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Pit Bulls: Nanny Dogs, or Vicious Animals?

Updated on May 8, 2020
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Cammy is a freelance writer, artist, and admirer of nature, animals, and languages. She is a student of Ifa and Sanse and has a black cat.

Meet Swayze, a Staffordshire terrier. According to the hype, he is a vicious, bloodthirsty beast just waiting for a chance to kill someone.
Meet Swayze, a Staffordshire terrier. According to the hype, he is a vicious, bloodthirsty beast just waiting for a chance to kill someone.

The Myth

People who are against having pit bulls say that pit bulls were bred to fight. They were bred to attack and kill, they say, and that’s why pit bulls have the highest number of maims and kills in the U.S. Of course, you could expect biting from a small breed, but nothing fatal.

But is it true? Why are pit bulls framed as suddenly attacking for no reason? I decided to do a little investigating.

Examples of Pit Bull Behavior

What I found was that there are several videos on the internet of children playing with pit bulls. This breed is called a “nanny dog,” and it’s not hard to see why: they’re great with children, they’re protective of them, and make them feel safe. The videos are, admittedly, pretty adorable.

What you may not realize, however, is that the opposite isn’t true: children aren’t inherently great with pit bulls. Or any dog or animal for that matter. They need to learn to respect them and to read their body language, such as when they’re uncomfortable.

The children in the videos are often shown doing things tugging on the dog’s ears, pulling its fur, and riding on its back. Aww, you think. How sweet the dog is for letting the kid play on it!

But even dogs have their limits, and I imagine that pit bulls are not exempt. Videos against pit bulls like to show them right when they come out of seemingly nowhere and attack a child or another dog, but I think what’s more common is goading the dog until it reacts by defending itself. So where a small dog would get away with a bite, a big breed like a pit bull could naturally do more damage — and get put to sleep for it.

There was even a case where a pit bull attacked in a situation involving another dog attacking a child, and although it was trying to help the child, it got put to sleep anyway.

Sad, right?

History and Identification of Pit Bulls

The breed is banned in many apartment complexes. Big breeds need lots of room, so at first it makes sense. But owners can walk their dogs and play with them at parks, and give them room and exercise that way. So what’s really going on?

We know that pit bulls are often use in dogfighting, an illegal and cruel sport. They are often abused and neglected or abandoned if not killed when they are no longer useful. In the movie Amores Perros (literally “dog loves” in Spanish), I saw the sad results of dogfighting; it’s a fictional movie, but similar scenes happen in real life. And there are other cases where pit bull owners deliberately sic the dogs on other people or animals.

The ASPCA mentions that pit bulls came from bull- and bear-baiting dogs. They were also used for work (driving and catching livestock), companionship, and guarding livestock and humans alike; hence, the nickname of "nanny dog." However, “pit bull” refers not so much to a specific breed as a variety of breeds with similar traits in body size, behavior and physical abilities. They were originally multiple breeds of bull dogs mixed with terriers. The American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American pit bull terrier are some examples of dogs that come under the “pit bull” umbrella.

Add to this the fact that people love to try to visually identify dogs of unknown origin, and you have aggressive dogs being labeled as “pit bulls” when they’re really not. Some examples are Boxers, Mastiffs, American Bulldogs and Plott Hounds. DNA testing is the only way to accurately determine breed.

All Dogs Are Capable of Aggression

Even if someone could argue that pit bulls were bred specifically for aggression, aggression is not a behavioral trait that is exclusive to pit bulls. Chihuahua, anyone? That’s a breed that is famous for biting people, and I can’t tell you how many people with small dog breeds think it’s okay to walk them off-leash or just carry them around in their arms. It’s as if just because they’re small, they’re harmless, which isn’t true. They’re just easier to handle.

Factors in Pit Bull Aggression

For pit bulls, which are large dogs, you’d have to argue that aggression is inherent in order to couple it with its large size as a cause for concern. I have not seen a successful argument for pit bull aggression, nor a higher likelihood of biting people than any other breed. I agree that human behavior plays into dog-bite injuries.

Interestingly, dogs that are aggressive towards other dogs are “no more likely to direct aggression toward people than dogs that aren’t aggressive to other dogs.” There is nowadays less attention paid to breeding specific behavioral traits. The decrease in farming means that pit bulls aren’t in demand as working dogs, but as family pets.

Yet another factor in pit bull biting is whether or not they came from a puppy mill. That goes for any dog, not just pit bulls. Puppy mills increase mental illness and conditions such as anxiety, aggression and other behavioral problems.

It seems that pit bulls are always and forever associated with dog fighting, an abusive practice perpetrated by humans in which they exploit the dog's fighting instinct. There are fighting dogs and bait dogs, and pit bulls are one breed that has been used for both. Both can be pets, and either one can be rescues at shelters.

What you can take away from this is that pit bulls are often euthanized either as punishment for their owner’s treatment of them, or after being rescued simply due to their bad reputation. They are usually very friendly dogs. In fact, American pit bull terriers and other pit bull mixes score in the 85 percentile in temperament, according to the American Temperament Test Society.

My Conclusion

Pit Bulls are just one breed in a line of dogs that have been demonized over the years. A dog’s potential for aggression towards people and other dogs depends on the individual dog and their socialization. It’s important to find out the history of a stray dog up for adoption, as well as information about their breed. Making sure they get along with any other existing pets is also important. Potential dog owners need to be prepared to put a lot of energy into caring for their dog, and to take responsibility for their behavior.


Mutts Matter Rescue. What Happened to America's Dog? Retrieved from

National Canine Research Council. (2013-2018). Visual Breed Identification. Retrieved from

Rivenburg, Roy. (2015, June 20). How pit bulls became the 'bad boys' of the dog world. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

ASPCA. (2018). Position Statement on Pit Bulls. Retrieved from

McMillan, Franklin D. (2017, January 28). Behavioral and psychological outcomes for dogs sold as puppies through pet stores and/or born in commercial breeding establishments: Current knowledge and putative causes. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Retrieved from

American Temperament Test Society, Inc. (2017, December). ATTS Breed Statistics. Retrieved from

© 2018 Isabella Moon


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