We have talked about the term “pit bull” and its origin a century ago as shorthand for the American Pit Bull Terrier, a specific breed of dog. Over the years the meaning of the word "pit bull" has shifted. It has become a term used to encompass several breeds and mixes of that share “similar characteristics”. Most commonly these breeds include American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bullies, and American Bulldogs (breed information below).
This change, from a nickname to a loosely applied category of dog, comes with serious consequences for any dog carrying the label "pit bull”. This includes discrimination, breed specific legislation, lower adoption rates, housing discrimination, service discrimination, and higher rates of euthanasia.
The stigma applied to dogs labelled as "pit bulls" will often last their entire life. Not only is this stigma unfair, the label itself is probably inaccurate in many cases.
The majority of dogs in our community are mixed breed and/or of unknown parentage: they may be accidental litters, backyard bred, rescues, strays, or second-hand dogs with no pedigree. Unless a dog is purebred and its parents’ interactions are closely monitored, it’s difficult to be 100% certain of the parentage – pups from the same litter can even be sired by different males!
A lot of people use the ‘pit bull’ moniker with pride. The breeds above are wonderful breeds with great qualities, and mixed breeds are wonderful too! Some advocates believe that the more people hear about ‘pit bulls’ as regular dogs in our community, the more they may re-think stereotypes and breed specific legislation.
But there’s a downside to using the term too loosely. If your dog is a mixed breed or of uncertain parentage, calling them a ‘pit bull’ may seal their fate down the road. If BSL comes into your community, and you have been proudly posting about your amazing ‘pit bull’ on social media, or you’ve registered your dog as a ‘pit bull’ at your vet’s or licensing department, you might find yourself in big trouble. This has happened to people in Ontario, Montreal, Denver and other BSL communities.
If owners of mixed breed shelter dogs are calling their dogs ‘pit bulls’ and assigning values to that category (pit bulls will lick you to death, pit bulls are great with children, pit bulls are a product of their owners) we are still reinforcing the idea that ‘pit bulls’ are a homogeneous group.
And lastly, weak breed labels wreak havoc with statistics! Population, licensing, and bite stats are generally tough to gather because breed information is gathered through owner reporting or visual identification, and both of those are notoriously imprecise. Perhaps if we insisted on “mixed” or “unknown” breed as options, these statistics would better reflect reality.
Many advocacy groups are advising shelters and owners to drop labels that are based on visual appearance or even on DNA tests (sorry, folks, but DNA tests on mixed breed dogs aren’t much better than visual ID).
Justice for Bullies advocates that dog owners #DropTheLabels. If you have the pedigree to prove your dog is indeed a purebred, call them by their breed name, but otherwise we encourage you to drop the labels being placed on dogs of unknown parentage and instead use their individual personalities to describe them.
Where do you stand on this debate? How do you answer the question ‘what kind of dog do you have’? Has this changed over time?
Sources and further reading:
#BSLbytes is a joint initiative of Hugabull Advocacy & Rescue Society and Justice for Bullies.