Are pit bulls the problem, or their people? Study raises the question
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2007:
CINCINNATI–The view that pit bull terriers get into trouble
chiefly because the wrong people have them was reinforced on November
16, 2006 when a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of
Interpersonal Violence revealed that among a sampling of 355 people
who keep pet dogs, all who keep pit bulls turned out to have had
some sort of trouble with the law.
Thirty percent of the people in the sampling who had been
cited at least once for failing to license a pit bull were found to
have had at least five criminal convictions or traffic citations.
Only 1% of the people who keep dogs with a low risk of being involved
in an attack legally defined by Ohio municipal ordinances as
“vicious” had five or more convictions or traffic citations, the
“A ‘vicious dog’ means a dog that, without provocation, has
killed or caused serious injury to any person, has killed another
dog, or belongs to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull
dog,” the study authors explained.
Because the definition of “vicious” presumed that any attack
by a pit bull is high risk, regardless of the actual level of damage
done, the terms of the study were stacked against finding a link
between keeping pit bulls and having a history of lawbreaking, if
their keepers were little different from keepers of other kinds of
dogs. Ordinary citizens who keep pit bulls would have balanced and
neutralized the influence of the lawbreakers.
Instead, explained lead study author Jaclyn Barnes of the
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, “Owners of vicious
dogs who have been cited for failing to register a dog (or) failing
to keep a dog confined on the premises … are more than nine times
more likely to have been convicted for a crime involving children,
three times more likely to have been convicted of domestic violence
… and nearly eight times more likely to be charged with drug
(crimes) than owners of low-risk licensed dogs.”
Co-authors included Frank W. Put-nam of the Cincinnati
Children’s Hospital Medical Center; Barbara Boat of the Univ-ersity
of Cincinnati, an investigator of animal/human relationships who has
often spoken at humane conferences; and Harold Dates and Andrew
Mahlman of the Cincinnati SPCA.
Whether violence involving pit bull terriers results chiefly
from their own characteristics or the characteristics of people who
are inclined to keep them, four parallel trends have perplexed the
animal care and control community for more than a decade:
* Pit bull popularity has exploded. From 1900 until the
late 1980s, pit bull terriers–combining mentions by all of their
common names–made up less than 1% of the U.S. dog population, as
indicated by newspaper classified advertising and appearances in news
coverage. In recent years, however, pit bulls have proliferated
fivefold, increasing in number approximately 10 times as fast as the
dog population as a whole.
Electronic searches by ANIMAL PEOPLE of classified
advertisements in periodicals serving demographically representative
cross-sections of the U.S., spot-checking at different times of
year, found that in 2006 pit bull terriers made up about 5% of the
dogs offered for sale by breeders on any given day, but with much
regional variation. In parts of the South and some big cities, pit
bulls sometimes constituted 15% of the dogs offered for sale. In
affluent suburbs they were occasionally fewer than 1%.
Rottweilers, by contrast, barely even registered in
popularity before the 1980s, and are still barely more than 1% of
* Pit bulls have been consistently about five times more
likely than other dogs to arrive at animal shelters. When pit bulls
were about 1% of the U.S. dog population, they made up about 5% of
shelter admissions; at about 5% of the U.S. dog population, they
make up more than 25%. The trend is similar for Rottweilers.
* Pit bull terriers are about 10 times more likely to kill
or maim a person than other dogs. Excluding attacks by trained
fighting dogs, guard dogs, and police dogs, dogs killed 35 people
in the U.S. and Canada during 2006, the highest annual total since
the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE began logging dog attack data in 1982.
Pit bull terriers killed 14 people, Rottweilers killed seven, and
Presa Canarios, bred by crossing pit bulls with mastiffs, killed
At least 194 people were permanently disfigured by pet dogs
in 2006. Pit bulls disfigured 59; Rottweilers disfigured 20; Presa
Canarios disfigured four.
* Dogfighting, almost eradicated from most of the U.S.
during the early 20th century, began an explosive resurgence in the
1990s, showing no sign yet of abating.
Reported law enforcement seizures of suspected fighting dogs
reached an all-time recorded high of 916 in 2006, up from 837 in
Fewer than 100 alleged fighting dogs were seized in most
years before 1998, when the number of reported seizures nearly
quadrupled to 365, then more than doubled to 791 in 1999. Seizures
peaked at 896 in 2000 and 869 in 2001, trended sharply downward
after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 diverted law
enforcement attention to other issues, and have since rebounded to
about 10 times the pre-1998 norm.
Pit bulls vs. gamecocks
A theory popular among pit bull advocates is that the rise of
dogfighting is only part of a general increase in animal fighting,
associated with drug trafficking. But the growth of dogfighting into
an economically significant clandestine industry only loosely
parallels the trend in cockfighting, which remains legal in most
counties of Louisiana and New Mexico, whereas dogfighting has been
illegal throughout the U.S. for more than 80 years.
Seizures of alleged fighting dogs and gamecocks showed a
parallel rise in the years before 9/11, as law enforcement agencies
became increasingly aware of the frequent association of animal
fighting with traffic in illegal drugs and firearms. Post-9/11,
cock fighting arrests fell off along with dogfighting arrests.
Since then, however, gamecock seizures appear to have
leveled off at about triple the mid-to-late 1990s norm.
Pit bull advocates commonly argue that pit bulls are
considered “vicious” because incidents involving them receive
disproportionately heavy news coverage–but key word searches of the
1,216 newspapers archived at NewsLibrary.com found only one year in
the past 30, 1987, in which coverage of pit bulls appeared to be
more intense than was warranted by the frequency of either
life-threatening and fatal attacks, or dogfighting arrests and
alleged fighting dog seizures.
Pit bulls were not even mentioned in any of the 1,216
newspapers indexed at NewsLibrary.com from 1976 through 1979–but
then the numbers of mentions leaped from two in 1981 to 98 in 1995,
162 in 1986, and 470 in 1987, coinciding with a series of
From 1988 through 1998, the frequency of mentions was
consistent at about the 1986 level, but then nearly doubled in 1999,
parallel to the number of fighting dog seizures; remained at the new
peak for about five years; and more than doubled again from 2003 to
2005, as the number of fighting dog seizures again climbed.
A record 631 articles mentioning pit bulls were published in
2006, through December 30, up from 626 in 2005.