The United Kennel Club, which registers purebred American Pit Bull Terriers, sets out a breed standard that describes the APBT as a medium-sized, short-coated dog, powerful and athletic, with a medium-length head that has a broad, flat skull and a wide, deep muzzle. Pit Bulls should also weigh between 35 and 60 pounds.
Defenders of the APBT say that the generic label “Pit Bull” is used to describe various mixed breeds or other purebred dogs such as the Dogo Argentino, Mastiff, American Bulldog and Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog.
The term “Pit Bull” is often applied to medium- to large-size dogs with short, close coats and block-shaped heads, a description that fits more than 10 breeds of dog, as well as various mixed breeds, says Scot E. Dowd, Ph.D., a Untied Kennel Club confirmation judge of American Pit Bull Terrier.
Adam Goldfarb, an issues specialist in the companion animals department of The Humane Society of the United States, says, “We’re seeing a lot of dog breeds being misreported in the attacks. A lot of times the dog will initially be reported as a Pit Bull, and we find out days or weeks later the dog wasn’t a Pit Bull, it was something totally different that doesn’t even resemble a Pit Bull.”
A dog involved in a bite or attack is identified in general terms by police or the sheriff’s department, says crime and public safety reporter Malaika Fraley with Bay Area News Group in Walnut Creek, California. “I haven’t seen a situation where initially the dog was reported as one breed and then it turned out to be another,” she says. “The dog breed is significant to reporters because people want to know, and it gives context as to the size of the dog.”
Mistakes do happen. One example occurred in the Nov. 16, 2007, edition of the Daily News in Tehama County, California, which reported that a Pit Bull had attacked three people. The paper later issued a correction, noting that the dog was actually an American Bulldog. The misinformation was attributed to an inaccurate press release from the Tehama County sheriff’s department.
There’s no way of knowing how frequently this type of misidentification occurs or how frequently corrections are made. And it’s rare for police, sheriffs, animal-control officers or even veterinarians to be familiar enough with individual dog breeds to make accurate identifications.
Merritt Clifton of Clinton, Washington, is editor of Animal People, an independent newspaper providing investigative coverage of animal protection. He has kept a log of dog attacks and maimings in the United States and Canada from September 1982 through Nov. 7, 2007. Clifton believes the issue of dog identification, or misidentification, is irrelevant.
“This is the sort of hair-splitting question that really makes no difference to anything,” Clifton says. “If you take the 50 percent of death and maiming cases that result from Pit Bull attacks and split them three to five ways for the various subcategories that Pit Bull fans recognize, you end up with three to five dog breeds with off-the-chart actuarial risk instead of one. If you say half of all the Pit Bull attacks were by other breeds, you just bring Pit Bulls down to the also off-the-chart level of Rottweilers, and they are still represented in the most severe attacks at five times their rate of representation in the general dog population, based on listings in regionally representative selections of classified ads.”
But Dowd believes the number of dog attacks can be attributed to two things.
“The press has identified the term ‘Pit Bull’ as a leading headline grabber,” he says. “And the bias of individuals, including animal control officers and victims of dog bites, leads them to broadly define this group as ‘short-haired dogs that bite.’”
Clifton says he researched media coverage of Pit Bull attacks in 2007. “I found only one year in the past 25  when Pit Bull attacks drew media attention disproportionate to actual frequency and severity,” he says. “That was when Pit Bull attacks were still a new phenomenon. More recently, I looked at the trends specifically in the state of Ohio, and found that there were apparently only two fatal dog attacks by any dog breed in the entire history of the state before there were three fatal Pit Bull attacks in two years in 1985 and 1986. So it is no surprise that three attacks by one dog breed in two years, all in the same general area, caused quite a stir.”
Dog bites or dog attacks make headlines when they do significant damage, result in a fatality, or involve unusual circumstances or legal action. Clifton, who’s been a reporter for 39 years, says that as a general assignment reporter he was only asked to cover dog-bite incidents if they met the same standards that would call for coverage of a human-against-human assault. Only about one dog attack in 10,000 is severe enough to qualify, he says.
“Any dog attack that results in a serious injury or fatality is going to be covered, regardless of the dog breed,” Fraley says. “The only exception in my experience is once I wrote about a sheriff’s K9, a Belgian Malinois, who bit a sheriff’s deputy who wasn’t the K9’s handler. It was a minor injury, but unusual, so I wrote a brief.”
Dog bites and dog attacks have always been news, whatever the dog breed, says former Los Angeles Times reporter John Balzar, a journalist with 33 years of experience who is now senior vice president of communications for the HSUS.
“When I used to be a reporter — and I go back to the ’70s — I remember there were a good number of dog attack stories then,” he says. “They always seemed to stand out in the police blotter, and I think that’s because often the victims in these cases are either the elderly or kids. They’re often stories that a reporter can imagine ‘Gee, I wonder if that could happen to my kids or my grandma.’ I don’t know that there are actually more now; there’s certainly more media in general, so if there are more dog attack stories it may not be a change in the media, just the echo chamber of having more of them.”
Goldfarb would like to see reporters provide more information about the dog’s place in the family, as well as details about the dog itself, such as gender and sterilization status.
“A lot of times we see ‘family pet turns on child’ and in a lot of cases, I think the term ‘family pet’ is overused and not accurately applied,” he says. “Is it a family pet, is it a guard dog, is it a breeding dog, is it a glorified lawn ornament that sits out there on a chain? I would also love to see whether or not the dog was sterilized; I think that’s really important. We know that over 70 percent of dogs involved in bite incidents are male dogs who have not been neutered.”
Factors that can contribute to dog bites or dog attacks are being sexually intact; lack of socialization; lack of supervision of children and dogs; the presence of a dog who is nursing a litter; altering the dynamics of a group of dogs with the introduction of another dog; chaining the dog, which causes them to become defensive; and pack behavior.
Balzar urges editors and reporters to take these questions and factors into account and use them to find the story beneath the story. The American Pit Bull Terrier’s breed standard calls for him to be eager to please, enthusiastic and friendly, even with strangers. Aggressive behavior toward humans is uncharacteristic of the APBT and highly undesirable, the standard says. Facts such as these are newsworthy in the context of a dog-bite story, Balzar says.
“I would encourage editors to take one of these and dig in and see if there isn’t a story there that qualifies legitimately to raise the level of surprise about these dog attacks.”