The pit bull terrier: a dangerous
or a defamed breed?
School of Human and Environmental Studies,
University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351.
After more than a century as
America's icon dog1 the American Pit Bull Terrier since 1980 has
developed a notorious reputation as a dangerous breed with
consequent restrictions placed upon it by various jurisdictions
in Australia and elsewhere. Studies in the USA have indicated
that the "pit bull" is responsible for a large proportion of
human fatalities resulting from dog attack, but their data are
flawed by methodological shortcomings. Data on frequency of dog
attacks by breed in Australia reveal the pit bull terrier to be
exceeded by several other breeds. Of about 14 human fatalities
in Australia over the last two decades, none has involved a dog
verified to be a pit bull terrier. The evidence does not sustain
the view that this is a uniquely or particularly aggressive and
dangerous breed, and there is no support in its attack record
for breed specific laws aimed to control it.
Dogs are kept by approximately forty percent of Australian
households. They confer many benefits upon their owners and are
a source of great emotional satisfaction to a large number of
people. Dogs are also a threat to the community in that their
bites injure a large number of people every year. A small number
of these attacks cause very serious human injuries, and even
fatalities. Dog attacks, then, represent a significant public
safety issue that needs to be addressed by state and local
approaches to dog control
Many jurisdictions in Australia and
overseas have introduced breed specific laws aimed to restrict
or ban ownership of breeds deemed to be particularly dangerous
to people. Such an approach may be based upon either of two
the breed in question has a record of bite frequency which
demonstrates its high level of aggression towards people;
the breed has a potential to be dangerous because of its
physical characteristics and its functional history.
In Australia only one breed that actually exists here in
significant numbers has been subjected to breed specific
controls: the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT). Restrictions on
this breed were imposed by the Commonwealth in 1991 largely on
the basis of the second belief, relating to its dangerous
potential .2 At that time the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 had
just been passed in the UK after a couple of very serious dog
attacks attributed to APBTs, and the news media in Australia and
Britain introduced the breed to public notice with lurid and
sensational accounts of its background, capabilities and
character.3,4,5,6 This character, once given, has set solidly in
the minds of the public, the media themselves, and authorities
at various levels of government. It is, perhaps, noteworthy,
that in 1991, when the Commonwealth import ban was announced,
there had been no recorded attacks upon people by APBTs in
Australia, while dog attacks in general were, as now, a
considerable menace to public safety. It is also noteworthy that
one rationale offered for the Commonwealth ban was that the UK
had banned the dogs, and that they are "fighting" breeds
which ipso facto proves them to be uniquely dangerous
among dog breeds. That two of the four banned breeds, Dogo
Argentino and Fila Brasileoro, were developed as hunting, not
fighting, dogs7 has never caused any difficulty or embarrassment
to the British originators of the mistake, or to its Australian
In 1998 the NSW government introduced breed specific
restrictions of a minor kind on the APBT, and the other three
breeds banned from import by the Commonwealth (Companion Animals
Act 1998). In 2001 the governments of both Victoria and
Queensland introduced harsher restrictions aimed, in the latter
case, eventually to eliminate the breed. In all states these
measured were announced during periods of intense news media
focus upon the "dangerous dog" issue occasioned by a number of
serious attacks, especially upon children. Of interest is the
fact that, while public submissions were called for before
drafting of legislation, no attempt was made by relevant
ministers or premiers to justify the measures by reference to
the APBT's record of attacks in the respective states, or
indeed, to any data touching the frequency and severity of dog
bites by breed. Rather, naïve general comments about the
breed's alleged history combined with myths about the breed's
nature sufficed for the occasion of the bills' introductions to
parliaments.8,9 The Queensland Government did reveal that the
large majority (218 of 253) of public and specialist submissions
argued against breed specific legislation (BSL)8, but they were
ignored, and it is suspected on the basis of press-releases
early in the process that the decision had already been made.
Dog attack data
BSL in Australia has been enacted on
the basis of the APBT's reputation and beliefs that it is a
dangerous breed. As discussed above, that belief can come from
assumptions about the breed's attack record or about its
aggressive potential. What is its attack record? It is accurate
to say that nobody really knows, but it depends on the region of
the world under discussion. It would be reasonable for
Australian parliaments to legislate on the basis of the
situation in Australia, but the breed import ban was justified
by the alleged record of the dogs in the USA and UK .2 At first
glance data from the USA indicate that the "pit bull" is the
country's most dangerous dog breed. Sacks et al. 10
present data showing that the "pit bull" and its crossbreeds is
accounted for approximately 32% of human dog attack fatalities
between 1979 and 1998, for which breed of dog was known (238
deaths). This study updates an earlier one11 that for the years
1989 through 1994 had "pit bulls" accounting for 22% of
fatalities. These data, however, are seriously flawed. In The
USA "pit bull" does not mean APBT, but is a generic term which
includes all the bull and terrier breeds, and sometimes the
other bull breeds such as Boxers, Bull Mastiffs, American
It has also been found that where there is a bad dog in the
public consciousness, any stocky, short-haired dog involved in
an attack is called a pit bull by witnesses, including police
and dog officers, and any large black and tan dog is a German
Shepherd. 13 Even experts cannot always tell whether a dog is a
pit bull.12 U.S. city authorities frequently enlist
unenthusiastic veterinarians to identify dogs as pit bulls, a
task for which most of them are ill equipped.14 For these
reasons the American Dog Breeders Association has wholly
abandoned trying to calculate pit bull bite rates, and discounts
findings which use this approach ( letter to author 1992).
Sacks et al.10 indicated that they recorded more than 327
fatalities but claimed these represented only 74% of actual
fatalities. More seriously, breed identification is based upon
newspaper accounts, which the authors characterize as
unreliable. They also are aware that the media may selectively
report deaths caused by a notorious breed. Of interest is the
fact that recorded deaths in the USA have maintained a fairly
steady rate since 1980, yet the breeds of dog primarily
responsible have changed through time. Since 1992 the Rottweiler
has killed twice as many people as has the "pit bull" (30:15),
but between 1979 through 1986 it was responsible for only two
deaths. This fatality record tracks breed registration figures:
in the earlier period 24,195 Rottweilers were registered with
the American Kennel Club, while there were 692,799 registrations
from 1991 through 1998.10
Australia does not have very much data on frequency of dog
attack by breed. Indeed, we do not have good data on the
frequency of dog attacks, as is evidenced by the methodologies
employed to estimate their numbers in the various published
studies.15,16,17 Dog bite is not a notifiable injury, and while
some hospitals and local councils record dog bites and sometimes
assessment of the breed involved, others do not. In addition, an
unknown, but probably high, proportion of attacks are treated by
GPs or at home and never reported to a central authority. Since
1997 the NSW Department of Local Government has required
councils to report all dog attacks to head office, but it is
unlikely that compliance or accuracy approaches 100%.
Never-the-less, these are the best data available in Australia.
The data show that from 1997 to 2000 inclusive there were 829
injuries to people caused by dogs reported to councils in NSW.
The breeds responsible for the majority of attacks were
crossbreeds, unknown breeds, Cattle Dog types, German Shepherd
types, and Collie types. It is noted that breed was not
validated and in most cases was identified by one of the people
involved. Categories are types rather than specific breeds
because identification is imprecise. Bull Terrier types were
most likely to attack other animals. 18
These injury figures represent only a proportion of people
bitten by dogs. Other studies indicate much higher numbers. For
instance, 2,232 people were treated for dog bites in the four
years between 1998-2001 in five Brisbane hospitals, more than
double the whole NSW total for a similar period.19 Thompson15,16
estimated on the basis of injury data from Adelaide that as many
as 30,000 people could be injured each year by dogs in
Australia. This could be an underestimate, as American data show
injuries from dog bites to 3 per 1,000 people per year.20 If the
same rate of attack occurred in Australia, we would experience
60,000 dog bites requiring medical treatment per year. This bite
rate probably is not reached in Australia, however. The USA
experiences some 20 -30 human fatalities from dog attack each
year,10,21 while for Australia the rate is about 0-2 cases per
year. 20 The US fatality rate is, therefore, about double that
of Australia. Thompson's 16 figure of 30,000 injuries matches
this observation, though in light of other Australian studies it
seems an extreme figure. This highlights the lack of knowledge
surrounding the whole issue of dog attacks in Australia.
Thompson's Adelaide data record the following percentages of
injuries caused by specific breeds: German Shepherd 25.3%, Bull
Terrier 13.6%, Cattle Dog 13.6%, Dobermann 11.7%, Rottweiler
9.1%. Breeds again were identified by people involved in the
attacks, so they are not verified or reliable. It should also be
noted that the attacks occurred prior to 1991, and relative
breed populations will have altered over the 11 years since
then, as dog breeds respond to fashion and other considerations.
The Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare conducted a study of dog
bites in public places between 1997 and 1999 inclusive.17 The
study included six municipalities and gathered data from reports
of dog attacks in public places. A total of 413 injuries to
people was recorded, 20 of them being serious enough to require
two or more sutures. There were 46 breeds (including crosses)
responsible for attacks with the following order of precedence:
German Shepherd 127, Cattle Dog 90, Rottweiler 71, Kelpie 40,
Staffordshire Bull Terrier 40, Bull Terrier 37, Crossbreed 35,
Labrador 33, Dobermann 26, Boxer 26, Jack Russell 22, Rhodesian
Ridgeback 22, Border Collie 21, American Pit Bull Terrier 21.
Another Victorian study of hospital presentations for dog bites
found 1,112 cases in the two year period, January 1996 to
December 1997.22 Breeds most commonly recorded in these attacks
were Kelpies, Crossbreeds, Border Collier, Fox Terriers, Cattle
Dogs, German Shepherds, and Jack Russell Terriers. These breeds
may reflect the largely rural nature of the sample (71% of
municipalities returning data).
An informal survey of dog bites by breed among Queensland
councils was done by the Endangered Dog Breeds Association23 in
2001. Replies to enquiries were received from 19 councils,
excluding Brisbane City and the Gold Coast. A total of 750 dog
attacks was recorded for a 12 month period, and of those, 3 were
attributed to APBTs. Separate data from the Gold Coast City
Council area recorded 162 dog attacks, 3 of them being by APBTs.
These data are supplemented by the register of dogs declared
dangerous for an attack or other aggressive behaviour by the
Brisbane City Council as of 1995. There were 751 dogs on the
register with the following breeds predominant: Cattle Dogs 200,
German Shepherds 185, Bull Terriers 76, Rottweilers 69, Kelpies
43, with 9 other breeds making up the list. Two of the dogs were
APBTs. It seems impossible that no crossbreed dogs were on the
The situation is similar in New Zealand. The Department of
Internal Affairs surveyed dog attacks since 1996 in 47 council
areas, representing 73% of the nation's population.24 Of those,
23 councils recorded attacks by breed, but did so for less that
half of the attacks. Furthermore, breed identification (which
included cross-breeds) was not validated, being reported by
various witnesses and with an inconsistency of terminology to
describe breeds between councils. The data reveal that Pit Bull
Terriers were responsible for 9.6% of attacks for which breed
was recorded behind Staffordshire Bull Terriers (15.5%), German
Shepherds (14.4%), Labradors (13.9%), Bull Terriers (12.6%), and
Rottweilers (10.6%). In the U.S. the 3 bull terrier breeds would
be called "pit bulls" and would account for 37.7% of attacks,
far ahead of the second ranked breed. This creates difficulties
in transferring breed attack records between countries.
These various data indicate two things quite forcefully: a
relatively small number of dog breeds contribute a large
proportion of all attacks; and the APBT is not one of the
breeds. It may be claimed that APBTs do not cause a great number
of injuries to people, but that the injuries they do inflict are
very severe ones. It is true that a small number of serious
injuries have been caused in Australia by APBTs. While the news
media give heavy coverage to some serious dog attacks, which
they often attribute to APBTs (incorrectly in most cases
investigated by the author), it often is not realized that an
estimated 6 people are admitted to hospital every day in
Queensland alone suffering from dog bites.19 Impressions of
which dogs are most dangerous implanted by episodic news media
stories are not very reliable or valid. In the last two decades
or so there have been 14 human deaths caused by dog attacks in
Australia - these data come from memory, newspaper clippings,
and consultations with people in the pet and animal welfare
institutions. A variety of breeds and crossbreeds was involved,
but not one fatality was caused by an APBT. The possible
exception was the case of Barbara Stringer of Toowoomba who was
killed in 1995. The dog has often been claimed to be an APBT,
but it was registered as a Labrador cross, and to experienced
eyes it looked like a crossbreed. The animal welfare officer who
cared for the dog until its death affirmed in writing that the
dog was some type of bull breed cross. It may have been an APBT
cross, but that is far from certain.
Potential to be
It is a truism that all dogs can
bite and that dogs of any breed can be dangerous. Indeed,
American records25 indicate that several toy breeds have killed
infants, and a recent unpublished Australian study
recorded very serious injuries to children inflicted by toy
breeds (Courier Mail 2002). However, it often has been claimed
that the American Pit Bull Terrier and other "fighting" breeds
are especially dangerous because of human breeding selection for
physical and temperamental traits functional in pit fighting.26
"Bred to kill" is a phrase so often used that it has become a
cliché. Behavioural details are supplied by over a decade of
news media coverage to illustrate this killing disposition. It
is said that once a "pit bull" initiates an attack it goes into
a sort of trance and cannot desist until its victim is dead;
that the breed has "locking jaws" (this view probably holds that
the dog can unlock the jaws, but bystanders cannot - this point
is never addressed); that "pit bulls" can exert a bite force of
some fabulous number of psi, sometimes 2,000, sometimes 4,000,
but far more than dogs of other breeds; that this bite force
comes from the extreme development of the cheek muscles
controlling the jaw. If common sense and an elementary knowledge
of canine cranial anatomy were not enough to debunk these myths,
the anatomical dissection work of Lehr Brisbin and colleagues at
the University of Georgia27 and Bonnie Dalzell (University of
Pennsylvania) is. They have shown that there is nothing in the
skeletal structure of the APBT jaw that is any different from
that of any other dog in respect to locking. Hanging on with the
jaws, of course, is a function of jaw muscles. Any animal may
bite and hang on, as anyone who has been bitten by a budgerigar
or human toddler knows. Dogs of all sorts may do this too, but
the "lock" is simply a matter of muscles held in contraction
entirely under the voluntary control of the biter. Nobody knows
the relative biting power of various breeds of dogs, as it is a
difficult trait to test under laboratory conditions. Anecdotal
evidence from people experienced in having their sleeved arms
bitten by schutzhund trial dogs suggests that APBT don't bite
harder than other breeds used, but that hard biting is an
individual, not a breed, characteristic.1 Dalzell's anatomical
investigations found that APBTs do not have greater jaw muscle
mass than German Shepherds with similar sized skulls.28 The
masseter muscle is the major jaw muscle concerned, and this
attaches to the rear of the jaw and along the top of the side of
the skull. Mammals with very large masseter muscles usually have
insufficient cranial area to which the masseter can attach, so a
crest of bone (the sagittal crest) is developed along the top of
the skull. German Shepherds have such a crest, but APBTs do not.
This means the shepherd masseter muscle is long, while the APBT
masseter, attaching lower on the skull, bunches up and bulges,
giving an impression of great development. In fact, the muscle
volumes are similar, and there is no anatomical indication that
the APBT should bite any harder than another dog of equivalent
Canines, relative to other carnivores, have weak jaws, but
domestic dogs of most breeds have more than sufficient bite
power to inflict serious damage to human tissues.28,29 When
hunting large mammals, canids, like wolves, kill their prey by
ripping with multiple bites and bleeding the victim to death.
The cats, by contrast, use great bite force to crush the throat
or to puncture the brain. Serious dog attacks on people are
characterized by multiple slashing bites, sometimes accompanied
by shaking to tear tissue. Are APBTs any different from other
dogs in their attack patterns?
The APBT has been used as a pit fighting dog for well over a
century, and some strains have pedigrees going back that far.30
However, the breed developed originally not as a fighting dog,
but as a stock-control dog, and for its whole history the
proportion of dogs used for fighting was tiny, the majority
being working farm dogs or family companions.1 Many strains have
been and continue to be used for fighting, and breeding
selection has been made on the basis of successful pit fighting
traits. Pit dogs fight, not by inflicting multiple slashing
bites, but by taking the most advantageous hold possible and
shaking. A hold will only be released if a better one can be
taken. Punishment by the other dog typically does not cause a
release of the hold. This is the origin of the "locking jaws"
myth. There have been attacks on people by APBTs, and in some of
them it has proved very difficult for bystanders to get the dog
to release its hold on the victim.12 If serious injury results,
especially to a child, the bystanders tend to give lurid
accounts to the news media of a crazed dog with locked jaws
oblivious to being beaten with pieces of wood, iron bars etc. A
small number of such attacks, reported sensationally by news
media, is responsible for the demonic reputation of the "pit
bull" held by those whose only knowledge of the breed has come
from such reports. It is not true, however, that all APBT
attacks are of a lethal nature intended to kill. The great
majority are trivial nips, no worse than bites by other
"A fighting dog is bred to be savage
and aggression is in the genes." This is a typical statement of
animal welfare office-holders, politicians, and
journalists.32,33,34 Its frequent repetition has convinced many
uninformed people, the general public, of its truth. It has,
therefore, been possible for Australia's three levels of
government to enact legislation specifically against the APBT
without arousing any significant public or media opposition. Is
the statement valid?
A fighting breed, or any other dog breed, cannot be savage, if
"savage" is meant to describe a dog that is indiscriminately
aggressive towards all it meets, human or other animal. It is
not practical to have a dog of this disposition, and no breed
exhibiting such a character could have been developed. A
fighting breed may, however, be developed to exhibit traits
useful in pit fighting, which may include toughness, stamina and
determination. Aggression must be present to the degree that the
dog must have a drive to dominate its opponent. Many pit dogs,
therefore, are aggressive towards other dogs, but many are not.
That is, some famous pit fighting dogs were quite mild in their
social encounters with other dogs outside the pit.35 Of the
useful pit characteristics, the one chiefly under selection has
been determination, which fanciers call gameness: determination
to persist in a task regardless of difficulty. This, more than
fighting ability, has been the admired trait, and the one that
distinguishes the APBT in so many fields of endeavour.1
Selective breeding for pit fighting characteristics has, of
course, been based upon phenotype. It is a dog's phenotype that
is successful in the pit, or in herding sheep etc, but selective
breeding of phenotypes affects genotypes. This means that a
population of dogs under tight selective breeding for a set of
traits can develop a high frequency of alleles that predispose
the dogs to the appropriate behaviour. The best example,
perhaps, is the eye-stalk motor pattern of the Border Collie,
which appears to be "hardwired" in that breed's genotype.29 It
may be that the APBT has alleles that predispose it to
aggression towards other dogs, though this is not established by
more than assumption. There is a reasonably strong literature
showing that many canine behaviours, including aggression, have
a genetic basis.36 High levels of idiopathic aggression have
been found in Cocker Spaniels, English Springer Spaniels and
Bernese Mountain Dogs, and in the latter this trait was traced
back to two sires.26 The former breeds top lists of dogs
presented to a sample of American behaviour clinics for
aggression.37 In the case of Cocker Spaniels, there may be no
neurological pathology (often called Cocker, or Springer,
Spaniel Rage) so much as dominance aggression. A study37found an
association between Cocker Spaniel temperament and owner
personality, which indicates that some owners bring out the
worst in the genetic potential of their dogs, quite
unintentionally. Nobody desires aggressive Cocker Spaniels, but
several breeds have been produced to function as guard dogs, and
in them a level of aggression towards strangers is sometimes
seen as desirable. Such breeds are the Rottweiler, the German
Shepherd, the Dobermann and the Akita36, and they have been
found to be among the top breeds exhibiting territorial
defence.38 The APBT is not a guarding breed, and while some of
them may be used for that purpose, it is not an aspect of the
breed's functional history. Indeed, the author visited yards of
two APBT breeders who kept Rottweilers to guard the APBTs
against theft. While the APBT has been under selection for
dog-aggression and gameness, it has also been under
complementary selection for stability and tractability with
people. A moment's consideration will reveal why. Pit dogs must
be in a very close relationship with the handler in the weeks of
conditioning for a match. They must fight in a small pit with a
handler, the opponent's handler, and a referee, this while at a
high level of excitement and possibly injured.35 Furthermore,
traditionally the dogs had to be inspected and washed by the
opposing camp, which once upon a time involved a stranger,
called a taster, licking the dog all over to detect any poisons
applied to its coat. This is not something one does to a dog
displaying indiscriminate aggression.
Given this selection, why are some APBT, and dogs of other
breeds, dangerous in being aggressive towards people? Genes do
not cause behaviour.29 Behaviour, like bodily structure, is an
outcome of complex interaction between genes and many
environmental variables, the environment including the cellular
tissues in which other cells are developing, as well as the
external environment. It is not just a matter of training or
abuse: a dog handled cruelly becoming unapproachable, for
instance. Because a puppy is born with its brain growth
incomplete, its sensory and other learning experiences determine
the actual structure of the brain and the degree to which
neurones form networks of connection. Socialization and exposure
to various stimuli at appropriate critical periods of growth
affect the brain and determine the temperament. Even the
"hardwired" for herding Border Collie will not develop the
breed-typical motor patterns of herding unless it is exposed to
the appropriate external stimuli at the critical age.29 Even
though many canine behavioural traits may be under genetic
influence, heritability for most is low,36 which reflects the
importance of environment in developing the behaviour. The fact
that many dogs exhibit breed stereotypical behaviour is as much
to do with human expectations and associated treatment of the
dog as with the dog's behavioural genetics.29 The case against
APBT having genes determining aggression was compelling enough
to be accepted by the Alabama Supreme Court in August 2002 in a
case brought by the Washington Animal Foundation.39
Human expectation and socialization
is one of the reasons for the reputation for unique savagery the
APBT has, particularly in America. The 1980s to 1990s was a
period of pit bull panic in the USA,1 but this was not a
perception created only by lurid news media coverage of severe
attacks. APBTs, like all dogs, given their behavioural
plasticity, can be made aggressive by human agency, either
unwittingly or deliberately. There is some evidence to support
the popular view that anti-social elements have utilized APBTs
as guard dogs or to intimidate people.6 Many studies addressed
the issue of "pit bulls" and their involvement in dog attacks,
including fatalities.10,21 A general finding was the "pit bulls"
were responsible for a greatly disproportionate number of
attacks, including fatalities. There are two methodological
failings with these types of study, which many of them
acknowledge. Identification of the breed of an attacking
dog is seldom reliably assessed, and usually is taken from media
reports10. Not only are the news media more likely to report
attacks by breeds like "pit bulls" and to wax and wane in their
interest in dog attacks,20,40 but in periods of heightened
panic, attacks by almost any dog are attributed to "pit
bulls".13,41,42 These authors provide specific cases of heavily
reported attacks by "pit bulls" that in fact were not pit bulls.
A cursory examination of Australian media reports would reveal
this to be the general rather than episodic situation. The
second methodological problem with many published studies is
that in calculations of the relative bite record of various
breeds, neither the numerator (attacks by the breed) nor the
denominator (numbers of the breed in the population) is known.20
We have very little idea how many APBTs live in any Australian
state. The breed is not registered by canine councils, and
because of the long-standing threat of restrictive legislation,
very few of the dogs are registered by their breed with local
councils. NSW has about 200 APBT registered with councils,43 but
there probably are thousands in the state. The Gold Coast City
Council has a handful of APBT registered as that breed, but
"thousands" within the jurisdiction.44 A complicating factor in
American studies is that "pit bull" there does not refer to
APBT, but to all of the bull breeds and their crosses, and even
to unrelated dogs like Shar Peis. These facts render
questionable study findings that the APBT is a particularly
dangerous breed. To illustrate this problem, if US criteria of
pit bull identity were applied to Australian fatality data, 5 or
6 of the dogs involved in 14 human deaths would be classed as
"pit bulls", yet at most one of the dogs was an APBT (author's
file of media reports of fatalities).
The apparent differences in attack records of "pit bulls" in
America and Australia may have several explanations:
It may be simply that "pit bull" is a generic category in
America, but tends to refer to a specific breed, the APBT, in
It may be that the two breed populations exhibit average genetic
differences relating to predisposition to aggression. This is
possible, given that the Australian population descends from
approximately 70 dogs imported from America in the 1980s45 from
It may be a sociological question not related to the nature of
the dog breed. In as much as both criminals and householders
fearful of criminals may desire powerful and aggressive dogs,
relative rates and profiles of crime are relevant. Management
and breeding practices may be the decisive issue in the
potential danger of individual dogs. Lockwood46 argued
that the types of owners who irresponsibly produce problem dogs,
have selected a variety of breeds over time. Significantly, in
London in the eighteen months to May 1991, 30 of 50 criminal
incidents involving dogs (setting them onto people etc.)
involved pit bulls,6 and of 20 deaths caused by pit bulls in one
U.S. survey, half the owners were males aged between 20 and 25,
and more than half were either involved in dog fighting or had
criminal records.47 The United Kennel Club, a registry for APBTs
since the 1890s, claims that no registered APBT has ever been
involved in a fatality.48 If so, this indicates that the breed
is not deadly when kept by owners who buy registered dogs.
Dog attacks are a significant public
safety issue in Australia, as elsewhere. However, a tiny
minority of the dogs in our communities bite people in any given
year.17 The available data show clearly that the American Pit
Bull Terrier is not involved in more attacks or serious attacks
on people than other breeds - indeed, it is well down the lists
of frequency of attack by breed. In America in the 1980s, the
decade of the "pit bull panic", with an estimated pit bull
population of 500,000 - I million,49 accepting the most damning
figures, in any given year one pit bull in 62,500 to 125,000
killed a person. The average American person was at least five
times more likely to murder somebody.4
The case that the APBT is an especially dangerous dog is not
convincing. Though American data lend some support to this view,
they are so seriously flawed as to be unreliable, and the
sociology of the human-dog relationship is probably more
important than inherited breed disposition. In Australia the
available data show the APBT to be less dangerous than several
other breeds in absolute numbers of attacks on people. There are
no data available to assess breed attack rates relative to breed
populations, so a definitive judgement on the relative danger of
various breeds must be suspended. What emerges clearly from
analysis of available data is the fact that attacks are
committed by a small proportion of individuals of any breed.
1. Jessup D. The working pit bull. TFH Publications,
Neptune City, New Jersey, 1995.
2. Griffiths A. Commonwealth Minister for Resources. Media
Releases 13 June and 25 November 1991.
3. Herald Sun. Move for import ban on dogs. 16 September
1991: 3. Melbourne.
4. The Economist. Cave canem. 29 August 1987. London.
5. The Economist. Killer genes ate my dog. 1 June
1991: 83. London.
6. Fielding N. Barker's bark, New Statesman and Society.
4:18-19, 31 May 1991. London.
7. Fleig D. Fighting dog breeds. T.F.H. Publications,
Neptune City, N.J. 1996
8. Queensland Hansard. Local Government and Other Legislation
Amendment Bill (No 2) 27 November 2001.
9. Victorian Hansard. Animals Legislation and Responsible
Ownership Bill, 21 November 2001.
10. Sacks JJ, Sinclair L, Gilchrist J, Golab G, Lockwood R.
Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United
States between 1979 and 1998. Journal of the American
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Dr Stephen Collier
School of Human and Environmental Studies
University of New England,
Armidale, NSW, Australia 2351