Pit Bulls Turn Out to Be Unexpectedly Chill

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Photo: Sarah Russell/EyeEm/Getty Images

Pit bulls have what you might call an image problem. An incredible 900 American cities have what’s known as “breed specific legislation,” which means much what it sounds like: specific laws for specific breeds of dog. And the dogs that are the subjects of such legislation — you will likely not be surprised to learn this — tend to be pit bulls.

Writing this week in The Atlantic, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods argue that pit bulls don’t deserve their bad rap. Hare and Woods are the brains behind a site called Dognition, which collects data from pet owners about their dogs. This particular data set uses answers from more than 4,000 dog owners, who were asked about their dogs’ aggressive tendencies. The answers contained a few surprises: Chihuahuas, for example, turn out to be tiny tough guys. “In almost every measure, out of the 35 most common breeds, Chihuahuas were reported as the most aggressive, especially toward bigger dogs they have not seen before,” Hare and Woods write. Pit bulls, on the other hand, “consistently ranked as one of the least aggressive dogs.”

A few things could be going on here. The pit bull owners may be seeing their pets through the gentle haze of puppy love — that, or maybe they knew their pits could be aggressive but didn’t want to report them as such, perhaps because they’re aware that most people believe the breed to be especially aggressive and they didn’t want to prove those people right. But the authors note their answers are in line with the American Temperament Test Society, “which also has found that American Pit Bull Terriers were among the most tolerant breeds.”

The problem, Hare and Woods argue, may be that people have heard pit bulls are aggressive, so when they are reporting dog bites, they may mistakenly assume that the bite came from a pit bull even when it did not. (Every year, over 300,000 people visit emergency departments to be treated for dog bites.) “Perhaps in the future, the genetics of aggression will be understood well enough to warn people before a dog has bitten someone,” they write. “But for now, you can’t tell if a dog is aggressive by the way it looks, any more than you can with a human.” No matter the breed, though, it is always worth remembering: Dogs hate hugs.