celebrities, but this is far from a passive breed. Chihuahuas enjoy being with their people and can be trained to ride in purses, but it doesn’t mean that they are good purse pets. Chihuahuas are actually not very good dogs for first-time dog owners, and they are far from a low-energy breed. 

Tendency Towards Aggression Towards Other Animals And People

It is not at all uncommon for Chihuahuas to bite, even as puppies. In fact, one study found them to be the most aggressive dog breed studied. They are independent dogs that tend to be suspicious of strangers but fiercely loyal to their families. 

Many Chihuahuas show aggression towards dogs and people that they don’t consider part of the family. As too many unsuspecting significant others learn, the Chihuahua may make up their own mind about who is part of the family. 

Independent

While they are intelligent and many are very trainable, Chihuahuas can also be more likely to try to find ways to get their own way then work to please you.  Despite their diminutive stature, Chihuahuas have a true terrier personality, high prey drive, and a bold and tenacious spirit which can make them a handful.

Potty Training

Many small breed dogs struggle with potty training, and the Chihuahua is no exception. Chihuahua puppies may only be able to hold their bladder for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, which can make it hard for owners to get them out enough or redirect them every time they make a mistake, making potty training challenging from the beginning.

Since Chihuahuas have their own minds, they are very likely decide it is much more comfortable and convenient for them to hide a potty accident than it is to hold their bladder until you let them out.

Many Chihuahua owners find that it is better to litter box or paper train than ask their dog to go outside every time. However, for people who are not aware of Chihuahua potty-training challenges or willing to paper-train, surrendering the dog quickly becomes a more desirable choice than dealing with constant potty accidents.

Public Misconceptions

Ever since Chihuahuas were seen peeking from the purses of celebrities, people have been buying them more as accessories than pets. Irresponsible and greedy breeders were happy to sell vast numbers of puppies to people who knew nothing about the breed. 

When people grow tired of the little dogs, which can live up to 20 years, they surrender them to shelters where they may be unlikely to attract an adopter. 

Misconceptions have haunted the Chihuahua for a very long time. Both negative and positive misconceptions have been highly damaging.

Chihuahuas are Purse Dogs

Chihuahuas are active, independent, and many are distrustful of strangers. Needless to say, these characteristics don’t make them the best purse dogs. Unsuspecting owners may be shocked when their Chihuahua bites a passerby from within their purse, despite the fact that the Chihuahua has been growling and showing that they were guarding for some time. 

Too often, aggressive, protective behavior in a Chihuahua isn’t taken seriously until a bite occurs. Typically, a bite like this results in the Chihuahua being surrendered to the shelter with the label “unpredictable biter.”

Chihuahuas are Shivery Scaredy Dogs

It is completely natural for Chihuahuas to shiver much of the time because they’re happy, scared, excited, cold, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. It is a known breed characteristic and not a sign of any kind of health problem. 

It also does not suggest that these dogs are scaredy cats. In fact, most Chihuahuas are bold, vivacious, brave little dogs, despite being so small. People put off by a shivery little dog in the shelter are unlikely to adopt and have an opportunity to realize the Chihuahua’s potential.

Chihuahuas Have Little Dog Syndrome

If I had a dime for all of the times that someone has apologized to me for their small dog’s bad behavior by calling it “little dog syndrome”, I’d be rich. Little dogs do live in a big, potentially scary world, but they don’t necessarily understand themselves in relation to their size. 

Many Chihuahuas seem to have no idea that they are small, enjoying the company of large dogs and engaging and all kinds of boisterous play and activities. The tendency of Chihuahuas to bark aggressively at strange dogs and people actually comes out of the breed’s bravery and tendency to protect and guard their people and property.

Anyone who discounts the behavior as “Little Dog Syndrome,” may be setting themselves up for a serious bite. 

What Can We Do to Help Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas in Shelters ?

Chihuahuas are too often misunderstood by their owners and potential adopters. This breed isn’t right for everyone, but for an owner who understands their unique behavior and admires their vivacious personalities, they can be incredible pets. 

The fact that they are deeply loyal and brave enough to risk their lives to defend their family makes it even more heartbreaking to think of them abandoned and alone at shelters. 

Pitbulls are among the most even-tempered, human-loving dog breeds, especially noted for their affection towards children. Many have some of the hardest lives of any dog:

  • An underground dogfighting industry keeps them in isolation and neglect between pitting them against each other in vicious fights for the length of their short, hard lives. 
  • A shelter system not equipped to handle vast numbers of Pitbulls and anti-Pitbull legislation results in Pitbulls being euthanized by the thousands. 
  • A public that doesn’t understand Pitbulls is too likely to abandon dogs that become unsuitable pets and unwilling to adopt them from the system before they are euthanized. 

Treat Every Shelter Dog as an Individual That has Gone Through Trauma

Losing your family, even a not-so-good family, is traumatic for any dog, but for deeply loyal, loving breeds like Pitbulls and Chihuahuas, it can be even harder. Pitbulls often become highly frustrated in the confinement of a shelter, which can lead to behavior and vocalizations that look like aggression. Chihuahuas often shut down when separated from their loved ones, shivering in a corner and refusing to interact. 

When you’re considering a dog to adopt, foster, or volunteer with, keep in mind that you’re seeing a dog on one of their worse days. Go slowly, be patient, bring yummy treats, and let each dog reveal their unique personality, regardless of their breed, size, or anything else. 

Stop Breeding Pitbulls and Chihuahuas Until the Shelters Aren’t Overrun With Them

In some areas, there are so many Chihuahuas that they are being shipped north in record numbers. They wander the streets, reproducing at a rate that local rescues can’t keep up with. Community education about the importance of spaying and neutering is having an impact, but more spay and neuter initiatives could make all the difference in reducing the numbers of unwanted Chihuahuas in shelters. 

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.

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.

Legislation must be developed that has the teeth to stop dogfighting and the breeding that produces dogs for this purpose. Individuals who are breeding Pitbulls as pets must be clear with prospective owners about what Pitbull ownership entails. 

Speak out. Adopt. Foster. Donate.

Me with a shelter dog on a recent outing

If you are considering a Pitbull or Chihuahua, please consider adoption. If you can’t adopt or foster one of these dogs, perhaps you can afford to donate to organizations dedicated to saving them and organizations that educate the public and advocate spaying and neutering, like Fix Them All. 

Consider going to your local shelter and spending some time with the dogs there. Each of them is aching for just a little bit of human compassion.

If you have a Pitbull or a Chihuahua, you are an ambassador for the breed. That doesn’t mean that your dog will always be perfectly behaved. What it means is that you are honest and clear with the public about breed characteristics and the pros and cons of owning these breeds. 

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