Pit Bull Attack!

Pit bulls have a reputation for being the most dangerous dog breed. Is this reputation deserved?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science, Health, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #288
December 13, 2011
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Perhaps the most horrifying story to hear on the news is a case of a child being killed by a pack of dogs, hardly anything can incite a more emotional response. We're quick to vilify the dogs; perhaps justifiably so, perhaps not. In the United States, it seems that more often than not, the dogs involved in such attacks are pit bulls. Legislation is quick to address highly emotional issues, and many states now have various bans and limitations on pit bulls. Today we're going to turn our skeptical eye onto the popular belief that pit bulls are truly as dangerous as their reputation suggests.

Defining exactly what a pit bull is is not a slam-dunk. It's not a specific breed; rather it's a collection of several related breeds. Those dogs that are unambiguously pit bulls include the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier; however the bull terrier or English bull terrier is not. Some municipalities classify the American bulldog as a pit bull "type" dog. Finally, pit bulls are usually classified as any dog having the substantial physical characteristics and appearance of pit bull breeds, which establishes the somewhat unfortunately vague precedent that you know a pit bull when you see one.

Deaths by dog attack have been thoroughly studied. Perhaps the most often cited large study was published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association assessing 20 years of DBRF (dog bite related fatalities) in the United States, from 1979 through 1998. During that period, 238 Americans were killed by 403 dogs. Just over half of these deaths involved pit bull type dogs and Rottweilers. It's important to note that there is always some uncertainty about breed. A lot of dogs out there are not pure bred or are mixed, and numbers for those dogs were included in the study as well. But the trends over 20 years were clear: Pit bulls are indeed responsible for the most DBRFs, though in some years Rottweilers were most deadly. German shepherds are third, huskies and malamutes are next, and it goes down from there. Pit bulls killed more than seven times as many people as Doberman pinschers, which we usually consider to be so dangerous.

The authors of the study also noted one very important weakness of such studies: they look only at the dogs themselves, and not at the owners. The example they give is that of an owner who wants an aggressive dog, perhaps as a guard dog, or as an ornament for his barbed-wire bicep tattoo. An owner who wants a scary dog, and who plans to use it in a macho or antagonistic way, is much more likely to buy a pit bull to put into this role than he is a poodle or chihuahua. Some percentage of potential dog bite scenarios are always going to be set up by aggressive dog owners; so statistically, we're always going to see a correlation between dog bites and certain breeds that were selected based on reputation, whether that reputation is deserved by the dog or not.

When lacrosse coach Diane Whipple was killed by two pit bull type dogs in San Francisco in 2001, the specific breed was a Presa Canario. Sales of these shot up, driven by people who wanted the latest and greatest bad-boy dog. They were selected by aggressive people based on reputation. Indeed, the San Fracisco dogs were owned by a couple who was raising them on behalf of prison inmates trying to run a dog fighting operation from their prison cell.

The other glaring weakness of this type of study is that it doesn't take into account the relative prevalence of each of these dog breeds. Maybe pit bulls killed seven times as many people as Dobermans because there are seven times as many of them out there. So what are the numbers; are pit bulls, Rottweilers, and German shepherds sufficiently popular that numbers alone can account for the number of deaths they cause?

This is, unfortunately, a question that cannot be well answered. The only real manifest of dog breed popularity in the United States is the American Kennel Club's registry. This registry includes only dogs that owners choose to register, and is highly skewed toward pure bred dogs owned by serious dog owners. It does not include anywhere near the more than 75 million dogs living in the United States. Labrador retrievers nearly always top the AKC list, yet these were listed 12th in fatalities in the 2000 study. Rottweilers, found right at the top of the DBRF list, rank down in the teens on the AKC registrations. The relative registrations of German shepherds, on the other hand, does match their position on the DBRF list, right up in the top two or three.

We might be able to make the following conclusions from these few data points:

1. Labrador retrievers are very safe dogs.
2. Rottweilers are very dangerous dogs.
3. German shepherds are about average.

But whether these conclusions are true or not, we don't have enough data to confirm them, because the AKC registration data does not necessarily reflect the actual prevalence of these dog breeds out in the world.

Neither should fatalities be considered a significant factor when assessing how dangerous a certain dog breed is. Another highly cited study was published in the journal Pediatrics in 1994, and it found an average of about 20 deaths a year from dogs in the United States, compared to 585,000 dog bite injuries requiring medical treatment. Dogs inflict injuries nearly 30,000 times as often as they inflict death. Clearly, injury is where the overwhelming majority of dog aggression is, not death; and it's probably where we really should be looking to determine the relative aggression of certain breeds.

The authors surveyed nearly 1,000 reports of dog bites in the city of Denver in 1991, and restricted their results to cases where they were able to contact the owners and get complete information about the dog, its history, and the circumstances of the bite. Then, for each biting dog, they found a geographically nearby control dog, of any breed, with no biting history. Dog breeds were reported by the owners, and in cases of mixed breed, dogs were listed as whatever breed the owner considered to be dominant. Since the non-biting control dogs were a random selection from the existing breed distribution in the same region as the biting dogs, the factor of breed prevalence was effectively canceled out. These authors structured their study to give us a real picture of which breeds, or other factors, most often contribute to dog bites. And here's what they found.

Surprise: German shepherds and chow chows are the big biters. Golden retrievers and standard poodles are the least likely to bite. Dogs whose distribution among the biting and non-biting populations was not significant include chihuahuas, cocker spaniels, Dobermans, Labrador retrievers, Scottish terriers, and Shetland sheepdogs. For all other dog breeds, there was insufficient data.

But where are pit bulls in that list? When the study was done, new pit bull ownerships had been banned in Denver since 1989, so there were no pit bull bites recorded in the study. This ban was based on 20 pit bull attacks in Colorado over the preceding five years. That's four a year, out of a nationwide 585,000 a year. A class of plaintiffs called the Denver Dog Fanciers tried to overturn the ban, unsuccessfully. The court's findings included:

It cannot be proven that pit bull dogs bite more than other dogs. However, there is credible evidence that pit bull dog attacks are more severe and more likely to result in fatalities.


The City did prove that [pit bulls] inflict more serious wounds than other breeds. They tend to attack the deep muscles, to hold on, to shake, and to cause ripping of tissues. Pit bull attacks were compared to shark attacks.

These points do seem to be supported by the facts. Pit bulls are involved in a disproportionately high number of fatal versus non-fatal attacks, though this number is still extremely small. Pit bulls do tend to bite and hold, displaying an amazing ability to not release their grip. This has given rise to the rumor — which is completely false — that they have some physiological ability to "lock" their jaw. There's also no truth to the story that pit bulls have uniquely large jaw muscles, or have the highest measured bite strength. Pit bulls are strong, no doubt about it; but so are many other large dogs.

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Only a very few studies of dog bite force have been done, and Rottweilers seem to be the strongest found so far, with a bite force of around 1,400 newtons. Pit bulls have been measured at 1,100 newtons. For comparison, hyenas can bite with four times the force, at over 4,400 newtons. But keep in mind that these numbers are from very small pilot studies.

Here are some other factors that the Pediatrics authors found. Dogs bite more often when they're male, when they're not neutered, when they're over 20 kilograms, and when they're less than five years old. Biting dogs are more likely to live in homes with children below the age of ten, are more likely to be kept chained when outdoors, and are more likely to growl at visitors. Interestingly, obedience training, guard training, and discipline styles have not been found to have a statistically significant impact on that dog's likelihood to bite.

So here's the bottom line, based on my own analysis of the available data. If you want a safe dog, avoid chow chows and German shepherds. Golden retrievers are your best bet. Pit bulls may well be a breed to avoid, but there is not definitive data to support this. Get a female or a neutered male, small, and over five years old. The fewer children around, the less likely it is to bite.

If a dog is going to bite you though, the two breeds you least want it to be are a pit bull or a Rottweiler. They are definitely the most dangerous biters, once they decide they're going to bite you. If you see one on the street, there is not sufficient data to support any particular need for concern. Like all dogs, its owner and its environment are major factors in its level of aggression.

This is a case where the value of good science is to drive policy. Most researchers agree that breed-specific legislation — a nice term for pit bull bans — are inappropriate. No good data exists to demonstrate that such bans have had any impact. Improved enforcement of existing laws, and improved education for dog owners, are far more likely to reduce the number of dog bites, fatal or not.

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Gershman, K., Sacks, J., Wright, J. "Which Dogs Bite? A Case-Control Study of Risk Factors." Pediatrics. 1 Jun. 1994, Volume 93, Number 6: 913-917.

HSUS. "Dangerous Dogs and Breed-Specific Legislation." The Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society of the United States, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/dogs/facts/statement_dangerous_dogs_breed_specific_legislation.html>

Lindner, D., Marretta, S., Pijanowski, G., Johnson, A., Smith, C. "Measurement of bite force in dogs: a pilot study." Journal of Veterinary Dentistry. 1 Jun. 1995, Volume 12, Number 2: 49-52.

Nelson, K. Denver's Pit Bull Ordinance: A Review of Its History and Judicial Rulings. Denver: Denver City Attorney’s Office, 2005.

Sacks, J., Sinclair, L., Gilchrist, J., Golab, G., Lockwood, R. "Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 15 Sep. 2000, Volume 217, Number 6: 836-840.

Swift, E. "The Pit Bull: Friend and Killer." Sports Illustrated. 27 Jul. 1987, Volume 67, Number 4.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Pit Bull Attack!" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 13 Dec 2011. Web. 7 Oct 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4288>


10 most recent comments | Show all 118 comments

I feel sick every time some poor dog (pit-bull or other) is put down because some moron owner thought it would be fun to have an attack dog.

Although pit-bulls have the ability to inflict greater damage due to the configuration of their jaws, they are no more harmful then any other dog unless they have been raised so.

Unfortunately there are too many trailer trash, wife-beater shirt wearing hicks out there that choose to raise these wonderful animals in wretched conditions with their only exercise consisting of locking their jaws to the end of a rope and dangling.

I know several responsible owners of pit-bulls and Rottweiler's who's dogs are gentle loving pets....because they were raised that way.

Unfortunately the scared ignorant masses would rather ban a breed than deal with the idiots who raise them to attack.

Fact not Fiction, Canada
August 31, 2013 2:35pm

I think people who both are against pitbulls as a breed and defending them are missing the one fact that is attached to the breed.

That is due to their strength, bite strength, stamina, size, and ability to be trained it is the BREED CHOSEN BY DOG FIGHTERS.

It is also known the harsh training the dogs go though the dog has "triggers" as to when to attack and what/who can call it off.

It is also known that there is no instant test or indicators as to if this pit is a fighter or not.

Unfortunatly that seemingly dog with no known history could seem harmless but go off on someone.

The issue shelters and communities face is unless YOU KNOW THE HISTORY of an individual animal you could have a serious problem on your hands.

Note I an not for banning the breed (I know some very loving pitties) or saying that special licence/insurance/whatever should be required.

But (sadly) when it comes to an unknown stray found you must assume the worst.

Note I do not feel this should apply to very young puppies (untrained fighting age) or to any breeder.

I also feel that if someone trains an individual dog to do violence (any breed but esp pits due to current history) or an INDIVIDUAL DOG shows violent traits/unprevoked attack someone or animal then the dog must be distroyed and the OWNER BE HELD FULLY RESPONCIBLE AND PUNISHED.

Sorry but until pits are not the preferred dog of dog fighters you are stuck with the situation.

Eric, Northern IL USA
September 4, 2013 2:30am

"....You can still own a dog of any other breed - just not this one....."

"......That anyone wanting to own a pit bull would have to have the dog registered through a special registry, at a reasonable cost, perhaps several hundred dollars - a fee which would prohibit ownership...."

What about my German shepherds? If I wanted to, I could turn them into "killer dogs" anytime I feel like it.
Should I too pay hundreds of dollars for a "special registry" ? Because they can kill a person - like any large dog that may or may not be trained to do so ?
What you're saying about pit bulls sounds like "Guilty till proven innocent" to me.

I see you're from ontario.
I could say something else here, but I don't want to break Brian's rules.

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
September 22, 2013 6:55pm

Years back, 2 guys lived next door to us in an apt over a garage. They had a pit bull and a large chow. Both guys were very mellow. The pit certainly wasn't. It would break through the screen porch on the 2nd story, jump down to the ground and go after people. One morning while having coffee in my back yard, I watched the pit attack the chow for no reason and latch onto its neck. The pit's owner ran downstairs and began clubbing the it on the head with a 5 foot 2X4. I watched in amazement.. and after a few minutes, the pit let go and wandered off as if nothing had happened and began sniffing the fence. The chow died.

That was my introduction to pit bulls. I'm sure there are some that are as sweet as can be, but we consistently read stories about the frantic mother whose "sweetest pit bull you ever wanted to meet" just ate her kid's face.

John B. Egan, Grass Valley, CA
November 12, 2013 8:15am

Dogs raised without being appropriately socialzed are bad dogs.

Some breeds go bad easier than others.

A breed utilized for police work, guard dog work, attack dog work, and dog-fighting are selectively bred for aggression and go bad very readly under specific training to be a bad dog, abuse, neglect, and other conditions no living thing should have to endure.

If your dog bites, IT'S YOUR FAULT, not the dog or the breed or whatever lame excuse you come up with.

If your dog bites me or mine I will shoot the thing dead and then have your sorry *ss arrested for causing the problem. Prepare to spend the rest of your life in criminal and then civil court trying to avoid responsibility for your criminal failure to control your dog.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
November 12, 2013 9:31am

I have a hard time understanding why a person that wants a lovable, cuddlebug for a dog, would want to own a pit bull, Rottweiller, or any other large aggresive breed.

If you want a nice dog get a Golden Retriever or Cocker Spaniel, which are proven cuddlebugs.

If you are desirous of owning a large aggressive dog, it is not to love and cuddle, but as a conversation piece.

Nice people want nice dogs, mean people want mean dogs, those bleeding hearts in the middle don't know what they want.

If you are determined that the large aggressive dog is for you, then be prepared to put up your house, car, future income, and anything else you own, to back up your decision.

Wingrider, Virginia
November 13, 2013 6:28am

I'll simply make the observation that the bigger the dog the stronger its jaws. A small dog may be a biter but at worst you will need stitches. A large dog can crush the bones in you leg.

If you decide to own a large powerful dog I will hold you personally accountable for anything it does.

The next move is yours.

Dwight E. Howell, Lawrenceburg TN
November 13, 2013 8:53pm

I'm not sure where you get your info/opinion from. As a child I was attacked by one of those cuddlebugs.
I have owned a rottie as have many of my mates, they are loving family dogs.
As I am typing this , I have a Labrador on one side of me and a Bull Arab(an Australian pigging dog) on the other. If they were to go me I know which one I would be more afraid of to do the most damage (the Lab BTW). But since both are well trained dogs I do not fear the Lab.

Bubba, Gorokan the place to be ,OZ
May 7, 2014 12:42am

I find some of the negative attitudes towards different dog breeds and the people that own them disturbing. But then again we differentiate and stereotype ourselves on even less significant superficial characteristics.

While some breeds were created for more imposing or even violent reasons than others, after 1000's of generations any genetically predisposed behavior is likely insignificant when compared to the affects of current environment and training. An extreme but 100% real example...

As a child I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the understandable outrage over it these days, dog fighting was not illegal nor uncommon 40 years ago; quite the contrary. In the 70's it turned into an organized savage brutal activity (see the move "Eye's of an Angel" starring John Travolta, actually filmed at my relatives home in Los Angeles). But prior to that, dog fighting and cock fighting typically took place in backyards for small money and big bragging rights. Dogs rarely died and the fights were typically broken-up before any major damage was done. It may be hard to believe, but these were usually beloved pets that were treated like family but exploited and used for money or fame. You were somebody if you were related to the best fighter in the neighborhood, be they man or beast boxing ring or backyard. Thank goodness we have left the animals alone and allow UFC and MMA to satisfy our needs for barbarism.

To my point...

Carlito, Malibu, CA
June 6, 2014 4:34pm

Two brothers were each given Pitt Bull puppies by there mother. The brothers decided to use them their own way for money. The older (by one year) smarter brother, decided to use his dog "Princess" for breeding. The younger brother decided to use his smaller albino dog "White Girl" for fighting. Princess a big beautiful brindle, had multiple litters true to her name was the kindest most nurturing animal I've ever seen, adored by everyone in the neighborhood, especially the children. White Girl became the most feared fighting dog in the area. Like her sister, she remained very loving to children. But eventually she became violent towards any dog she did not know. Because she started damaging too many dogs in fight, she became useless to the brother as no one would fight her.

Being the good but insensitive person that he was, he locked White Girl away in his garage. It was disgusting. Had it not been for the neighborhood children feeding her, she may have did. One day White Girl got out of her prison and killed a Shepherd breed that had wandered into the neighborhood. Fearing she may eventually kill again, the neighborhood forced the brother to put her down. Princes eventually died of cancer and was greatly mourned. Two sisters, very different dogs, same parents, same gender, different owners and experiences.

Ironically, while in a drunken argument, the brother was beat into a coma by an older friend of his from the military. He died a few days later.

Carlito, Malibu, CA
June 6, 2014 5:17pm

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