Credit: Jesse Bering

With all the negative publicity surrounding pit bulls today, why would anyone choose to have this type of dog that triggers prejudice in many people’s minds? Both the dog and the owner are likely to suffer from the negative stereotypes others hold: killer and thug, respectively. I’m not proud of these bigoted associations, but I must say that, prior to writing this piece, when I thought “pit bull,” my mind immediately conjured up an Eminem soundtrack and naked lady mud flaps.

But that was then and this is now. Although I fully expected to write about pit bull owners being stunningly naive about the inborn characteristics of their own breed of choice, insisting on seeing these creatures as “blank slates” whose temperaments are infinitely malleable to suit their needs, having now read up on the recent literature in this area I have changed my mind.

What made me really begin to sympathize with the responsible pit bull owner was a 2000 case study published in Society & Animals by Hillary Twining, Arnold Arluke and Gary Patronek, a team of researchers from the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy. In this article, the authors collected anecdotes and stories from pit bull owners, demonstrating very clearly just how emotionally attached many people are to their pit bulls and conveying the lengths they must go in managing the stigma of having such an “outlaw” breed in a society that doesn’t understand. Twining and her co-authors note that when it comes to acquiring a pit bull:

On the one hand, some people might be drawn to this breed in the hope of exploiting and perpetuating its vicious reputation. Such owners seek to use their dogs as status symbols of power and aggression and to reap the secondary benefits of an intimidating persona. On the other hand, some people might see qualities in this breed that run contrary to its negative image and want to establish “traditional” human-dog relationships with their pit bulls. Nevertheless, they “inherit,” and presumably must contend with, adverse public perceptions of their pets.

The authors interpret these first-person anecdotes about “what it’s like having a pit bull” using the sociologist Erving Goffman’s “impression management” theoretical framework. For example, to “pass” in society as a pit bull owner, many people found themselves negotiating in some way with other members in society. This was usually to avoid confrontations, fear, and embarrassing social scenarios. The negative stereotypes of pit bulls were especially pronounced when children were involved. Nearly all pit bull owners interviewed for the study said that they used one or more of the following strategies to cope with the stigma of having this outlaw breed:

1. Passing them as a breed other than a pit bull

“A lot of it depends on the people you meet ... If I see people [who are] very timid with dogs, a lot of times I’ll tell them [my dog] is an American bulldog, because he does look a lot like the picture of an American bulldog ... Sometimes we’ll just say—if they’re really afraid of dogs—we’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s a boxer mix.’”

2. Denying that their dogs’ behavior is biologically predetermined

“My brother-in-law was telling my sister all the reasons why not to [get a pit bull]—you know, the horror stories. Yeah, they happen, but ... any dog could be that way if you train him and treat him that way.”

3. Debunking adverse media coverage

“When you see an article in the newspaper and all it says is “pit bull,” the dog’s [automatically] a killer. If a cocker spaniel attacked a kid, you wouldn’t even hear about it. You never see any press about ... these ‘killer dogs.’”

4. Using humor

“If people come into the house, she gets all excited and she does this cute little bunny hop and we think, ‘Oh, look at the vicious pit bull!’”

5. Emphasizing counter-stereotypical behavior

“She came over here and sat down ... and [my dog] got up on the couch and started kissing her and everything. And she’s like, ‘Oh my God; well, I guess that is okay—the dog is just going to kiss my kids to death!’”

6. Avoiding stereotypical equipment or accessories

“I bought [my dog] a coat for the wintertime because I would walk her outside and she’d be shaking. So I get her a little fleece coat, and the reactions I get when she’s wearing her coat are very different from the reactions that I got before the coat...I would see people and they would kind of shy away and [then] they’d be like, ‘Oh, she has her coat on today! Oh, look at her in her little coat; doesn’t she look nice.’ She was definitely less intimidating with her coat on. I should maybe think about getting her a summer coat!”

7. Taking preventative measures

“My friends think it’s great when they get [my dog] locked onto the rope and they’re tugging with him and stuff. I really haven’t done that with him. I really don’t want him to know that [sort of game].”

8. Becoming breed ambassadors

“I don’t get into shouting matches. Everybody has their beliefs ... I’ll just say, ‘You know, maybe you should look into it a little bit more,” or, “I know quite a few pit bulls that are really good; [my dog] happens to be one of them.”

Clearly there’s a vast range of motives and situations leading one to come to own a pit bull. And just as sometimes happens with other people, sometimes we can’t help but to fall in love with individual animals that society says we shouldn’t. From an outsider’s perspective, my own dogs, two border terriers, must seem pretty obnoxious—barking, jumping and scratching. As a breed that was explicitly designed for ferreting out foxes and fearless snout-to-snout combat with these cornered animals, it’s certainly not without an aggressive streak, either. But I know and understand my dogs both as individuals and “ambassadors” of their breed. And I’ve come to really love their rather silly and playful personalities (sans the presence of an unfortunate fox).

I still think that some pit bull owners downplay the innate potential for aggression lying dormant in their otherwise docile animal’s brains. After all, for well over a century, for generations and across stock lines wrapping around the globe, these dogs were selectively bred for their tenacity, powerful jaws, brute strength and gameness. The ideal behavioral profile of this class of dog was one specifically fitted for blood sport, whether it was bear baiting or dog fighting. And, perhaps it’s just me, but it does seem that defenders of pit bulls do seem irritatingly prone to invoking “media conspiracy” theories of breed demonization. But—and this is a big “but” so read closely—pit bulls are in fact really not as dangerous for humans as many people would seem to believe.

In fact, according to a recent study comparing the aggressive tendencies of thirty-three different dog breeds, from airedale terriers to whippets, pit bulls (a somewhat generic category including closely related breeds such as American pit bull terriers, American staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers), are no more or less aggressive toward strangers than are most other breeds. The most “aggressive” breeds toward strangers, actually, are dachshunds and chihuahuas. More than 20 percent of dachshund owners, for example, reported that their dogs had either bitten or attempted to bite a stranger in the recent past, compared to only 4.7 percent of pit bull owners who reported these stranger-directed aggressive behaviors in their dogs.

In interpreting these results in a 2008 issue of Applied Animal and Behaviour Science, researchers Deborah Duffy, Yuying Hsu and James Serpell are careful to point out, however, that:

While the prevalence of human-directed bites or bite attempts among pit bulls may be only slightly above average, the severity of their attacks is probably affected by other traits (e.g., the size and strength of the breed, its reputed failure to give warning signs, and its reported tenacity when attacking) that may also have been selected for in the development of this fighting breed. In contrast, the relatively small size of ... other highly aggressive breeds (e.g., chihuahuas) substantially reduces the risks of serious injury.

And as would be expected for a breed that, from its earliest origins, was cultivated for its gladiator-like attributes, pit bulls do score in the “highly aggressive” category toward other people’s dogs, along with akitas and German shepherds. I suspect this is where much of the problem lies, with many human victims being mauled as “collateral damage” trying to defend their own, less rapacious dogs from a surprise pit bull attack.

A pit bull’s tendency to initiate conflict with another dog is certainly not a desirable trait today, and it may even be selected against by current breeding practices. Yet given the dog’s past, it’s understandable. The responsible pit bull owner is aware of the heritable attributes of their breed’s behavioral makeup and recognizes that pit bulls have an inescapable genetic history. These owners are to be supported in their efforts to redeem the once favorable image of the loyal pit bull. They should not be lumped together with those who are convinced that just because their dogs like to cuddle with them, this means they’re completely harmless. Owner-directed aggression is very rare in all breeds, including pit bulls. Such bad apples would have been selectively bred against given that no owner would tolerate such a disposition.

My stereotype of pit bull owners hasn’t been entirely obliterated over the course of my writing this piece (I still think there are too many people with pit bulls in their hands who shouldn’t be trusted with them), but it has been seriously diluted. I can appreciate now why the more educated among them would get so upset over the prospect of “dangerous breed” banning legislation. After all, they’re simply defending their best friends—and who wouldn’t do that?

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.