Shelters should stop spreading pitbull myths

I’ve caught myself spreading myths about pitbull dogs such as “They can be really nice dogs. It’s how they’re raised.”

This myth implies that a pitbull raised without love, training or exercise will become a “bad dog.” But just like any type of dog, pitbulls can turn out to be very nice dogs even without these things. We’ve all known or read about dogs removed from unfortunate situations that went on to live normal lives in loving homes.

Raising a dog with love, structure and kindness may increase his chances of becoming a “good dog.” But that is the case with every type of dog, not just pitbull dogs.

Let’s stop spreading inaccurate information. We’re preventing the dogs from finding homes.

When I say “pitbull” I am referring to a wide variety of purebred and mixed-breed dogs, not a specific breed.

Common pitbull myths and stereotypes spread by rescues and shelters

Tan and white pitbull sleeping in round bedThe following are several pitbull myths that are too often reinforced by shelters and rescue groups. These are the groups that should be advocating the most for these dogs. They should not be spreading inaccurate information.

I’m guessing that at some point, each of you have reinforced one of these stereotypes without meaning any harm. Words matter very much. Out of our love for pitbulls and all dogs, let’s try to be more conscious of our choices.

Pitbull myths:

“There are so many ‘unwanted’ pitbulls in shelters.”

This is the myth I hear the most, that shelters are “full” of “unwanted” pitbulls.

Let’s not call them unwanted. This is a negative stereotype that might cause potential adopters to avoid the pitbulls. It implies there is something different about them. Pitbulls are not “unwanted.” They are one of the most popular types of dogs in the United States. People love pitbulls, and they want to adopt them.

Sometimes breed specific legislation targets pitbull dogs, making it difficult for their families to keep them, according to Animal Farm Foundation, an organization dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for pitbull dogs. This is not a reflection on the dogs themselves but on poor legislation.

“Pitbulls will do anything to please” or “She has that classic, pitbull personality.”

These are general statements that imply all pitbulls are the same. There is no such thing as a “pitbull personality.” Some pitbulls love everyone. Some pitbulls try really hard to make their owners happy. Some pitbulls love other dogs. Some pitbulls are shy or fearful.

The term “pitbull” is a label that stretches across several breeds and breed mixes, but even within a specific breed, every dog is unique.

Sure, some traits are common to groups of dogs. Beagles howl. Aussies herd. Labs retrieve. But these are single traits that do not make up the entire personalities of the individual dogs. Plenty of Labs won’t fetch a thing.

“There are so many bad pitbull owners out there.”

AFF is working hard to break this stereotype with its “I am the majority” project. The goal is to show how the majority of pitbull owners are good, ordinary people doing ordinary things. We don’t hear about these owners because good owners don’t make the news.

“Pitbulls should be adopted by someone who has experience with the ‘breed.'”

This implies that pitbulls are somehow different from other dogs. It also rules out a large percentage of potential adopters.

Breed specific legislation does not work on a political level, and it certainly doesn’t work on the adoption level, said Kim Wolf in a presentation “Turbocharging pitbull adoptions” at the 2012 No-Kill Conference.

Shelters should not place additional adoption criteria on pitbull adopters such as higher fees or mandatory training classes, she said. It’s unfair, and it’s preventing pitbulls from going home.

“His ears are cropped, so he was probably a fighting dog.”

If a dog’s ears are cropped, it tells you nothing about his behavior or history, said Wolf in her presentation. It does not mean the dog was a fighting dog or a protection dog. People have their dogs’ ears cropped for all kinds of reasons, usually for health reasons or to make a fashion statement. Don’t make assumptions.

“A pitbull with scars was probably abused.”

Most pitbulls have never been abused. They live in loving homes, and they’ve never seen a fighting ring.

If a pitbull dog or any dog has scars on her face, it does not mean she was a “bait” dog, said Wolf in her presentation. A dog could have scars for a variety of reasons, often from just being clumsy!

“The general public can’t be trusted with pitbulls.”

This is an insult to all potential adopters as well as an insult to an entire group of dogs. Members of the public can be trusted to adopt pitbull dogs. Most people are ordinary, good people and most pitbulls are ordinary, good dogs. Let’s match them up!

“Pitbulls are the most abused dogs on the planet.”

Yes, some pitbulls are abused (just like all types of dogs), but this is rare. Most pitbulls are happy dogs living the good life. They are far from “abused.” Using a blanket statement for an entire group of dogs makes them sound unappealing to potential adopters.

“They were bred for fighting.”

Historically, some purebred American Pit Bull Terriers (APBTs) were bred for fighting, according to AFF’s web site. But they were also bred to be family dogs and farm help. It’s unfair to assume a dog will behave a certain way based solely on the label we give her. Instead, look at the dog in front of you and observe how she acts.

“To look at the APBT through the narrow scope of dog fighting is to miss out on their long and positive history in our country as cherished companions,” according to AFF.

“Pitbulls can be great dogs in the right hands.”

This is another way of saying “It’s how they are raised” or “It’s the owners, not the dogs.”

This is implying that pitbulls can be really good dogs, but only under ideal circumstances. We all know some really great dogs who are gentle, sweet and well behaved even though they grew up in unfortunate circumstances. Pitbulls, like all dogs, can be really great dogs even if they are never given love, training or socialization.

What are some other pitbull myths you’ve heard?

Pictured are two of my past foster dogs – Levi (top) and Vixen.

22 thoughts on “Shelters should stop spreading pitbull myths”

  1. Ugh I do some of these. It’s hard with the “it’s how they’re raised,” because that applies to every dog, and even then even badly raised dogs can still be lovely, of any breed. I think I say it more, in case there is a situation of an aggressive dog, to shift blame away from the dog onto the owner, but it still doesn’t help the image overall.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I say that one too, or at least I used to. I think the context of the situation matters. For example, I have a few relatives who are scared of pitbulls. I’ve caught myself saying things like “they can be really nice dogs with the right owners” to these relatives just to at least start a spark in their minds that pitbulls can be nice dogs. Maybe there is a better way to handle it. I don’t know.

  2. I disagree with you when you say that “its how theyre raised” implies that if theyre not loved theyll be bad dogs.

    If an owner raises the bully to be a fighting dog, them theres a pretty good chance the dog will be too agressive to be adopted.

    So saying that its how theyre raised means that if they are mistreated and abused, they might not be that great.

    1. In some cases that’s true, but I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule. I knew of a bully type dog who spent her first year of life as a bait dog or whatever the term is and was severely abused, but was such a beautiful and submissive dog from the day they saved her. Go figure.

      I think the point also is that the ‘it’s how they’re raised’ argument really goes for any dog but no one ever feels the need to say it about labs or whatever.

    2. Lindsay Stordahl

      Exactly what Pipa said.

      Also, people are under the impression that most pitbull owners are “bad” people. The stereotype is that good people don’t own pitbull dogs. But this is far from accurate. As Animal Farm Foundation is trying to show with its I Am the Majority project, most pitbulls are owned by good, everyday people in average neighborhoods.

      Of course “how they are raised” is a factor, but that is true with every type of dog, as Pipa said.

  3. Elizabeth Kleweno

    Even though the Pit looking dogs are the last adopted out of our local shelter, I love what our local shelter does. They have a training program and a play time and they post on petfinder how good the dog is with other dogs and how well it’s doing in training! Most of the time, the pits are the ones who love other dogs and do great in training!!! So YAY for my local “pound” who are really great people and volunteers!

    And thank you for keeping this dialouge about dogs going!

  4. I take issue with the ‘it’s how they are raised’ argument but from a different perspective.

    I’ve heard and seen written numerous times that when a ‘pit bull’ is ‘aggressive’ it’s because the owner raised/trained/taught it to be that way. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard or read ‘It’s not the dog, it’s the owner who caused the problem.’

    This is an insult to most pit bull owners. At my company we deal with a ton of aggression and we’ve seen plenty of aggression from pit bulls over the years. Without fail, though, these are good dog owners who have recognized their dogs have problems and are willing to invest time, money, and effort to fix the problem. None of them trained their dogs to be mean, signed them up for fight club, or taught them to attack other dogs.

    To suggest that their dog became aggressive because of them being bad owners training their dogs to be mean is ridiculous.

    As much as I love pit bulls the breed apologists can sometimes make the situation worse by asserting that the only way a pit bull can ever be aggressive is due to bad ownership.

    1. Thank you so much. I am a loving owner who would die for my dogs. One of them does have an aggression problem. A very bad one. We are working on it, his aggression is towards any other animal than our other dog. We don’t know why or how it started it just did. We also have 8 children and he is amazing with them. I am hopeful that since he is just under 2 years old it is something we can fix. If you have any training tips please email me at thank you so much for saying that it isn’t a bad owner that causes this problem. I totally agree.

  5. Vixen is a real beauty. Yes, I’ve heard a lot of these myths. I met a pitt yesterday and fell in love with him. Hoping to do a treat segment with him next month.

  6. As opposed to a decade or so ago, these days there is an abundant amount of information regarding everything to do with dogs. You can look up and learn anything on the topic of training your dog as well as how to provide her with better nutrition. Many books discuss the deeper, and more grounded, psychological and emotional benefits of bonding with your dog, something that wasn’t widely talked about 20-30 years back. You would think this would make us all more enlightened dog owners. Yet all of this doesn’t appear to make much difference when some ignorant misconception takes hold of the publics mind. With the media playing so many ratings generating stories that perpetuate the pitbull myth and breed fear, bad ideas take hold in our minds and gain traction. Unfortunately, they’re not easily removed. With all the available information so easily within our reach, you have to wonder how much is simply willful ignorance.

  7. Susan Richard

    “Pitbulls should be adopted by someone who has experience with the ‘breed.’”

    While considering fostering or adopting another dog, I have seen this statement over and over and it has me wondering exactly why this breed would require previous experience. It is confusing to those potentially interested in helping and I admit it lurks in the back of my mind as a negative. That is just wrong and sad. I have seen the same thing posted regarding the great dane. In any case we should study up on the breed we are considering, but to say someone needs experience with a specific breed somehow came across to me in a negative light.

    Thanks so much for this article. GREAT tips!! I plan to watch the videos you suggested.

  8. I have an american pit bull terrier/boxer. he is extremely friendly and loves people. Its our other dog that is the problem. He is a poodle bichon frise. You would think the pit is agressive but its our poodle.

  9. The myth I’d love to never hear again is that they have “locking jaws”. I’ve had at least one “pit bull” in my home for over a decade and have had to defend this breed ever since. Pit bulls don’t even have the strongest bite grip. The dog with the biggest mouth has the strongest bite. Pit bulls measure between a lab and shephard. Hopefully people will learn this soon.

    1. Thanks for sharing the information about that pit bulls don’t have the strongest bite and “Pit bulls measure between a lab and shepherd.”

  10. Thanks to Lindsay’s great writing and all comments. I read, understand and learn a lot from this discussion. I don’t own a pit bull dog; and I doubt that I will own one because a golden retriever seems catching my eyes at this moment. I currently own a Rottweiler; and I like her.

    While reading this article and comments with empathy, I am still not settling with this question: Will you pick a pit bull dog for your next need? If not, why?

  11. Roy Mastromauro

    Hello. I sincerely appreciate your interest in this topic.

    As an owner of a number of shelter dogs over the years, I’ve been “bitten” by the pitbull myth a number of times. In two separate cases, dogs of mine have been labelled pitbulls by friends and neighbors, while we resided in areas where “pitbulls” were banned. Neither dog ever (or has ever) showed any aggression and, both, adopted as pups lived (or are living) their lives as family pets.

    I’ve recently taken up the idea of low- or no-cost genetic testing to interested individuals (law enforcement, shelters and rescues) in order to reduce the stigma associated with the breed. Would it be possible to discuss this idea with you and your readers? I believe this is an excellent opportunity for crowd-sourcing to provide funds and to also fill the gap between truth and perception.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Hi Roy. Great comment, and feel free to email me with more details if you would like.

      I have thought about this option as well and whether or not dna testing is the right answer. (Is that what you are referring to?) If I even adopt a dog that even looks slightly like a pitbull mix, I will probably do multiple dna test from different companies. That way, if the dog happens to be a “boxer/Lab mix” or whatever it might be, I could use that to potentially protect my dog from getting booted from an apartment, etc.

      Are you familiar with Animal Farm Foundation? They do a lot of advocacy for all dogs, focusing on pitbulls mostly. So this question about dna testing comes up on their site from time to time. If I understand their info right, they are not opposed to the dna testing, but they don’t necessarily encourage it either. The reason being is because this brings the attention back to “breed” when really the focus should be on the individual dog and his/her actual behavior.

      Interesting topic.

      1. Roy Mastromauro

        Hello Lindsay, thank you for your kind words.

        I will almost certainly be sending an email later, but wanted to thank you publicly for your recommendation of the Animal Farm Foundation again. I am familiar with the work of the National Canine Research Council, which produced genetic testing (DNA) results related to supposed “pitbulls,” the results of which have emboldened me.

        I did not realize that the NCRC is now a subsidiary of the AFF. I will contact them immediately and look forward to furthering this. I know that I can count on you to engage in the discussion on a meaningful basis.

        So many of us dog lovers just end up with a “pitbull” and spend years worried about our pets. It may actually be difficult to adopt a random 8 week puppy and not end up with some “pitbull” characteristics. Dogs and owners should not have to face this stigma.

        I am sincerely appreciative of your interest in this topic and thank you for your efforts. I will be in touch soon.

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