How Did Pitbulls Earn Their Reputation as Aggressive Dogs?

Pitbulls are seen as aggressive dogs, but how did a breed that was considered brave and affectionate become one of the world’s most feared dogs?

Nov 26, 2023byLisa Szymanski
how did pitbulls earn their reputation as aggressive dogs

The pitbull is a tenacious breed that is descended from the Old English bulldog and the nippy terrier. They have the perfect combination of traits from these founding breeds, providing strength, affection, and speed. Many owners consider them oversized lapdogs with much love to give. With these qualities, it’s hard to imagine that the pitbull has earned the reputation of an aggressive and feared dog worldwide. To better understand the breed’s temperament and why they are considered so troublesome, let’s go back in time to figure out what went wrong.

Where do Pitbulls Come From?

pitbull in bull baiting
An image of bull baiting with pitbull terriers.

The origin of the Pitbull dates as far back as the early 19th century in the British Isles. During this period, Old English bulldogs were prized for their power as they could bring bulls down in an awful practice called bullbaiting. The problem with bulldogs was their inability to hold onto large animals such as bulls and bears. Pitbulls were bred to latch on to their targets without losing their strength and stamina. This is where the terrier was crossed with the large bulldogs to improve their ability to bite and hold. Today, pitbulls refer to various bully breeds, including Staffordshire terriers and American bullies.

Pitbulls Were Bred for Strength and Stamina

red nosed pit bull sitting outside
Pitbulls have strong jaws and muscular bodies.

When animal protection laws came into effect, the “sport” of using dogs to tackle large animals was prohibited. People then created events called ratting, where pitbulls were dropped into large pits with rats. The goal was to see whether the pitbull could survive against large numbers of rodents. Towards the 1900s, ratting turned to dog fighting, which spread like wildfire.

Pitbulls were the chosen dog breed because they were not tolerant of other animals and could fight viciously. Despite these canines being bred for aggression, they were not to bite their handlers. Due to the popularity of the breed, media reports were released that emphasized the aggressive nature of pitbulls and how dangerous they were. Pitbulls were imported to America, and in 1898 they were named American pitbull terriers by the United Kennel Club. Unfortunately, their move to the U.S. paved the way for ongoing dogfighting along with a negative reputation.

Why is a Pitbull Seen as Aggressive?

brown and white pitbull running with muzzle on its face

The aggressive nature of the pitbull is best explained by looking at its history. At one stage, they were admired as guardians of families and entire farms. Then dog fighting grew at a rapid rate, and pitbulls were selected for their tenacity, high pain threshold, and power. These traits were favored by individuals involved in illegal dogfighting rings. Along with these aggressive tendencies, pitbulls are very driven. When they bite and hold, they won’t let go unless they want to. Research suggests that pitbulls release more endorphins compared to other breeds when under attack and can withstand higher levels of pain. Strangely enough, during the early 1900s, pitbulls were not bred to attack their owners or families. If a pitbull used in dogfighting turned on its handler, the dog would be culled. Unfortunately, illegal breeding has led to an influx of dogs that are aggressive towards other animals and people. Failure to breed for favorable traits such as a stable temperament has led to aggressive pitbulls and reports of unwanted attacks.

Are Pitbulls Dangerous?

brown and white pitbull
A pitbull is a misunderstood breed.

A pitbull without socialization is considered a loaded gun. They have a history of intolerance toward other dogs and animals, and without training and exposure to people and pets, these dogs can be unpredictable. Before most dogs attack, they display certain behaviors that warn of aggression. Showing teeth, growling, a lowered head, and holding their ears back are telltale signs of a possible fight. Pitbulls don’t always show these behaviors. Many of them will strike without warning. Attacks on other dogs have occurred during play when pitbulls get extremely excited or perceive the actions of the other dog as threatening. Their ability to tolerate high levels of pain contributes to their aggressive label.

Not All Pitbulls are Vicious

pitbull head covered with pink blanket
Pitbulls can be loving and friendly.

Historically, the dependable and courageous personalities of pitbulls were not overlooked, and many dogs made it into combat. This includes the story of Sergeant Stubby, a pitbull mix who became a war hero during WWI. Another icon in the canine world is a white pitbull with a black ring drawn around his eye called Petey. He was a movie star featured in The Little Rascals and became a well-known mascot. Apart from the famous pitbulls that made their mark, there are plenty of personal stories of loving and friendly dogs raised by their families. They might have a reputation as aggressive dogs, but many pitbulls have gone on to become therapy and service dogs because they are devoted and smart. Sadly, the stories of these brave and affectionate pitbulls are overshadowed by reports of aggression and physical attacks.

Why are Reports of Pitbull Attacks Increasing?

white and brown pitbull running
Pitbulls continue to make news headlines.

Despite regulations against illegal dog fighting and backyard breeding, these practices continue today. Unregulated breeding means that pitbulls sought from unlicensed sellers do not have stable temperaments. In combination with a lack of education about the breed, many people purchase pitbulls without providing regular exercise, socialization, and training. Pent-up energy, along with anxiety and fear, are factors that lead to attacks on people and other animals. This is not only true for pitbulls but for many other dog breeds, including German shepherds and rottweilers. Pitbull attacks are emphasized in media reports, and due to the popularity of the breed, these dogs continue to earn a bad rap.

Raising Pitbulls: What You Should Know

brown pitbull puppy lying down
Raising a pitbull puppy requires commitment.

The American pitbull terrier is a driven, confident, and loyal companion when well-bred and trained. They can learn different tricks very quickly, and they’re eager to please their handlers, which is why they do well in obedience training. As puppies, pitbulls should attend socialization classes where they are safely introduced to other people and dogs. Throughout their lives, trained pitbulls that are exposed to new environments can develop confidence while preventing shyness and fear. These dogs need activity, which means regular walks and playtime to manage their energy and prevent boredom. You don’t want to find that your shoes, furniture, and garden are destroyed because your pitbull isn’t getting enough exercise. Raising a pitbull will give you a devoted companion that will follow you everywhere you go. Find a reputable breeder or adopt a shelter pitbull with a detailed history so you can enjoy the beautiful nature of your new fur friend.

Lisa Szymanski
byLisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the \"queens of the yard,\" Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.