News Item | PAWS Chicago

Profiling Bully Breeds

by Megan Craig | Feb 01, 2016

In popular culture, pit bulls and bully breeds are portrayed as vicious, unpredictable, dangerous animals.

And virtually any solidly built dog with a broad jaw is lumped into this category, regardless of actual breed. The stereotyping of an entire group of dogs based on appearance has had dire consequences: These dogs are the most commonly euthanized in shelters today.

The pit bull has become “the only American dog that people bother to name,” writes Tom Junod in The State of The American Dog. “When a Cocker Spaniel bites, it does so as a member of its species; it is never anything but a dog. When a pit bull bites, it does so as a member of its breed. A pit bull is never anything but a pit bull.”

But the terms “pit bulls” and “bully breeds” can be confusing and often misleading. These names are used to describe a group of breeds, including the American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers and Bull Terriers. But many mixed breed dogs also are lumped into this category, often wrongly, based purely on their appearance.


While critics of bully breeds argue that they are involved in a disproportionate number of attacks against people, studies show that these dogs have no more incidence of aggression than other groups.  According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Controlled studies reveal no increased risk for the group blamed most often for dog bites, ‘pit bulltype’ dogs.” Reporting biases and misidentification led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop tracking breed information in relation to bite statistics in 1998.

Some experts argue that when breeds are identified in controlled studies, some bully breeds are actually slightly less aggressive than other breeds. Of the 870 American Pit Bull Terriers tested by the American Temperament Test Society, 86.8 percent passed. Mixed breed dogs passed 86.6 percent of the time, higher than the Border Collie (81.5 percent) and Golden Retriever (85.2 percent).

Bully breeds were not always demonized. The nation’s first war hero dog, Sgt. Stubby, was a short brindle Bull Terrier mutt who may be labeled a bully breed today. The Little Rascals’ dog, Petey, also was a bully breed, as was Helen Keller’s therapy dog, Sir Thomas. An account of Keller’s first meeting with the dog said, “He rubbed his nose on her skirt, and when she knelt down, put his chin on her knee.”

Bully breeds can be traced back to 19th century England, where people bred Bulldogs with Terriers, some for use in animal fighting, but also for many other jobs. When these dogs came to America, they had a variety of roles, including working on farms or serving as travelling companions and family pets. According to the United Kennel Club, which was the first registry to recognize the American Pit Bull Terrier, any “aggressive behavior toward humans is uncharacteristic of the breed and highly undesirable.”

But fortunes changed for bully breeds in the 1980s as a minority of these dogs were bred and used for dogfighting. During this period, media coverage of dog bite incidents created a myth of bully breed unpredictability, according to Karen Delise, founder of the National Canine Resource Council. ”It was the great misfortune of the pit bull to be the new ‘fad’ dog and thus the new dog found in incidents of attacks at the very same time when the media stopped reporting triggers or events which precipitated an attack.”

As bully breeds were accused more often than other dogs of deadly attacks, some municipalities enacted breedspecific legislation. These regulations ban or restrict the keeping of dogs by breed and typically target pit bulls.

Although some states specifically ban breeds, Illinois’ Animal Control Act requires that “vicious dogs shall not be classified in a manner that is specific to breed.” But breeds are still banned in some Illinois towns and cities because of a home rule provision in the Illinois constitution that gives some municipalities the power to override state laws.

Cities and towns with existing breed-specific bans or restrictions include Addison, Buffalo Grove, Golf, Lincolnwood, North Chicago, Markham and Maywood in the Chicago area. The Chicago City Council decided against breed-specific bans a few times in the last 15 years, instead focusing on licensing and penalties for owners.


Critics of breed-specific legislation point out that they ignore the relative popularity of particular breeds over time; reporting biases in the media, which may overrepresent certain incidents; the likelihood of a particular type of dog having been abused or mistreated; and breed misidentification based on the appearance of the dog.

They argue that dogs should be evaluated as individuals, rather than based on breed. “It’s really a dog-by-dog thing, not a breed-specific thing, when you’re talking about behavior and temperament,” says Adam Boyko, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University.

Instead of concentrating on breed, the American Veterinary Medical Association found that a number of factors related to the dog’s environment were present in most dog bite fatalities. Four or more of these factors were found in more than 80 percent of deadly incidents:


  • No able-bodied person present to intervene (87%)
  • Victim having no familiar relationship with the dog (85%)
  • The dog’s owner failing to neuter/spay the dog (84%)
  • Victim’s age or compromised physical condition (77%)
  • The dog having little positive human interaction (76%)
  • The owner’s prior mismanagement of the dog (38%)
  • The owner’s abuse or neglect of the dog (21%)

But even as research shows that the labeling of particular groups of dogs is inaccurate, the bad reputation of bully breeds is not easily overcome. “The intense and persistent media and political attention given to pit bull attacks has skewed our perceptions so dramatically that we no longer have a balanced view of the dangerousness of a very few dogs against the extreme tolerance and contributions that millions of other dogs provide,” Delise wrote in her book, The Pit Bull Placebo.

“For every pit bull that attacks someone, there are tens of thousands of his brethren that tolerate all the conditions humans place them in, from loving homes to horrific conditions of abuse.”

Read the PAWS Magazine Special Report on Bully Breeds >>