inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning


Pit Bull Attack

We're typically led to believe that pit bulls are far more dangerous than other breeds. How much truth is there to this?

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Some people love their pit bulls, and others love to hate and fear pit bulls. Some municipalities have banned them. Only one thing is for sure: all of these reactions are based on insufficient data.

One reason there’s very little data is that when studies of dog attacks are done, they almost always determine breed based on registrations, so are heavily biased in favor of pure bred dogs and do not represent the dog population at large. Something that does come out of nearly all studies is that dog behavior reflects the behavior of the owners. When you have a macho guy with a dog he feels represents his aggressive image, we find that the dog treats people the same way the owner does, regardless of the breed. It’s the mistreated or badly trained dogs that do most of the biting.

Pit bulls are different from other dogs in one important way: their bite strength. Pit bulls and the close second, Rottweilers, can bite with a force of 1100 Newtons, more than any other dog. This is why when these dogs are involved in attacks on people, those attacks are more likely to be fatal.

Regardless, pit bulls are NOT the breed most likely to attack in the first place, according to the purebred studies. That honor goes to — can you guess? Chow chows. Next are German shepherds. At the other end of the scale, the least likely dogs to bite are golden retrievers and standard poodles. For most other breeds, pit bulls included, there simply isn’t enough data.

Regardless of breed, dogs that bite are usually male, not neutered, weight more than 20 kilograms, are young, live in homes with children, are kept chained when outside, and growl at visitors. Interestingly, obedience training, guard training, and discipline styles have not been found to have a statistically significant impact on that dog's likelihood to bite.

So here's the bottom line. If you want a safe dog, don’t be an aggressive moron trying to enhance your image. If you don’t want it to bite, avoid chow chows and German shepherds. Golden retrievers are your best bet. Pit bulls may well be a breed to avoid, but there is not enough data to support this. What no data can tell us, though, is whether your dog is really your best friend. You’ll have to determine that for yourself.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Gershman, K., Sacks, J., Wright, J. "Which Dogs Bite? A Case-Control Study of Risk Factors." Pediatrics. 1 Jun. 1994, Volume 93, Number 6: 913-917.

HSUS. "Dangerous Dogs and Breed-Specific Legislation." The Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society of the United States, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <>

Lindner, D., Marretta, S., Pijanowski, G., Johnson, A., Smith, C. "Measurement of bite force in dogs: a pilot study." Journal of Veterinary Dentistry. 1 Jun. 1995, Volume 12, Number 2: 49-52.

Nelson, K. Denver's Pit Bull Ordinance: A Review of Its History and Judicial Rulings. Denver: Denver City Attorney’s Office, 2005.

Sacks, J., Sinclair, L., Gilchrist, J., Golab, G., Lockwood, R. "Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 15 Sep. 2000, Volume 217, Number 6: 836-840.

Swift, E. "The Pit Bull: Friend and Killer." Sports Illustrated. 27 Jul. 1987, Volume 67, Number 4.


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