An often repeated myth about pit bulls states that they are "just like any other dog". I think it can be clearly shown that these animals differ from normal dogs in significant ways.
Canine DNA is a wondrous thing; it has facilitated the creation of diverse breeds, each with own it's own unique set of distinguishing characteristics, from the original hunter/scavenger species which was related to the wolf. A remarkable diversity of breeds has been produced through selection for specific characteristics, emphasizing specific desired facets of the original hunting behaviors and de-selecting for others.
For instance, in the border collie, the stalk/chase portions of the hunting behavior were emphasized and are now an evident trait of the breed. In the pointer, the scent/track/orient portions of the hunting behavior were emphasized. Retrievers were carefully bred for the characteristics that allow them to retrieve and gently carry a downed bird to the hunter.
Those benighted souls who produced the fighting dog breeds wanted dogs which would tirelessly tear apart a de-clawed bear or a de-horned bull, or tear each other apart in a pit. The grip-and-hold, the killing bite, and the shearing bite were emphasized. The creatures resulting from these merciless practices were the very first pit bull type dogs, the English Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Terrier.
For over 170 years, dog fighters and breeders have been unable to produce a more savage killer, pound for pound, than the pit bull. The modern pit bull breeds include names like the American Staffordshire Terrier, AmStaff, StaffyBull, American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), American Bulldog, and others - different names for what are at most minor variations of the same dog.
Retrievers were bred to retrieve, Pointers were bred to point, Border Collies and Shepherds were bred to herd sheep, and pit bulls were bred to fight and kill other creatures. Full stop. Pit bulls, due to their specific breeding for the hair trigger attack, killing bite and associated behaviors and characteristics desired in fighting canids, don't avoid aggression like other dogs, lack impulse control and ignore the normal canine social conventions and interactions. And don't kid yourself by the way, dog fighting is still a thriving business in the US and around the world. Fighting pit bulls are highly prized for their killing ability, and the owner of a pit bull who has killed other animals in fights can count on studding income. Dog fighters and breeders are most definitely selecting not only for killing prowess, but a temperament geared to sudden, violent and all-out attack. The "duds" - i.e. those lacking either the powerful killing bite, or the willingness - nay eagerness - to use it, are routinely destroyed.
Although the dog fighting industry and their allies perpetuate the myth that "man biters" have always been immediately culled, and that pit bulls are aggressive only towards animals and not people, grave injuries and death have been the lot of many who've tried to stop a pit bull attack. A pit bull in the "red zone" will often redirect its attacks to the person who is trying to protect the victim, and many pit bull owners have found themselves suddenly fighting for their lives with a pit bull who they had always "known" to be harmless, right up until the moment of the attack.
Unfortunately it's not just pit bull owners who are at risk. Pit bulls are relentless escape artists. They often break out of their enclosures and go looking for victims. Loose pit bulls are a public safety issue, often entering other people's yards or houses to attack people and/or pets. The result is a massacre, and a lingering, horrific memory for those involved.
RIP 1/26/2011 - 5 year old Makayla Woodard killed by neighbor's loose pit bulls
Many in the pit bull community insist that pit bulls are not violent or dangerous by nature, that the breed is misunderstood, that "it's all in how you raise them" and any pit bulls who have attacked simply must have been mistreated, or taught to be cruel by "bad owners".
I beg to differ. The careful selection of fighting dog characteristics which produced their genetic makeup not only predisposes them to certain behavior, but hard wires them for it. For example, Border Collies have an inborn drive to herd. Even though a typical domestic border collie may have never even seen a herd of sheep, and has never been trained to herd, the behavior is latent in the breed, and given a chance they will express that behaviour at some point, herding children for instance. The genetic influence is undeniable. The dog is happiest when expressing his innate behavior.
While not every single pit bull has been or will be observed to attack another animal or person, sudden, unpredictable and violent aggression is a general characteristic of the breed, and can be considered latent within each pit bull, whether or not a particular dog has displayed the behavior yet. Pit bulls are well known for suddenly killing other pets with whom they have lived peacefully for years.
RIP 03/07/2011 Mikey - gentle 10 year old pet killed by neighbor's loose pit bulls
Numerous witnesses to pit bull attacks have commented on the absence of any of the normal warning signals of canine aggression. This is a natural consequence of breeding for a no-nonsense fight to the death. A pit bull will saunter over, looking friendly and submissive, tail wagging - and suddenly clamp his jaws onto the victim. Thus the nightmare begins.
This video illustrates how pit bulls ignore the normal canine social conventions; the pit bull approaches and repeatedly attacks a sweet, docile lab who kept trying to walk away. Finally the poor injured lab lay down, paws up, in the universal canine gesture of submission, but the pit bull completely ignored the submission gesture and continued his cruel and leisurely attack, tail wagging. At one point someone, apparently the owner, managed to pull the pit bull away. The traumatized and injured lab managed to drag himself under a vehicle to hide. His whole world had just been destroyed, and if he survived the attack, which is not clear, he will be fearful for the rest of his life.
The "red zone" is a distinguishing characteristic of pit bulls, often reported by witnesses, and well documented with video footage. A pit bull in attack mode is completely focused on the victim, losing all situational awareness, gripping the prey with powerful jaws, hanging on and shaking the head with strong neck muscles, occasionally letting go only to clamp down again in a different spot.
Pit bulls are unique in their desire to attack and kill not only domestic pets but also horses, mules, cows and other livestock. This video shows a pit bull attacking a mule. A dog of any other breed, after being kicked and stomped by a defending mule, would call it a day and leave, but not the pit bull. This one seemed absolutely driven to keep attacking until it was finally killed by the mule. Unfortunately most equine victims of pit bull attacks do not fare so well.
Witnesses and victims of attacks have reported that attacking pit bulls show no reaction to punches, kicks, or blows to the head with hammer, shovel, or baseball bat. Mace is shrugged off, and tasers have little or no effect. However, shotguns and high caliber handguns have proved effective, and knives have also been shown to effectively stop pit bull attacks when used correctly.
There are doubtless Pit bull owners who are ready to swear that their pit bull has never hurt a fly and would never hurt a fly. I don't deny that they believe what they are saying, but the only problem with that sort of statement is that it has been made before by many pit bull owners, prior to a horrendous attack. I'd say that's a pretty good illustration of the word "unpredictable".
For more information on the pit bull problem, there are good online resources and references to comprehensive studies conducted by neutral 3rd parties which provide education on the danger to the public. According to the most recent credible studies, pit bulls are the most likely breed by far to maim or kill another animal or a human being, and by far the most likely breed to be involved when a child is treated for serious injuries from a dog attack.
-- References -
Studies - "Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada, September 1982 to June 25, 2010", Merritt Clifton "Heritability of Behavior in the Abnormally Aggressive Dog", A. Semyonova "Pediatric Dog Bite Injuries: A 5-Year Review of the Experience at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia", Kaye, Alison E. M.D.; Belz, Jessica M. M.D.; Kirschner, Richard E. M.D.
Books - "The 100 silliest things people say about dogs", A. Semyonova