Battling A Bad Reputation: Why Do So Many People Dislike Pit Bulls?
Pit bulls have a bad reputation. Described as “vicious,” “unpredictable,” and “violent,” these once-beloved dogs have become villainized by many both in the media and larger society. However, they are still incredibly popular dogs, and many have come to their defense, arguing that bad guardians are to blame for dog behavior, not inherent violence in the breed. So, what do most people think? This survey attempted to find that out.
The paper begins with some background, noting that pit bulls were once prized as gentle, protective family companions, while breeds like German Shepherds (GSDs) and Dobermans were portrayed as vicious killers. These breeds’ images have been redeemed as of late, being prized for their obedience, intelligence, and loyalty. Furthermore, the authors note that the incidence of fatal dog attacks on children in the U.S. is quite low, below deaths related to balloons, playground equipment, buckets, and, notably, human caregivers. Put simply, dogs are not a major threat to American children.
The authors also point out that “pit bull” is not a clearly defined breed, which allows individuals to group many kinds of dogs under the term. The dogs commonly referred to as pit bulls are usually one or a mix of American or British Staffordshire Terriers, though “American Pit Bull Terrier” is coming into usage by some breeding groups. In any case, pit bulls do not display aggressive or violent behavior at abnormally high rates compared to other breeds. Finally, the authors highlight the role of the media in fearmongering about pit bulls – they pay high levels of attention to dog attacks and portray pit bulls in poorer urban areas, associating them with the violence in those neighborhoods. Doing this has associated the pit bull with Black, Latino, and “white trash” guardians, as well as with the practice of dogfighting. This leads the public to think of pit bulls as violent dogs with violent guardians that live in violent areas.
The authors then describe their own study: a survey of 56 adults from the East Lansing, Michigan area who work with companion animals in some capacity, such as veterinarians and shelter workers, as well as Michigan State University sociology students. Fourteen percent of the respondents were pit bull guardians themselves. The group was fairly evenly split when it came to beliefs about dog breeds being inherently violent or docile. The participants were then asked to write as many terms as could come to mind when they think of “pit bulls,” and their responses were recorded and grouped. 68% of responses were related to unpredictability, violence, and danger, 64% to gentleness, kindness, and loyalty, 59% to media-related stigma, 57% to the physical appearance of pit bulls as being scary or intimidating, 55% as relating to being status symbols for gangs and other violent individuals, 46% as being victims of abuse and animal cruelty, and 7% to breed-specific legislation – targeted breed bans or restrictions. Age, profession, and dog guardianship (regardless of breed) did not seem to affect participants’ attitudes or listed terms. They did note, however, that the small and localized sample should not be used to generalize to the wider population.
The authors conclude that the term “pit bull” is overly broad and encapsulates contradictory perceptions, attitudes, and meanings. This leads to harmful stereotypes about the dogs and their owners, which frequently contain racist and/or classist undertones, and these perceptions are used to justify legislation specifically targeting pit bulls. They call for studies with a broader range of participants to gather better data, as well as possible experiments or longitudinal studies regarding media influence on the perceptions of pit bulls.