“Pit bull”

For most of this century, “pit bull” referred to an American Pit Bull Terrier, a recognized breed comprising a group of purebred, pedigreed, and genetically coherent dogs. For more information on what pedigree entails, refer to the Animal Pedigree Act of Canada.

The American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) was first recognized in 1898. C. Z Bennett, the founder of the United Kennel Club (UKC), assigned the first registration number 1 to his dog, Bennetts Ring. Shortly after, the American Dog Breeders Association was founded and had a heavy presence in the world of the American Pit Bull Terrier due to the efforts of John P. Colby.

Today the American Pit Bull Terrier is recognized as a breed in several kennel clubs such as:

– The United Kennel Club
– The American Dog Breeders Association
– The American Bully Kennel Club
– The American National Dog

Registry
– The National Kennel Club

Is this still what “pit bull” means to the general public? Definitely not.

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 Terriers, American Bullies, and American Bulldogs.

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). Some urge dogs of unknown pedigree to be referred to as “mixed breed” across the board; others are comfortable with a more accurate blanket term like “bully breed”.

How you describe your dog is up to you, but we hope the above provides some food for thought. Words matter!

Further reading:

Animal Farm Foundation – Language & Labels