DieselDiesel is a beast of a dog, a three year-old mountain of silky black fur and solid muscle. His head measures nearly 25 inches around, and he is well on his way to the one hundred pound mark. He is also one of the biggest goofballs you will ever meet. He shares a house with a family of seven humans and two cats. One of his best buddies is a tiny kitten named Lionel, who shows no fear of his gargantuan companion, and will play alongside of him without batting an eye. Diesel loves to frolic outside, and has a habit of bringing back a big stick and plopping down on the porch to chew on it. He knows how to sit, lie down, and offer up each paw when commanded. He’s a lovable bundle of energy and affection. He is also a pit bull.

What many people do not realize is that Diesel’s temperament is not the exception, but rather the norm for the pit bull collection of breeds, which according to the ASPCA includes American pit bull terriers (APBTs), American Staffordshire terriers (AmStaffs), and any mixes thereof. In fact, in the most recent temperament testing results from the American Temperament Test Society, APBTs passed at a slightly higher percentage than golden retrievers; 86.4% of APBTs that took the test passed, compared to 84.9% of golden retrievers. AmStaffs were close at the retrievers’ heels, with a passing rate of 84.2%. Unfortunately, due to the actions of a select number of the breed, this loyal, affectionate, friendly, and intelligent group of dogs has gotten a bad name for itself.

Many people hear “pit bull” and think of a bloodthirsty, vicious beast who could snap at any second; the great white of the canine world, so to speak. The truth is, like any breed, there ARE some members that, due to irresponsible breeding, improper training and handling, and lack of socialization, are just not good family pets and are not suitable for adoption. Some may indeed be overly aggressive, especially if their owner has trained or abused them into being such.

These animals are oftentimes sent to special shelters, such as Villalobos Rescue Center in Canyon Country, CA, home of the Animal Planet series “Pit Bulls and Parolees;” or the Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, UT, which housed many of the Michael Vick pit bulls after their rescue. Unadoptable dogs at these shelters, or “lifers,” are able to live out the rest of their lives under the care of experienced trainers and handlers; in some sad cases, however, the dogs are just too unstable and aggressive to safely have around humans or other dogs, and have to be humanely euthanized.

The good news is that the majority of pit bulls, rescued or otherwise, have great temperaments, and even those who have been poorly trained or abused can often be successfully rehabilitated and even go on to become service or therapy dogs! Resilience and determination are hallmarks of the breed and enable them to rise above the challenges that are thrust upon them and to overcome both physical and mental anguish while retaining their amiable nature and pleasant dispositions.

Take Leo, for example. Leo is one of the pit bulls rescued from the raid on football player Michael Vicks’ property in 2007. Within five weeks of his adoption by Marthina McClay, a California-based dog trainer and founder of the pit bull advocacy organization Our Pack, Leo began his rounds as a therapy dog at California’s Carmino Infusion Center. Leo can frequently be found there, a clown collar around his neck, comforting cancer patients as they undergo their chemotherapy treatments. “The difference that he’s had with our patients has been incredible — the smiles on their faces, the joy when they see him,” says Paula Reed, the Carmino Infusion Center’s oncology director. “Leo is a survivor and our patients are survivors, and I think they can relate to each other.”

Similar success stories abound, including many about other Vick dogs. Some pit bulls have gone so far as to become search and rescue dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, and even peanut-sniffing dogs!

This is NOT to say that everyone should go out right now and adopt a pit bull; they are strong, tenacious animals who, despite their great temperaments, were genetically created to be fighting dogs. According to the ASPCA, their origins can be traced back to the bulldog, which was used as a “gripping dog” for big-game hunters. The dog’s job was to latch on and take down the fleeing or injured prey, and at times, “finish” it. These dogs were also used and bred for a “sport” called “baiting,” where the dogs were pitted against bulls, bears, and other large animals while spectators watched. When baiting was outlawed in the early 1800s, people began having their bully-breed dogs fight other dogs; thus the origin of dog fighting. As the “sport” grew, people began custom-breeding fighting dogs, breeding in certain “more desirable” traits such as aggression and size, and the modern pit bull family was born.

As such, pit bulls are not for everyone. We would not recommend a pit bull for a first-time dog owner, or for a dog owner who does not have adequate time in the day to both physically and mentally exercise the dog, as well as socialize and train it. Because pit bulls are so intelligent and energetic, if they are not sufficiently stimulated, they can develop behavioral problems. Having a DogWatch Hidden Fence system installed in your yard is a great way to allow your pit bull to get the exercise he needs without you needing to be outside with him all the time, and avoids the need to have the dog chained or tethered. Statistics actually show that a chained or tethered dog is nearly three times more likely to bite than a dog who is not actively physically restrained. You should also be prepared to have your male dog neutered, as the same study shows that unneutered male dogs are involved in more than 70% of dog bites across all breeds, and are almost three times more likely to bite than a neutered dog.

Pit Bull Hiking - JaxIf you think a pit bull might be a good fit for you, we encourage you to check out the links below to learn more about the breed so you can make sure you know what to look for in identifying a good-tempered, well-bred, and properly-socialized pit bull. If you already HAVE a pit bull, we’d love to see pictures of it and hear your story! Email heidi.fence@dogwatch.com or comment below!

ASPCA – The Truth About Pit Bulls

HappyPitBull.com – A comprehensive site with breed info and an “owner’s manual” and “code of conduct”

Our Pack – Pit Bull Advocacy and Therapy Dog Program

BAD RAP – Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls

PitBullLovers.com – A collection of resources for current and prospective pit bull owners

Top photo: (c) 2011 Theresa A. Grenier

Bottom photo: “Pit Bull Hiking – Jax #A337762” by maplegirlie via Flickr.