Dispelling “Pit Bull” Urban Mythology

Apr 12th, 2011

For about 30 years, myths about so-called “pit bulls” (though “pit bull” is not a breed) have been disseminated via hearsay, anecdote, and even the media.  But these myths are just that: stories of invention. 

For instance, we have countless times read articles in the media wherein the author, a local, or even an elected official mentions “pit bulls’” supposed “locking jaws.”  They’ll say things like, “‘Pit bulls’ grab on and won’t let go” or “‘Pit bulls’ have a jaw strength of 2,000 pounds per square inch.”  They then go on to use these long-debunked urban myths as supposed “evidence” for why “pit bulls” should be banned or restricted via breed-specific legislation.

So let’s examine some of these claims, and where these urban myths are told with no basis in proof, we will apply science.  I. Lehr Brisbin, Ph.D., who is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and an expert in the training, behavior, and the anatomy of bulldog breeds has said that,

“The few studies which have been conducted of the structure of the skulls, mandibles and teeth of [American Pit Bull Terriers] show that, in proportion to their size, their jaw structure and thus its inferred functional morphology, is no different than that of any [other] breed of dog. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of ’locking mechanism’ unique to the structure of the jaw and/or teeth of the American Pit Bull Terrier” (Source: American Dog Breeders Association, “Discover the American Pit Bull Terrier”).

Dr. Brisbin has also testified in a court of law under oath that,

“…pit bulls [which the court defined earlier as American Pit Bull Terriers] do not have locking jaws. Based on actual dog dissections and measurement of their skulls, the evidence demonstrated that pit bull jaw muscles and bone structure are the same as other similarly sized dogs. No evidence was presented to demonstrate that a pit bull’s bite is any stronger than other dogs of its size and build. He stated that, contrary to information relied upon and perpetuated by earlier case law and law review articles, assertions that a pit bull can bite with a ‘force of 2,000 pounds per square inch’ have absolutely no basis in fact or scientific proof.”

The court affirmed Dr. Brisbin’s testimony as true.

As further evidence that “pit bulls” do not bite with thousands of pounds of bite pressure, in 2005 Dr. Brady Barr in a show for National Geographic called “Dangerous Encounters” disproved the 2,000 pounds per square inch myth.  Dr. Barr conducted bite-force tests for several kinds of animals including three breeds of dog: the German Shepherd, the Rottweiler, and the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT). [And while the APBT is an actual breed, it is unclear if this is the breed to which the media and others are referring when they use the slang term "pit bull" to describe bites/attacks, though APBTs are almost always one of the breeds named when breed-specific legislation is passed.]  Of the three, the American Pit Bull Terrier had the least amount of bite force, which was found to be well below the average dog’s 320-pound bite pressure.

In addition to the wildly inaccurate 2,000 pounds per square inch bite force claim, many “pit bull” detractors point to a trait called gameness which they use as supposed “evidence” that all “pit bulls” are inherently aggressive and therefore dangerous.  Yet, like they had done with Dr. Brisbin’s testimony, the court affirmed the expert definition of gameness which refutes “pit bull” detractors’ claim that gameness makes all “pit bulls” inherently dangerous.  The definition stated that,

“…’gameness’…is the ability or willingness to continue doing an action once begun, i.e. ‘stick-to-it-iveness’.”

The expert testimony went on to explain that,

“Gameness, in itself, is not a negative trait. For example, the ability to carry out duties or trained tasks, despite injury, distraction, or frustration, is desirable in pit bulls which have been trained to be search and rescue dogs, protection dogs in the U.S. military, drug sniffing dogs, and therapy dogs.”

It should also be noted that not all “pit bulls” have gameness, and indeed other breeds of dog, like the Jack Russell Terrier, can display gameness as well.  Like any dog, “pit bulls” can be trained to do good or bad depending on the intent of their owners.  The less than desirable things are more conspicuous, certainly, but are still an indication of an owner problem, not a breed problem.  The irresponsible owner problem isn’t going to go away simply by banning or restricting the breed of dog irresponsible owners may happen to own since these types of irresponsible owners — who are in the extreme minority compared to the majority of responsible dog owners — typically demonstrate their unwillingness to abide by the law well before breed-specific legislation is even ever proposed.

As the U.K. has shown since its 1991 breed ban, banning specific breeds just made them that much more desirable to the very unsavory individuals — drug dealers, gang bangers, and dog fighters — that authorities didn’t want owning them.  In fact, it has been widely reported in the BBC that the UK’s breed ban, which has been instituted for 20 years, has been an utter failure as there has been a huge rise in banned dogs.  As a result, a new dog control bill has been drafted that will repeal the U.K.’s breed-specific ban and put in its stead a dangerous dog law that will punish irresponsible owners, not their dogs.

It is in fact the dogs that suffer for their owners’ misdeeds when breed-specific laws are passed.  It is even more despicable when breed-specific laws are passed based on nothing more than urban mythology, hysteria, and a fundamental lack of understanding about canines.  Much of the media and some elected officials have neglected proper research opting instead to subscribe to an almost superstitious belief about “pit bulls,” whose unmerited infamy has become the equivalent of a modern-day hell hound.  As Arthur Conan Doyle observed in his famous novella The Hound of the Baskervilles about a supposed hell hound, or “black shuck,” that was believed to supernaturally haunt the moors of the English countryside: Behind every myth or superstition lies a reasonable explanation.

In Conan Doyle’s work of fiction, the “hell hound” in question was determined by the inimitable Sherlock Holmes to be nothing more than a hound that was horribly abused, starved, and unsocialized in order to make it carry out its master’s murderous intent.  So too is the “pit bull” nothing more than a victim of superstitious mythology, hysteria, and the bad intentions of some of its owners.  We have demonstrated via scientific expertise and expert court testimony that so-called “pit bulls” do not have locking jaws, do not bite with a 2,000 pounds per square inch bite pressure, and that gameness, where it is found, can be used for good or bad purposes, which points to humans as the problem, not the dogs themselves.  And, yes, humans are the problem with “pit bulls,” which is why to be effective, legislation must focus on the irresponsible behavior of people.  The media and elected officials can take the stigma off of so-called “pit bulls” by conducting proper research — which does not include urban mythology, faulty statistics, or hysteria — and properly concluding that the only way to limit dog bites/attacks from any breed is to put the onus rightly where it belongs: squarely on the irresponsible owner.