What’s in a Name? A Lot, if it’s “Pit Bull”

“A pit bull is like porn. I know it when I see it.”

Think this sounds ridiculous? Same, on the surface. But it’s almost a direct quote from the executive director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. The exact quote is:

“I’ve often said to people that pit bulls are like art or porn: You know it when you see it, you can’t define it, and to each of us it means something different.”

So basically, even the accomplished head of a professional animal organization can’t define what a pit bull is.


It’s a nebulous term that gets thrown around and becomes, incorrectly, all encompassing. It’s used in statements like “all pit bulls are inherently dangerous” and “all pit bulls are the sweetest, gentlest dogs.” But if we can’t even define what a pit bull is, how can we make claims that they are all anything?


Let’s discuss.



Let’s start with the basics. What technically is meant by “pit bull”?

Pitbull is usually a catch-all term to describe dogs with big blocky heads and short coats.


Bronwen Dickey (author of Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon which is an amazing read by the way) says:

“The term ‘pit bull’ is a shortened version of the general term ‘pit bulldog,’ which was used throughout the 19th century. They were smallish, stocky, smooth-coated dogs, some of whom were used in dog fighting, while plenty of others lived low-key lives as farm dogs and family pets.”

“Like ‘hound,’ ‘pit bull’ is a ‘type.’ Within that type, there are four distinct pedigree breeds: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bully.”

Other dogs that often get classified as “pit bulls” are American bulldogs and Dogo Argentinos. But lots of dogs have stocky heads and short hair, and mutts are almost always unreliably classified as pit bull mixes if they’re short-haired or have pointy, flippy, or cropped ears.



So how do you know if a dog is a pit bull?

“Multiple studies on breed identification have shown that often the dogs visually identified as pit bulls don’t have those breeds in their DNA. That means a large number of dogs labeled ‘pit bulls’ are really just mutts.”

The IAABC just did an interesting “citizen science” study in conjunction with a bunch of universities including Harvard, MIT, and U Mass to see how well people can guess breeds just from photos of dogs. The answer is almost universally “not particularly well.” 


“Overall accuracy of all participants averaged at 25% correct for all guesses made. Dog professionals surpassed that accuracy by only a narrow margin, averaging at 28% correct guesses for all guesses made.”  Check out more about the study and take the test for yourself here.



To me this says a few things about pit bulls:

1. It is pretty darn hard to identify dog breeds, especially and including pit bulls, just by looking at them.

2. Animal shelter workers or volunteers might be able to guess better, but not by much. And their guesses should not be taken as bible because they’re just that- guesses made by random people who just love dogs. 

3. A dog’s external traits are not reflective of a dog’s genetic make up. And if we can’t figure out what a dog’s genetic make up is by looking at it, how can we assume to predict it’s behavior based on it’s looks? 

4. Dogs are individuals. Instead of talking about breed, adopters, shelters, and rescues could talk about a dog’s individual personality and temperament to make a good match.

And there you have it: a brief and not at all all-encompassing summary of the debate around “what is a pit bull”?


I hope we can all agree that there is no reliable way to visually identify a pit bull. To me, this makes any statement about “all pit bulls” inherently absurd and utterly incorrect.


Kiss this mouth at Rescue the Runway hosted by Mr. Bones & Co. on May 19th!


So why does this matter, and what do I think is the best way to advocate for pit bulls?

I think we can do pit bulls and all mutts who happen to look like them the most service by just reinforcing that they’re normal dogs. If we immediately go on the defensive and say “pit bulls are the sweetest” or “pit bulls are the best dogs” or “pit bulls are so much less likely to bite than chihuahuas,” it only serves to reinforce that pit bulls are somehow different from all other types of dogs. My best recommendation is just to calmly explain that pit bull is not actually a breed, it’s just another type of dog…and at the end of the day, all dogs are individuals.


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Samantha Cheirif

Sam is a dog foster, volunteer, and advocate living in the NYC area. She is the proud mom of shelter dogs PigPen, LooseSeal Blueth, and the late, great Gertrude Granny Gator. In her spare time, she is a copywriter at an ad agency. Profile photo by @realhappydogs

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